A critical paper by
The Man of Property is certainly the most popular and probably the best of the score of novels written by John Galsworthy. It was published in 1906 as a stand-alone book, but later expanded into a trilogy. The second and third installments, collectively entitled The Forsyte Saga, were greeted with world-wide acclaim and led to the Nobel Prize for Mr. Galsworthy in 1932.
The Man of Property opens in June 1886, at the gathering of the Forsyte clan, at the home of Old Jolyon, to celebrate the engagement of his granddaughter, June, child of young Jolyon, to the architect Philip Bosinney, an outsider to the clan. Old Jolyon’s nephew, Soames, the thirty-one-year-old successful notary, is the perfect Forsyte. He is wealthy, slender, pale, rather bald, strong chinned, and always impeccably dressed. Moreover, he has, after several vain attempts, married a great beauty, Irene, whom he considers as much his property as his stocks and bonds and the paintings he collects and sometimes sells at great profit.
Irene was only twenty-two at her marriage, the daughter of a poor widowed professor, and she was quite incompatible with her stepmother. She did not love Soames, but yielded to his persistent blandishments partly out of a need for security. Now Soames is sexually frustrated by his wife’s coldness. He finds he cannot fully “possess” her. As if to place her like a jewel in a superbly expensive setting, he commissions Bosinney to build him a mansion at Robin Hill. Irene and the architect fall in love and begin an affair. She denies herself to Soames, who yearns for her all the more.
Convinced that Bosinney is his wife’s lover, Soames decides to take revenge in a material way by bankrupting the architect for exceeding instructions. Eaten alive by his jealousy and sexual longing for the dark-eyed, blond woman whom he believes he owns, Soames one night makes his way into her room, now usually locked to him, but accidentally left open, and forces himself on Irene. He claims his property. Now convinced that she cannot stay with Soames, Irene tells Bosinney what has happened to her. The architect is shocked, stunned, and horrified. Wandering in a London fog, he is run over and killed. Irene returns to Soames “like an animal wounded to death”. Young Jolyon, old Jolyon’s son, fond of Irene, has come to solace her, but Soames slams the door in his face at the novel ends.
The plot is simple and almost flat, given that the only event that is dramatic in the accepted sense is Bosinney’s death. But the story is complex, interrupted by flashbacks, and complicated by the number of characters. There are flaws, such as characters who have nothing to do with the plot, like Mrs. Macander, or others like Old Jolyon who are over-developed. The subplot centered on him takes up too much room.
Much of the characterization in The Man of Property is superb. The Forsyte family lives. Upper middle class life in late Victorian London is displayed in all its glory and misery. Soames is one of the great fictional characters of 20th century English literature. Like Sherlock Holmes, he is a prototype who takes on an existence of his own beyond the confines of the story in which he appears.
June is a well-developed character carefully sketched as she moves in the novel from a state of bliss to a state of pathos. Bosinney the architect we get to know and understand better than we understand Bosinney the lover. Surely he must have foreseen Soames’ rage at the conduct of the two of them. Wasn’t a violent reaction by Soames to be expected? “Who will cast the first stone”, Goethe asks, “Against the married man who, in his first fury, murders his faithless wife and her vile seducer?” Bosinney’s reaction should have been relief that they both weren’t shot rather than despondency over his bankruptcy and her mistreatment.
Irene moves like a vision through the novel. Galsworthy deliberately presents her with no clear personality of her own. She is seen and sensed by us only through other characters and the observations of those characters are impacted by their family and class values. Ultimately, then, Galsworthy leaves it to the reader to determine just what kind of a person she was.
Who was this Irene? Surely not the Angel of the House, the docile female guarding the hearth, engrossed in child care and busy domesticity while her husband is out struggling in the wicked world of business and politics. Rather she is lazy, bored and indolent until her long-repressed libido is wakened by a new man on the scene. Then she stops at nothing, trampling husband, clan and best friend, to get what she wants. Was will das weib?, Freud asked, what does the woman want?
The answer, I suppose, depends on who that woman is. The characters in the novel, save Bosinney, view Irene’s erotic impulses not as a sign of her humanity but of her essential wickedness. Corrupted, she is also the great corruptor, the supreme source of sin. She is the descendant of Eve, who in league with Satan, seduced Adam and drove mankind out of paradise.
I liked The Man of Property although I recognize that statement as the shallowest form of literary criticism and one that probably should not even be uttered in proceedings like these. But I do so only to underscore the point that not everyone shares my view.
Virginia Woolf didn’t care much for Galsworthy, whom she considered “a stuffed shirt,” and didn’t much like his novels. In her essays and lectures she cited what she called his sleek, smooth novels as examples of all that was dated and dead in English literature. She considered Galsworthy a materialist who focused on the outward appearances of his characters rather than on their minds. To Ms. Woolf the cultural and literary world had moved forward with Roger Fry’s Post Impressionist Show of 1910 and novelists must leave the externals and describe the mysterious interior of the human character.
The problem with her approach, and I think it also applies to Forster, Lawrence and others, is that human beings don’t really function that way. Character appraisal is an innate human trait – a necessary one for survival, infants are born with it. But we are programmed to appraise character mainly on external appearances – by what the person does and says – rather than by what is actually going on in his head. And to the extent that Galsworthy forces us to deduce the mental state of his characters by their appearances, words and actions, we are mirroring life and I think his novel thereby becomes more realistic.
Largely because of Ms. Woolf’s criticism which was echoed by her admirers (D. H. Lawrence for instance called the novel “One great fake”), Galsworthy’s reputation declined following his death. But lately there is a rebirth of admiration for his writing. His depiction of Edwardian society was both authentic and current. Galsworthy was born into the British upper middle class and he knew and believed in its values – respect for tradition, love of the countryside, fair play, support of the underdog, integrity in all human affairs, comity between the sexes and the code of the gentleman. He also knew and deplored society’s defects – crass materialism, over-possessiveness, aloofness, indifference, snobbery and philistinism. He portrayed all of the Edwardian characteristics with sympathy or satire. And he did it with a deft hand.
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