Tuesday, October 07, 2008

John Galsworthy – ‘The Man of Property’

There are certain kinds of story which make for good TV adaptations: novels with large casts of characters, lots of gossip and abundant conflicts of interest (preferably tied in with the differences in attitudes between generations and / or classes) tend to make more satisfying series than more psychological, inward-looking books. Cranford may not be a better novel than Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but it made better autumnal Sunday evening viewing. It was funnier, for one thing. For another, the romantic leads weren’t centre stage, and if you popped to the kitchen to make toast at judicious moments you could just about ignore them. The Man of Property is the first volume of The Forsyte Saga, a trilogy adapted in 1967 for what is presumably the longest, most character- and gossip- packed costume drama the BBC has ever made (terrifyingly, Galsworthy followed the original trilogy with two more). I’ve been watching it, on and off, for most of this year and, having slightly lost track of who is whose cousin, estranged daughter, long lost husband, etc., have ended up reading this as a quick, handy way of getting a summary of the plot.

Before the plot comes the opulent backdrop, a society in which everyone can be categorised as Forsyte or non-Forsyte. Here is young Jolyon expounding the theory on Galsworthy’s behalf to the architect Bosinney:

A ‘Forsyte’ is a man who is decidedly more than less a slave of property. He knows a good thing, he knows a safe thing, and his grip on property – it doesn’t matter whether it be wives, houses, money or reputation – is his hall-mark. [...] It’s their wealth and security that makes everything possible; makes your art possible, makes literature, science, even religion possible. Without Forsytes, who believe in none of these things, but turn them all to use, where should we be? (p. 157)

This is typical of the book’s tone: cynical but rarely one-sided. People with property don’t know what to do with it (other than accumulate it); those with ideas haven’t the resources to carry them through. Only by mixing up Forsytes with non-Forsytes can anything really be achieved. Pure Forsytes are rare: young Jolyon, as an artist who chooses a loving relationship over the propriety of marriage, would seem to disqualify himself several times over, but when an art critic suggests that his watercolours need to be produced in themed batches before they will sell, he manages to work this commercial idea into his artistic vision. ‘All the men who are making great names in Art [...] are making them by avoiding the unexpected’ (p. 196) is the advice, vaguely reminiscent of a recent Damien Hirst radio interview in which he talked about the ‘lines’ of his work – the butterfly collages, the animals in formaldehyde – and how he was thinking of phasing some of them out. Because the idea is done, or because it will increase the value of the existing pieces? Hirst, surely, is a Forsyte.

Though perhaps not quite to the extent of Soames Forsyte, the anti-hero of The Man of Property: a man totally without imagination, wholly consumed by property, unhappily married to a wife he sees as being the star asset in his portfolio – which is to say, he loves her, after his fashion. She loathes him, and the rhyme between the words ‘loathe’ and ‘Soames’ seems a part of the perfection of his name. Irene is often referred to, with cruel irony, as Mrs Soames. From the first chapter:

Soames Forsyte, flat-shouldered, clean-shaven, flat-cheeked, flat-waisted, yet with something round and secret about his whole appearance, looked downwards and aslant at Aunt Ann, as though trying to see through the side of his nose. (p. 12)

This is during the conversation in which the engagement of Soames’ niece June to Bosinney first becomes known. The engagement never gets off the ground: instead, Bosinney and Irene fall in love, and Soames hires Bosinney to build him a grand country house – because he wants a new start, and wants to coax his wife into it by employing someone of whom she approves. This is the position from which the lives of all concerned will disintegrate through the course of the novel: Bosinney ends up over-spending (by relatively little), Soames suing him not so much for breach of contract as because he hates him. It’s an irresistible downward narrative pull, but a little flat in the book when compared to the TV series: Galsworthy’s style is not strong enough to erase Eric Porter’s up tight, infinitely proper performance as Soames. Nor John Welsh’s, as Soames’ grumpy father James. When his son, still in shock, tells him that Irene has left him, he comes out with:

Left you! [...] What d’you mean – left you? You never told me she was going to leave you. (p. 226)

Information is property too, and the fresher it is the more value it has. Isn’t property ridiculous?

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