Friday, 7 August 2015
THE FORSYTE SAGA, JOHN GALSWORTHY
I love the Victorians. Those generations of restrained, repressed men and women, that have provided writers and thinkers with such a wealth of material. I don’t supposed the Victorians recognised that they were repressed; we just see it now with the clarity of hindsight. I guess we are the backlash to the Victorians’ discourse of silence, with our counsellors and therapists. And if we can’t afford those, our friends are usually willing listeners.
Soames Forsyte doesn’t want to talk to anyone. He doesn’t even want to talk to Irene, his beautiful wife. He just wants to consummate their marriage; he wants his conjugal rights, that are his by law. He wants her not to shudder when he touches her. It’s not too much to ask, is it?
Through Soames’ character, John Galsworthy gives us the central theme of his Victorian novel, THE FORSYTE SAGA. The theme is ownership; particularly ownership of property. Property is everything and anything touched with the Forsyte name, therefore Irene is property. Soames embraces the creed, body and soul. If the theme is ownership, it is Soames’ and Irene’s relationship that drives the plot of the novel.
The family saga opens at a gathering of the Forsytes, in 1886. They are celebrating June Forsyte’s engagement to Philip Bosinney, a flamboyant architect. One by one, Galsworthy introduces us to the central characters.
Galsworthy published the first book; THE MAN OF PROPERTY, in 1906. Galsworthy would have been aware of the laws and the mood of that time; he was writing about his contemporaries. This is an erotic novel; not in the sense of where erotica takes us today -- the sex, here, is in the sub-text. It’s hinted at and explored through the characters’ relationships, the constraints of Victorian times and the constraints members of the family, place upon themselves.
I think that this shows how forward thinking and brave Galsworthy was in publishing his book. Freud had only published THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS, in 1899. The FORSYTE SAGA, was published just seven years later. I don’t know whether Galsworthy would have been aware of Freud’s theories, he would certainly been aware of the stringent laws constraining women -- I don’t think it matters whether the reader is aware either of Freud, or the legal position of women in Victorian England; the story of this up-tight family is so cleverly woven by Galsworthy, that the novel is pure pleasure to read. As is always the case with great fiction, the reader keeps turning the pages. What happens next? We want to know.
Soames has pursued the beautifully, enigmatic Irene, with the relentlessness of a stalker, for two years. Finally, she capitulates and agrees to marry him. Irene was young, only nineteen years old, when Soames finally wore her down. She was naïve; ignorant of the physical relations of a man and wife. Within a week of married life, she knew she had made a big mistake. We join Galsworthy’s novel at the point where Irene is asking for separate rooms.
"The fact that Irene never agreed to a union with Soames seems
inconceivable to contemporary readers as her reluctance is obvious from the beginning. Scholars have tried to explain in various ways Irene’s acceptance of Soames fifth time he proposes, but none of their explanations is ultimately convincing. Irene herself when asked responds only with a “strange silence”. (Linda Strahan).
The mysterious Irene haunts the pages. She is both charismatic and enigmatic. We never know what she is thinking; we only ever see her through the eyes of other characters. She is always placed in situations where her alluring beauty can be displayed. Galsworthy arranges her as if she is continually posing for a photograph. She is seated like a goddess, in a green woodland setting. She is stylishly arranged at the piano. In both Old Jolyon and Young Jolyon’s thoughts, Irene is Venus.
Galsworthy introduces us to Irene in a passage that is pure poetry.
“ A tall woman with a beautiful figure, which some member of the family had once compared to a heathen goddess…Her hands, gloved in French Grey, were crossed one over the other, her grave, charming face held to one side, and the eyes of all men near were fastened on it. Her figure swayed, so balanced that the very air seemed to set it moving. There was warmth, but little colour, in her cheeks; her large, dark eyes were soft. But it was at her lips - asking a question, giving an answer, with that shadowy smile - that men looked; they were sensitive lips, sensuous and sweet, and through them seemed to come warmth and perfume like the warmth and perfume of a flower.”
Irene is hypnotic; desirable. She has an ethereal, sublime, other worldly beauty, that is all her own.
I don’t know whom I would cast as Irene, in a new adaptation. Gina Mckee in the ITV version didn’t cut it for me. Nyree Dawn Porter was convincing, in the much earlier BBC adaptation. There certainly aren’t any actresses around today that have Irene’s class. Anyway they’re all far too skinny. Their sweet little faces have been cosmetically modified to all look the same.
Soames Forsyte is a funny little man. Funny in the peculiar sense -- definitely not ha ha! You don’t get a laugh, or a joke, from Soames. He’s cold; indifferent to the feelings of others. He doesn’t care about the effect he has on other people. I’m trying to think of a counterpart to Soames, for today’s world.
Soames is the worst kind of creep. You see him today, reconstructed in photo fits for CRIMEWATCH; he is usually wanted for sex crimes. Galsworthy describes Soames’ movements as “mouse like.” Soames doesn’t walk; he “mouses.”
Soames, is the character whose head we get into the most, and Galsworthy allows Soames' own narrow thoughts to speak for him. Soames’ only passions in life are the Forsyte name, his art collection and his beautiful wife Irene. All of these things Soames owns.
Irene is a wife and therefore a possession, both in the eyes of the law at that time, and by Soames.
"Irene’s unhappy marriage to Soames Forsyte has become a metaphor for the plight of women in nineteenth century England before the passage of the Woman’s Property Act (1881) and the agitation for further reforms." (Linda Strahan)
Irene is repelled by Soames.
Much has been made of the rape scene, both in the ITV 2002 adaptation of the novel and in the 1967 BBC adaptation. I can only imagine how it would be written today, writers scrabbling around for lurid metaphors, to convey the repulsiveness and violence of Soames’ violation of Irene. It would go on for pages. Galsworthy simply says;
“The morning after a certain night on which Soames at last asserted his rights and acted like a man, he breakfasted alone.”
There is no contrition; no regret. Soames has decided that his act will be a step towards reconciliation for him and the wife that he owns. Irene’s smothered sobs haunt him throughout the day. He simply reads the newspaper; he hears again and again the "sounds of her broken heart." Soames keeps himself busy. Even in the final pages of the book, Soames is still justifying himself. It wouldn’t have happened if Irene had been a good wife.
Damian Lewis played the part of Soames in the ITV version of Galsworthy’s book. Eric Porter, in the BBC much earlier version. I think both actors captured the essence of Soames.
“Funnily, Lewis does very little indeed. One scene has him manipulating events to his way of thinking without actually saying a word.
But there is a smouldering power to him and you correctly fear for anyone who tries to confront him.” (from the web).
And of Eric Porter’s performance;
“Among the most famous scenes were one in which the hapless Irene, unloved by her cold and possessive husband Soames, was brutally raped by him as their marriage fell apart. The scene was rendered even more convincing by bloodstains on Irene's dress (Eric Porter had inadvertently cut his hand on her brooch when tearing off her bodice).” (Wiki)
Read THE FORSYTE SAGA as a Victorian soap. Read it as a false construct of the bliss of the family; the spoken lies, the unspoken truths. Read it and analyse it, if that’s what you want to do; or read it as a great story -- but, oh, please do read it.