P.N. Furbank

  • John Galsworthy: A Reassessment by Alec Fréchet, translated by Denis Mahaffey
    Macmillan, 229 pp, £20.00, January 1983, ISBN 0 333 31535 9

The Edwardians, it is well known, were great worriers. If it was not the national physique or the Teuton menace they were worrying about, it was the ‘warped vitality’ of Bank Holiday crowds, or it was bicycling. I have always been rather struck by the warning against bicycling issued by the Liberal historian R.C.K. Ensor: ‘The nervous craving of modern people for soulless and thoughtless exhilaration sufficiently explains its deplorable vogue, which will last until the stronger natures set a saner example.’ Galsworthy was supremely such a worrier. Alec Fréchet, in his new study of Galsworthy, writes of how ‘his uneasy temperament forced on him a moral obligation to write, as pressing a motive as poverty, the driving force behind so many men of letters.’ He seems to have believed that simply by worrying you did good. It was well said of him by Samuel Hynes, in The Edwardian Turn of Mind, that ‘when he brought injustice into a story, he did so in a way that was neither objective nor didactic but simply emotional; and his motive in doing so was not the alleviation of injustice but the alleviation of emotion.’ Another remark of Hynes’s, also to the point, was prompted by Galsworthy’s Commentary, a collection of essays: it displayed ‘certain attitudes which one must assume were Liberal – a removed superiority of attitude and an inability to reach conclusions.’

Altruism and earnestness must count for something, of course, and one can respect Galsworthy for them. Still, if I too were the worrying type, something that would make me anxious is the fact that his novels still sell in hundreds of thousands (940,000 copies of The Forsyte Saga sold in Germany between 1972 and 1973); and not only that – they are, by some critics at least, still taken seriously.

The explanation, as we know, lies in television; and here something in the worrying line does seem called for. Can it really be quite right for the Nation to be hunched over soap-operas attributed to Trollope, Evelyn Waugh and Galsworthy? And how shall we account for it? Part of the answer is that, some time during the century, a fatal discovery was made, with a resemblance to the adoption of monosodium glutamate in cookery. I mean the discovery that if, while witnessing bunk, you are also subliminally overhearing slow movements by Mahler or Elgar, the bunk becomes inexplicably poignant and impressive. It is this that does so much to equalise bunk derived from distinguished classic authors (highly enjoyable sometimes) and bunk produced specially for the medium. It is an awful thing to do to music, though: to make it short-circuit the conscious mind and turn it into a quasi-physical stimulus, like spraying perfume in a cinema. By this one barbarous gesture television renounces connection with serious art. Brideshead Revisited was a curious experience, for the music (admittedly not classical but modern) eventually broke the convention. For an episode or two all proceeded normally, and something not too closely related to Waugh made quite an impact: the love of Charles for Sebastian proved quite touching. Then that clamorous and cunning ‘background’ tune, which told its little story so often and so loud, did it once too often or too loud and we began to listen to it. We were made aware how much television drama, like cinema, is essentially a musical form. And at this point I burst out laughing.

The television genre we are discussing first really captured the public with The Forsyte Saga and there is an aptness in this, in that Galsworthy’s technique as a novelist depends on a trick or device closely akin to ‘background music’. Many novelists in the past have grown sentimental about their own created characters and convey the affection to us and ask us to share it: but their first step has been to create the characters. Galsworthy works in a more direct way: he begins from the sentimental feelings he wants us to have towards his characters. He forces upon us right from the start the sort of feelings towards them that one might have thought could only spring from long familiarity. To take an example: June Forsyte is built up almost entirely from one or two such affectionate phrases as ‘her small decided hands’ (‘she had come back to Robin Hill on her stepmother’s death, and gathered the reins there into her small decided hands’). The trick is economical, for once the author has bounced us into premature intimacy with June, he need do no more work on her. Are we, the readers, not her friends? What further need for him to realise her imaginatively: we can do it for ourselves.

The kinship is very close between such a phrase as ‘her small capacious hands’ and background music, which aims at the same fraudulent familiarity. We think we are freely responding to something on the screen, when in fact our feelings have been dictated to us subliminally by music: by musical repetitions which, quickly, persuade us that these are our dear family and friends – whom we shall be meeting again next week at the same time.

Something similar must be said about Galsworthy’s sociological pretensions. We are told by him time and time again about ‘the Forsyte jaw’, ‘the Forsyte spirit’ and about the grand theme of the ‘upper-middle-classes’ in their grandeur and in their decadence; and gradually the mere saying of the words persuades us that something sociological must have been done – done while we were not watching, instead of by the all too visible labours of a Balzac or a Dickens. It is strange that Virginia Woolf should have accused Galsworthy of too much solidity: he seems, on the contrary, the least solid of writers – a writer of almost gossamer lightness. He can do you clothes and interior decoration, but his reach as social historian does not seem to extend much further.

We may generalise. The reason Edwardian Liberal thinkers were not more effective (and I’m not saying that they were entirely ineffective) was not ignorance or lack of good will but the result of a defect in the organ of vision. They were, owing to some inhibition, not good at seeing with any accuracy: it was with very good reason that those ‘other Edwardians’, Joyce, Pound and Ford Madox Ford, made such a clamour about ‘constatation’ and ‘direct treatment of the object’.

Let us come back to Galsworthy’s intellectual outlook. He said himself that ‘The Patrician, like The Man of Property, The Country House and Fraternity, is simply the criticism of one half of myself by another.’ Self-division on an artist’s part can, as we know, be a great engine for creativity. It was so with Flaubert and with Dostoevsky. But with Galsworthy the wires seem to have been fitted the wrong way, and the expected current does not flow. They have been fitted on the plan of getting things both ways: that he should be the perfect English gentleman and ‘man of property’ but enjoy an added kudos from saying rude things about his own ‘class’. It is a self-flattering arrangement, by which each side of the personality congratulates the other.

Alec Fréchet has a good phrase about Galsworthy’s ‘frantic sincerity’: nevertheless he asserts rightly that Galsworthy was not essentially interested in moral problems. ‘Throughout the novels there is not a single person governed and fired by moral preoccupations, just as there is not a single real criminal.’ His chosen stance, with some gesture towards Turgenev, was unjudging and ‘elegiac’, very much au-dessus-de-la-mêlée. But this raises the question: if the novels are not didactic, how can he justify their periodic unkindness? In the name of what ideal or value does Galsworthy adopt such a savage ‘superiority’ of tone? It might be quite proper in a novel of didactic intention, for reformers and satirists have a licence to be cruel, but in a professedly all-understanding and ‘elegiac’ novel it suggests merely an insane misanthropy. Indeed it is in the reputedly reassuring novels of Galsworthy and Bennett, rather than those of Kafka or Musil, that we encounter from time to time real ‘blackness’. I do not mean that Galsworthy or Bennett were bad chaps, for I suppose they were rather nice ones, merely that the middle-of-the-road novel is no innocent affair but one teeming with ethical obliquities.

Professor Fréchet’s study was originally a doctoral thesis, and his sponsor Professor Raymond Las Vergnas calls it ‘eminently representative of what may be called the School of French Anglicists’ and praises its ‘strongly architectural construction, and a constant discipline of elucidation’. It is a distinctly old-fashioned book, rather too inclined to list and enumerate: Galsworthy’s ‘landscapes are inhabited by domestic animals, dogs and horses, and cattle, and by wild animals, mainly birds. There are also bees, and sometimes moths.’ This method pays off, though, at one point, when Fréchet ‘draws a portrait of the Galsworthy hero’. It runs, this time I think with a touch of deliberate irony:

He is often mature in age ... Reserved, even taciturn, his hero is neither a real man of action nor a real man of thought ... He faces few practical problems. In most cases, his means relieve him of such considerations. Otherwise, his temperament allows him to override or elude them ... If importuned, he takes his leave. If he finds life tedious, he goes round the world.

It must be said, though, that Fréchet is too much the sort of reader that Galsworthy depended on – I mean the kind who takes things at face value or the will for the deed. He writes: ‘some brief quotations will show the absurdity of describing his characters as “asexual”. In The Country House, he writes of George Pendyce: “With the eye of his mind he saw a long procession of turf triumphs, a long vista of days and nights, and in them, round them, of them – Helen Bellew.” ’ I do not know who it was that said that Galsworthy’s characters were ‘asexual’, but whoever it was, he or she would not consider this an answer.