John Galsworthy, “The Forsyte Saga, Vol. 2”

Soames is dead! Oh, dear, oh, dear. I didn’t see that coming. Nor did I anticipate the sense of regret I feel. John Galsworthy created Soames as the embodiment of Victorian bourgeois values. He was going to die sometime. What startles me is my affection for him. He behaved like a terrible jerk way back in The Man of Property. But over the succeeding thousand-some pages, he’s managed to redeem himself.

Goya's "Vendimia" -- Soames owns a copy and thinks the girl resembles Fleur

Goya’s “Vendimia” — Soames owns a copy and thinks the girl resembles Fleur

Are you confused about what I just read? I’m confused and I’ve got the book on my desk. The cover says The Forsyte Saga Volume 2. The three novels in it are The White Monkey; The Silver Spoon; and Swan Song.  I think some of my confusion stems from the fact that the individual novels of the original trilogy are better known; people have heard of The Man of Property. But by the time you get around to The White Monkey, you’re not reading a stand-alone volume. You’re in it for the long haul. And the long haul is deeply, deeply satisfying.

For one thing, it’s got more narrative tension than the original trilogy. Soames is still the central character but the defining relationship is really between him and his headstrong daughter Fleur whom he loves with all his heart. As Soames personifies the nineteenth century, Fleur personifies the twentieth. She is the pretty, capricious, quicksilver woman who cannot find contentment. As Soames says toward the end of the novel — speaking about his other passion, painting —

‘I remember the first shows in London of those post-impressionists and early Cubist chaps. But they ran riot with the war, catching at things they couldn’t get.’

He stopped. It was exactly what she — !”

What Fleur wanted that she couldn’t get was her cousin Jon, who is also the son of Soames’ first wife Irene. My, that is complicated. It’s not incest, really, but given the intense bad feeling between Soames and Irene and consequently the rest of the Forsyte family, the Fleur/Jon romance is doomed. Which is of course a lovely plot for a novelist and Galsworthy spins this out over his three volumes, allowing plenty of time for the ramifications to develop. On the rebound from her first romantic episodes with Jon, Fleur marries Michael Mont, an appealing  young politician who knows that he is her second choice. Michael’s age, aristocratic connections, and parliamentary career give the novelist scope to dramatize many of the cultural questions of the day, from World War I to the General Strike to slum clearance.

But we always come back to Soames and Fleur. He knows — as does the reader — that she’s spoiled. He knows he’s partly at fault. Inarticulate as always, he does his best to protect her from her mistakes, as any parent would, and as no parent actually can. Fittingly, Soames dies protecting Fleur from yet another of her destructive impulses. And though it’s a perfectly appropriate ending to this volume, I still want more Forsytes. Maybe the best story-telling is always addictive?

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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2 Responses to John Galsworthy, “The Forsyte Saga, Vol. 2”

  1. Alex says:

    Oh no! You’ve made me remember how much I loved this when I first read it, probably forty years ago. And the books are still there on the shelf. But I don’t have time for three thousand odd pages. Dilemma, dilemma, dilemma.

    • carolwallace says:

      One volume at a time? Actually I read it just before going to sleep at night — the pacing is not exactly electric — and it took, oh, 3-4 months. Worked pretty well.

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