One of earliest stills of Eric Porter as Soames in 1967 mini-series
Parallel early still of Damien Lewis as Soames in 2002 mini-series
Dear friends and readers,
Among the many things I do and books I read over the past 2 and 1/2 months, motivated by a group reading and discussion on Trollope19thCStudies by 3 people (all of us posting), I’ve managed to read another literary masterpiece, John Galsworthy’s Man of Property. I think I read it when we first came to Virginia in the 1980s — along with the two other novels, and interludes that make up the first volume of the Forsyte Saga. I had no job, no car, a child to care for and I found a copy of the first and third volumes of the Saga in a used book store and snatched them up because I remembered how brilliant had been the 1967 year long BBC/PBS Forsyte Sage. I have now bought the intermediary 2nd volume. Both films are based on the 1st and 2nd volumes (about 6 novels and some interludes).
We 3 decided to read just The Man of Property after trying Galsworthy’s slender, little-known and weaker novel, The Country House. I’d suggested this book because last year I watched the whole of the two Forsyte Saga mini-series (1967, 2002). Since then I’ve been longing to read something by Galsworthy because such mini-series are immeasurably deepened and enrichened for the viewer who has knows the author from its or some other of his or her the book(s). In the event I was gratified to find the two friends who read with me were willing to go on to at least The Man of Property.
The mode of The Man of Property and The Country House (written abound the same time, 1906 and 1907) is distanced irony; the general targets are the absurdity and cruelty of marital & divorce customs and laws in the first half of the 20th century, how these undergird a whackingly unfair, unjust private-property system, the misogyny structured into this reinforcing dual system. On the way the author reveals a tender love for animals and the countryside.
Galsworthy’s preface to the Saga confirms that The Country House belongs with the Forsyte books; in all of these he says he wants to expose and dramatize the “tribal” world of the Forsytes, what happens to beauty (be it in a woman or a picture) in their possessive world, and their inward conflicts resulting from “the claims of freedom.” In The Man of Property, using his indirect ironic distancing methods, he focused on a couple where “sex attraction is utterly and definitely lacking in one partner [Irene Heron] to a union [with Soames Forsyte], no amount of pity or reason, or duty, or what not, can overcome the repulsion.” For the whole Saga he was fascinated by the persistent effect of the past and memory in someone’s present.
One of the earliest stills of Kenneth More as Young Jolyon in the 1967 mini-series
One of earlier stills of Rupert Graves as Young Jolyon sparring with his wife, Sarah Winman as Francis in the 2002 mini-series (Francis never appears in the novel but is also importantly played by Sarah Harter in the 1967 film)
The Man of Property opens with on a gathering of the Forsytes, which enables the ironic narrator to characterize many of the individuals who will figure in his story. He then dramatized 3 scenes of the oldest brother of the clan, Old Jolyon’s loneliness 15 years after his son, Young Jolyon, left his wife, Francis, and daughter, June, to live with the family’s governess, Helene Hilmer because Young Jolyon found her deeply congenial (as he did not find his wife) and sexually compelling. Old Jolyon had adopted June, cut himself off from his son who we see in a the first meeting they’ve had after this break up has a genuine generosity of spirit. We then read of the engagement of JUne, now grown up, to an architect, Philip Bossiney. Bossiney has been hired (we learn) to build a country house for Soames Forsyte, only son of the second oldest brother of the clan, James and his much younger wife, Emily, who married him for his money and status but we see now is very affectionate to him, caters to him. Soames has a beautiful wife, Irene, whom we gather he aims to keep and to control by placing her outside London because (it’s hinted) she continually eludes him emotionally. We cannot tell whether this is for revenge or out of hope she will turn to him. At any rate he has not consulted her taste in this.
Thus the book sets forth the original situation.
Old Jolyon is brilliantly portrayed by Corin Redgrave (he steals the parts he’s in) in the 2002 mini-series
Emily Forsyte, Soames’s mother, effectively acted by Barbara Flynn, takes on a very different function from the book or 1967 series: she is close to the 2002 Soames, he’s hiddenly a mother’s boy
Like Trollope Galsworthy uses a narrator continually for ironic and panoramic effect, with the important different the steeled ironic voice does not (as in Trollope) feel like that of an author. In the 1967 Forsyte films, the film-makers daringly (for the time) used Young Jolyon (played by Kenneth More) as also a voice-over narrator as his character and values eventually emerge as consonant with that of Galsworthy. Like Trollope too, Galsworthy is adept at describing public social behaviors and gestures, words spoken publicly to signal what is going on in the inmost depths of the person. We like to think when we are in the public world we are not read intimately; Galsworthy and Trollope seem to suggest we are at least transparent to the perceptive.
For example, we see Soames’s cold repressed tenacious and bargain-driving business-man self, as well as his honesty, and loyalty, an ability (if somehow prompted) to be affectionate, even tender, who loves art for itself as well as a money investment. A complex portrait without any soliloquy or interior monologue — such as are given us for Old Jolyon who can admit to how as a businessman he is destroying workers, keeping truths from shareholders, and Young Jolyon who does not want to spend his life’s hours doing what sheerly makes the most money, performing those social rituals which support this money-making.
Rupert Graves again Young Jolyon, now Bohemian painter living with ex-governess, Helene (Amanda Ooms) and their baby (2002)
Lana Morris as Helene Hilmer fleeing the adult June’s dislike (1967 — it’s important to remember that the novel never shows us the governess, we are only told about her)
The angle of vision is strongly ironic at all turns, with the soft humanizing utterances and passages coming from using different characters as POVs, not just Old and Young Jolyon, but Montague Dartie, shallow promiscuous gambling irresponsible and amoral husband of Soames’s sister, Winifred:
Margaret Tyzack as Winifred and Terence Alexander as Dartie when she is deludedly in love (1967)
Amanda Root as Winifred much later, knowing Ben Miles as Montague Dartie to be spendthrift, useless, promiscuous, her and John Carlisle, Soames father, James (2002)
or George, an ironic implictly homosexual outsider with an unconventional compassion for others. The POVS are subtly chosen for multiple perspective utterances and controlled.
The whole presentation is very unusual in our modern culture where since Percy Lubbock novelists are taught to show not tell. There are in fact few dramatized scenes of the core electrifying matter, but rather scenes of people observing some crisis happening from afar or reacting to it long afterwards. What this meant is in both the 1967 and 2002 film adaptations most of the scenes we see — often emotional, physical, full of action, gesture, are invented by the writers from the distanced ironic narration of the book.
The book is literally masculinist: only at rare and infrequent moments do we experience a female POV, and we are never allowed inside Irene’s mind. It is only in the second volume of the novel (in a told flashback) that we learn how Soames first saw and was intensely attracted to the young Irene, then orphaned, moneyless, in a lodging house:
Nyree Dawn Porter as Irene as first seen in 1967 series (Part 2)
Parallel scene of Gina McKee as Irene first seen in 2002 series (end of Part 1)
The turns in phrase, the language, is beautifully elegant yet simple, not a vulgarism anywhere, and capturing beauty whether it be the park, or the house Soames and Irene are renting as the novel opens, or a quality of mind, kindness to an animal. Galsworthy in his novels is intensely alert to the presence of animals, and the cruelty with which many people indifferently or carelessly treat their pets and prey. Penetrating lines thrown away laden with meaning are his forte. To use one of Galsworthy’s phrases, his style is not “beyond the power of word-analysis,” but would take an Empson close reading for pages to do justice to one of Galsworthy’s. Finally, Galsworthy is far more aware sexually, or can articulate sexuality on levels Trollope couldn’t or wouldn’t or his era simply made unthinkable.
Interwoven with scenes of private life are those of business. Few people seem to know that Galsworthy was a socialist of the 1930s type and wrote many then popular plays. I just loved a scene in a boardroom where stockholders attempt to stop Old Jolyon from doing the right thing. Pippin, a middle level manager who supervised a group of miners has killed himself after two years of failing to write a letter to the board he felt had to. What’s implied is some terrible accident occurred, workers were hurt badly or killed, and it was hushed up by Pippin and his conscience smote him. Old Jolyon wants to give Pippin’s widow and children the money that Pippin would have earned had he lived out his 5 year contract; the shareholders don’t. Soames stays on the fence (like a cat? a favorite image in this book). A favorite exchange from this scene:
Hemmings [the hypocritical spokesperson for the firm): ‘What our shareholders don’t know about our affairs isn’t worth knowing. You may take that from me Mr Soames … ‘
Old Jolyon: ‘Don’t talk nonsense, Hemmings. You mean that what they do know is not worth knowing’ (vol 2, ch 5, p 145)
At the same time June’s relationship with Bossiney is developed gradually, not from within, not dramatized before us, but as seen by others pragmatically — that June is in great distress, left alone, and Irene and Bossiney seen out together in the park and at gatherings, talking, eating, dancing together with great intensity. Thus Irene and Bossiney’s liaison is first introduced. Sometimes the POV is Soames who at first does not realize what he’s observing.
In Galsworthy we never see the relationship of June and Bossiney when it’s flourishing, only when it’s destroyed and she is grieving. We get this long chapter from POV of Old Jolyon, her grandfather where he watches how June cannot make up her mind whether to go to a dance, finally decides against it, then at the last moment insists on going. Her kindly grandfather goes with her, they arrive and she sees Irene and Bossiney and flees and he then makes up his mind to take her traveling. Until then the primary interest is the man’s idealization of his profession and indifference to money-making, namely Bossiney’s “bohemianism” as it would be called through his uncle’s disapproval and his father’s love off him for it. (Neither mentioned in either film). Galsworthy wants us to see he cares about his creation of a beautiful original house, not a dull bourgeois building meant to show off status and use to keep status things or for show.
Galsworthy’s novel contrasts art for its sake, for beauty and for enhancement of life itself, which Soames is not dead to either.
Ioan Gruffurd as Bossiney and Gillian Kearney as June — as in the book at the family gathering she introduces her fiancee to uncle James
1967 John Bennett as Bossiney first seen cagily negotiating with Old Jolyon who we are told (not shown) in book demanded he make £400 before marrying June
Irene (we are told) visits Bossiney’s the country house. We may surmise she goes to see Bossiney (and this is dramatized in both film adaptations) but in the novel we are only she goes there. Dramatized is one long drive there with another older brother Forsyte, the supine swinish Swithin, fat, complacent, obtuse who thinks she may be attracted to him (big male ego). As narrator Galsworthy likens Irene sitting next to the complacent Swithin, as by
‘a man sitting on a rock, and by him, immersed in the still green water, a sea-nymph lying on her back, with her hand on her nake breast. She has a half-smile on her face …’ (Vol 2, ch 3, p 128).
Irene is smiling like this. Are we to take it she is on offer? I think not; it’s unconscious is what Galsworthy thinks. Myself I thin it a male view of a beautiful female (so we are incessantly told Irene is). At any rate, it’s deeply sexual; the gesture is the age-old one of the prostitute seen in the signs once used to declare a place a brothel: they’d have a picture of a woman with one naked breast offering it … You can see this archetype still on line now and again.
There are astute exchanges of letters between Soames and Bossiney arguing over the money, invitation letters, Old Jolyon’s notes to his son, ironically placed so well, where the characters give themselves away — this does remind me of Trollope. They don’t mean to put their hearts on their sleeve, far from it, but they do.
The first climax of the novel’s story is the death of the oldest Forsyte, POV our omniscient narrator. Aunt Ann who we have seen from afar now get a portrait of as an intelligent woman of the “old school,” utterly conventional but strong and compassionate, especially towards her weak sisters. The old family is slowly breaking apart.
1967 June Barry as June Forsyte first seen confessing her love for Bossiney to Fay Compton as her great Aunt Ann
The effect of The Man of Property can bring home to a reader how the ironic or satiric slant is strongly subjective. Surely this is a key to Austen’s success with the readers who like her point of view. But it comes out strongly in Galsworthy. Trollope fools us (or maybe himself) into thinking his moral outlook is a universal sort of one. It’s not.
Galsworthy is not objective in his presentation even if he’s not letting us inside the minds of his lovers. We are inside the minds of other characters and Galsworthy’s presence itself in inflected psychologically. That’s why Kenneth More’s over-over narrative is needed and works so well and so much is lost without it.
The second climax of the book is Soames’s apparently savage rape of Irene. Again it is not presented to us, we are only told about it the morning after.
A series of chapters leads into it. In these we hear and see various characters trying feebly to stop or control it, pretend it’s not happening, or use it for titillating gossip. We are given enough information to know they have sexually consummated their liaison.
Of course the 2002 film shows them in the studio (the 1967 film suggests this and the book sees it from afar, ambiguously)
Winifred, Soames’s sister, obtuse in this novel (she changes in the later ones), invites Irene and Bossiney to a drive and luncheon out with her as if by doing this she can get them to be just friends. It’s a deeply sensual chapter, electric with tension, made all the more so by having the POV be Monty who in the book is a moral horror. As the chapter opens, there’s this throw-away line about his latest high gambling: the owner “had secretly laid many thousands against his own horse, who hadn’t even started.” So what does Monty do: bets again with borrowed man; he thinks he’ll get out of it through the despised James (Soames’s and Winifred’s father). Then he substitutes for the male escort Winifred would have preferred by this time.
The language of the chapter has an equal acccent on the wealth of these people reminding me of Talleryand on the ancien regime just before it fell (or in our context how the enforced sequestration on the 99% by the representatives of the 1% is the the result of private-property worship. Galsworthy conveys how tasteless Monty gestures are and how insulting to Irene; how she is electrified with distaste and Bossiney under some kind of torture. It’s easy to see that Bossiney wants her to leave Soames and she’s not yet willing.
Then we get a chapter where the POV is young Jolyon. Old Jolyon writes Young Jolyon a letter asking Young Jolyon to do the conventional thing: demand of Bossiney ‘what he means by all this.’ Young Jolyon feels Irene as “magnetic energy” as he remembers his own intense desires for Helene, but when he goes to the club, and sees Bossiney’s haggard state, he cannot get himself to speak to the man this way.
Young Jolyon and Bossiney earnestly talking: they share values, norms (so it’s in the cards Irene could turn to Young Jolyon — in the 1967 film Jolyon comes to Bossiney’s studio)
It’s absurd and dependent on being blind to what’s in front of you which is how Winifred is living her life. There are here a couple of paragraphs in young Jolyon’s mind where he thinks about why he left his wife Francis: it was really sheerly out of boredom and driven by sexual desire.
Galsworthy has profited much from the naturalists of whom we read George Moore. Moore shows passion to be the driving force of nature and also how deeply unjustly the social structure dependent on it (especially to women) is; he’s typical of the whole naturalist school. Critics do keep attributing some “naturalism” to Galsworthy. This is central to how Galsworthy sees sexual and social relationships (Why to have Young Jolyon now as narrator in the 1967 film is right).
Young Jolyon goes on to think this is what the world of private property hinges itself upon
‘The core of it all … is property, but there are many people who would not like it put that way. to them it is ‘the sanctity of the marriage tie’; but the sanctity of the marriage tie is dependent on the sanctity of the family, and the sanctity of the family is dependent on the sanctity of property. And yet I imagine all these people are followers of One who never owned anything. It is curious.’
And then the first break of the surface.
1967: Irene asking him to let her go, and his refusal even to discuss this
Soon after the luncheon Irene (perhaps prompted by its mortifications and her awareness of how she now appears to others), tells Soames that she wants to leave him and asks him to let her go, as he had promised when she said she would marry him. He won’t even let her discuss it. She then locks him out of her bedroom. Tere is no rape (Chapter 11). We have a slow build-up of intense tension as this scene (it’s suggested) was repeated night after night by her locking the door. So (Chapter 14), he approaches her, she is ferocious (“don’t touch me” — how she “loathes” him) and again Soames is locked out. A typical passage:
‘The silence was broken by a faint creaking through the wall. . If she threw the door open wide he would not go in now! But his lips, that were twisted in a bitter smile, twitched; he covered his eyes with his hands ….’ Pt 2 Chap 14.
The lines say he can’t go in. He says if she threw the door wide open, he would not go in. We don’t believe him, but she does not. All he does is twitch and cover his eyes with his hands. The paragraph before has him thinking about Bossiney. The three dots suggest something happened, but we are given no reason to think he got into that room. She kept the door locked. There is no reason to think he has broken the door down.
Nonetheless, the 2002 film suggests he did get in: they don’t follow the book: first we see her fail to keep her room to herself, then we see her fail to lock the door in time; all the images of them in bed together suggest estrangement, so tension is built this way and sympathy for Irene increases multifold:
Then the slam. It’s the next afternoon he is at the window downstairs. Irene comes in and she ignores him, she is sleek and flushed. She laughs deeply emotionally (like a sob). We later learn (from Mrs MacAnders) she had been in the park and we are told this park is a place where couples do have sex in the bushes.
That night, the one Soames learns of this sexual intercourse in the park, he rapes Irene. For the conclusion of the novel and my commentary see the comments.
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