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99 THE FORSYTE CHRONICLES« A NINETEENTH-CENTURY LIBERAL VIEW OF ENGLISH HISTORY By Peter McQuitty (University of Queensland) Galsworthy's reputation among modern critics is essentially that of a lapsed satirist. Bernard Bergonzi, for example, believes that The Man of Property satirizes the Forsytes but that when Galsworthy returned " to them, twelve years later, it was with views directly opposed to those underlying the earlier novel.1 The perception of a vast difference in tone and underlying attitude between The Man oÃProperty and the later Forsyte novels - if valid - leads to the inevitable conclusion that the novels finally published as The Forsyte Saga and A Modern Comedy2 have little value as the expression of a coherent view of human experience. In this paper I will argue against such a view of the Forsyte chronicles. I will suggest that a misplaced emphasis on The Man &f Property and, in particular, on the relationship between Soames and Irene, has led critics to misunderstand Galsworthy's attitude toward the Forsyte ethic, and to misread what is, in fact, a highly consistent attitude toward human experience. Galsworthy depicts the Victorian Forsytes and Soames - the apparent heir to their ethic - as men who are able to think only in terms of property, its acquisition and continued possession. I would suggest, however, that twentieth-century readers, conditioned by the antimaterialism of writers like Lawrence, have too easily assumed that Galsworthy - because of his sympathy for Irene and Young Jolyon condemns the Forsyte ethic entirely. They have too easily assumed that the Forsytes - "the middlemen, the commercials, the pillars of society, the cornerstones of convention" (FS, p. 172), with their chilly handshakes and their property-based personal relationships are depicted as being in the grip of a materialism which is sterile and life-denying. In fact, Galsworthy's text suggests that this is very far from the truth. This is evident even in the opening pages of The Man of Property . In the context of Old Jolyon's "At Home," Galsworthy describes the Forsytes in terms of animal imagery. He writes of how "every now and then a Forsyte would come up, sidle round, and take a look" (FS, p. 8) at Bosinney, and how, like cattle, they sniff danger when he approaches. Galsworthy uses this imagery, of course, to highlight ironically the herd-like conformity of the upper-middle classes, with their instinctive fear and dislike of anybody who departs from their own codes of conduct and appearance. However, this imagery also suggests that the Victorian way of life is characterized by a certain animal vitality. Beneath their veneer of civilization , their "brilliant respectability" (FS, p. 4), the Forsytes possess all the vitality of cattle which, "when a dog comes into the field . . . stood head to head and shoulder to shoulder, prepared to run upon and trample the invader to death" (FS, p. 7). Galsworthy suggests that the "inarticulate violence of primitive generations" (FS, p. 36) is not far from the surface of Victorian life. A similar vitality characterizes all Forsyte activities. An almost 100 sexual vigour accompanies their acquisition of property, and Soames is like his father's generation in that "out of all the things he had collected, his silver, his pictures, his house, his investments, he got a secret and intimate feeling" (FS, p. 55). This vitality is also evident in relationships between individuals. While, for example , the "outward relations between James and his son were marked by a lack of sentiment peculiarly Forsytean," Galsworthy stresses that "neither of them was a cold-blooded man" (FS, p. 6l), and that they are bound not by mere effusive sentiment, but by that same "vitality of fibre" (FS, p. 68) which has enabled them to raise themselves and their class to a position of power within the nation. Indeed , Galsworthy continually emphasizes than none of the Forsytes are "cold-blooded men." The manner in which old Jolyon turns on and knowingly damages his class, creed, and family in the interests of his son, and the way in which Soames never ceases his pursuit of Irene - these acts, whatever their motivations, are those of passionate men. Indeed, the Forsytes take a deep and primitive - if totally...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 99-114
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived
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