The Forsyte Saga, by John Galsworthy, Read by Fred Williams, Blackstone Audiobooks,
Regular readers here will recognize that I find a great deal of enjoyment from novels featuring unsympathetic protagonists. Whether these are stories of redemption or not, main characters who aren’t wholly admirable (or who are, in fact, complete shits) are inherently more fascinating to me. It’s always kind of astonishing to me the power that some writers wield when they manage to make your heart ache for the sufferings of loathsome specimens.
John Galsworthy’s epic The Forsyte Saga does just such a trick as we follow the rather peculiar Forsyte clan in their rise and fall and travails. Circling around the two poles of the story, the cold-hearted, self-pitying solicitor Soames Forsyte and the more unconventional side of the family epitomized in young Jolyon Forsyte, the painter, the three novels and two short interludes between them are bound together in one major volume that spans many generations.
The first of the novels, titled The Man of Property, refers specifically to Soames himself. A rather tight-fisted man, Soames is one of the few later generations of Forsytes to have increased his wealth. The title is also a play on Soames’ view of everything he comes into contact with and the very thing that partly destroys him. Married to Irene Forsyte, Soames views her as no less his property than his homes. Having decided to move further away from the city where women’s opportunities for independence are greater, Soames engages the services of the dashing young Philip Bosinney to design and build his dream home. Before long, Irene has fallen in love with this temperamental, passionate and artistic architect, a man nothing like her possessive, calculating husband.
It is this specific piece of property of Soames’, his country home, that ruptures his life in its most overt fashion. It brings Irene's lover into his life, it provides her with a project far away from him, and the complicated negotiations for payment and for changes to the architectural scheme make up a great portion of the novel. Galsworthy’s rather dry, ironic text strips Soames of his public persona and defenses, and we see, as if through a shade, the quivering wretch underneath it all. In retaliation for the affair, Soames both destroys Bosinney financially then forces himself on Irene. Soames then spends the rest of the novel considering himself the slighted one, never weighing his own crimes as worse than his wife’s.
Shortly after the assault, Irene actually leaves Soames, a rare occurrence in that day and age, and the remainder of the novels, In Chancery and To Let, blossom out of this action. Her affair with Bosinney becomes common knowledge to be tut-tutted, though the rape remains in the dark, an act only discovered to few other characters. In the aftermath of this, Irene is considered a fallen woman.
Galsworthy captures a disheartening but interesting social dynamic here. Each man who hears of Irene’s affair begins to consider her not as having had a singular passion, but rather as a loose woman not much better than a whore. Most monstrously, we are treated to a repulsive scene where Irene and Bossinny go to dinner and for a drive with Soames’ sister Winifred Dartie and her husband, Montague. The husband, worse for the drink he had at dinner, manages to find a way to fondle Irene on a park bench, thinking to himself, “That Buccaneer Johnny shan’t have it all to himself!” Later, he attempts to get Irene alone in his carriage, his position as pseudo-chaperone lending him, he thinks, the upper hand.
The story that The Forsyte Saga is really telling with these characters isn’t simply a family saga but rather the shock to the system women’s growing sense of their rights and their individuality delivered to staid English society. Having ceased to be her husband’s property, Irene has become, in Dartie’s eyes, common property. This notion of property is rampant throughout the novel and the male characters. Soames’ rape of Irene is itself a brutal insistence upon his assumed property rights. In the older generation, Soames’ father thinks of Irene:
She was getting to have opinions of her own. He didn’t know what she wanted with anything of the sort. She’d a good home, and everything she could wish for. He felt that her friends ought to be chosen for her. To go on like this was dangerous.
While this is commercially realized in Soames’ reflection:
Why should he be put to the shifts and the sordid disgraces and the lurking defeats of the Divorce Court, when there she was like an empty house only waiting to be retaken into use and possession by him who legally owned her?
This idea of wife as property, however, finds itself curiously wrinkled when later it is Montague Dartie who abandons his wife, Winifred, absconding for South America with her pearls. After the collapse of Dartie’s horseracing prospects, he throws everything over; Winifred is distraught, torn between wanting the respectability marriage provides (regardless of the personal cost) and the relief of her freedom from an abusive boor. Soames, abandoned by Irene, pushes his sister toward divorce court, at the same time balking at doing so himself. In his insistence on making his sister obey his will in this matter, there are Soames’ commercial opinions (Dartie was a leech on the family money) as well as his almost instinctive view of Winifred, as his sister, likewise belonging to him and his (male) family (members).
Finding herself disreputable (though still legally married to Soames) Irene discovers the protection of Old Jolyon Forsyte, who leaves her ample funds in his will, giving her independence from anyone save herself. She is stalked by Soames, who never feels the extent of his violation and who retains desire for Irene not for who she is, but for what status she once held. Out of her association with the less esteemed, more eccentric side of the family, a romance develops between Young Jolyon and Irene. Eventually admitting defeat, Soames consents to the divorce when it becomes clear he will never regain his wife.
Partly this is his recognition of the inevitable, but it also grows out of his desire to finally have an heir. Soames rather quickly marries a much younger French woman named Annette, a shopkeeper who manages to provide him with one child. With the deftness of Fate, Soames’ dreams of a male heir are stymied biologically with the birth of his daughter, Fleur.
Still intent on the notions of possession up until the book’s conclusion, Soames doesn’t even realize that he himself has been caught in the only kind of ownership that matters or is worth a damn. We watch as he is maneuvered and manipulated expertly by his daughter, who uses his love of her to twist him around her little finger. Galsworthy makes it abundantly clear here that in the realm of ownership, the heart holds everything. Fleur owns Soames in a way that he could never own Irene and in a way he will never understand.
That Galsworthy unfolds this tale of the passions of the heart with such archaeologically dry prose and an arid little sense of humor is a remarkable feat. A product of his time just as much as his characters, Galsworthy’s sympathies lie with the artistic side of the family and with the burgeoning women’s rights movement of the time, though he never loses sight of Soames and his kinds’ essential humanity under their bankers’ clothes and their desperate fear at their shrinking power and influence.
The raw wound of Soames’ heart at his betrayal by Irene remains a blinkered point in his psyche, something he can never quite see around, never quite forget, never quite get over. His ache is real and even as his actions betray him as monstrous over and over, Galswothy doesn’t stoop to simple caricature. It matters to us that Soames feels what he feels; his pain is as real to us as Irene’s is (though minuscule in comparison). His crime carries with it its own monstrous weight and is given added force because of the tears it stifles, let alone the ones it causes. Were the author to have given us a one dimensional, easily dismissed villain, he would have cheapened the book’s underlying import. To struggle against a cardboard cut-out is demeaning; to succeed against real people with their own agendas is true victory.
The later chapters of the book, shifting the focus as it does, from Soames and Irene and Young Jolyon to their respective children, again alters novel’s outlook. The generational reassessment of values happens again, but this time those we once saw upend their parents’ beliefs (or reaffirm them in Soames’ case) are now on the receiving end. Galsworthy puts forth the question squarely when an infatuation develops between Soames’ daughter, Fleur, and Jolyon and Irene’s son, Jon: are the children responsible for the sins of their parents. His answer is a delicate movement through the arguments, the characters’ reactions true to their hearts but also surprising in the specifics.
An immense read, The Forsyte Saga is consuming without ever becoming melodramatic and is thrilling without ever becoming exciting. Galsworthy’s novel has almost as stiff an upper lip as Soames, yet through little details and slight shifts in characterization he manages to exhibit the inner lives of the characters expertly and in such a realistic manner that everyone feels fully fleshed out, fully lived. The experience is exhausting, but well worth every hour reading.
Narrator Fred Williams has great tone and a kind of deep timbre voice that is suggestive of times gone past and in that respect he’s a great reader of the book. His prime failing is in reading with sepulchral slowness. Indeed, he read at such a slow speed that I was obliged to increase the recording to twice the normal speed, and at that rate, he was still slower than many another reader at full speed. As the book began, it seemed as if he read four words, paused for breath, read four more words, paused, and so on as though practicing his ballroom dancing. It made a damned long book into a damned long reading, longer than necessary by far.