John Galsworthy’s Art of Characterization in The Man of Property

John Galsworthy, a “master of yesterday” in English fiction, does not ate height in critical evaluation today. That perhaps in an indicator of transience of fame when based on the surface of things or better still it exhibits the parade of literary fashion which so often rejects the beau model of yesterday are for the beau ideal of the next if only to keep the critic abreast of his times. Galsworthy has been variously described as one of the vile materialists, the protagonist of the well-made novel and the creator of well-made characters, which rather correspond to types despite the particularization they receive in the hands of their creator. Perhaps these are all true, but what is true is that these by themselves do not tell the whole truth.

Galsworthy’s presentation of characters in The Man of Property presumes a background with which the novelist was intimately connected in life. The action of the novel or the trilogy of which if forms a distinct and independent first part is woven round the sense of property is Victorian England in which is rooted deep the dominant contradiction of opinions, interests and ideas. Galsworthy who himself came from an old English stock knew the breed of Forsytes at first hand, and so the characters came to be portrayed with a realism that was not sheer fake posturing, even if it was the surface allegedly that he painted. One may observe while studying the characters in The Man of Property the presence of a certain feminine fiber in Galsworthy’s moral nature but that does not on the whole take away much from his ability to create some virile characters with a robust relief. One may also notice that in his art of characterization Galsworthy is not much influenced by masters at home but by the Great Russian Turgenev especially in the latter’s practice of precision and restraint. Both the Russian and the Englishman display some common traits in their art for delineation of characters, particularly in their enchanting sense of beauty and the gently ironical view they lathe of thee tragic follies and fables of common humanity.

The Man of Property exhibits against a Victorian background a conflict between the sense of property and the sense of beauty, or rather the attempted march of the sense of property to include in its ubiquitous province beauty as a new dimension of property itself. If is best hero to listen to Galsworthy himself: “This long tale in no scientific study of the period; it is rather an intimate incarnation of the disturbances that beauty effects in the lives of man. The figure of Irene, never present except through the séance of other chroniclers, is a concretion old disturbing beauty impinging on a possessive world”. That is a tall enough claim apparently but Galsworthy’s intimate portrayal of this conflict through characters and incidents derailed with scientific precision ( despite his disclaimer in the lines quoted)  reminds one invariably of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks which also presents magnificently but with scientific detachment a detailed account of upper-middle-class mode and more of existence. The world of The Man of Property as delineated by Galsworthy is the world that existed between 1886 and World War I, a world in whose existence Galsworthy’s participation was full and actual as the  character studies more than illustrate.

The central conflict which, to use Galsworthy’s own worlds, world is mainly rendered through seven typical characters. The types are mainly three viz. The Fastens, the unforsytean Forsyteans and the outsiders who are the physical carries of the disturbing spirit of beauty in to the possessive world of property. Soames Forsyth and his father James are the true Forsyteans; old Jolson, young Jolson and young Jolson’s daughter by his marriage, June, are the unforsytean Forsyteans while the two outsiders symbolizing disturbing Beauty are Philip Bosinney, the talented architect and Irene, the beautiful wife of Soames Forsyte. The mystery behind the art of Galsworthy’s characterization seems to lie in the fact that but for the existence of unforsytean Foresters aiding and abetting the cause of beauty, the outsiders symbolizing the soul and spirit of beauty could not have made any real dent in to the placid possessive territory of the true Forsyteans permeated through and through with their property instincts. These three types again are found among the minor characters of the novel as also among all the characters of the other two novels that followed, In Chancery and To Let, which completed the first Forsyte trilogy.

John Galsworthy:  Wikipedia
Coming to the discussion of the typical Forsyteans, we are always aware that both James and Soames Forsyte stand for property principal, the latter thinking of his beautiful wife, Irene, as a precious possession like any other of his precious art treasures of which he is a collector with a shrewd sense of business. In this respect he is the true son and heir to his father, James Forsyte, that stiff-necked, strait-laced founder of the firm of solicitors, “Forsyte, Bustard, and Forsyte.” In fact, Soames is found to go a step further in his possessive adventures when his mortal relations are closely considered. Soames and Irene were married without love on the express agreement that if the marriage did not turn up well, Irene was not to be bound by her marital tie. When, however, the marriage became a futility and Irene wanted back her freedom, Soames repudiated the agreement and refused to set her free. His innate property sense prevented him from doing anything that had the effect of losing his wife whose physical beauty he considered to be another and more precious from of property. The character of Soames remains Galsworthy’s greatest achievement and is considered by many as one of the great creation in the world of English fiction. Prof. Gilbert Murray thought Soames was a real triumph with a very steady and convincing growth. Soames represents a cross-section of the English upper-middle-class in the late Victorian era. He is a typical Forsyte who knows a good thing, who also knees a safe thing and who has a grip on property-whether that is wine or house or money or reputation or even the beauty of his wife. This total preoccupation with property makes Soames rude and for that matter the whole tribe of Forsytes Less human appearing as they do rather wooden and mechanic in effect.

In the conflict of property and beauty, while Soames represents the principal; of property, Irene, his wife exhibits the power of beauty which, however, in novel is not a matter of joy but of suffering and disturbance. And this disturbing female beauty has its male counterpart in the other outsider to the possessive world of the Forsytes, Philip Bosinney, and the architect fiancé of June Forsyte. The portraiture of these two rebellious outsiders to the Forsyte family circle is rendered by Galsworthy with a difference in device that is deft and discerning. It is a peculiar method that Galsworthy adopts in the treatment of Irene and Bassinet, which has its parallel perhaps in Mrs. Wharton’s portraiture of Countess Olenek in The Age of Innocence. These two characters are never presented directly but always through the eyes of the Forsytes. Galsworthy keeps the pair Irene –Bassinet deliberately opaque with their love affair only hinted at rather than related. There is no direct description of their moods but evocation of these is made possible by the writer by exhibition of the observer’s thoughts and feelings at their very sight. Galsworthy thus reverts the method of restricted point of view so suitable to hides purpose here. He gives up the idea of following the story through the eyes of the two most sympathetic characters, the lovers, and instead follows it through the myriad eyes of the Forsytes who look upon this pair as two mysterious and disturbing people. This is an excellent device that helps to unify the divergent material and gives a pattern, proving in the process that this particular method, peculiar though if may seem, is the most suited to the study of Forsytean history. Now through this method we see Irene and Bossinney with the eyes of the philistines that the Forsytes are. We suspect just as the Forsytes suspected that all was not well between Irene and Soames who regards his wife as another investment in real property in beauty. He finally repudiates the agreement made before marriage alluded to earlier. He tries to hold her tied to him despite her opposition and even commits a legal rape on her. In his attempt to hold this precious property (beauty), he decides to build her a great house worthy of her beauty-to merge property in property, as if. At this moment in their lives appears Bosinney, the headstrong talented young artist, fiancé of June who is the closest friend again of Irene. The architect lives for his art and finds little in common with any of the Forsytes including Soames who poses himself as a connoisseur and collector of art treasures. The older male Forsytes are men of wealth and property with no other sense of values. The old females are crotchety spinsters and all of them, male or female; look down upon the arts except perhaps as a potential source of profit. When Bosinney is introduced in this family circle after his engagement with June, his immediate apathy turned him naturally to the other sympathetic figure, an outsider to the Forsytean world and the main protagonist of the opposing principle of beauty in this chronicle, Irene. As they saw more and moreof each other in family gatherings, the innate attraction they felt at first meeting gradually matured into love for each other. There was rumour and scent of scandal in the Forstean world whose solidity felt its first formidable cracks under the impact of the unforsytean pair admitted into their fellowship. The other principle of beauty has made its dent clean and clear, although the ground was perhaps preparing for some time now with the aid and abetment of he mongrel Forsyteans like June, June’s father (Young Jolyon) and June’s grandfather, Old Jolyon. Galsworthy here in his characterization uses a leading compositional device with much craft, that is, the principal of contrast and correspondence with great effect.  

Galsworthy paints the mongrel or unforsysten Forsytes with great care and craft in bold strokes. Old Jolyon Forsyte is the loveliest old man in the whole chronicle with his love for children and animals. Although a brother to stiff-necked James and wealthy tea-merchant himself, he is the only Forsyte with a true sense of beauty. His son, Young Jolyon, father to June, is an artist (an enigma in the possessive world of the Forsytes) who’s disinherited by Old Jolyon for a scandalous love affair when he elopes with a French governess. He has by these second marriage two children, Holly and Jolly. After the debacle that Bosinney-Irene affair meant to the Forsytes and the sad and sudden death of Basinet, June comes to live with Old Jolyon at Robin Hill house which perhaps wanted to live in the house which mentioned the memory of her dead fiancé, Bosinney who built the house for Soames and June. Irene also came to this house after winning the affection of Old Jolyon. In this house of memory again June and Irene clashed and here also took place the rapprochement between father and son, old and Young Jolyon through the catalysts of only and Jolly, the lovely children. As beautifully depicted in this fine interlude’ Indian Summer of a Forsyte, old Jolyon sitting in the garden of Robin Hill and waiting for Irene’s last visit, dies in his sleep and that closes the earthly chapter of the only Forsyte ever to have known through suffering the values of love and beauty signifying perhaps the onward march of beauty over and stangnasst idea of property.

As we have marked, the compositional device of blending contrast and correspondence in painting characters achieves in The Man of Property on the whole an effect of unity. Blocks of diverse characters do not alternate here carrying on divergent action in a complex pattern as in Dickens but contrasted or grows specimens of true Forsyte, unforsystean Forsyth  ( mongrels), and non-Forsyte humanity are presented before us always in the context of the Forsytean world picture.

The main defect in charactersation however is Galsworthy’s technical procedure whereby his characters shift from place to place or from person to person making it impossible for any particular characters to develop and grow internally so as to create a permanent impression of depth and feeling. It also stands in the way of following a single character in continuity and development. There is also a shift from objective to subjective, from one person to another as the centre of observation so as to distract and dissipate our sympathy and interest.

Despite these obvious and grave defects Galsworthy at least in his The Man of Property creates not only typical types but makes some of them live. Somas certainly are a great achievement in an English fiction, although Irene remains at distance exuding her artistic ultra-violet rays. Old Jolyon lives and dies a lovely man with his sense of love and beauty won through sufferings. The children, Holly and Jolly, and the animals, particularly the lovely old dog Balthazar render us happy moments of existence. June’s impetuous, strong-willed nature adds to the jest of life. True it is that The Man of Property has not the characters of the mass and depth and feeling of thus in Mann’s Buddenbrooks with which it has surface similarity as a chronicle novel but it is also true where Conrad says of his friend, “we have here a writer in direct descent of the great tradition of the English art of novel writing.”
Ref: 1. History of English Literature- Albert      
     2. Microsoft Students’ Encarta
     3. The Man of principle: A View of John Galsworthy- D. Barker