“Bitter Waters”: John Galsworthy, The Man of Property

Nothing in this world is more sure to upset a Forsyte than the discovery that something on which he has stipulated to spend a certain sum has cost more. And this is reasonable, for upon the accuracy of his estimates the whole policy of his life is ordered. If he cannot rely on the definite values of property, his compass is amiss; he is adrift upon bitter waters without a helm.

The Man of Property is the first installment of Galsworthy’s The Forstye Saga. Two more novels (In Chancery and To Let) and a novella, “Indian Summer of a Forsyte,” complete the saga.

I’ve owned my nice Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Forsyte Saga for a few years now and had even begun it once before. I know that I got at least as far as page 39, because there was a notation in the back of the book that says “39 Wagner 😀.” Apparently old Jolyon’s reflections on Wagner amused me the first time too: “That fellow Wagner had ruined everything,” he grumbles; “no melody left, nor any voices to sing it.” I found it hard going then, though, and abandoned it without getting much further. I don’t know why this time was different, though I expect most readers have had a similar experience–something about my mood, or the timing, or the lighting. Sometimes books just have to ripen on the shelf, or I just have to grow into them.

Mind you, this read hasn’t been altogether smooth sailing so far either. Galsworthy’s prose has something of the stuttering quality I’ve complained about in Henry James. Here’s a bit of the opening paragraph, just as an example:

He is like one who, having watched a tree grow from its planting–a paragon of tenacity, insulation, and success, amidst the deaths of a hundred other plants less fibrous, sappy, and persistent–one day will see it flourishing with bland, full foliage, in an almost repugnant prosperity, at the summit of its efflorescence.

That’s not nearly as dense or perverse as some of James’s atrocities: by the end of it, you can still more or less remember where it began. Still, it doesn’t exactly propel the reader forward. It took me a while to accept the pace and rhythm of the writing, and to have attached myself sufficiently to the characters and their situations to feel involved in the book. It doesn’t help that there are a lot of Forsytes and I kept forgetting how they were related: happily, my edition has a family tree, which for a while I referred back to a lot.

Once I was more at home in the novel, though, it quickly became quite engrossing. For all the large cast of characters, The Man of Property is not a particularly plot-heavy novel, which makes Galsworthy’s aside that a novel without a plot is “well-known to be an anomaly” amusing. The main event is the unhappiness and eventual infidelity of Soames Forsyte’s wife Irene, which has ripple effects on the lives of various other Forsytes, particularly Soames but also young June, who when the novel opens is celebrating her engagement to Philip Bosinney, the man who becomes Irene’s lover. Galsworthy’s attention is less on the adultery plot itself then on its significance as a symptom of more abstract problems in the world of the Forsytes. Irene’s dissatisfaction is not just emotionally unsettling: it is also thematically weighty, because it challenges the values of the family she has married into. Why isn’t she happy? What more can she want? How can property, in all its forms, not be enough? Isn’t she herself ultimately Soames’s property–and given that, how can she resist his claims on her?

The country house Soames undertakes to build becomes a focal point for these puzzling questions, a symbol of the intractable difference between his view of the world and his wife’s as well as the larger clash of values the novel explores. Ironically, he is prompted to build it by June, who wants work for her architect fiance. Bosinney is regarded with some skepticism by the rest of June’s family: he is disconcertingly indifferent to the social norms they vigorously enforce. (The bit about his “soft hat” is quite funny, as is the riff on the Forsytes’ fixation on “saddle of mutton,” which characterizes them all with comic acidity.) As the house progresses, he and Soames wrangle repeatedly over the budget: Bosinney refuses to be constrained, rejecting practical considerations in pursuit of his aesthetic vision. Throughout the novel it’s increasingly clear that he stands for something the Forsytes by and large don’t even understand. Galsworthy never lets us out of the Forsyte point of view, but this immersion in it means we experience its narrowness firsthand. This aspect of the novel reminded me very much of Forster’s Howards End, which also pits crass materialists against people of a wider vision–though so far, Galsworthy has certainly not set up the Bosinneys of the world as heroic or even particularly admirable antagonists to the Forsytes and their ilk.

The scandal, first of Irene’s inarticulate discontent and then of her actual misconduct, gets the Forsytes all pretty riled up, and much of the novel is clearly satirical at their expense. That their assumptions about property–their reliance on it to define their identity and power as well as their material wealth–are not just funny, though, becomes grimly clear when Soames “at last asserted his rights and acted like a man”:

He was strangely haunted by the recollection of her face, from before which, to soothe her, had had tried to pull her hands–of her terrible smothered sobbing, the like of which he had never heard, and still seemed to hear, and he was still haunted by the odd, intolerable feeling of remorse and shame he had felt, as he stood looking at her by the flame of the single candle, before silently slinking away.

“Had he been right,” he wonders belatedly, “to . . . break down the resistance which he had suffered now too long from this woman who was his lawful and solemnly constituted helpmate?” The terms of his inner struggle are strongly reminiscent of France Power Cobbe’s complaint in her powerful essay “Wife-Torture in England”: “the notion that a man’s wife is his PROPERTY, in the sense in which a horse is his property, is the fatal root of incalculable evil and misery.” These are bitter waters indeed.

Happily, there is some tenderness in the novel too, primarily (and a bit unexpectedly) around the family patriarch, old Jolyon Forsyte, June’s grandfather. His son, also Jolyon, abandoned her and her mother, running off to live with another woman (a rare rebel in the ranks, choosing love over family and property); Jolyon Sr. has raised June, and she has filled his life with quiet happiness now ebbing away as she grows up and moves on. The old man’s loneliness is poignant, and his unexpected impromptu reconciliation with his son seemed like a hint that there might be other ways to hold a family together. Young Jolyon’s children offer the sad old man some welcome comfort.

The Man of Property is a narrow book in some ways: that so many of its characters are related by both blood and behavior could make it somewhat claustrophobic, and in fact that is something of its effect and also, I think, one of its intentions–to enclose us in a world that needs more light and air and movement and change. I’m curious to see what the rest of the saga does with this material. The other thing that will help me keep reading is that when he’s not steering us through the choppy waters of the Forsytes’ social world and mental convolutions, Galsworthy writes some really beautiful prose. Getting out into the country, it turns out, is good for the novel, even if it doesn’t solve Soames’s problems:

It was that famous summer when extravagance was fashionable, when the very earth was extravagant, chestnut-trees spread with blossom, and flowers drenched in perfume, as they had never been before; when roses blew in every garden; and for the swarming stars the nights had hardly space; when every day and all day long the sun, in full armour, swung his brazen shield above the Park, and people did strange things, lunching and dining in the open air.

Bosinney himself may not be a worthy anti-Forsyte champion, but the impression these moments of aesthetic delight give me is that Galsworthy is slyly playing that role himself.

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3 Responses to “Bitter Waters”: John Galsworthy, The Man of Property

  1. That first paragraph is such a slog.

    I am so glad I recently read this novel so I can enjoy your piece so thoroughly – its arguments, its examples. Right on the nose.

    I, too, spent a lot of time with the family tree.

  2. Liz Mc2 says:

    Years ago, probably in high school, I read about 30 pages of this and quit. You’ve made me see that it’s time to try again!

    I pulled it off the shelf of our summer cabin, where it lived because my great-grandmother believed in a well-stocked summer library. She probably stocked it soon after building the cabin in 1917, so there was stuff like Galsworthy and a whack of John Buchan along with the usual abandoned Agatha Christies (about the only things that actually got read in my time) and an ancient dictionary much-consulted during dinner arguments and Scrabble games.

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