On Forsyte 'Change, by John Galsworthy

Nicholas-Rex, 1864

In the late seventies someone made the remark: “Nicholas Forsyte — cleverest man in London.” And with this dictum those who observed him in his business and public capacity were frequently in agreement. It is in the hinterland of his existence that one must look for qualifications of the statement. Wherever he functioned Nicholas was certainly cock of the walk — indeed he looked a little like a cock, very natty, with a high forehead and his hair brushed off it in a comb, erect, and with quick movements of his head and neck. His colouring too was fresh and sanguine and his hair almost chestnut before it went grey. When he rose at a meeting and opened with one of his dry witticisms people sat forward, and seldom took their ears off him till he resumed his seat. He was almost notorious for his power of making an opponent look foolish, and than that no greater asset is in the balance sheet of a public man. For Nicholas was a public man in the minor sense suitable to a Forsyte. He never aspired to extravagances of power or position — never for instance went into Parliament. He confined himself to obtaining the practical, if not the nominal, control of any concern in which he held interests; and he had a certain tempered public spirit which led him almost insensibly to grasp the helm of two utility corporations, the one concerned with tramways, and the other with canals, although his holdings in them were not considerable. As a judge of an investment he was perhaps unique, so much so that his five brothers felt it almost a relief when one of his investments went wrong. He could be sharp and he could be genial, and no one ever knew beforehand which he was going to be; and this in itself was a source of sovereignty. One might say with a reasonable amount of certainty that he had never had a friend. Many men had tried it on with him, but he had always nipped them off sooner or later and generally sooner. He was perhaps constitutionally unable to associate with people on terms of equality. On the other hand his integrity was admirable, for he owed integrity to himself, and one could always follow him with a feeling that one would not be let down. Without knowing anything at all about him one would have taken him, perhaps, for one of those extremely high-class doctors who do not move out of their own houses, and that only at a good many guineas. With all this he had not much health, or rather just the health of a Forsyte, which kept him alive until he was ninety-one, and might better be termed vitality.

Without being exactly close in money matters he was the most guarded of the clan, partly no doubt because he had more children and partly because of a certain austerity which had little patience with fashion and fallals, and believed almost pitilessly in work being good for the human being. And this brings one to his hinterland which began, one may suggest, with his marriage in 1848. Whether in marrying at all he did justice to the truest instincts of supremacy will ever remain a question; but the fact is he was a man who had to be married and married somewhat young, given Queen Victoria and his own constitution. That he undoubtedly married money — and long before the Married Woman’s Property Act, so that he was able to make the most judicious use of it, and Mrs. Nicholas to make none at all — must not be regarded as proof of a cold-blooded selection. On the contrary he was an ardent wooer, in peg — top trousers, of a very pretty girl, the daughter of a county-town banker with whom finance had thrown him into contact. Limited by her mother and possibly by her crinoline, the young lady had kept Nicholas at a respectable distance until after a ceremony observed with every circumstance including a really witty speech from her bridegroom. She had been the more surprised afterwards.

To this surprise must be attributed the inception of that “fronde” which smouldered for so many decades behind the façade of his sovereignty.

We will not pause here to enquire whether the manners of the twentieth century would have saved Nicholas, or rather Mrs. Nicholas, from receiving the feeling that she was married. The fact remains that she received it. As, one by one, she produced little Nicholases the feeling if anything increased. When she had produced six in fourteen years, she flatly refused to produce any more. From a woman not quite thirty-five this seemed to Nicholas, who had by then a considerable fortune, wholly unreasonable — the more so as it was the first definite limit set to his prerogative. And to this fettering of his complete freedom must be attributed much of that nervous irritability which he undoubtedly developed. But who, seeing Mrs. Nicholas, would have dreamed that she was in any way responsible for the moods of her lord and master. The fact is that no one except Nicholas ever did see Mrs. Nicholas —‘Fanny’ as she was called, because her real name was Elizabeth. Her manner in public was almost the opposite of her manner in private. She is described somewhere as entering a room behind Nicholas “with an air of frightened jollity.” How true! She did. And why? Because he would aim at her wittily caustic shafts which she had never learned to parry. And she would smile and smile with that frightened look in her eyes, and generally be so glad to get home before he had aimed one. But when she was home, and there was no one but herself to hear him, that frightened look would disappear. And in a hundred womanly ways (without perhaps deliberately meaning to) she avenged it. Not before the children, no — mainly in the privacy of the common bedroom, supremely in the privacy of the common bed. There she would reduce Nicholas from sovereignty to supplication. She did it not because he was repellent to her — he was never that — but almost as it were on principle, because she had, after all, a soul of her own, and there were no other means of asserting it. In all the manifest ways of life he was the perfect autocrat, paying the piper — incidentally not altogether without what had been her money — and calling the tune. Who can blame her, then, for reminding him that he was mortal, and that she was mortal too. We have here in miniature, indeed, a somewhat perfect illustration of monarchy and the attempt of subjects at its limitation.

This continual strife to limit Nicholas was of course but vaguely suspected on “Forsyte ‘Change” and cannot therefore be recorded with any precision; but, in spite of all the instinctive camouflage lavished on the matter, there did come into the family consciousness news of a phase of it worth commemorating for the light it throws on the change in British institutions and the imperfection of human judgments. It began with a letter from Mrs. Nicholas dated: “June the twenty-fourth 1864: The Chine Hotel, Bournemouth” which ran thus:

“MY DEAR HUSBAND —

“I have long wished to take a step which I fear will cause you some anxiety and cannot fail to have roused your disapproval. I came to this nice hotel yesterday in this very charming spot with the intention of remaining here for some weeks. The sea air is delicious, and there are several quite nice people in the hotel. Please send me some of my money. Indeed, I think it would be nice if in future you paid me a regular allowance, out of the money that my dear father left me. Give my love to the dear children.

“Your affectionate wife,

“FANNY.”

When Nicholas received this letter he was already in a state of considerable confusion — not to say anxiety — and he read it with a stupor unbecoming to the cleverest man in London. That a wife should have gone off by herself without giving notice had taken him — as he would not have expressed to anybody else —“flat aback.” That, on the top of it, she should ask him to send her money and make her a regular allowance seemed to him outrageous. He went to bed and passed a wretched night. What was the woman about? The more he did not sleep the more he was inclined to think that he had never heard of such a thing. Next day he wrote in reply:

“MY DEAR FANNY —

“I have received your letter. Your going off like that gave me a pretty surprise. If you choose to take things into your own hands, you must incur the consequences. I shall certainly not send you any money; and the best thing you can do is to come back home at once. As to a regular allowance what on earth do you want it for? I give you everything you can reasonably require. I suppose you have been listening to some clap-trap about married women’s property. The sooner you rid your mind of any of these new-fangled notions the better it will be for both of us, and for the children.

“Now for goodness sake come to your senses, and come home.

“Your affectionate husband,

“NICHOLAS FORSYTE.”

He went to a Board meeting irritably convinced that he had clinched the matter and that she would be home tomorrow. She was not, and the day after he received a second letter.

“MY DEAR HUSBAND —

“I am sorry that you do not see the reasonableness of my conduct and of my requests. I shall therefore continue to stay on here. There is a very nice solicitor in the hotel, and he advises me that you will be liable for any debts I may have to incur, which I think, is quite reasonable. Of course, I did not tell him that I was speaking of myself. I hope your indigestion is better. Give my love to the dear children.

“Your affectionate wife,

“FANNY.”

Nicholas put the letter down with the remark: “Well, for obstinacy give me a woman!” What on earth had come to her! Debts, indeed! Fiddlesticks! He was none the less “in a regular stew.” To have his attention on important matters disturbed in this way was scandalous. Why! if it went on he would have to go down and bring her back! And it did go on. He answered the letter after waiting another day to see if she would come to her senses.

“MY DEAR WIFE —

“Will you please understand that I expect you to come back, otherwise I shall be compelled to come down and fetch you. I am surprised and grieved at your conduct, especially at this moment when I have important business on hand. Now don’t be silly, but come home like a good girl.

“Your affectionate husband,

“NICHOLAS FORSYTE.”

To this letter he received no answer. Three days passed during which he experienced every kind of mental and some physical discomfort. He even began to have dark thoughts about the nice solicitor. Fanny was only thirty-seven, and with a woman you never knew. At last, thoroughly alarmed, he cried off from a meeting of the Central Canal Corporation, and went down to Bournemouth. At the hotel they told him that Mrs. Forsyte had left two days before. No! They had no address. The callous indifference to his feelings disclosed by this conduct upset Nicholas completely. That he should have to confront an almost grinning hotel manager and betray the fact that his own wife was acting independently was — was monstrous! He did not even ask if she had paid her bill; but his knowledge of hotels — he was on the Board of one — told him that she had, or they would have presented him with it. Where was she getting money from — throwing away her jewellery he shouldn’t be surprised. He returned to London — there was nothing else to do. The next day he received a letter from her to say that she had moved on to Weymouth, but it was not as nice as she expected and she should not stay. She did not say where she was going. ‘H’m!’ thought Nicholas: ‘Playing cat and mouse with me, is she?’ And he went sullenly into the City.

Now a man may make the best resolutions about his wife, such as: “I’ll have nothing more to do with her,” or: “If she thinks she can tire me out she’s very much mistaken.” But when, like Nicholas, he has given her six children — three of them at home; when, like Nicholas, he has a reputation for always having had his own way, and for being an irreproachable householder, it was exceptionally galling not even to be able to say with truth that he knew where his wife was, to have to avoid Forsyte ‘Change as if it were the devil — as perhaps it was — and to sneak about his own house feeling that his children and his servants knew all about everything. He began to suffer severely from that kind of dyspepsia which arises from the thwarting of one’s will, one’s instincts, and one’s self-esteem. He often thought: ‘If she could see me, she wouldn’t go on behaving like this.’

At the end of a fortnight he received from her a letter dated from an hotel at Cheltenham which, though it seemed to show a certain softening, mentioned a nice doctor who had given her some very kind advice — Doctors, indeed, as if he didn’t know them! — and ended with the words: “I trust that you are now prepared, my dear husband, to make me a fixed and regular allowance, of course out of my own money. I think — do you not agree? — that £500 a year is the least amount that would be proper. I feel that if I had that I could come home again. In the meantime I have parted with my emerald pendant. Give my love to the dear children. Your affectionate wife, Fanny.”

Parted with her emerald pendant! The thing had cost him ninety pounds, and he supposed she had got thirty or forty for it. The sheer folly of women had never seemed to him so patent. Five hundred a year, indeed, to throw away in fallals! But a cloud had undoubtedly been lifted from his brain by this letter. Here was at least a definite situation. If he promised her a fixed five hundred a year she would come home. It all came of agitators putting ideas into women’s heads, a mischievous lot! But the boys would be back from school in another week or two; and it would look extremely odd if their mother were not there to go to the seaside with them.

An organ-grinder playing his confounded organ, had said to him only yesterday: “No, Guv’nor, I knows the valley of peace an’ quietness — I don’t move on under ‘arf-a-crown.” The impudence of the ruffian had tickled Nicholas and he had given him the half-crown. Fanny was behaving just like that. And who knew when she wouldn’t be off again to get out of him the rest of the thousand a year he’d received with her. No, on the whole, he didn’t think she’d be as unreasonable as that; but he continued to combat his desire for peace and quietness at so considerable a price. All the time he had a dim feeling that it wasn’t really the money she was after. She had never seemed to know or care much about money, in fact he had often had occasion to reproach her with indifference to its value. What exactly she had in her head he hesitated to characterize by a word which kept creeping nastily into his mind — independence. Fanny independent! Why she’d be in the workhouse tomorrow! Nicholas, indeed, was not unlike most people: he could not understand the need in others for that without which he himself would have been wholly miserable. What would be his own position if he made her independent — he would be subject to her whims and fancies and women’s nonsense of all sorts! And then — this was a bright moment — the solution occurred to him: Make her a fixed and regular allowance, and stop it when he wanted to! Everything seemed suddenly clear, he wondered he hadn’t thought of that before; and by the evening post he wrote off to say that he had reconsidered the matter and was prepared to pay her a regular allowance of a hundred and twenty-five pounds a quarter, and he would send the carriage to meet the five o’clock train the day after tomorrow.

To say that he was surprised on receiving not Fanny, but another letter — saying that she had meant of course that the five hundred a year should be settled on her, with the word settled underlined — would be a gross under-statement. He would never have believed that Fanny of all women could be so sordid. He continued in this mood of surprised disgust for fully an hour seated in his study which specially faced north so that his head should never be heated by the intrusion of the sun. He was determined to do no such thing, and yet extremely conscious that he could not go on much longer in this wifeless condition. She had been away now for seventeen days, and every day his head was getting heavier and less clear. He would have to put an end to it somehow. While he sat thus, turning and turning the wheels of indecision, he was conscious of a whirring noise gradually becoming articulate — that confounded barrel organ, again, grinding out the popular song of the moment: “Up in a balloon boys, up in a balloon.”

A flood of angry colour invaded Nicholas’s clean-shaven face, running almost up into the grizzled cock’s-comb rising from his forehead. He went to the window and threw it wide open. There was the ruffian grinding away and grinning at him. For a moment words failed Nicholas and then a flash of caustic humour redeemed him from his sober self. The fellow’s impudence was really laughable! He grinned back and closed the window. If he’d been the organ grinder it was just what he would have done himself. The beggar seemed to recognise that Greek had met Greek, for, after playing ‘Champagne Charlie,’ he wheeled his organ away.

But in Nicholas the little incident had changed the current of thought, or rather had swung the blood a little more to his head, so that now it seemed to him worth while to get Fanny back even on her own terms. His speech for the General Meeting of the “United Tramways Association” was due on Friday, and in the present heavy state of his head, due to this persistent wifelessness, he would be making a mess of it.

Five hundred a year — what was it after all — settled or not! He would go to James this very minute and get it over; then, with the settlement in his pocket, he would pop down himself tomorrow and bring her back. Calling a hansom, he uttered the word “Poultry” and got in. It was a long drive from Ladbroke Grove, and while he sat, behind the scuttling horse, erect, dapper, and shaken by the cobblestones of the London of those days, he thought of how he should put it to his brother James, in answer to the question the fellow would be sure to ask: “What d’you want to do that for?” And he decided merely to say: “What business is that of yours?” James was always a bit of an old woman, and it was best to be sharp with him.

With a certain dismay therefore he heard James say instead:

“I thought you’d be having to do that — they say Fanny’s on the high horse.”

“WHO says?” barked Nicholas.

James ploughed through one of his ultra-Crimean whiskers: “Oh! They — Timothy and the girls.”

“What business have they to gabble about what they know nothing of?”

James cleared his throat.

“Well,” he said, “I don’t know, they never tell me anything.”

“What!” snapped Nicholas. “Why, you sit there and talk scandal by the hour together. Well, I’ve no time to waste. Draw this settlement and make yourself and old Bustard the trustees. I want it all ship-shape by eleven o’clock tomorrow. You can put in enough of my Great Western Stock to provide five hundred a year.”

Cheltenham — there was something appropriate about the Stock; and to himself he thought: ‘Railways — I don’t trust them; they’ll be inventing something else before long.’

He left James somewhat agitated over the hurry his brother was in. The fellow however came up to the scratch, and with the settlement all signed and sealed, Nicholas caught the afternoon train to Cheltenham. He spent the hours of travel in coining caustic remonstrances against being treated in the way he had been, but when he arrived and found her having tea in the hotel drawing-room looking quite fresh and young, he decided to postpone them, and all he said was: “Well, Fanny, you look quite bobbish.”

And she answered: “What a long time, dear Nicholas! How are the dear children?”

“I’ve been bad with my head,” said Nicholas, “the children are all right. I’ve brought you this,” and he placed the settlement on the tea-table, “it’s all right — you won’t understand a word of it.”

“I’m sure, dear Nicholas, that you’ve done it beautifully.”

And while she read it, wrinkling her brows, Nicholas watched her, and thought:

‘She’s a better-looking woman than I remembered.’

Throughout the evening he was quite cheerful, not to say witty. It all seemed, indeed, a little like the days of their honeymoon at Brighton.

Not until nearly midnight, did he turn on his elbow and say rather suddenly:

“What on earth made you do it?”

“Oh, dear Nicholas,” replied her voice, close to his own, “I did so want a nice quiet rest.”

“Rest? What d’you want a rest from — you’ve got no work?”

She smiled.

“And now,” she said, “I shall be able to go and have one whenever I feel I want it.”

“The deuce you will!”

“How nice it will be, too, never having to ask you for money. It does so annoy you sometimes.”

And Nicholas thought: ‘Well, I HAVE been and gone and done it. Women!’ Turning still more on his elbow, he regarded her lying on her back with that queer little smile on her lips as if she were saying to herself: ‘Dear Nicholas, the cleverest man in London!’

So was Nicholas, in common with other Kings, limited by his Constitution.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37