The Social Habits of Forsytes

Thrown into a tizzy at the lack of new Downton Abbey in my life, I fell back on one of my favourite costume drama stories of all time, by listening to the audio dramatisation of The Forsyte Saga. The down side of Audible is that there is often little/misleading information on the as to the source of the material – I guessed this was a radio production, and also that it wasn’t produced at ALL in 2010 as the copyright info suggested, thanks to the presence of Sir Michael Hordern (died fifteen years ago), Dirk Bogarde (died ten years ago) and an unrecognisably young Amanda Redman as Fleur. I eventually pinned it down as this 1990 production, which at the time was the most expensive radio series ever made. My favourite bit of the article is where Dirk Bogarde came in thinking his role as Galsworthy (the author and narrator) would just involve a bit of “topping and tailing” but it turned out to be a major performance. He is lovely in it. I adore Galsworthy’s prose, which I think is third only to Austen’s and Pratchett’s for sophisticated, dry observational humour, and it was nice that despite it being a dramatisation, an awful lot of the original text appeared.

As a side note, why is it with so many major radio dramatisations of big classic books and serials such as this, there are so few of fantasy novels? I know there’s a well-regarded audio dramatisation of Lord of the Rings, but surely the serial and substantial nature of epic fantasy, as well as the incredible popularity of some series and authors, PLUS the crazy expense of adapting them to visual media like film or TV, would make them ideal for audio? I find it interesting that there’s such a strong history of science fiction in radio/audio plays, from Hitchhiker’s Guide and Earthsearch all the way through to today’s Big Finish. I first encountered Asimov’s Foundation through a radio play… so where are the radio dramatisations of Pratchett and Gaiman and David Eddings and Mercedes Lackey and… okay, let’s scrub the Americans as they don’t have the cultural history of modern radio drama like the Brits, but where is the 24 part radio serial of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, or Lord Dunsany or HARRY POTTER?

Ahem, anyway.

I love the Forsyte Saga. Like, crazy, adoring love. I first discovered it through the 2002 TV adaptation with Damien Lewis and Rupert Graves, then read the books at least twice through, then got hold of the epic black and white “TV event” version from the 60’s, thanks to my university library. Finding another fully dramatised version was a delight, especially as it turned out to be a very good one. Old Jolyon was played by Sir Michael Hordern, an actor I came to through many classic British movies, notably A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. Young Jolyon, who is my favourite and my best, was played by Anton Lesser, who also won my heart as Falco in the audio dramatisations of Lindsey Davis’ novels. Diana Quick is a gentle and affecting Irene, Alan Howard is a suitably creepy and horrifically compelling Soames, and when she finally turns up, Amanda Redman captures the caprice of Fleur with that perfect balance of adorable and oh-I-want-to-slap-her.

Listening to the story all over again, I was struck with how feminist these novels are, considering they were written in the very early twentieth century, and large tracts of them do consist of old men talking to each other. Galsworthy is a sly dog, and while this looks on the surface like a starchy Victorian family saga, it is also a deeply subversive story about class, society and yes, feminist ideas, tangled up with comic observation and sharp emotional tragedy. It is the story with EVERYTHING.

I’m going to talk about the main trilogy, A Man of Property, In Chancery and To Let, because they are perfect and the story which came after them (in another six volumes) was diluted somewhat, once so many of its most compelling players had left the stage. There are strong themes running through these original three books, and the one they all have in common is the way that property and financial laws are so constraining (often in devastating ways) on society and people trying to live their lives. In particular, they are about love and marriage as commodities. The Forsyte family are a caricature and a metaphor for the business-minded upper middle class in Victorian society, the lawyers and bankers and landowners… those who would have been utterly looked down upon by, say, the inhabitants of Downton Abbey or Eaton Place.

Among other things, the books criticise and condemn marital rape, the weak position of women in the marriage laws of the time, the very destructive idea that you can/could possess another human being (even if you love them), and how gossip and scandal can actively work against people’s happiness (even though it’s kind of fun to indulge in it). Galsworthy is also nicely cynical about how eternal young or first love actually is anyway, how anyone can actually know whether their marriage will work or not before they have had sex with each other. He also has very strong opinions about how it’s really not a good idea to put anyone in the position of having to choose romantic love over family, or family over romantic love.

Did I mention the novels are funny? Packed with angst, and funny. The perfect storm of effective drama, as far as I’m concerned.

While the male protection of Irene and her exceptional beauty might seem quite anti-feminist as narratives go, it is important to note that it is constantly challenged and discussed in the novel, so that men’s reaction to her is shown to be all about them rather than about her, and her need for protection is regularly highlighted as being a fault of society. The lack of narrative victim-blaming is rather extraordinary. I was also fascinated with how Galsworthy negotiated the romance between Jolyon and Irene, which is rendered so difficult by his determination not to make her feel beholden to him, as well as her own emotional scars. She needs protection, and he admires her beauty (as an artist), and both of them are very aware that it’s exactly these things which made her marriage to Soames so appalling. It’s a remarkably feminist romance as well as a mature one, and far more satisfying to me than any other in the book, whether it be the firefly passion of Irene and Bosinney, the sweet and innocent Val and Holly, or the star cross’d brats Fleur and Jon.

As well as a variety of interesting male characters, ranging from the upright and traditional Victorian gentlemen through several bohemian and progressive types, and a variety of earnest youngsters who grow up to be almost respectable, Galsworthy provides a huge range of complex, interesting women. The family saga format, covering many years and several generations, allows for us to see how characters develop in that time, how they change and how they do not. We first see June Forsyte as a young and rather silly girl whose habit of adopting “lame ducks” leads her to fall in love with Bosinney and get her heart broken, and while she never marries (a detail which has rankled with me just a smidge) she throws herself into life with great gusto as an adult woman, reinventing herself as a wartime nurse, a patron of the arts and a rather wicked, enabling auntie. Likewise Irene’s journey away from her confining marriage, through exile and independence, into a completely different kind of marriage in her later years, and finally a devoted (if smothering) motherhood, shows different sides of her character as she ages, and it is quite galling to see how, even after years or decades free from Soames’ ownership, she can still be threatened by his very presence, a happy and satisfied woman freezing with horror at the return of an old nightmare. I also have soft spots for the Aunts, though they are all quite horrible, with poor old Winifred, and with the portrayal of Annette, whom we see first as an innocent French girl Soames selects as a suitably doting second wife, and then later see blossomed into a confident but brittle lady of the manor, refusing to let him squash her despite his best efforts. I have to admit I rather loathe Fleur herself, which may explain why I can’t love the later novels quite so much, but much like Soames himself, I admire the portrait Galsworthy has portrayed of that particular kind of feminine selfishness, a girl so utterly spoilt that she would happily sacrifice anything and hurt anyone as long as she can have that thing (or person) she has only just decided she wants for herself.

As I listened to the story unfold, again, marvelling especially at the layers of story and family tangles, at the dripfeed of backstory and scene setting, at the dialogue and of course the sweet, sweet angst, I thought a lot about fantasy fiction. In particular, how the family saga is so beautifully compatible with fantasy fiction, and how much I want to write a story like that. The first fantasy series which won my heart were The Belgariad and Mallorean, which is very much a generational family story, especially with the prequels about Belgarath and Polgara. The fantasy series which finally pushed me over the edge to write for myself was Jennifer Roberson’s Cheysuli Chronicles, which uses the family saga format brilliantly over about five generations, and depicts the social change of a magical race from exiles whose very existence makes the humans shudder, to the rulers of the land, and finally to a union through marriage with their greatest enemies.

It’s also what I love most about the work of Rowena Cory Daniells – her original Last T’En series was all about family and love and the political function of marriage and inter-breeding to cement an invasion. Her King Rolen’s Kin series is about a single generation but ties back to the stories and traditions of the previous and the next, and I look forward to seeing how the second trilogy in that world moves it all forward. I’m excited beyond words about the First T’En series finally heading for publication, as I’ve read and enjoyed it in manuscript form (several different manuscript forms!) over several years, and it’s my favourite example of that combination of family saga and fantasy, because of the way the two feed into each other. Once you add magical blood to the list of things that have to be taken into account with relationships, sex and familial ties, the potential for angst is EXTREME.

All of which is a very long way of getting around to saying that I know exactly what I will be writing after I have set Nancy Napoleon down. My brain was firing towards starting a family saga from scratch, but in fact the next fantasy book that was on my To Write shelf anyway is in fact about family drama and history and generational issues… I’d just been so wrapped up in the central conceit of it that I had lost track of that essential detail. But now I’m ridiculously excited about it. Sooooon!

5 replies on “The Social Habits of Forsytes”

  1. Rowena says:

    Aww, T. Kudos to you and Creature Court. It’s inspired me!

  2. tansyrr says:

    Hooray! More court fantasy for all.


  3. Caroline says:

    Have been listening to Galactic Suburbia for a couple of months and just discovered your blog.

    Will definitely be looking out for the Forsyte Saga.

    I wonder if the epic SFF is a bit long for British media, which tends towards short series? Vanity Fair was 15 episodes, but they were only 15 minutes each. I’m struggling to think of any other BBC radio that has more than 6 episodes for a single story or series.

    There have been a few Pratchett adaptations and Elvenquest was an awesome epic fantasy spoof that was on in one of the comedy slots. Oh and there was an excellent Dirk Gently starring Harry Enfield a couple of years ago – much better than the recent TV version. They should all come up for repeats on BBC7 fairly regularly.

    The BBC i-player currently has listed 3 Torchwood plays, a Bradbury story, the first episode of the History of Titus Groan and Steven Baxter’s Voyage.

  4. tansyrr says:

    Hi Caroline

    Thanks for those recs! I’ll have to check them out, especially the Dirk Gently & Elvenquest.

    Here in Aus, I have never really seen BBC Radio productions as anything other than audio books, so it’s odd to think of it as being episodes screened live. My mum has been madly inhaling everything she can over the i-player though, so I must check it out myself!

  5. Kilbarry1 says:

    I would have liked to read more about your opinon of Soames himself. You write that “The lack of narrative victim-blaming is rather extraordinary.” We are living in a society where victimhood has become an industry and the disappearance of the Soames type may have a lot to do with that.

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