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  • The Nervous Economies of John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Chronicles
  • Philippa Moylan

At the heart of John Galsworthy’s three-volume family saga, the Forsyte Chronicles (1906–1933), is a certain nervousness about the health of the family and the English nation. In a manner that befits the family saga genre, the Forsyte Chronicles stages a battle between the family as imperial exemplum and its overthrow—of dynastic ambitions versus degenerative tendencies, of triumphalist rhetoric versus the family in decline. The role of the family comments on the larger political sphere of society and nation inhabited by the family saga.

The tension between prosperity and decline at the heart of the family saga is reflected in the anxieties about ill heath that circulated during the late nineteenth century across the natural and medical sciences as well as the arts. The concept of degeneration gained currency as Charles Darwin and others came to see that evolution and progress were not synonymous. Rather, environment was believed to “operate in various ways to different effects, and the most adaptive inherited characteristics were not necessarily the ‘highest’ or most ‘civilized’ ones.” Attention shifted to examples of regression.1

Biological and social factors were believed to constitute degeneration. Bénédict Augustin Morel argued that degeneration was “a morbid deviation from a perfect primitive type—a deviation subject to a law of ‘progressivity’ which compounded deviation through the generations.”2 For Morel, the environmental horrors to which Europeans were exposed were both the symptoms and the causes of a civilisation infected by degeneration, which, in turn, became a disease; and civilisation itself “could progress or decline over time through hereditary transmission.” Although Morel did not discount the role of social health in stemming pathology, he “foresaw progressive decline working through the generations.”3 [End Page 56]

With its dual focus on social environment and the biological line of the family, the family saga is a perfect exemplar of degeneration—at least at first glance. In The Family Novel Yi-Ling Ru outlines the family saga’s reliance on degenerational concepts. She applies the “process of decay” analysis to Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga (1906–1921). It is true that in The Forsyte Saga we can trace “death of the old order” in the “economic and biological decline” and “moral and spiritual deterioration.” 4 However, this is not the whole story; there are also signs of regeneration. These signs support the assertion made in Edwardian Fiction: An Oxford Companion (1997) that although an “emphasis on genetic explanations of social and moral behaviour” gave the family saga a “sharper focus,” the Edwardian sagas “extended and refined the downward-spiral plot.” There is a possibility that “decline could be reversed or ameliorated by the exercise of integrity and will-power.”5

Indeed, the potential for the extension and refinement of the “process of decay” narrative is present in the paradoxical meaning of degeneration itself. William Greenslade points to the work of biologist Jean Baptiste Lamarck. Lamarck’s more hopeful prognosis for civilization encouraged social theorists to perceive that “if social behaviour obeyed the laws of natural selection, ‘useful’ social characteristics would survive as would ‘useful’ physiological characteristics.”6

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the term “nerves” was linked to degeneration and used to “explain” the myriad anxieties of European society—concerns about urban decay, the ill health of the nation, the degeneration of the arts. The nervous system was linked to degeneration theory because of its biosocial potentialities and to Lamarck’s use-inheritance model: not only was it structured as a living organism, but it had the ability to detect changes within itself and its environment and to respond to outside stimuli. Subsumed under the aegis of “degeneration” by social commentators such as Max Nordau, the nerves and the nervous system were reduced to pathological categories during the late nineteenth century: the nervous system emerging as an organism that was abused and diseased.7 Common nervous disorders were hysteria and neurasthenia. Popularised by George M. Beard in American Nervousness (1881), neurasthenia had currency on both sides of the Atlantic and encompassed an alarming number of symptoms that ranged from insomnia, fatigue and depression to neuroses...


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pp. 56-78
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