The Forsyte Saga: The Book and the Adaptations

When I finally set out to read The Forsyte Saga, a collection of three novels by John Galsworthy, I expected it to be entertaining and mildly thought-provoking, but something easily forgotten as soon as the last page is read and the book is placed upon the shelf.  Instead, I found the book to be a little creepy, but in a persistently disturbing way, so that my thoughts keep returning to it.

The theme of the first novel, The Man of Property, is completely revealed in its title, and Soames Forsyte is the man.  Unfortunately, among the many things he regards as his property is his wife, Irene.  This might not be so bad were it not for the fact she had an intense disliking for him from the very first.  When he impulsively kissed her arm one evening, she shuddered with revulsion.  Soames noticed this shudder, but he persisted in asking her to marry him.  Eventually she agreed, thinking she could stand it, but after they were married for a while, she finds Soames to be so repulsive to her physically that she asks for her own bedroom, by which it is understood that they will no longer be having sex.

So, why did Irene marry a man for whom she had such a powerful disliking?  The book gives us only a hint as to the answer, covered briefly in the space of a couple of pages.  It tells us that Irene’s stepmother, Mrs. Heron, was anxious to get Irene married off for two reasons:  First, she cost Mrs. Heron more than the fifty pounds a year that Irene’s father had left her.  Second, Mrs. Heron was anxious to get married again, and the men she hoped might propose to her kept being distracted by her beautiful stepdaughter.  As a result, Soames was able to enlist Mrs. Heron’s cooperation in courting Irene.  Nevertheless, these are not sufficient reasons for a woman to marry a man that repulsed her, and the novel tells us that Soames never could figure out why Irene did finally consent to marry him.  It should be noted that between Irene’s fifty pounds a year and the money she could earn giving piano lessons, there was no need for her to marry anyone.

Apparently, the various people who decided to adapt The Forsyte Saga found it as disturbing as I do that Irene would be willing to marry a man for whom she has such a strong, visceral aversion.  In That Forsyte Woman (1949), which is mostly an adaptation of The Man of Property, Irene’s revulsion for Soames before she marries him is suppressed. Instead, she is portrayed as making the mistake of marrying a man she didn’t love and then regretting it afterwards.  In other words, it is easy to understand a woman’s making that mistake, so the movie is essentially making excuses for Irene.

In the 1967 television mini-series, Mrs. Heron has a prospective suitor for herself.  He is a lecher, and he gives Irene to understand that she is the real object of his sexual desires, which he intends to pursue once he has married Mrs. Heron.  This would certainly explain why Irene would marry Soames as a way of getting away from her future stepfather.  But there is no such character or situation in the book.

In the 2002 television mini-series, the two reasons given in the novel as to why Mrs. Heron would like to see Irene married are adhered to, so it comes closest to being a faithful adaptation on this point.  However, both reasons are dramatized and given more intensity than is indicated in the book.  In particular, Mrs. Heron acts as though her financial situation is desperate, owing to her need to support her stepdaughter, whereas in the book, there is no indication that having to support Irene is an inordinate burden.  And there is also a scene in which Mrs. Heron becomes furious when the man she was hoping would propose to her expresses an interest in marrying Irene instead, following which she tells Irene she will not support her for another year.  Irene replies that she cannot support herself on her own, though that is exactly what she does do later on.  In other words, this adaptation is consistent with the book on this point, but takes pains to make explicit what the novel only suggests.

The point is that each of these three adaptations is determined to make Irene a sympathetic character, whereas the book leaves us a little perplexed as to why Irene ever consented to marry Soames.  Furthermore, the 2002 adaptation portrays Soames as being more vehement and angry than in the book, at one point almost maniacal, as if to make Irene a more sympathetic character by virtue of her being terrified of his scary behavior.  In fact, the entire mini-series becomes increasingly maniacal, with people yelling and getting physical in a way that never occurred in the book.  The 1967 adaptation, which includes material from the sequels as well, is more faithful to Soames’s character in this regard.  He is still an unpleasant fellow who raped his wife, but this earlier version is content to allow Soames a bit more self-restraint, much as he is portrayed in the book. And Irene is not afraid of Soames in that version or in the book, but merely filled with revulsion at the thought of him. In fact, with the exception of the bit about the man who intended to marry Irene’s stepmother, the 1967 is far more faithful to the book than is the 2002 version, which really takes liberties with the story. On the other hand, That Forsyte Woman has one thing the two mini-series do not: star quality.  Actors Errol Flynn, Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, and Janet Leigh give this movie a vitality that the television mini-series seem to lack by comparison.  But let us now set these adaptations aside and consider only the book from here on.

Irene has a friend named June Forsyte, who is the daughter of Soames’s cousin, and a woman whom Soames dislikes, for he suspects she puts ideas into Irene’s head. To get her away from June and other such people, he decides to build a house in the country where he can have Irene all to himself. Then it would be just the two of them, side by side.  And this at a time when there was no such thing as television!

Soames hires Philip Bosinney to build the house for him.  Bosinney is an architect, and the fiancé of June.  Boy, if that is not asking for trouble!  When it comes to business, I always prefer to deal with strangers.  You may think you are going to get first class work at bargain rates when doing business with friends and family, but as often as not, there is a misunderstanding that leads to grief, and thus it is in the novel as well.

To make matters worse, Irene and Bosinney fall in love and have an affair. Soames suspects as much, which only adds to his frustration at being estranged from his wife, and so one night he decides to exercise his conjugal rights by force.  In short, he rapes Irene.  (Note:  In That Forsyte Woman, Soames does not rape Irene, but only slaps her.) Now, Soames is a bit of a stuffed shirt and not very likeable, but we do not expect something like this. The result of this violation is that whereas before, Irene had merely been repulsed, now she is thoroughly devastated.  Soames feels guilty and ashamed, but at the same time, he believes he was in his rights, and that Irene was just being unreasonable.  When Bosinney finds out about it, he becomes so distracted that he walks into the path of a carriage and is run over and killed.

It is interesting to observe that in this novel, which is written by a man, a man rapes his wife and traumatizes her, whereas in Gone With the Wind, which is written by a woman, a man rapes his wife, and it is just what she needs, satisfying lusts she never knew she had.  You would think it would be the other way around.

Irene leaves Soames, and years later they get a divorce.  She then marries “young Jolyon,” June’s father.  Speaking as a man, if my best friend had an affair with my fiancée, and then after she died, he proceeded to marry my mother, no one in my family would ever see me again.  So, this must have been pretty rough on June, but she manages to hold up reasonably well.  In any event, Jolyon and Irene end up living in the house out in the country that Bosinney had built for Soames, just the two of them, side by side.  And still, television had not yet been invented. However, this marriage turns out to be idyllic.  They eventually have a child, whom they name “Jon.”  Soames remarries, hoping to have a boy, but his wife has a girl instead, after which she can no longer have children.  They name her “Fleur.”

When they grow up, Fleur and Jon meet and fall in love.  So we have a Romeo and Juliet story, in which the two feuding families are two main branches of the Forsyte family, that of Soames and that of Jolyon.  Both sides of the family try to keep them apart, but at the behest of his daughter, Soames visits Irene and assures her that if their children marry, she need have no fear of having to meet him again socially.  He promises her that whatever else happens, she will never have to see him again.  He offers to shake hands, but she refuses. It is here that my sentiments begin to change. In the beginning, Soames comes across as a monster, while Irene is a sympathetic victim. But by this point, I find myself feeling a bit sorry for Soames, while Irene is beginning to make me feel uneasy.

Since this is a Romeo and Juliet story, I expected Jon and Fleur to marry or die trying. Instead, we have a very different outcome.  Jolyon writes his son a letter, in which he explains why he and Irene object so strenuously to his marrying Fleur.  He tells Jon that if he marries Fleur, it will “utterly destroy your mother’s happiness,” that it will be a “nightmare,” causing her “pain and humiliation,” and whatever children Jon and Fleur have, they will be a constant reminder of the “horror and aversion” that she can never forget. And in the end, since Jolyon knows he will soon die from a bad heart, he tells Jon that his mother would be all alone.  As for the part about Irene’s being all alone, I guess that is what happens when you betray your best friend, marry her father, and then move out to the country, where you practically never see anyone but your husband, your son, and the maid.

The result is that Jon breaks off his engagement with Fleur, and subsequently buys some land in British Columbia where he and his mother can live, just the two of them, side by side.  He says in a letter that he thought about moving to California, but it is too nice there. This is supposed to be a joke, but that is the only reason given in the book.  In other words, Jon and Irene could have moved to, say, San Diego, where Irene could get out and make some friends, or, since friendship does not seem to be her thing, at least she could socialize and find some activities she might enjoy.  Instead, Jon buys a farm in a part of the world where they are likely to be snowed in six months out of the year. And they wouldn’t even have television!

If this situation between Jon and his mother seems a little strange, it is made all the more so by the oedipal adumbrations in Jon’s youth.  As a child, he tells his mother that he does not want to go to school:  “I want to stay with you, and be your lover, Mum.”  And this is followed by a protracted scene in which Jon, finding out that his father will not be in his mother’s room that night, asks if he can sleep with her.  All right, I know that children sometimes sleep with their parents, although it was never something I wanted to do.  And I know that little boys sometimes say they want to marry their mothers.  But real life is one thing, and novels are another.  John Galsworthy would not have written these scenes into the novel if they were not important.  At the very least, Jon is a mama’s boy, something Fleur clearly sees when she tells Jon he is tied to his mother’s apron strings; for Fleur was ready to get married anyway, their parents’ problems be damned. Knowing how Irene betrayed June, Fleur regards Jon’s mother as someone who will not hesitate to destroy the lives of others, and I’m inclined to agree with her.  But in the end, Fleur is defeated.

So Jon and his mother live happily ever after.  Well, not quite, because Galsworthy wrote another trilogy years later, in which Jon and Irene move to North Carolina, where Jon finally gets married, almost as if Galsworthy realized what he had written in the first trilogy, and then came to regret it. A lot of readers, me included, have been bemused by the fact that Jolyon, who was appalled at the idea of Soames’s attitude that a wife was the property of her husband, and Irene, who was the victim of that attitude, should end up enslaving their son to his mother.  In the preface to the first trilogy, Galsworthy makes the following remark:  “A criticism one might pass on the last phase of the Saga is the complaint that Irene and Jolyon, those rebels against property—claim spiritual property in their son Jon. But it would be hypercriticism, as the tale is told.”  He points out that Irene said to Jon, “Don’t think of me, think of yourself!”  But she approved the letter her husband wrote to Jon, and that single sentence, especially in the way she says it, is more likely to augment Jon’s feelings of guilt than diminish them.  Today we would call it being passive-aggressive.

There is a theory in literary criticism that rejects authorial intent as being the final word concerning the meaning of a novel.  I never paid much attention to that theory until now, but here it seems especially apt. Galsworthy may deny that Jon’s parents have enslaved him, and he may have subsequently tried to undo the oedipal implications in the first trilogy, but at the expense of being charged with “hypercriticism,” I think it is there in the way “the tale is told.”

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