Wednesday, July 19, 2017

not individually, but as a family - so many Forsytes

John Galsworthy must introduce more characters in fewer pages than – well – it seems like a lot.  The first chapter of The Man of Property is a party for the announcement of June Forsyte’s engagement to the poor architect Philip Bosinney, an event that leads, eventually, to tragedy.  The Forsytes are suspicious from the beginning.  “The Forsytes were resentful of something, not individually, but as a family… as a family, they appeared to have an instinct of being in contact with some strange and unsafe thing” (1.1).  For all the good is does them.

The important thing is that there are so many Forsytes, ten siblings, age 65 to 86, with twenty-one children among them.  Poor June is the eldest grandchild.  Not all of these people are important, and not all are introduced in the first chapter, but then the third chapter is also a Forsyte party, and so is the fifth, by which time almost everyone is at least mentioned.  The family tree as the beginning of the Oxford paperback is so useful.  And the novel is only 282 pages long; it may have fewer characters than, I don’t know, Bleak House, although it may not, but they are really crammed in there.

Galsworthy is so good with minor characters, whether recurring or one-scene wonders, that he has no qualms about introducing more of them, friends of the family and so on, all the way to the end of the book.  In a great running gag, one of the ten siblings, Timothy, is often mentioned but never appears.  I began to wonder if he was not a figment.

Mrs Small, Aunt Hester and their cat were left once more alone, the sound of a door closing in the distance announced the approach of Timothy.  (2.7)

Then the scene ends with Timothy still offstage, unseen.  When he finally appears, I felt a shock – the line “It was Timothy” gets and deserves its own paragraph, even if the whole thing is an anti-climax worthy of Ford Madox Ford.

For the first third of the novel I wondered if it had a story.  Maybe Galsworthy was content just moving his puppets around, describing their houses and possessions, much like Soames Forsyte enjoys the paintings he collects but hides from everyone.  “Without a habitat a Forsyte is inconceivable – he would be like a novel without a plot, which is well-known to be an anomaly” (1.8).  In the tradition of Trollope and Thackeray, I think I mentioned.  And then in the second third, a story begins to appear, based around a Forsyte’s habitat, the consequences of Soames hiring the unsafe Bosinney to build him and his wife, who does not love him, and never did, a nice house in the country.

There is a B-plot, a happier one, about Old Jolyon reconnecting with his estranged son.  The second chapter of the novel is a pure comedy piece, “Old Jolyon Goes to the Opera,” full of passages like this:

The greatest opera-goer of his day!  There was no opera now!   That fellow Wagner had ruined everything; no melody left, nor any voices to sing it.  Ah! the wonderful singers!  Gone!  He sat watching the old scenes acted, a numb felling at his heart.  (1.2)

But his story really is a comedy, in the old sense, with a rising action, so Old Jolyon starts low and ends high.  Not everyone is so lucky.

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