Does anyone read John Galsworthy anymore – other than me?
Here is the man who created Soames Forsyte, one of the most memorable characters in all of English literature, and who was one of the most popular writers in the world when his trilogy, The Forsyte Saga, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1932.
Galsworthy describes Soames as “flat-shouldered, clean-shaven, flat-cheeked, flat-waisted, yet with something round and secret about his whole appearance….” He is, indeed, ‘rounded’ in the best literary sense; i.e., we, the readers, come to know him much better than he knows himself.
Soames has a fatal flaw: he cannot show or express his feelings. He is a product of his Victorian environment and its culminating achievement: the staid, solid – and repressed – British upper middle class.
A lawyer and art collector, Soames is wealthy, successful, moderately attractive, with a solid working-class lineage and a first-rate education – and yet he is forever the dupe of his emotions, which must forever be suppressed.
His feverish love for his first wife, the beautiful and elusive Irene (which I always pronounce with three syllables) is the subject of The Forsyte Saga (The Man of Property, In Chancery, and To Let). Although she is, for him, “unfathomable,” Soames has convinced himself that he owns her, as he owns all of his property. And for this Irene, a free spirit, abhors him.
His overwhelming love for his only child, the lovely Fleur, born of his second marriage, is the subject of Galsworthy’s second trilogy, A Modern Comedy (The White Monkey, The Silver Spoon, and Swan Song), which follows Soames to the end of his life. Fleur loves him, carelessly, and comes closest to understanding him. But she is driven to destroy him by her own passion – for Jon – only child of Irene’s second marriage.
Woven into these six novels is a history of England, and particularly London, from 1886-1926 – forty years of prosperity, war, and social upheaval.
Like another writer I admire from that era – W. Somerset Maugham – I return to Galsworthy as to an old friend, because I love his wise and inimitable voice. And because Soames Forsyte – lover of beauty which always lies just beyond his grasp – continues to intrigue me.