Dear friends and readers,
I know I’ve gone a much longer time than usual between blogs; worse yet, I’ve not written about any books I’ve read for over a month, and then it was one which answered to my needs (Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking) during this time of scarcely endurable personal tragedy, which is far from over. All I was able to do during August was write about a particularly good film I had just seen, in the spirit of recommendation (e.g., Blue Jasmine). I have, though, continued to read and to listen to good books different sorts read aloud, even if the spirit has not been strong within me to blog about them.
One series that has sustained me — and itself — has been Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, first trilogy. On Trollope19thCStudies at least two (and now more) of us have gone on from The Man of Property, to In Chancery (2nd novel) and To Let (3rd), with their intervening interludes, Indian Summer of a Forsyte and Awakening. So tonight I will attempt to write about these and the parts of the two film adaptations which dramatize them.
While the death of old Jolyon and his idyl with Irene was effective (Indian Summer, which I wrote about in my previous blog on The Man of Property), I found in In Chancery a strong falling off after the initial push of Soames on Irene to marry him. Until near the end when Galsworthy turned back from the younger generation of Forsytes to Soames, Irene, Annette and Young Jolyon, he meant to be the subject of the book to be the “third generation” (as he calls the youngest adult characters) as belonging to or making up a “new” world. To me they seemed weaker, not as fully believable or realized characters than the middle or 2nd generation Forsytes — Val (Winifred’s son by Montague Dartie), Jolly and Holly (children of Young Jolyon by the governess, Helene, the boy dying in the Boer war), even their names makes them into simpler dolls, including the young Jon (son to Irene and Young Jolyon), not complex embodiments of humanity — until that is, Fleur (daughter to Soames by Annette, the French woman he marries so as to have a child) arrives, a fully-grown young woman in To Let.
That this group of characters are weak was seen by the film-makers of both the 1967 and 2002 mini-series: they are sidelined, kept in the margins. Annette who scarcely appears in either book, emerges as a major character. In both the book and films, June, Young Jolyon’s older daughter, by his first wife, Francis, remains an active character to be reckoned with. In Chancery ends in Soames seeking a divorce because he cannot persuade Irene to return to him so as to father a child upon her (and he is honest this is his motive, which he finds reasonable), the birth of Fleur (about whose gender Soames lies to his dying father) and marriage of Irene and Young Jolyon.
The Awakening I found impossibly cloying: it affects to tell of how the world feels to the young Jon, a boy of 6: it does show how a mother’s presence can dominate a small boy utterly, and this foreshadows what Jon’s later life will be. This may be regarded as reverse Freudianism: instead of a girl with penis envy (longing for her father), we have a boy with warm womb satisfactions.
By contrast, I felt almost upon opening To Let, a resumption of the power of the first book, with Soames to the forefront once again, now filled out (as it were) and altered to, by the presence of the beloved daughter, Fleur whose heritage emerges as a blend of her pragmatic sufficiently amoral French mother and iron-willed yet sensitive father. We get a strong stand-off, a re-delineation of the original clash between Irene (now with Jolyon by her side) and Soames, only now it’s embodied in the persons of their children who turn into Romeo and Juliet figures who fall in love and want to marry and are forbidden even to think of one another. They demand to know why and both sets of parents are (understandably) reluctant to go near Soames’s rape of Irene, her two adulteries.
In the film and book Fleur is told by Annette’s lover to spite Soames, to separate her off from her father, to somehow take advantage of the situation; and by Winifred who believes Fleur should be told and is doing it on behalf of Soames. Winifred is the person who adjusts to society, who in a sense stands for it in her easy changes and complacencies – she does support her brother and Fleur this way. As in the book, Fleur first finds Irene’s picture deep in Soames’s drawer — so we realize that Soames brooded over Irene while married to Annette. She asks if Soames wanted to marry Irene but Winifred will not answer her at first.
The result is unexpected: Fleur comes to June again and says she wants to talk to Jon and implies strongly she might break off the relationship. I take this to mean she has chosen her father. In the event she tries to trick Jon into marrying her but fails to persuade him.
Jon learns by a long letter written to him by his father, and makes the decision not to marry Fleur. It is he who decides this finally, not she; she would have passionately gone on to marry and presented this as a fait accompli to their parents. Does this mean she loved him more than he loved her? Probably not — we use that word love so superficially and for so many kinds of experiences. What we see in the scenes is her determination to assert her desire and her vision of her future, and his real tie with his mother and gratitude towards parents who have given him (as we are shown) the happiest childhood and continue to be all that’s kind and good when it comes to his choice of career. Fleur’s mother was not tenderly loving and her father is made of sterner stuff (Shakespeare in there) than Jolyon.
Both young adults choose to remain loyal to their respective parents. In 2002 the idea of a grown adult child remaining loyal to family is still a norm.
Michael Mont, the young politician and publishers, son of a landowner, is enthralled by Fleur, and as begun to hang around seriously and told her he wants to be with her, implied to marry her, but she refuses to take this seriously. Michael is also making friends with Soames and has told Soames he, Michael, could therefore go into Parliament and runs or works in a publishing company and Soames is suitably impressed. Michael (Nicholas Pennell) emerges as a major male character in the second trilogy. Mont is something of a rebel, progressive politically, at the same time very very conventional in his social and psychological life, so he able to have a successful career. He has an aristocratic father, they are landowners — a real “catch” as Soames sees it and Fleur will realize.
It’s worth emphasizing right away that Fleur then does not marry for love — neither did her father. Young Jolyon treats Irene as someone to be soothed, reverenced, sheltered, protected. Not his equal. A marriage without love can be very unhappy — Irene to Soames and then Annette who has been embittered by her years with Soames, but I wonder if it’s his treatment of her that grated more than the supposed non-love — his colder nature. June Forsyte lives alone — after what she saw in her father and mother and her own nature she choose that. I did feel the first time watching the mini-series that Fleur’s much later decision to have a baby (she is child-free as she sees it for a couple of years) is to please Soames, for him.
The books and films compared and intertextually
I was moved to re-watch the corresponding parts of the 1967 Forstye Saga (13 & 14 of 26 hours) and the 2002 Forsyte Saga (No 9 of 13 hours), and I had more pleasure for 2 hours than I’ve had for weeks. Last time I could respond only to the beautiful evocative sequence of the first waves of Fleur and Jon’s love — which follows closely the book’s sequence — but this time I saw it embedded in the resumption of the other characters: the film does present Soames much much more positively: we see how uncomfortable and miserable Irene’s presence makes him as much as his presence makes Irene. Instead of (as in the book), our being plunged into his thoughts as this reactionary and he remembering a talk with George, the first novel’s cynic, the 1967 film dramatizes Soames’s encounter with George and gives George all the overt reactionary ideas (taxing the super-wealthy so they have a 1000 less is akin to destroying what’s valuable, working classes are animal like) which while Soames agrees with he doesn’t voice. We quickly see the close relationship of Soames and Fleur paralleled with the close relationship of Irene and Jon. These are subtly done, nuanced — dialogue straight from the book. Annette seems hard and Soames the exploited here – we see the Frenchman as Annette’s adulterous lover, in 1967 Soames seems hurt, in 2002 an acquiescing husband over sex.
In the 2002 Forsyte Saga, Damian Lewis as Soames emerges as someone to be pitied. He bottles his emotions up and by so doing twists himself emotionally so his feelings come out stern, angry, hurtful. His fierceness hides a real vulnerability, softer in feel than that Eric Porter projects (or Galsworthy); this is brought out by the continuing relationship with his mother (Barbara Flynn a fine performance) where he turns to her. Jolyon (Rupert Graves) remains spokesperson. 2002 is operatic, with opera music. I do love the actress who plays Irene (Gina McKay) and find her relationship with Jolyon (Rupert Graves) so sympathetic, I can enter into it as I cannot into Dawn Nyall Porter who to me is stiff, lugubrious, smooth, with Kenneth More as a “there,there, now now” father figure. Gina McKay plays Irene as someone who dreads Soames, who shudders at years of sex, shattered still, nervous, fearful he will try to take her again, a very different set of emotions, one I can enter into.
I felt I could watch the 1967 13th hour over and over for its ironies – the dialogues over the pictures. Winifred remains strong character here, not (as in 2002) someone who, disappointed in life by a lowlife husband herself turns to trivia.
I do like Kenneth More — he is over-voice and mediator, still a spokesman for Galsworthy. Fleur is an original compound from Soames (she’s going to be harder, less sentimental and resilient); Jon is too idealized; he seems less naive or vapid in the film than the book as the actor is a strong presence (Martin Jarvis). I like that Jolyon’s children from his first two marriages are glimpsed: June with her “lame ducks” of artists and gallery of art that Soames (anti-modern) can’t stand; Holly, the horsewoman on the farm and Val Dartie’s son.
Part 15 of the 1967 Forsyte Saga. It’s very moving and stays more or less close to the book in the middle of Volume 2. The characters go to a cricket match between Eton and Harrow, giving the writer a chance to make an over-voice of Kenneth More satirically describing the upper classes on such a day. Then we zoom into our characters and fine Annette who knows nothing of the game and does not pretend to being half-escorted by Profound. Eric Porter as Soames plays the part of a man humiliated by the openness of this relationship; he is unable to manipulate the situation at all, and leaves early. We feel for him; he had in Part 14 gotten the anonymous letter and shown it to Annette, who basically admitted the truth of it, and it’s in that episode Soames comes to her bed: yes he’s reasserting his “rights,” but in context and given Annette’s total frankness, it’s more that he’s submitting himself to her. No one rapes Annette it seems. She shows real love or interest in her daughter who she recognizes has no loyalty to her and speaks to Michael Mont, encouraging him to keep his courting up in the face of Fleur’s open indifference and even hostility.
The second part of the hour brings us an intense scene between Jolyon, Irene and Jon. The last two have come home from Spain in the previous episode; now Jolyon has written in a letter the truth of Irene’s past, and when Jon comes home from Fleur’s adament pressure that Jon marry her to secure their relationship permanently, Jon insists he needs to know the full truth and also that he wants the right and intends to marry Fleur but not behind their backs or without their permission. He is asking for their permission. Jolyon had written out the past in a letter as the easier way to do it and shown it to Irene who reluctantly acquiesced in this telling (of her adultery too), but now in a dramatic scene Jolyon tells all and grows more and more at risk of heart-attack (unnknown to Jon) and ends in a desperate plea to Jon not to marry Fleur as it will make his mother unhappy for life; Jon flees from this, goes to his mother to talk, and then crash, Jolyon falls and dies of heart-failure in the other room.
In the book Jolyon’s letter is given in full and remarkable. There is a undercurrent of Lawrentian points of view in these novels: not said in sexual language but what is it but this when men are enthralled by women’s beauty. I agree it shows Victorian/Edwardian beliefs were not monolithic but I’d like to say that the narrator keeps talking about it as if it’s “poisonous”, administer “poison” into who ever reads it. Why? it exposes Soames’s rape of Irene: that’s said very discreetly and he does tell of her adultery and affair with himself.
There is also something slightly unsettling to me in Soames’s persistent idea in the book that Fleur and Jon should have been, almost are brother and sister. It’s like he still owns Irene, and her eggs have been stolen from his sperm. The idea of divorce is something he clearly does not believe in.
Meanwhile (the interwoven nature of the series cannot be imitated in prose) in the book and both films Fleur has pressured her father to come to Jolyon, Irene to ask them to allow Jon to marry Fleur. The scene of where Fleur easily pressures her father to go to Robin Hill to plead for the marriage is painful for Soames; how he loves her, how she is all he cares for in this life — how this can happen, people who seem to have such full plates, nonetheless do value one person above all. He’s against this as an act, and thinks his going will do no good, but he goes. Fleur knows he’s willing to go because he still hankers after Irene — after all this time. Again Porter makes the character deeply sympathetic. By the time Soames comes, Jolyon is dead, there is only Irene and there is a moving quiet scene between the two. Soames comes off much the better; he tries to shake hands (she refuses); we see he did and on some level still does desire, even love her. She loathes him. She refuses and Jon comes in, says he will not marry Fleur and to tell her. Soames leaves, Jon thinks he has not acted right, follows the man, but cannot catch him and returns, now (in effect) his mother’s:
Much better than either movie is a later scene (not in either) where Soames comes to Robin Hill and meets again with Irene. We get this sudden charged scene of the two, Irene and Soames once again confronting one another. It’s like the two have not changed at all — essentially. Neither Irene or Jon is respectful of Soames who quietly leaves. A moving filming of him walking alone away. Jon has better thoughts and follows him out to say goodbye but is too late.
I like especially the lines by Galsworthy: “the old perfect poise and line, the old startled dark-eyed gravity, the old calm defensive voice.” That Nyall Dawn Porter did achieve in the movie. This is the same room he confronted her in with Jolyon and tried to get her back by threatening to go to court. It had the opposite effect, drove the two people together.
I’m not sure what we are to feel about Irene in the end. Surely Galsworthy wants us to find her refusal even to shake hands, make some acknowledgement about mutual forbearance as a concluding gesture. Jon knows they ought to have said goodbye to him and runs off, but it’s too late. This is where at least Gina McKay’s performance helped me. She played the character in a way that made understandable to me how Irene could never forget, always be in a state on the edge of the old fears and hatred many years later. She conveyed nervous distress when Soames came into the room, some re-arousal of old fears and memories. Now I could understand that, and have read other stories about rape, where the woman felt the same (Morwenna raped continually in effect in the Poldark novels 8-9). Nyree Dawn Porter may have played Irene closer to the way intended in the book, cool, seemingly distanced, all steely-control but to me she came off as stilted and yes unlikeable; she seemed self-satisfied and willing to ignore all the realities around her but what shelter the man could provide (I can understand that but not the self-congratulatory looks on her face); the 1967 Irene is still angry and maybe indignant.
Galsworthy can bring in Soames’s real thoughts now: this is so against his interest. Fleur would be taken over by these people; she would come to see him as an enemy perhaps, a rapist. And yet he asks. The coldness of Irene in refusing repeats her inexplicable to him coldness in the first year of their marriage.
Back home, Fleur will not believe her father did not wreck her chances. She will not believe at first that Jon said no. This is so painful to see her reject Soames. she flees the room and finds Mont waiting in the garden … The novel almost ends on their marriage. Fleur is tenacious and aggressive and she will take. Michael Mont will not be in the driver’s seat in their marriage, in bed either (I feel). And when we first see them she has made the decision it seems not to have a child; it’s her father who persuades — this reminds me of Irene in 2002 doing douches to prevent pregnancy as that would be a nail in the coffin to her.
Jon is turned off — left to be with his mother. Irene here seems a kind of monster in a way and he too boyish. His father, Jolyon, wanted this. Maybe there’s some underlying misogyny here we are missing picked up in the films.
In the 1967 series in the very last episodes Jon returns with a new wife and his mother and there’s an arousal of the old love between Jon and Fleur, but they do not consummate. Irene is with this couple and there’s an attempt to again deal with the past of these two, but I did think these very last episodes of the 1967 and the first from The White Monkey (the next novel) weaker — more melodramatic and at the same time more superficial. In the books, Irene and Jon don’t come back. So much of the last episodes of the 1967 are invented. The writers of the 1967 series wanted to end where the first trilogy ended and it doesn’t work: Galsworthy’s books are not so neat as life is not neat …
I did note in Part 15, the ironic irritated quarreling of June with one of her hangers-on — why “lame duck” is the phrase Galsworthy uses I don’t know. Maybe we need to know more about 1920s slang. I did not take their dialogue to be part of the critique of the private property system or capitalism in the book. Galsworthy does not see capitalism as the result of individual initiative, it’s inherited money and property and banking and business abilities. The idea of the importance of your individual initiative is an American idea fostered by school curricula of reading and reinforced by commercials all day long on TV — it’s part of what makes for survival but most success comes from background, connections, original stake of money, and a strong sense of self as worthy, and effective coming again from this kind of background when in it. The “lame duck” is actually complaining about English culture and English cultural attitudes which June defends — as what is giving him the chance on an art market, the art market itself is the result of English culture (which values such things as they would not be in another culture). June has the best of the quarrel, after all she is supporting him. This is skipped in the 1967 movie (and comes nowhere near the 2002 which has just about nothing about capitalism or economics so central to the book); instead we have Gradman in the office working for Soames.
To sum up (as they say), as in The Man of Property, in In Chancery and To Let, the theme is as much property relations as it is sexual and they are utterly intertwined.
Again Galsworthy is looking at why people marry and why they stay together after the first couple of hours. Johnson (Samuel) has a Rambler about how unnatural a long-term love relationship is especially as experienced as marriage (children, having to support them, bring them up, have a house, socialize at least enough to send them to school and you to have a job) that every law and custom is reinforced absolutely to keep a couple together and yet they part and are often miserable when together.
Romantic love is the western myth, enough felt or dreamed about (we so want someone to care about us, some meaning in the world) and supporting a family network of marriages is the traditional myth.
To me it’s a sign of a great novelist if after writing a cycle of novels even over years, they somehow climax the series on a scene which they seemed to have been planning for all along, with seems to gather up all the threads and make some final statement. You have that in Last chronicle of Barset, the conclusion to A Dance to the Music Of Time — maybe it’ll be in the new longer full Duke’s Children for the ending of the Pallisers (we’ve not yet read). Maybe for another cycle I’m in the third novel of six of Balkan Trilogy. I noticed it in Etheel Richardson’s Australian epic, Richard Mahoney.
The ending of To Let in a graveyard, mausoleum with Soames looking back and forwards is very satisfying: it reminds me of The Duke’s Children as we now know it. Trollope ends his series less sombrely, but as quietly: we get the huge society wedding of Silverbridge and Isabel Boncassen, all conventions observed, and then the quiet morning breakfast wedding of Lady Mary and Frank Tregear with the Duke walking with them and standing on some kind of threshold at the book’s end remembering back to his years of marriage, both pained and accepting, looking forward to returning to political work.
So, this book ends with a society wedding, Fleur’s to Michael Mont, in which all are playing parts, especially it seems Fleur, everyone who’s anyone in the book comes, and more than that; in her room, June’s showing up enables Fleur to burst into wild tears.
The scene Soames keeps thinking of is her curled up desperately sobbing on the couch — presumably after her second visit to Robin Hill. Then Soames goes to old Timothy’s funeral; he’s dead at 100. The funeral unexpectedly turns out to be not attended except for Soames, Gradman (the many years clerk), cook and the long time maid, Smithers: old Timothy’s funeral. It’s not that he doesn’t have bequests to his family, but they just have no feeling they should show up. Gradman is given 5000 pounds which makes the rest of his life easy for him and his family. And it’s a looking back for Soames: he does encounter (a bit contrived this) Irene on her way to British Columnia to join Jon; at least she comes down from her frozen state now that she assumes (Soames view) she’s free at last and all this does is somehow embitter him. Robin Hill is to let; Timothy’s house is to let – the world is changing, leaving him behind.
We have books which consistently end with a marriages of two people one of whom (Fleur, Soames) is not in love with the other (Michael Mont, Annette), and whose hero (Soames) found himself in a loveless marriage which tore at his inner self to the point he violently raped his wife (Irene) — I’m not justifying it, only showing the full context as we are to see it in To Let. And now she’s (Irene) is still hating him when after all she did marry him and he meant to keep up his end as he saw it.
Galsworthy has inveighed against the idea that a woman is property that a man owns. Maybe in this novel where he shows the younger generation do find themselves constrained by their parents’ past and Jon at least seems partly “owned” by Irene: he feels obliged to be with her after all she has given as his mother and he wants to also, maybe Galsworthy is asking if this idea of ownership/belonging between children and parents is a good thing – when carried far.
Robin House will be to let so that could be the literal meaning — as Jon flees to America and a pastoral existence: note like his father outside capitalism, not one for wheeling, dealing, manipulaing coping with pressure Jon. But I saw that Soames used the phrase to refer to Micheal Mont’s idea that in business the owner should take into account the workers’ needs and feelings and make the work more fulfilling for all. Mont is an idealist, a decent man — and I assume we are to like that he is willing to work in the capitalist environment — though as a publisher.
We are to enter into Soames’s personality in To let far more than say the opening, The Man of Property, where (as I remember) it would be fair to call the narrator-author’s attitude towards Soames as hostile. After all Soames’s moving last meditation which concludes this first trilogy is supposed to come out of his mind. In Man of Property we are kept at an ironic distance from Soames’s mind until the last third of the book when we might say he goes half-mad from frustration, jealousy, lack of understanding, rage — at Irene. Now he looks round him, very melancholy indeed, but forgiving, hoping to join and find meaning in his daughter’s life.