The Man of Property, volume 1 of The Forsyte Saga, begins as follows.
Those privileged to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes have seen that charming and instructive sight – an upper middle class family in its full plumage. But whosoever of those favoured persons has possessed the gift of psychological analysis (a talent without monetary value and properly ignored by the Forsytes) has witnessed a spectacle, not only delightful in itself, but illustrative of an obscure human problem. In plainer words, he has gleaned from a gathering of this family – no branch of which had a liking for the other, between no three members of whom existed anything worthy of the name of sympathy – evidence of that mysterious concrete tenacity which renders a family so formidable a unit of society, so clear a reproduction of society in miniature.
For a little while you might think that this book is just a brilliant satire about the English bourgeoisie. Well it is, but it is a lot more – what you get is ‘so clear a reproduction of society in miniature.’
The author, John Galsworthy, who had been a barrister, made his name in theatre. That shows here, too, but what he have is a most beautiful wordsmith who can pull off a rare double – he writes about his characters incisively but with compassion. The result is both engrossing and moving.
And he puts the story together without apparent effort. Some reading this will remember how in about 1966, the whole of Melbourne went quiet for fifty minutes at 7.30 pm on Sunday nights for, I think twenty six weeks, when the ABC aired the BBC series The Forsyte Saga. Eric Porter burned into our heads his image as Soames Forsyte, the man of property, and Susan Hampshire launched what would be called a stellar career on TV as Fleur. Possibly the only shows to come close were Brideshead Revisited and Downton Abbey.
There is usually a sparkler on about every page. Old Jolyon is the patriarch.
His dinner tasted flat. His pint of champagne was dry and bitter stuff, not like the Veuve Cliquots of old days.
Over his cup of coffee, he bethought him that he would go to the opera. In The Times, therefore – he had a distrust of other papers – he read the announcement for the evening. It was Fidelio.
Mercifully not one of those new-fangled German pantomimes by that fellow Wagner.
That is word perfect.
There was trouble between Soames and Irene – a loveless marriage. Irene was drop dead gorgeous. Was that all?
She was not a flirt, not even a coquette – words dear to the heart of his generation, which loved to define things by a good, broad, inadequate word – but she was dangerous. He could not say why. Tell him of a quality innate in some women – a seductive power beyond their own control. He would but answer ‘Humbug!’ She was dangerous, and there was an end of it.
Some of them went into law. Others were condemned to ‘trade’ – and being knocked back by the better clubs for that reason. But they were all into money.
Nothing for nothing, and really remarkably little for sixpence.
The first book concludes with what is called an Interlude but which is a form of epilogue to this volume. Here great writers can chance their arm, and let a mood of reflection and a stream of consciousness flow like a Chopin nocturne on a warm summer evening. The health of Old Jolyon is failing but his decline has softened him. Irene, estranged from Soames after what we would now call an act of rape, has enriched his life – and he, hers. She has written to him saying she will not be able to visit him any longer. He writes to express his anguish. She immediately sends a telegram saying she will be there by 4.30 pm. He is overjoyed. He gets up out of his sickbed, dresses and goes to wait for Irene in the garden. This is how the book ends.
And settling back in his chair he closed his eyes. Some thistledown came on what little air there was, and pitched on his moustache more white than itself. He did not know but his breathing stirred it, caught there. A ray of sunlight struck through and lodged on his boot. A bumblebee alighted and strolled on the crown of his Panama hat. And the delicious surge of slumber reached the brain beneath that hat, and the head swayed forward and rested on his breast. Summer – summer! So went the hum.
The stable clock struck the quarter past [four]. The dog Balthasar stretched and looked up at his master. The thistledown no longer moved. The dog placed his chin over the sunlit foot. It did not stir. The dog withdrew his chin quickly, rose, and leaped on Old Jolyon’s lap, looked in his face, whined; then, leaping down, sat on his haunches, gazing up. And suddenly he uttered a long, long howl.
But the thistledown was still as death, and the face of his old master.
Summer – summer – summer! The soundless footsteps on the grass.
That is the work of a master of the art. It is like the poetry in prose with which Joyce closes The Dead. It’s enough to make you wonder about God.