The White Monkey
Read on audible by David Cass
This, the fourth novel of the Forsyte Saga, covers the vast changes which took place in England after WW1. After the devastation of the war people were becoming more socially and politically aware.
Galsworthy merges the aristocracy represented by the Mont family (landowners) with the upper middle class represented by the Forsytes (professionals and property owners). The large cast of the previous novels is mainly reduced to Michael Mont, now married to Fleur Forsyte, and their fathers, Bart (so called ironically by his son) Mont and Soames Forsyte,
Bart, relying on the old school tie to forge alliances and make investments without any thought to their security and Soames, prudent as ever, increasing his investments in art and advising caution on Bart’s investment in overseas insurance companies. Soames has become a member of the board, a decision he now regrets.
Socialism is in the air. This frightens and puzzles Soames. The Bickets are introduced as examples of the pressures placed on working people with no property and no resources.
Bicket was dismissed from Michael Mont’s publishing company for theft, an act he committed in order to pay for food for his wife who is recovering from pneumonia. Soames comes across him in the street and is impressed by his enterprise. He is selling balloons on the steps of St Paul’s.
Young Mrs Bicket is strikingly good looking. She realises that her husband can never make enough money for them to emigrate to Australia so she goes to see Michael Mont to ask for help. He finds her work as an artist’s model on the strict understanding that her husband will never find out. Many twists in the story later, her husband does find out. Galsworthy presents the reader with the moral dilemma: which was worse, stealing in order to care for a loved one or earning money by nude modelling in order to pay for their passage to Australia and a better life. In 1924 this choice must have been less obvious than it is today. However, it raises the question of female emancipation.
In the meantime, Fleur flirts with Wilfred, the poet. It is clear she likes Michael but finds no real fulfilment in her life as a social hostess. Michael really loves Fleur. I warm to him more than any other character in this saga. He is intelligent, kind and self-aware. Fleur recognises this and I think there is an unusual honesty in their relationship.
Soames continues to worry about Fleur and her future security. When his cousin George dies he buys a picture from his estate. He doesn’t understand it but is struck by its beauty. The picture is by an unknown Chinese artist and is of a white monkey surrounded by the orange peel of a fruit he has been eating. This is a metaphor for the consumer society.
Soames has become involved in a foreign investment vaguely engineered by Lawrence Mont. He is aware that the shareholders are unhappy and resigns from the board. It is interesting how the board members are shocked and offended at being questioned by the shareholders. The establishment are not used to having their actions questioned.
I am aware I have skipped much of the story here but hope this gives readers a taste of how far the saga has progressed. An interesting aspect of listening rather than reading is that I tend to focus on the aspects of the story that I like and somewhat forget the rest!
What will happen next? Will Soames’ gifts of art to Fleur protect him from possible financial disaster? Will Michael and Fleur’s marriage survive? How will the emancipation of women and the working class affect their lives? I can’t wait to start the Silver Spoon. Sadly no interlude included in this reading.
Note from Liz: the only ebook version I can find with all 9 novels and all the interludes is this one (not available in audio book as far as I know)