Just as I was about to give up on this marathon read of the Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy comes up trumps with Swan Song.
As the Forsyte family seem to drift off into their own middle class lives, Fleur marries into the aristocracy and a whole new world for Galsworthy to explore. Of course, the two fathers: Soames Forsyte and Lawrence Mont, remain as protectors and guiding lights for the younger, rather naive, generation combining their knowledge and connections for the benefit of their offspring.
Swan Song is packed with differing themes from the past and setting the scene for the next trilogy. I haven’t yet mastered bookmarking when listening so I am afraid this review will be very sketchy.
The story starts with the General Strike. Michael is on the side of the miners. There is a long commentary on the British character and what’s Right Thinking? I was not really sure what Galsworthy was aiming at here. However, the Forsytes and Monts do become effectively strike breakers by driving buses and setting up a canteen.
Michael comes up with the idea of getting Fleur to set up a canteen to feed the strike breakers. This leads to their discovery that the kitchen they will use is filthy and full of beetles. Fleur surprisingly rallies to the challenge.
Michael’s clergyman Uncle Hilary promises to be a great character in the next trilogy. He is witty, urbane and unpatronisingly compassionate. He proposes to his nephew that they form a committee to raise money to modernise and repair the slums. Hilary understands that the community do not wish to be re-housed but that the housing conditions are unacceptable.
The ensuing organisation on the composition of the committee is, for me, a superb piece of writing. Mont uses all his experience to make sure that all interests are represented. A reluctant Soames is co-opted and even Fleur is there to raise money by organising social functions. Michael is now fully occupied in something useful. Galsworthy’s take on the situation is modern and quite cynical. I particularly enjoyed the conviction that electrification would transform the lives of the slum dwellers. And so it did!
In the meantime, Fleur is manipulating her way back into Jon’s life causing Soames serious anxiety. The more he tries to prevent the two from meeting, the more Fleur sidesteps him. Jon does his best not to hurt his American wife, Ann, but Fleur is determined to get what she wants. Jon is weak and characterless. Both Michael and Ann are aware of the dangers but the tragedy moves inexorably forward.
With the end of the strike Fleur once again has less to do. She sets up a kind of country retreat for women from the slums but it doesn’t seem to engage her interest. The painting of her portrait by one of June’s protégés provides a distraction and an opportunity for meetings with anon.
June, Aunt Winifred, Holly and Dartie all play their parts and the reader becomes as involved as they are. At the same time Soames is aware of his age and that of his trusted manager, Mr Gradman. He approaches him with some sensitivity to suggest he train up someone to take his place in managing the family’s affairs when the time comes. Mr Gradman is offended but Soames remains appreciative but firm. True to form he rewards him with some fine silver.
I think Soames is one of the great characters of 20th century English literature. From the start of the Saga, he remains stolid and honest, lacking much insight into his own behaviour but always reliable and conscientious in looking after the interests of the Forsytes. His Achilles heel is his spoilt daughter Fleur but his love for her endears him to me. His art collection characterises his taste and it remains to be seen what will happen to it in the future. In this novel he attains the gravitas he deserves. It is interesting that whenever he sees Fleur suffering his instinct is to give her one of his paintings…his other great love. Make of it what you will!
So now I can’t wait to read A Maid in Waiting.
Liz Dexter and Alison Hope have also read and reviewed this novel – here are links to their reviews.