THE FORSYTE SAGA
By William Lyon Phelps
It is impossible to say what books of our time will be read at the close of this century; it is probable that many of the poems and tales of Kipling, the lyrics of Housman, dramatic narratives by Masefield, some plays by Shaw and Barrie, will for a long time survive their authors.
Among the novels, I do not know of any that has or ought to have a better chance for the future than the books written about the family of the Forsytes by John Galsworthy. They at present hold about the same place in contemporary English literature as is held in France by Romain Rolland's Jean Christophe. Both are works of great length which reflect with remarkable accuracy the political, social, commercial, artistic life and activity of the twentieth century, the one in England, the other on the Continent.
Entirely apart from their appeal as good novels, that is to say, apart from one's natural interest in the plot and in the characters, both are social documents of great value. If the future historian wishes to know English and Continental society in the first quarter of the twentieth century, he will do well to give attention and reflexion to these two works of "fiction."
John Galsworthy was just under forty when in 1906 he published a novel called The Man of Property. He had produced very little before this, but it took no especial critical penetration to discover that the new book was a masterpiece. The family of the Forsytes bore a striking resemblance to one another in basic traits and ways of thinking, yet each was sharply individualised.
A new group of persons had been added to British fiction. The word "Property," as in Tennyson's Northern Farmer, was the keynote, and before long it began to appear that one of the most dramatic of contrasts was to be used as the subject.This is the struggle between the idea of Property and the idea of Beauty-between the commercial, acquisitive temperament and the more detached, but equally passionate artistic temperament.
Even in the pursuit of beauty Mr. Soames Forsyte never forgot the idea of property. He was a first-class business man in the city, but he was also an expert judge of paintings, which he added to his collection.Oil and canvas do not completely satisfy any healthy business man; so Soames added to his collection, as the masterpiece in his gallery, an exquisitely beautiful woman whom he made his wife.
The philosophy of love comes in here. What is love?Is it exclusively the idea of possession, which often is no more dignified than the predatory instinct or is it the unalloyed wish that the object of one's love should be as happy and secure as possible? No one can truly and sincerely love Beauty either in the abstract or in the concrete if one's eyes are clouded by predatory desire. One must look at beauty without the wish to possess it if one is really to appreciate beauty. A first-class French chef would look into the big front window of a confectioner's shop and fully appreciate the art and taste that created those delectable edibles; but a hungry boy who looked at the same objects would not appreciate them critically at all.
The wife of Soames finds him odious, so odious that we cannot altogether acquit her of guilt in marrying him; and Soames, who as a Man of Property expected her to fulfill her contract, did not make himself more physically attractive by insisting on his rights. She left him for a man of exactly the opposite temperament.
When Mr. Galsworthy finished this fine novel, he had no intention of going on with the history of the family. He wrote many other novels and some remarkable plays, but nothing made the impression on readers that had been produced by the Forsyte family. Nearly twenty years later he returned to the theme, and at once his power as a novelist seemed to rise; there is something in this family that calls out his highest powers. When he discovered that he had written five works of fiction on the Forsytes, three long novels and two short stories, of which the brief interlude called Indian Summer of a Forsyte isa n impeccable and I hope imperishable work of art, he hit upon the happy idea of assembling them into one prose epic, and calling the whole thing by the ironical title of The Forsyte Saga. It is my belief that for many years to come the name of John Galsworthy will be associated with this work, in what I fervently hope will be its expanded form.
For since the assembling of the five pieces Mr. Galsworthy has published several other novels dealing with the family. -The 1,T% hite Monkey, The Silver Spoon and in 1928 he wrote FINIS with Swan Song. Here he kills Soames, and while he probably does not feel quite so sad as Thackeray felt when he killed Colonel New come, I venture to say that he does not gaze on the corpse of Soames with indifferent eyes. For to my mind the most interesting single feature of this whole mighty epic is the development of the character of this man.
Clyde Fitch used to say something that is no doubt true of many works of the imagination; he said that he would carefully plan a play, write his first act, and definitely decide what the leading characters should say and do in the subsequent portions of the work. Then these provokingly independent characters seemed to acquire, not only an independent existence, but a power of will so strong that they insisted on doing and saying all kinds of things which he tried in vain to prevent.
In The Man of Property Soames Forsyte is a repulsive character; he is hated by his wife, by the reader, and by the author. But in these later books Soames becomes almost an admirable person, and we may say of him at the end in reviewing his life, that nothing became him like the leaving of it-for he died nobly. Long before this catastrophe, however, we have learned to admire, respect, and almost to love Soames. Is it possible that Mr. Galsworthy had any notion of this spiritual progress when he wrote The Man of Property, or is it that in living so long with Soames he began to see his good points?
Dickens was a master in this kind of development. When we first meet Mr. Pickwick, he seems like the president of a service club as conceived by Sinclair Lewis; he is the butt of the whole company. Later Mr. Pickwick develops into a noble and maganimous gentleman, whom every right-minded person loves. Look at Dick Swiveller-when we first see him, he is no more than a guttersnipe. He develops into a true knight.