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“In the Twentieth Century, and the Heart of Civilisation”: The London of the Forsytes

Nick Hubble


<1> The title of this essay is taken from the fifth volume of The Forsyte Saga (1906-1933), The Silver Spoon (1926) and a passage in which Soames Forsyte’s reformist Tory son-in-law, Michael Mont is on his way back from dining out in the midst of a great fog:

Their cab had come to a standstill. Michael let down the window again.
‘I’m fair lost, sir,’ said the driver’s hoarse voice. ‘Ought to be near the Embankment, but for the life of me I can’t find the turning.’ Michael buttoned his coat, put up the window again, and got out on the near side.
The night was smothered, alive only with the continual hootings of creeping cars. The black vapour, acrid and cold, surged into Michael’s lungs.
‘I’ll walk beside you; we’re against the kerb; creep on till we strike the river, or a bobby.’
The car crept on, and Michael walked beside it, feeling with his foot for the kerb.
The refined voice of an invisible man said: ‘This is sanguinary!’
‘It is,’ said Michael. ‘Where are we?’
‘In the twentieth century, and the heart of civilisation.’
Michael laughed, and regretted it; the fog tasted of filth. (II: 426) 

The fog figures the London of the masses in which Mont lives: it might taste of filth but it is the political reality of central London in the twentieth century. In response to this metaphorical condition of fog, Mont is the public voice of ‘Foggartism’, a scheme to dispatch the surplus masses to the dominions or, more precisely, the unaccompanied offspring of the surplus masses so that they can be declassed as well as removed from the slums. The scheme is similar, although not so overtly eugenicist, as the one in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway for which Lady Bruton enlists the aid of Hugh Whitbread and Richard Dalloway in writing a letter to The Times and reflects some of the actual thinking of the mid 1920s, when both books were written and set (see Woolf 2000, 92-4; Bradshaw 2000, xxiv-xxvii). Tellingly, Soames, who is ostensibly anything but a reformist, can see quite readily that the scheme could never work because people simply would not stand for it but his idealistic son-in-law takes an inordinate amount of time to come finally to his own version of the same conclusion: ‘But why did everyone smile at Foggartism? Why? Because among a people who naturally walked, it leaped like a grasshopper; to a nation that felt its way in fog, it seemed a will-o’-the-wisp’ (II: 472).

<2> The Silver Spoon depicts a nation, represented through London, that ultimately comes to accept the uncertainty of the fog, which is to say that it accepts a political and ideological logic of muddling through. In this sense, it anticipates the British values which characterised the Home Front in the Second World War. It also marks a huge shift in the metaphorical deployment of fog from the opening novel of The Forsyte SagaThe Man of Property (1906), which is set in the 1880s. Here the fog is a physical manifestation of the horror that was late Victorian London’s very own heart of darkness: a horror of any threat to the sense of a unified self that underwrote patriarchy and imperialism. The plot of The Man of Propertyturns on Soames’s desire to escape the city, and its horrors, and to please his wife, Irene, by building a house in the country outside at Robin Hill. However, his aim is thwarted by the relationship that develops between Irene and the house’s proto-modernist architect Philip Bosinney. The inexorable logic of Soames’s concept of property ownership leads him to exercise his conjugal rights by force and thus triggers a crisis in Bosinney that leads to his death -– effectively death by fog -– as witnessed by Soames’s cousin, the gambler and clubman (the Forsytes are not so much a family as a representative depiction of all aspects of the Victorian middle class), George Forsyte: 

And fast into this perilous gulf of night walked Bosinney, and fast after him walked George. If a fellow meant to put his ‘twopenny’ under a bus, he would stop it if he could! …Brought to a stand-still in the fog, he heard words which threw a sudden light on these proceedings. What Mrs Soames had said to Bosinney in the train was now no longer dark. George understood from those mutterings that Soames had exercised his rights over an estranged and unwilling wife in the greatest – the supreme act of property … he guessed something of the anguish, the sexual confusion and horror in Bosinney’s heart …
A longing seized him to throw his arm around The Buccaneer, and say, ‘Come, old boy. Time cures all. Let’s go and drink it off!’
But a voice yelled at him, and he started back. A cab rolled out of blackness, and into blackness disappeared. And suddenly George perceived that he had lost Bosinney. He ran forward and back, felt his heart clutched by a sickening fear, the dark fear that lives in the wings of the fog. Perspiration started out on his brow. He stood quite still, listening with all his might. (I: 270-3)

<3> Irene is introduced to us near the beginning of the novel as ‘a tall woman, with a beautiful figure, which some member of the family had once compared to a heathen goddess’ (I: 17). Throughout The Man of Property, she is always described in a manner that accentuates her bodily sexuality: her figure sways when she moves (I: 81), skin tight dresses fit her ‘tight as a drum’ (I: 127). We might think of her as another figuration of ‘the horror’; combining in one person both Kurtz’s ‘intended’ and his African mistress from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). Galsworthy identifies the Forsytes’ ‘Colonial disposition to own oneself’ (I: 373) as the forerunner of imperialism and then equates this ownership of the self to a form of death drive as in the declining reproduction rate of the subsequent generations of the family. Irene, in turn, does not just represent all the stimuli to losing self-possession, she literally embodies loss of possession to Soames; and he never gets her back. While he remains the villain of this novel, a hint of the more utopian possibility latent in his original impulse to relocate to the suburbs with Irene is represented by the ‘interlude’, ‘Indian Summer of a Forsyte’, written in 1917. The house is sold by Soames, who can no longer bear the thought of living there and is bought by his uncle, Old Jolyon. However, the irony is that Jolyon then enters into an almost enchanted relationship with Irene, which sees her come to visit and spend time at the house after all. 

<4> The relationship between Irene and Old Jolyon is especially significant because it demonstrates the beginning of the process by which the protagonists of the series adapt themselves to being part of mass society as opposed to defining themselves implicitly against it. The Man of Property, itself, exhibits a somewhat confused cultural politics as Lynne Hapgood has described in Margins of Desire: The Suburbs in Fiction and Culture 1880-1925 (2005). Soames’s desire to relocate outside the city is variously motivated by wanting to secure a future for the Forsytes amidst the social changes of the 1880s and aspiring to the apparent permanency of the landed gentry; but also through inklings of the potential availability of a different kind of modern life geared around ‘artistic, sexual and emotional possibilities beyond his own experience’ (Hapgood 2005, 56). However, as Hapgood points out the novel is actually about his total failure in these respects, both as a Forsyte and a human being:

He is a Forsythian failure because he cannot consolidate the investment in which he has sunk his capital. He is a human failure because he cannot understand the nature of his own deepest feelings and thoughts, or how they apply to the evolution of the sexual relationship between men and women. (Hapgood 2005, 56)

Yet, it is not clear how Irene, who as we have seen is only ever portrayed as the object of the male gaze, can embody or signify the possibility of a different kind of living: ‘her identity remains the hermeneutic space at the centre of Galsworthy’s novel’ (Hapgood 2005, 57). It is only in ‘Indian Summer’, that Irene’s own consciousness is allowed to surface through her friendship with Old Jolyon. In particular, there is a process of intersubjective exchange as Irene tells him what has happened to her since she left Soames:

‘That night I went to the Embankment; a woman caught me by the dress. She told me about herself. When one knows what others suffer, one’s ashamed.’
‘One of those?’
She nodded, and horror stirred within old Jolyon, the horror of one who has never known a struggle with desperation. (I: 337)

Old Jolyon’s second-hand experience of this horror leads neither to revulsion nor attraction but to a new self-awareness. What he learns from Irene is the acceptance of the possibility of losing self-possession. In turn, this reconciles him to the modern mass society of the capital. For example, his concern at Irene having to depend for existence on giving piano lessons is expressed not in terms of horror or social disdain but through a telling quip: ‘You’re looking a little Londony’ (I: 340). And if he cannot quite manage complete equanimity in the face of the discovery that most of these piano lessons are being given to the daughters of Jewish families, he certainly takes it in his stride. This transition in outlook from The Man of Property is seismic: it is nothing less than an acceptance that even a Forsyte is only a part of the greater mass of the city:

You thought you had hold of life, but it slipped away behind you by the scruff of the neck, forced you here and forced you there, and then, likely as not, squeezed the life out of you! It took the very stars like that, he shouldn’t wonder, rubbed their noses together and flung them apart; it had never done playing its pranks. Five million people in this great blunderbuss of a town, and all of them at the mercy of that Life-Force, like a lot of little dried peas hopping about on a board when you struck your fist on it. Oh, well! Himself would not hop much longer –- a good long sleep would do him good! (I: 356-7)

However, the possibilities of this new awareness, which is itself a consequence of the broader historical process in which the rise of mass society gradually submerged the classical individualism which underpinned upper-middle-class Victorian subjectivity, are not explored fully in ‘Indian Summer’. While Old Jolyon develops a dual consciousness as a result of his new understanding of his place in the world, it is presented as an uncanny feeling:

He had never, till those last few weeks, had this curious feeling of being with one half of him eagerly borne along in the stream of life, and with the other half left on the bank, watching that helpless progress. Only when Irene was with him did he lose his double consciousness. (I: 358)

Here, once again, Irene represents the centre of hermeneutical ambiguity. On the one hand, she could be seen as fulfilling a particularly Victorian female function of providing a repository for the irrational, so that the male can feel himself safely under his own rational control. Alternatively, the passage could be read as suggesting that only in Irene’s company, could he sufficiently lose himself in the ‘stream of life’ as to cease to worry about being in rational control. The second of these two readings is strongly supported by the way that the ending of the text equates Irene with death: Old Jolyon dies at ease with himself and the final sentence describes ‘soundless footsteps on the grass’ (I: 364), which are both a figuration of death but also the approach of Irene, who is keeping an appointment for tea. The sense of ‘Indian Summer’, therefore, is that it is through his friendship with Irene, that Old Jolyon learns to accept the loss of self-possession that is inherent both to living in a mass society and to death, itself. However, this conjunction is obviously problematic in terms of representing a viable future and can even be read as simply a further confirmation –- following The Man of Property –- that England’s nineteenth-century capitalist class has failed: ‘Old Jolyon uses age and wealth to suspend in time an image of a suburban idyll for the personal satisfaction of his final months of life’ (Hapgood 2000, 177). Galsworthy was only able to construct a viable future by continuing |The Forsyte Saga and bringing Soames, himself, to an accommodation with mass society.

<5> Manoeuvring the villain of The Man of Property into such a democratic position required not only an heroic quantity of exposition, but also a subtle reworking of the symbolic interactions in ‘Indian Summer’, which is partly concealed by the switch to a more comic tone in the second and third books of the series, In Chancery (1920) and To Let (1921). This complex of processes and techniques is demonstrated by the following passage, in which Soames unexpectedly encounters the masses on the rampage in the streets of the West End following the relief of Mafeking and experiences for the first time ‘the cauldron with the lid off’: 

He wandered thus one May night into Regent Street and the most amazing crowd he had ever seen … A youth so knocked off his top-hat that he recovered it with difficulty. Crackers were exploding beneath his nose, between his feet. He was bewildered, exasperated, offended. This stream of people came from every quarter, as if impulse had unlocked flood gates, let flow waters of whose existence he had heard, perhaps, but believed in never. This, then, was the populace, the innumerable living negation of gentility and Forsyteism. This was –- egad! –- Democracy! It stank, yelled, was hideous! In the East End, or even Soho, perhaps –- but here in Regent Street, in Piccadilly! What were the police about! (I: 558-9) 

It is the comedy, of course, that partly reconciles Galsworthy’s anxious middle-class readership in the early 1920s to their unprecedented post-war, post-suffrage present. At the same time, Old Jolyon’s ‘stream of life’ has become a flood that transcends personal negotiation and sweeps all before it so that the context of the series has changed from the fate of individual Forsytes to the fate of Forsyteism itself. Yet, this collective fate is still embodied at an individual level in the case of Soames, who as a consequence needs to become a much more attractive figure than he was in the first book. He now potentially offers Galsworthy’s readership a point of identification that simultaneously allows them to see themselves as both the direct descendants of the late Victorian upper- middle class and as part of a fluid mass society. The means by which Soames could be made aware of the possibilities of co-existing with mass society remained readily to hand for Galsworthy in the shape of Irene. It is a clever device to have Soames remain in love with Irene because any incredulity on the part of the reader merely serves to support the identification with him that Galsworthy is trying to foster, as is clear from Soames’s own amazement when he realises his feelings: 

She had not deserved to keep her beauty –- the beauty he had owned and known so well. And a kind of bitterness at the tenacity of his own admiration welled up in him. Most men would have hated the sight of her … yet the mere sight of her, cold and resisting as ever, had this power to upset him utterly! It was some damned magnetism she had! (I: 447)

There is what might almost be described as Hegelian-Marxist logic at play here in the overall design of the Saga. In The Man of Property, the only obvious expressions of Soames’s inchoate yearning for a ‘different kind of modern life’, as identified by Hapgood, are his love for Irene and his desire to move out of the city, which is chiefly motivated by the idea that he might make her happy in this way. In the context of their marriage, understood as a form of property contract, the only way that Soames can act on his love, which is rejected by Irene, is to try and make her more his possession. So while that love might be the heart of the heartless world, represented by the Forsytes in general and Soames in particular, its net effect is to increase suffering. Yet once the property relations are overthrown by Irene leaving Soames, Soames’s love for Irene can no longer be expressed through acts of possession. In a form of negation of the negation, therefore, the continuation of this love in the later books of the first trilogy, serves not to extend his self-possession but to tear it apart and, in the process, liberate him from himself and allow him to float on the floodtide of modern life.

<6> With the ironic precision typical of the Saga, it is Soames’s persistent pursuit of conclusive evidence that can be used to fault Irene in divorce proceedings that leads to the birth of a dual consciousness similar to that arrived at by Old Jolyon. When Mr Polteed, the owner of the detective agency employed by Soames, announces that they have found a new person apparently meeting Irene in secret, Soames demands to know who it is. The description is strangely familiar:

Mr Polteed took out a letter and began reading:
“Middle-aged, medium height, blue dittoes in afternoon, evening dress at night, pale, dark hair, small dark moustache, flat cheeks, good chin, grey eyes, small feet, guilty look –-” ’
Soames rose and went to the window. He stood there in sardonic fury. Congenital idiot –- spidery congenital idiot! Seven months at fifteen pounds a week –- to be tracked down as his own wife’s lover! Guilty look! He threw the window open. (I: 567-8)

This is not only a wonderfully comic moment but also an ingenious way of demonstrating that Soames is still ‘guilty’ of loving Irene. Furthermore, the scene marks the birth of a new self-consciousness as Soames, like Old Jolyon before him, becomes aware of having, as it were, two selves: one left helpless on the sidelines while the other is swept along by the flow of modern life. Soames does not, however, succumb to the death drive of the old Victorian capitalist class. After all that is gone before, it seems that there is something within him, which we might perhaps describe as his ‘Londony’ side, that chooses the ‘Life Force’ of the modern city. Against his better judgement, dripping ironic disdain, and with his face set firmly against those around him, Soames nevertheless jumps out from the bank to the Victorian wreckage in the torrent and races into the future even while continuing to yearn for the past: 

The waters of change were foaming in, carrying the promise of new forms only when their destructive flood should have passed its full. He sat there, subconscious of them, but with his thoughts set resolutely on the past – as man might ride into a wild night with his face to the tail of his galloping horse. Athwart the Victorian dykes the waters were rolling on property, manners, and morals, on melody and the old forms of art –- waters bringing his mouth a salt taste as of blood, lapping to the foot of this Highgate Hill where Victorianism lay buried ….
And only one thing really troubled him ….
He might wish and wish and never get it –- the beauty and the loving in the world! (I: 906)

This passage anticipates Walter Benjamin’s famous invocation in ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ of the angel of history, whose face is turned back towards Paradise even as the storm of progress irresistibly propels him further and further into the future (see Benjamin 1992, 249). Like the angel, Soames is simultaneously aware that the world might be made whole –- a place of beauty and loving –- and that he is helpless to do anything about it. 

<7> Walter Allen characterised A Modern Comedy (1929), the title under which the second trilogy of the Saga was first collectively published, as the point at which Galsworthy ‘went over to the Forsytes’ whose values he had initially set out to satirize (cited in Mellor, Pawling and Sparks 1976, 341). However, this is to miss the point that the Forsytes, and Soames in particular, cease to symbolise specific values at the end of the first trilogy and, as we have seen, come instead to represent a complex viewpoint –- simultaneously facing past and future –- to the dizzying constant change that characterises modern life. From this perspective, reaction, reform and revolution are the structurally equivalent features of a modern comedy which never ceases to revolve around ‘the beauty and the loving in the world’, sometimes closer and sometimes further away, without ever arriving there. In this world, the chief function of politics, like the weather, is as a pretext for the social interaction of polite conversation. Furthermore, the prevailing political conditions can, also like the weather, be determined by people’s choice of headgear. For example, the ‘neat Homburg hat’ (I: 661) on Soames’s head in 1918 indicates his desire not to attract undue attention during that period of social unrest, whereas his resumption of ‘the “tall hat” habit’ (II: 50) in 1922 makes it clear that the post-war revolutionary wave has subsided for the meantime. 

<8> This ‘modern comedy’ culminates in Galsworthy’s depiction of the General Strike of 1926 during the opening chapters of Swan Song (1928), the sixth novel in the Saga. In their essay ‘Writers and the General Strike’, Adrian Mellor, Chris Pawling and Colin Sparks summarise the activities of Soames’s daughter and her husband:

Thus, in Swan Song, Soames’s son-in-law, Michael, argues that the strikers should be given ‘every possible excuse to wink the other eye’, whilst his wife, Fleur, does her bit by taking time off from running a canteen for blacklegs in order to undermine the pickets ‘with surreptitious coffee dashed with rum, at odd hours of their wearisome vigils’. (Mellor, Pawling and Sparks 1976, 342)

Somewhat humourlessly, they conclude that Galsworthy is an unashamedly ideological advocate of national consensus. Of the following passage, in which Soames witnesses the arrival of tanks along the embankment, they allow only that it reflects his creator’s unease at the use of force by Churchill (see Mellor, Pawling and Sparks 1976, 341):

‘That’ll astonish their weak nerves!’ thought Soames, as the tank crawled, grunching, out of sight. He could hear another coming; but with a sudden feeling that it would be too much of a good thing, he turned on his heel. A sort of extravagance about them, when he remembered the blank-looking crowd around his car that afternoon, not a weapon among the lot, nor even a revolutionary look in their eyes!
‘No body in the strike!’ These great crawling monsters! Were the Government trying to pretend that there was? Playing the strong man! Something in Soames revolted slightly. Hang it! This was England, not Russia, or Italy! They might be right, but he didn’t like it! Too –- too military! (II: 585) 

However, there is more than unease with specific individuals and excessive force here. This passage represents an explicit rejection of the militarised European totalitarianism that had developed since the end of the war and was to expand over the subsequent decade. The message is anti-fascist and anticipates the broad popular front sentiments that eventually came to dominate British public opinion and forced a reluctant National Government to stand up to Hitler. Viewed from this perspective, Fleur’s running of a canteen during the General Strike and serving working-class strikers as well as middle-class volunteers is the forerunner of the kind of role she might nave played on the home front of the Second World War. 

<9> Looking back from the twenty-first century, it is easy to take that British wartime coalition for granted but, given the historical context in which the salaried clerical workers –- the new middle classes –- of interwar Europe generally, whether passively or actively, supported the political right (see Koshar 1990), it is actually necessary to account for the development of that national consensus. One of the factors in that development is the influence of British middlebrow culture. The historian Ross McKibbin has identified a transition within the British middlebrow tradition from a literature of conflict in the early 1920s to a self-conscious literature of modernity in the 1930s, in which a confident middle class represented itself as the modernising class (see McKibbin 2000, 483). While this transition can be charted, as McKibbin does, from more reactionary books, such as Warwick Deeping’s Sorrell and Son (1925), to more progressive ones, such as A.J. Cronin’s The Citadel (1937), it is also possible to detect a broader current running throughout middlebrow fiction that is aligned to a different axes of fairness and national unity, drawing on the legacies of Dickens and Victorian humanism. The Forsyte Saga is clearly part of this longer tradition and nowhere is this more foregrounded than in the passage above, which aligns its main protagonist with a perspective of gently comic humanism, as a subject for universal identification. In the sentences immediately preceding the passage, the tank is described as both a ‘great primeval monster’ and a ‘huge, fantastic tortoise’ (II: 585); while Soames goes on to imagine: ‘Father and mother and baby tanks –- like –- like a family of mastodons, m – m?’ (II: 585). Here, the entry into the realm of the fantastic is more than just a comic technique to reduce the threat of the military by associating it with animals: it is also an attempt to symbolically remove weaponry from the realm of the modern, which is thereby maintained as a suitable environment for a peaceful, modernised middle class. 

<10> The mastodons, reminiscent of devices employed by Woolf in Mrs Dalloway, contribute to the Saga’s generation of temporal uncertainty, which in itself serves to undermine the political certainties of its present. As radical interventions go, this might not quite match up to the bombast of Benjamin’s notion of using a past filled with the presence of the now to blast open the continuum of history (see Benjamin 1992, 252-4), but it is still an effective manner of refusing to get ensnared in the ephemeral politics of the current order while implicitly suggesting the possibility that things can be different. Indeed, reminiscent of Woolf again, Galsworthy actually does go on to make that latter point explicitly, as Soames experiences a moment of being:

He took up a rose and sniffed at it deeply. So many different kinds now –- he had lost track … And at this reminder of the mutability of flowers and the ingenuity of human beings, Soames felt slightly exhausted. There was no end to things! (II: 646-7)

As William Empson points out, the trick of the pastoral figure of l’homme moyen sensual –- which is what Soames has become six books into the series –- ‘is that he refuses to recognise the grandeur of the senses which he cannot keep out of his words’ (Empson 1995, 172). 

<11> The above paragraph has tentatively suggested some resemblances between the work of Galsworthy and Woolf not because a case for equivalence is being made directly –- such an argument would require detailed comparison within a very specifically delineated framework –- but as a form of refutation of Woolf’s criticisms of Galsworthy (and Arnold Bennett and H.G. Wells) in more than one essay for allowing life to escape him and with ‘immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring’ (Woolf 1993, 7). In this context, it is worth noting that other modernist writers, such as D.H. Lawrence and Ford Madox Ford, recorded more nuanced critical responses to Galsworthy than Woolf. Lawrence criticised him, of course, for writing about social beings rather than human individuals but was also prepared to accept that Galsworthy’s purpose was precisely to show that the Forsytes had lost their humanity. He argued that The Man of Property had the makings of a great novel but that Galsworthy did not have the courage to see it through and ‘gave in to the Forsytes’ (Lawrence 1978, 65). The point is similar to –- and possibly the inspiration of –- the one made by Allen cited above, and yet for Lawrence the worst crimes of the Forsytes are not committed by Soames but lie in Old Jolyon’s sentimentality and Bosinney’s inability to be anything other than an anti-Forsyte: ‘One cannot help preferring Soames Forsyte, in a choice of evils’ (Lawrence 1978, 67). Furthermore, Lawrence’s analysis of the strengths of the novel still makes a powerful case for seeing it as a great achievement:

The greatness of the book rests in its new and sincere and amazingly profound satire. It is the ultimate satire on modern humanity, and done from inside, with really consummate skill and sincere creative passion, something quite new. It seems to be a real effort to show up the social being in all his weirdness. (Lawrence 1978, 65)

Ford was less enthusiastic about the satire, regarding it as already a step towards what he saw as the reformist didacticism of the later novels. In particular, he objected that the problem with The Man of Property was that a real-life Bosinney, which is to say a real-life early modernist, would have run away with Irene to Capri and lived in sunlit bliss: ‘But no, says Galsworthy, that would not prove that the middle classes are always cruel and victorious over the unfortunate’ (Ford 1938, 185). While Ford accepted that such ‘dogged determination to present antitheses’ was what made Galsworthy such a successful playwright because it allowed him to squeeze ‘the last drop of drama out of a situation’ (ibid), he argued that it was to the detriment of the art of the novel. The difference between himself and Galsworthy was that he believed that the business of art was not to elevate but to present life as it is in the terms of art, whereas Galsworthy believed in ‘propaganda for virtue’. This distinction, of course, has become familiar to us following critical work by people such as Stephen Spender and Malcolm Bradbury as the opposition between the ‘Modern’ and the ‘Contemporary’ (see Bradbury 2001, xiii). However, Ford’s argument should not simply be seen as a critical putdown of Galsworthy:

Yet it used to fill me with amazement to see Galsworthy at work -– the grim persistence with which he made point after point, the dog-like tenacity with which he held to his thesis. He would ponder for hours and hours. Then the little rabbits would creep out to die after the battues; the law-parted lovers would feel their thumbscrews pinching tighter; the convicts batter on their cell doors until the cruel stupidity of men and their institutions was shown at its apogee –- and beyond. (Ford 2007, 36-7)

It is the final ‘beyond’ in conjunction with the initial ‘amazement’ that lets us know that while Ford did not particularly like what Galsworthy was doing, he could see that there was a powerful dynamic underlying it, which went beyond usual didacticism. Thinking about Galsworthy’s repetitive technique in this way invites comparison with a number of Freud’s ideas and, in particular, that of the analytic process, itself, which depends on the analyst inducing a compulsion to repeat in the patient, who then ‘acts’ out what has been repressed as a ‘piece of real life’ (Freud 1958, 150-2). In the same manner, it might be suggested that by doggedly putting the Forsytes, and Soames in particular, through an immense sequence of similar situations, Galsworthy was able to make them act out exactly that part of themselves which was repressed by their Victorian capitalist class status.

<12> In conclusion, it seems possible to suggest, pacé Allen and Lawrence, that Galsworthy does not so much go over to the Forsytes as go beyond them. From this perspective, the driven, anti-heroic Soames is the ideal protagonist to demonstrate the emergence of a form of modern life fitting to the twentieth century from inside the shell of a moribund Victorian ‘social being’. In the process, Galsworthy goes beyond Lawrence’s human individualism and Ford’s sunlit modernism to demonstrate the emergence of what might be described as a ‘Londony’ modern consciousness –- the ability to look to the past while going forward with the flow and refusing to try and resolve the difference into certainty, but instead embracing it precisely as uncertainty –- which became central to twentieth-century Britain.

Works Cited

Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trs. Harry Zohn, Hammersmith: Fontana, 1992.

Malcolm Bradbury, The Modern British Novel, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2001.

David Bradshaw, ‘Introduction’ to Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, ed. Bradshaw, Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2000

William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995.

Ford Madox Ford, It was the Nightingale, ed. John Coyle, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2007.

Ford Madox Ford, Mightier than the Sword, London: Allen & Unwin, 1938.

Sigmund Freud, ‘Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through’ in James Strachey, ed., The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud: Volume XII, London: The Hogarth Press, 147-56.

John Galsworthy, The Forsyte Saga Volume One, Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 2001.

John Galsworthy, The Forsyte Saga Volume Two, Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 2001.

Lynne Hapgood, ‘The Unwritten Suburb: Defining Spaces in John Galsworthy’s The Man of Property’ in Hapgood and Nancy Paxton, eds, Outside Modernism: In Pursuit of the English Novel, 1900-30, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000, pp.162-179.

Lynne Hapgood, Margins of Desire: The Suburbs in Fiction and Culture 1880-1925, Manchester: MUP, 2005.

Rudy Koshar, ed., Splintered Classes: Politics and the Lower Middle Classes in Interwar Europe, New York: Holmes & Meier, 1990.

D.H. Lawrence, ‘John Galsworthy’ in Stephen Hazell, ed., The English Novel: Developments in Criticism since Henry James, London: Macmillan, 1978.

Adrian Mellor, Chris Pawling and Colin Sparks, ‘Writers and the General Strike’ in Margaret Morris, The General Strike, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976, pp.338-357.

Ross McKibbin, Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951, Oxford: OUP, 2000.

Virginia Woolf, ‘Modern Fiction’ in The Crowded Dance of Modern Life, ed. Rachel Bowlby, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993, pp.5-12.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, ed. David Bradshaw, Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2000.


To Cite This Article:

Nick Hubble, ‘“In the Twentieth Century, and the Heart of Civilisation”: The London of the Forsytes’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 9 Number 1 (March 2011). Online at on [date of access].