The Man of Property, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 19

Diagnosis of a Forsyte

It is in the nature of a Forsyte to be ignorant that he is a Forsyte; but young Jolyon was well aware of being one. He had not known it till after the decisive step which had made him an outcast; since then the knowledge had been with him continually. He felt it throughout his alliance, throughout all his dealings with his second wife, who was emphatically not a Forsyte.

He knew that if he had not possessed in great measure the eye for what he wanted, the tenacity to hold on to it, the sense of the folly of wasting that for which he had given so big a price — in other words, the ‘sense of property’ he could never have retained her (perhaps never would have desired to retain her) with him through all the financial troubles, slights, and misconstructions of those fifteen years; never have induced her to marry him on the death of his first wife; never have lived it all through, and come up, as it were, thin, but smiling.

He was one of those men who, seated cross-legged like miniature Chinese idols in the cages of their own hearts, are ever smiling at themselves a doubting smile. Not that this smile, so intimate and eternal, interfered with his actions, which, like his chin and his temperament, were quite a peculiar blend of softness and determination.

He was conscious, too, of being a Forsyte in his work, that painting of water-colours to which he devoted so much energy, always with an eye on himself, as though he could not take so unpractical a pursuit quite seriously, and always with a certain queer uneasiness that he did not make more money at it.

It was, then, this consciousness of what it meant to be a Forsyte, that made him receive the following letter from old Jolyon, with a mixture of sympathy and disgust:

‘SHELDRAKE HOUSE,

‘BROADSTAIRS,

‘July 1. ‘MY DEAR JO,’

(The Dad’s handwriting had altered very little in the thirty odd years that he remembered it.)

‘We have been here now a fortnight, and have had good weather on the whole. The air is bracing, but my liver is out of order, and I shall be glad enough to get back to town. I cannot say much for June, her health and spirits are very indifferent, and I don’t see what is to come of it. She says nothing, but it is clear that she is harping on this engagement, which is an engagement and no engagement, and — goodness knows what. I have grave doubts whether she ought to be allowed to return to London in the present state of affairs, but she is so self-willed that she might take it into her head to come up at any moment. The fact is someone ought to speak to Bosinney and ascertain what he means. I’m afraid of this myself, for I should certainly rap him over the knuckles, but I thought that you, knowing him at the Club, might put in a word, and get to ascertain what the fellow is about. You will of course in no way commit June. I shall be glad to hear from you in the course of a few days whether you have succeeded in gaining any information. The situation is very distressing to me, I worry about it at night.

With my love to Jolly and Holly. ‘I am,

‘Your affect. father,
‘JOLYON FORSYTE.’

Young Jolyon pondered this letter so long and seriously that his wife noticed his preoccupation, and asked him what was the matter. He replied: “Nothing.”

It was a fixed principle with him never to allude to June. She might take alarm, he did not know what she might think; he hastened, therefore, to banish from his manner all traces of absorption, but in this he was about as successful as his father would have been, for he had inherited all old Jolyon’s transparency in matters of domestic finesse; and young Mrs. Jolyon, busying herself over the affairs of the house, went about with tightened lips, stealing at him unfathomable looks.

He started for the Club in the afternoon with the letter in his pocket, and without having made up his mind.

To sound a man as to ‘his intentions’ was peculiarly unpleasant to him; nor did his own anomalous position diminish this unpleasantness. It was so like his family, so like all the people they knew and mixed with, to enforce what they called their rights over a man, to bring him up to the mark; so like them to carry their business principles into their private relations.

And how that phrase in the letter —‘You will, of course, in no way commit June’— gave the whole thing away.

Yet the letter, with the personal grievance, the concern for June, the ‘rap over the knuckles,’ was all so natural. No wonder his father wanted to know what Bosinney meant, no wonder he was angry.

It was difficult to refuse! But why give the thing to him to do? That was surely quite unbecoming; but so long as a Forsyte got what he was after, he was not too particular about the means, provided appearances were saved.

How should he set about it, or how refuse? Both seemed impossible. So, young Jolyon!

He arrived at the Club at three o’clock, and the first person he saw was Bosinney himself, seated in a corner, staring out of the window.

Young Jolyon sat down not far off, and began nervously to reconsider his position. He looked covertly at Bosinney sitting there unconscious. He did not know him very well, and studied him attentively for perhaps the first time; an unusual looking man, unlike in dress, face, and manner to most of the other members of the Club — young Jolyon himself, however different he had become in mood and temper, had always retained the neat reticence of Forsyte appearance. He alone among Forsytes was ignorant of Bosinney’s nickname. The man was unusual, not eccentric, but unusual; he looked worn, too, haggard, hollow in the cheeks beneath those broad, high cheekbones, though without any appearance of ill-health, for he was strongly built, with curly hair that seemed to show all the vitality of a fine constitution.

Something in his face and attitude touched young Jolyon. He knew what suffering was like, and this man looked as if he were suffering.

He got up and touched his arm.

Bosinney started, but exhibited no sign of embarrassment on seeing who it was.

Young Jolyon sat down.

“I haven’t seen you for a long time,” he said. “How are you getting on with my cousin’s house?”

“It’ll be finished in about a week.”

“I congratulate you!”

“Thanks — I don’t know that it’s much of a subject for congratulation.”

“No?” queried young Jolyon; “I should have thought you’d be glad to get a long job like that off your hands; but I suppose you feel it much as I do when I part with a picture — a sort of child?”

He looked kindly at Bosinney.

“Yes,” said the latter more cordially, “it goes out from you and there’s an end of it. I didn’t know you painted.”

“Only water-colours; I can’t say I believe in my work.”

“Don’t believe in it? There — how can you do it? Work’s no use unless you believe in it!”

“Good,” said young Jolyon; “it’s exactly what I’ve always said. By-the-bye, have you noticed that whenever one says ‘Good,’ one always adds ‘it’s exactly what I’ve always said’! But if you ask me how I do it, I answer, because I’m a Forsyte.”

“A Forsyte! I never thought of you as one!”

“A Forsyte,” replied young Jolyon, “is not an uncommon animal. There are hundreds among the members of this Club. Hundreds out there in the streets; you meet them wherever you go!”

“And how do you tell them, may I ask?” said Bosinney.

“By their sense of property. A Forsyte takes a practical — one might say a commonsense — view of things, and a practical view of things is based fundamentally on a sense of property. A Forsyte, you will notice, never gives himself away.”

“Joking?”

Young Jolyon’s eye twinkled.

“Not much. As a Forsyte myself, I have no business to talk. But I’m a kind of thoroughbred mongrel; now, there’s no mistaking you: You’re as different from me as I am from my Uncle James, who is the perfect specimen of a Forsyte. His sense of property is extreme, while you have practically none. Without me in between, you would seem like a different species. I’m the missing link. We are, of course, all of us the slaves of property, and I admit that it’s a question of degree, but what I call a ‘Forsyte’ is a man who is decidedly more than less a slave of property. He knows a good thing, he knows a safe thing, and his grip on property — it doesn’t matter whether it be wives, houses, money, or reputation — is his hall-mark.”

“Ah!” murmured Bosinney. “You should patent the word.”

“I should like,” said young Jolyon, “to lecture on it:

“Properties and quality of a Forsyte: This little animal, disturbed by the ridicule of his own sort, is unaffected in his motions by the laughter of strange creatures (you or I). Hereditarily disposed to myopia, he recognises only the persons of his own species, amongst which he passes an existence of competitive tranquillity.”

“You talk of them,” said Bosinney, “as if they were half England.”

“They are,” repeated young Jolyon, “half England, and the better half, too, the safe half, the three per cent. half, the half that counts. It’s their wealth and security that makes everything possible; makes your art possible, makes literature, science, even religion, possible. Without Forsytes, who believe in none of these things, and habitats but turn them all to use, where should we be? My dear sir, the Forsytes are the middlemen, the commercials, the pillars of society, the cornerstones of convention; everything that is admirable!”

“I don’t know whether I catch your drift,” said Bosinney, “but I fancy there are plenty of Forsytes, as you call them, in my profession.”

“Certainly,” replied young Jolyon. “The great majority of architects, painters, or writers have no principles, like any other Forsytes. Art, literature, religion, survive by virtue of the few cranks who really believe in such things, and the many Forsytes who make a commercial use of them. At a low estimate, three-fourths of our Royal Academicians are Forsytes, seven-eighths of our novelists, a large proportion of the press. Of science I can’t speak; they are magnificently represented in religion; in the House of Commons perhaps more numerous than anywhere; the aristocracy speaks for itself. But I’m not laughing. It is dangerous to go against the majority and what a majority!” He fixed his eyes on Bosinney: “It’s dangerous to let anything carry you away — a house, a picture, a — woman!”

They looked at each other. — And, as though he had done that which no Forsyte did — given himself away, young Jolyon drew into his shell. Bosinney broke the silence.

“Why do you take your own people as the type?” said he.

“My people,” replied young Jolyon, “are not very extreme, and they have their own private peculiarities, like every other family, but they possess in a remarkable degree those two qualities which are the real tests of a Forsyte — the power of never being able to give yourself up to anything soul and body, and the ‘sense of property’.”

Bosinney smiled: “How about the big one, for instance?”

“Do you mean Swithin?” asked young Jolyon. “Ah! in Swithin there’s something primeval still. The town and middle-class life haven’t digested him yet. All the old centuries of farm work and brute force have settled in him, and there they’ve stuck, for all he’s so distinguished.”

Bosinney seemed to ponder. “Well, you’ve hit your cousin Soames off to the life,” he said suddenly. “He’ll never blow his brains out.”

Young Jolyon shot at him a penetrating glance.

“No,” he said; “he won’t. That’s why he’s to be reckoned with. Look out for their grip! It’s easy to laugh, but don’t mistake me. It doesn’t do to despise a Forsyte; it doesn’t do to disregard them!”

“Yet you’ve done it yourself!”

Young Jolyon acknowledged the hit by losing his smile.

“You forget,” he said with a queer pride, “I can hold on, too — I’m a Forsyte myself. We’re all in the path of great forces. The man who leaves the shelter of the wall — well — you know what I mean. I don’t,” he ended very low, as though uttering a threat, “recommend every man to-go-my-way. It depends.”

The colour rushed into Bosinney’s face, but soon receded, leaving it sallow-brown as before. He gave a short laugh, that left his lips fixed in a queer, fierce smile; his eyes mocked young Jolyon.

“Thanks,” he said. “It’s deuced kind of you. But you’re not the only chaps that can hold on.” He rose.

Young Jolyon looked after him as he walked away, and, resting his head on his hand, sighed.

In the drowsy, almost empty room the only sounds were the rustle of newspapers, the scraping of matches being struck. He stayed a long time without moving, living over again those days when he, too, had sat long hours watching the clock, waiting for the minutes to pass — long hours full of the torments of uncertainty, and of a fierce, sweet aching; and the slow, delicious agony of that season came back to him with its old poignancy. The sight of Bosinney, with his haggard face, and his restless eyes always wandering to the clock, had roused in him a pity, with which was mingled strange, irresistible envy.

He knew the signs so well. Whither was he going — to what sort of fate? What kind of woman was it who was drawing him to her by that magnetic force which no consideration of honour, no principle, no interest could withstand; from which the only escape was flight.

Flight! But why should Bosinney fly? A man fled when he was in danger of destroying hearth and home, when there were children, when he felt himself trampling down ideals, breaking something. But here, so he had heard, it was all broken to his hand.

He himself had not fled, nor would he fly if it were all to come over again. Yet he had gone further than Bosinney, had broken up his own unhappy home, not someone else’s: And the old saying came back to him: ‘A man’s fate lies in his own heart.’

In his own heart! The proof of the pudding was in the eating — Bosinney had still to eat his pudding.

His thoughts passed to the woman, the woman whom he did not know, but the outline of whose story he had heard.

An unhappy marriage! No ill-treatment — only that indefinable malaise, that terrible blight which killed all sweetness under Heaven; and so from day to day, from night to night, from week to week, from year to year, till death should end it.

But young Jolyon, the bitterness of whose own feelings time had assuaged, saw Soames’ side of the question too. Whence should a man like his cousin, saturated with all the prejudices and beliefs of his class, draw the insight or inspiration necessary to break up this life? It was a question of imagination, of projecting himself into the future beyond the unpleasant gossip, sneers, and tattle that followed on such separations, beyond the passing pangs that the lack of the sight of her would cause, beyond the grave disapproval of the worthy. But few men, and especially few men of Soames’ class, had imagination enough for that. A deal of mortals in this world, and not enough imagination to go round! And sweet Heaven, what a difference between theory and practice; many a man, perhaps even Soames, held chivalrous views on such matters, who when the shoe pinched found a distinguishing factor that made of himself an exception.

Then, too, he distrusted his judgment. He had been through the experience himself, had tasted too the dregs the bitterness of an unhappy marriage, and how could he take the wide and dispassionate view of those who had never been within sound of the battle? His evidence was too first-hand — like the evidence on military matters of a soldier who has been through much active service, against that of civilians who have not suffered the disadvantage of seeing things too close. Most people would consider such a marriage as that of Soames and Irene quite fairly successful; he had money, she had beauty; it was a case for compromise. There was no reason why they should not jog along, even if they hated each other. It would not matter if they went their own ways a little so long as the decencies were observed — the sanctity of the marriage tie, of the common home, respected. Half the marriages of the upper classes were conducted on these lines: Do not offend the susceptibilities of Society; do not offend the susceptibilities of the Church. To avoid offending these is worth the sacrifice of any private feelings. The advantages of the stable home are visible, tangible, so many pieces of property; there is no risk in the statu quo. To break up a home is at the best a dangerous experiment, and selfish into the bargain.

This was the case for the defence, and young Jolyon sighed.

‘The core of it all,’ he thought, ‘is property, but there are many people who would not like it put that way. To them it is “the sanctity of the marriage tie”; but the sanctity of the marriage tie is dependent on the sanctity of the family, and the sanctity of the family is dependent on the sanctity of property. And yet I imagine all these people are followers of One who never owned anything. It is curious!

And again young Jolyon sighed.

‘Am I going on my way home to ask any poor devils I meet to share my dinner, which will then be too little for myself, or, at all events, for my wife, who is necessary to my health and happiness? It may be that after all Soames does well to exercise his rights and support by his practice the sacred principle of property which benefits us all, with the exception of those who suffer by the process.’

And so he left his chair, threaded his way through the maze of seats, took his hat, and languidly up the hot streets crowded with carriages, reeking with dusty odours, wended his way home.

Before reaching Wistaria Avenue he removed old Jolyon’s letter from his pocket, and tearing it carefully into tiny pieces, scattered them in the dust of the road.

He let himself in with his key, and called his wife’s name. But she had gone out, taking Jolly and Holly, and the house was empty; alone in the garden the dog Balthasar lay in the shade snapping at flies.

Young Jolyon took his seat there, too, under the pear-tree that bore no fruit.

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