John Galsworthy’s Life and Art: An Alien’s Fortress 
by James Gindin.
Macmillan, 616 pp., £35, March 1987, 0 333 40812 8
Show More
Show More

The Life and Letters of John Galsworthy by H.V. Marrot appeared at the end of 1935, not quite three years after its subject’s death, and must be one of the very last examples of what was by that time a gravely endangered species. In the preface to Eminent Victorians Strachey had wittily mocked the solemn pretensions of the Victorian and Edwardian monumental biography, ponderously discreet as an old-fashioned manservant: but 17 years later Marrot found it still possible to produce a work of unblushing hagiography. To be fair, he makes no secret of his hero-worship, or of the fact that his work, in accordance with Victorian ground-rules, has been closely overseen by the great man’s widow. The significant thing, though, is that Marrot’s generation (his book was widely read and instantly reprinted) retained a faith in the writer not just as hero but as a kind of secular saint. Recalling the mild furore a few years ago over Robert Gittings’s life of Hardy, with its intimations that the great advocate of loving-kindness could be snobbish and mean-spirited, severe with his servants and a brute to his wife, one is bound to reflect that even today the faith is not quite extinguished, and that there are readers who still expect the lives of great men to remind us, if not that we can make our own sublime, at any rate that sublimity is possible.

If Marrot’s biography has an old-fashioned flavour even for its period, this may be partly because Galsworthy himself was, long before his death, an uneasy survivor from a vanished age. Younger than Conrad or Yeats or Kipling, his mind and outlook seem fixed, as theirs do not, in an epoch that itself did not survive his prime – and this in spite of the reputation he enjoyed, in his heyday, as an enlightened propagandist. Half a century on, the main pleasure of Marrot’s book is in the photographs it plentifully reproduces, which sometimes seem to have caught random but symbolic moments and exude the atmosphere of Galsworthy’s comfortable middle-class background: the large houses with mahogany furniture and deep carpets and silent servants; the heavy meals starting with brown Windsor soup and ending with Cabinet pudding; broadcloth and tweed, shooting and croquet and tennis, and holidays in huge hotels in Torquay or the South of France. There is a splendidly evocative picture of Galsworthy ‘in his Oxford rooms’ with a chum, ‘studying racing form at breakfast’ while a servant hovers against the dark wallpaper.

All this, with Harrow, Lincoln’s Inn and a private income, went to the making of Galsworthy, and neither Conrad nor Yeats nor Kipling – nor for that matter any of the writers of his period who still enjoy any kind of currency, not excluding Forster – had a background that resembled it, in its privileges and its limitations, its apparent freedom and the actual thoroughness of its conditioning. In an age when to be a serious writer it was necessary to be an outsider (and if not actually a Pole or an American or an Irishman, at any rate a miner’s son or a homosexual or a woman), Galsworthy stood almost alone in representing the constituency of the philistine bourgeois, a Wilcox rather than a Schlegel or even a Leonard Bast.

Or so it can easily seem. James Gindin, however, seeing the case in quite another light, challengingly subtitles his biography ‘An Alien’s Fortress’ and suggests at the outset that, despite appearances, Galsworthy had his full share of the discontent and the divided mind needed to make him an artist: ‘behind Galsworthy’s public stance’ lay ‘complexity and uneasiness’, behind the smooth assurance he was ‘incessantly uncomfortable’ about himself. Social and artistic self-doubt seem to have been curiously mingled. He confessed near the end of his life that he had ‘never been part and parcel of the England he has loved’; told Ford Madox Ford (if the latter, so often untrustworthy, is to be believed) that he had never been ‘absolutely in the inner circle’ of society; insisted to Harley Granville-Barker that he knew he would never be able to live up to his friend’s high opinion of him; doubted that he would ‘ever be a writer worthy of the name’. The picture that emerges from this latest biography is thus a very different one from that of the authorised, official life of half a century ago. The life and letters tradition, which incorporated into its narrative large quantities of the subject’s own versions of events, often permitted the dead writer to take charge (as Dickens, exuberant and bossy even from beyond the grave, does in Forster’s life), and relegates the biographer to the role of tactful compère. Gindin has given us that un-Victorian thing, a critical biography, in which the modern scholar-critic, scrupulous and sceptical, is in charge throughout. Though he has chosen a subject with his own initials, he evinces an admirable detachment and is candid and fair-minded. He believes Galsworthy to deserve serious attention but does not seek to hide or excuse his defects and makes none of the excessive claims to which rehabilitators, with their litany of ‘strangely neglected’ and ‘curiously misunderstood’, are prone. His book carries not a whiff of the odour of sanctity; at times, indeed, this is a portrait with warts the size of wens, as when we are told that Galsworthy’s public statements about literature in his later years were often ‘bland, obvious, diffident, petulant or undiscerning, very seldom anchored to any penetrating idea or emotion’.

Galsworthy spent thirty years tracing his family history, and Marrot’s volume begins, orthodoxly, with a pull-out family tree that goes back to an Elizabethan Galsworthy or Galsworthie. He also adopted a changed pronunciation of his surname, abandoning the short ‘a’ current in his family in favour of making the first syllable sound like ‘Gaul’. Pointing out that in Early Medieval England ‘Gaul’ was the equivalent of ‘stranger’ or ‘alien’, Gindin sees this as a symbolic declaration of independence from family ties: but perhaps Galsworthy also reflected that, while kind hearts and simple faith were excellent things in their way, a hint of Norman blood would do no harm. Like Joyce, writing obsessively about the Ireland he had quitted, he achieved fame as a chronicler of the family, the institution from which he fought a long campaign to escape. Slightly inconsistently, he married, after a long adulterous affair, his cousin’s wife, which might sound like the expression of a deeply felt need to keep things in the family at all costs.

Gindin notes acutely that as a young man Galsworthy was ‘paralysed by a division between what he observed and what he felt he was expected to be’; and if there is a cluster of metaphors evident throughout this long book it is one of paralysis, stiffness, rigidity. The theory certainly accounts for the restless years during which he seemed to be in search of an identity as well as an occupation, and for his comparatively late start as a writer. Agnes Sanderson, sister of a Harrovian friend, later described the London home of Galsworthy’s parents in a devastating vignette that makes one want to know more about her: ‘the atmosphere of Victorian propriety, the dumb immaculate servants, the low flannelety Galsworthyian voices, killed all life in us.’ She also recalled Galsworthy’s mother going over the carpet with a dust-pan and brush, ‘sweeping up [a visitor’s] footmarks’ – a touch of Dickensian felicity evoking that roughly contemporary Victorian household, the Veneerings, and suggesting what a price could be exacted in emotional and spiritual terms for the social reassurance of a flawless surface.

His travels as a young man, to Canada, to Russia, to Australia and New Zealand and the South Seas, sound like an escape, but were actually part of a paternal master-plan to turn him into a maritime lawyer. Sailing from Adelaide on the Torrens in 1893, he became acquainted with the first mate, a foreigner named Jozef Korzeniowski who had recently begun to sign himself Joseph Conrad. Galsworthy, in the dialect of his tribe, noted that the bearded foreigner was ‘a capital chap, though queer to look at’, and had ‘a fund of yarns’. They later became lifelong friends, and Galsworthy’s essay on Conrad, included in his last collection, Castles in Spain, has some shrewd insights.

By the mid-Nineties he was nearly thirty and, ‘locked in a kind of benevolent paralysis’, as Gindin puts it, showed no sign of becoming a writer – and must indeed have seemed a very unlikely candidate for such a metamorphosis. Encased in the conventions of his class, he might have been regarded as almost the last person to become one of those writer chaps. Most biographers accept un-questioningly the act, surely a very unlikely one more often than not, by which a man or woman turns to authorship. In Galsworthy’s case, rather exceptionally, the precipitating cause can be assigned, like a proposal of marriage, to a particular time and place. It was at the Gare du Nord in Paris, just after Easter 1895, that Ada, his cousin’s wife, said to him: ‘You are just the person to write. Why don’t you?’ Later in the year they became lovers, though a decade was to pass before she obtained a divorce and they could marry: it is not clear whether Galsworthy could not bear to break his father’s heart, or could not bear to lose the income allowed him by the patriarch.

There cannot be much doubt that the secret affair nourished his other secret activity, his first attempts at writing. He might have been expected to seek the advice of Conrad, who was by now a close friend and whose own early work had begun to appear: but in 1897, when Galsworthy’s first volume was on the point of publication, Conrad remarked that ‘the sly dog never told me he wrote.’ It seems entirely in keeping that Galsworthy’s first books should have been published under a pseudonym; also that the subject of his first novel should have been adultery and guilt. It was only by transgressing the code of his family and his class that he could become a writer. During these years he showed signs of making a conscious effort to create a new identity – giving up shooting, shaving off his moustache, cultivating friendships with writers such as Conrad and Ford, attending literary dinners in Soho restaurants, and espousing unlikely causes (such as opposing the Boer War). Gindin, who has an acute ear for the tell-tale phrase, quotes Edward Garnett’s recollection of Galsworthy remarking in 1900: ‘I’m not such a fool as I seem.’

Again, the chronological context of his first important work of fiction is suggestive: his father died in December 1904; he married Ada in September 1905; and The Man of Property appeared in March 1906. Even before that date, as soon as the proofs of the novel had been corrected, he sat down and wrote, in six weeks, his first completed play, The Silver Box. It was a notable success in the theatre, the Prince and Princess of Wales attending the final performance; and it was soon being staged in Germany and Russia. Within a year or two Galsworthy’s name was linked with those of Shaw and Granville-Barker and he was being regarded as a shining light of the ‘new drama’, a sort of Edwardian John Osborne, and was joining in the controversy about the licensing of plays by the Lord Chamberlain’s office, a foreshadowing of the direction his energies would take in his later years.

There followed, in rapid succession, a long list of novels and plays, mostly now unread and hardly familiar even as titles to modern readers. As early as 1907 he engaged the services of the famous J.B. Pinker as his literary agent, and Gindin furnishes some interesting details of the economics of Edwardian and Georgian authorship. In 1907, Pinker was asking the editor of an American magazine, unsuccessfully, for three guineas a thousand words; by 1919 the asking price, which he obtained, was 30 pounds, with the English rate exactly half.

But Galsworthy’s price was not the only thing that was changing during these years, and, having made his one unpredictable leap into authorship, he lacked the capacity to adapt, as a writer and as a man, to a world that was undergoing transformation. He regarded Modernism and its practitioners in the spirit – and spoke of them almost in the language – in which the residents of Cheltenham or Harrogate might have responded to the younger generation. When he met D.H. Lawrence he wrote in his diary: ‘Lunched with Pinker to meet D.H. Lawrence, that provincial genius. Interesting, but a type I could not get on with. Obsessed with self. Dead eyes, and a red beard, long narrow pale face. A strange bird.’ Hardy, a little earlier, had offered less of a challenge to his own conventionality: ‘Nice, dried up, alert old fellow; liked him.’ Having read Sons and Lovers, he observed severely – and a trifle oddly for one who had devoted ten years to adultery – that ‘the body’s never worth while, and the sooner Lawrence recognises that the better.’ He predicted that experimental writing in fiction would ‘peter out’ and that ‘by 1960 the only surviving novels will be those with character and story.’ And he could lack the courage even of such convictions as he possessed: when Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness appeared, he confessed great admiration in private but declined to write a preface or to come forward in its defence when it was the subject of a prosecution. He was lucky to be spared the knowledge that the most widely-read novel of 1960 was the unexpurgated Lady Chatterley’s Lover by that strange bird D.H. Lawrence.

Almost imperceptibly, the youngish writer whose work had stirred the social conscience of the middle class had become an old fogey. The stream of publications continued, but after the Great War Galsworthy came to fill more and more successfully the role of smiling public man, and that of a semi-official spokesman for the literary profession. In 1920 he became Vice-President of the newly-founded International PEN Club, whose only begetter, Mrs Dawson-Scott, ‘was convinced that both his manner and his reputation’ made him the best man for the job. One quite sees why she didn’t offer it to, say, Conrad or Lawrence. No doubt Galsworthy’s famous aplomb was a prime qualification for these offices (Barrie told the story of his being pitched out of a hansom cab in a collision and flying through the air ‘as gracefully as if he were leaving his card’), but it is not easy to know how much of his stance derived from judiciousness and consummate diplomacy and how much from a failure to grasp the issues involved or from a simple fear of giving something away. Barrie, again, said that ‘he would go to the stake for his opinions but would go courteously raising his hat’; David Garnett found him ‘rather rigid with good intentions’; others said that he never saw a joke and could not bear to lose at croquet. The generous impulses were certainly there, but tended to take predictable forms: faced with suffering, he reached for his chequebook, or for his pen in order to write a letter to the Times. Harold Laski registered a refreshing impatience with so much conscious virtue, cupboards apparently so empty of skeletons: ‘In person, he is so pure, so high-minded, and so humanitarian that I wanted to shout for the Folies Bergère or the Liaisons Dangereuses or anything that might indicate spots on the linen.’

In his last decade there were signs of fatigue and ageing. Yet the words continued to pour lucratively forth, and the honours poured in. His later novels, now forgotten, were great popular successes: The White Monkey sold nearly 35,000 in the month after publication, a personal record, while Swan Song sold 57,000 in America in its first month. For 1931-32, in the middle of the Depression, he paid over £21,000 in income tax and surtax. The younger generation may have been knocking at his door, but the noise was drowned by the clamour of official plaudits. Galsworthy refused a knighthood from Lloyd George but accepted a string of honorary degrees, the Order of Merit in 1929 (perhaps filling the vacancy created by Hardy’s death in the previous year), and, near the end of his life, the Nobel Prize. His life-style remained impeccably conventional: the well-run country-house, and its master, like a Famous Author in a work of popular fiction, riding in the morning and then retiring to his study to work in an atmosphere of books, leather and furniture-polish. Gindin quotes some shrewd and faintly malicious observations by Hugh Walpole on a visit to the Galsworthys’ Sussex home: ‘everything artistic, Liberty fashion and a little beyond it. Very like a special edition of one of John’s own books.’

But the prose and verse penned in the upstairs study have proved all too perishable, the ‘not to be used after’ label hardly postdating the writer’s death. Gindin says, of Galsworthy’s visits to the United States, that he ‘seemed to fall most easily into clichés whenever he wrote about America’: but falling into clichés was never a difficult feat for him, even when he was writing about the Great War. What was lacking was not the proper responses, for he seems to have felt like any decent man of his own type and class, but any individual angle on experience (like Hardy’s wish to see a room from a mouse’s point of view), and any capacity for remaking the language, or even any sense that this is what a writer might be expected to do.

So he remains a textbook example of fame without staying-power, talent without genius. He has never gatecrashed the canon or gained admission to the lecture-lists or the pantheon of set texts, never been the spoiled darling of thesis-writers or conference-organisers. Tens of thousands read him in his day, but the modern young have scarcely heard his name except in connection with soap opera.

The doubts about what his life’s work amounted to made themselves heard almost before his corpse was cold. J.C. Squire’s obituary in the London Mercury suggested that ‘if he did not deserve the OM as an artist he deserved it as a servant of humanity and a promoter of understanding between nations, and, in particular, between the intellectuals of all nations. He was a saint and one of very sweet nature; his status as an author is another matter.’ If Galsworthy’s Nobel Prize speech, written when he was dying and never delivered, is anything to go by, he seems to have anticipated these reservations; and Gindin’s portrait of him as a disappointed man, unsatisfied by the public honours, carries conviction. Perhaps he even foresaw that the Dean would refuse the request for burial in the Abbey: instead, his ashes were scattered to the winds, efficiently and expensively, by an aeroplane flying over the South Downs.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences