On Forsyte 'Change, by John Galsworthy

Hester’s Little Tour, 1845

Those who frequented Forsyte ‘Change at Timothy’s on the Bayswater Road, and were accustomed to the sight of Aunt Hester sitting in her chair to the left of the fireplace with a book on her lap which she seemed almost too quiescent to be reading, must often have wondered: What, if any, adventures or emotional disturbances had ever come the way of that still figure? Had she ever loved, and if so — whom? Was she ever ill, and if so — where? To whom had she ever confided — what? Not that she imparted to the observer the impression of a sphinx. That would hardly have been nice. And yet, curiously enough, of the three sisters who dwelled at Timothy’s, it was Aunt Hester who exhaled, in spite of all her quietism, an atmosphere of — one would almost say free thought, but for fear of going too far. Better, perhaps, say that she conveyed a feeling of having abandoned, out of love of a quiet life, more desires, thoughts, hopes and dislikes, than either of her sisters had ever been capable of entertaining. People felt, in fact, not that Aunt Hester owned a past, but that all her life she had been renouncing a past which she might very well have had. And they felt, too, that she knew it, and found it somehow not tragic, but comic, as if she were always saying to herself: ‘To be like this when you’re so unlike this — droll, isn’t it?’ When the Freudian doctrine of complexes and inhibitions came in, younger members of the family, such as Violet, given to pastels, Christopher, inclining to the stage, and Maud Dartie, nothing if not daring, would speculate on what had happened to Aunt Hester before she was as she was. And theory was divided between the assumption that she had been dropped on her head when she was three, or chased by a black man when she was thirteen. In a word, it was widely felt that there were strange potentialities in Aunt Hester, which she had deliberately not developed. The doctrine of ‘balance redressed’ which had contrived out of a family containing so many ‘characters’ a sort of reserve or sinking fund in Hester and Timothy, seemed to offer a sound biological explanation, and it was only when she died in 1907 and left to Francie Forsyte her china, that there came to at least one member of the family knowledge that Aunt Hester had once ‘tried herself out’ before for good and all she resigned a past. For in a Lowestoft teapot Francie found a little sheaf of yellowed leaves of paper, which seemingly Aunt Hester had been too passive to destroy, before she entered a passivity even more profound; leaves deeply buried beneath a pot-pourri of very old cloves, and the dust of rose petals, together with three boot buttons which appeared to have been dropped in at moments when Aunt Hester couldn’t be bothered to put them in any other place. The leaves had been detached as if pulled out of a diary, and this alone gave food for thought, in its implication that Aunt Hester must at one time have manifested energy, or there would have been no diary to pull them out of. That they came into the hands of Francie was perhaps fortunate, for no other Forsyte could have relished them adequately. Indeed she so relished them that she even fancied Aunt Hester had wished them to survive as a sort of protest against her unspent life; and presently she dressed them up anonymously in the form of a story which she sent to the ‘Argonaut,’ who did not accept it. In her version the names were altered, but are here restored to their pristine purity. It was entitled: ‘Hester’s Little Tour, being Leaves from a Very Early Victorian Diary found in a Lowestoft teapot,’ and it began abruptly:

“Wednesday morning, early. How entrancing it was last night to stand in the moonlight with that beautiful Rhine flowing by my feet, and to fancy that it wandered past castles and cities, only to lose itself at last in the great blue sea! How the moonbeams glistened on the water! To think that under this moon the Loreley lured men to destruction, and the robber barons issued from their fastnesses on their forays, with the soft moonlight gleaming on their armour! But was I, indeed, thinking of all this? No, I had but one thought: Would he come? Would he really come? And what would they say at home if they could see me standing there with the hood drawn over my face, waiting for my lover? Lover! Oh, the dear word! If only, I thought, I do not forget all my German, so that I can understand what he says to me in his dear voice, and not weary him by having to talk English! You must not think, my diary, that I did not know how immodest it was of me to have come out. Yes, I knew that, but I did not care. I did not care. Why should I? My heart tells me that I am in love with him. My heart tells me that he loves me. And then he came, he came almost before I knew he was there, wrapped in that flowing cloak which Swithin would laugh at, but which looks so martial on him, he is so upright. How terribly my heart beat when without a word he took me in his arms, wrapping his cloak right round me so that we seemed one person. Ah! it was divine; and strange how I had no fears or misgivings. I never once thought of home while I was standing there in his embrace. A nightingale was singing; so romantic, so beautiful, I shall never forget. Rolandseck, dear Rolandseck! . . . When I was back in my room, fortunately quite unobserved, I felt cold and sick at the thought that we were leaving on the morrow for Bonn. Would that not be too far for him to come, for he has his military duties. But if I can believe his words, or rather his lips, he will not fail. At six o’clock, he said, under the linden trees in the Platz at Bonn. Oh, my diary, where is your Hester going? When I was in his embrace last night I felt I could give up the world for him; and of course he is of very good family. But, lying in my bed, everything seemed so difficult and to need such an effort, for indeed I think it would give our dear father a fit to think of me in Germany married, or perhaps not married — for I do not even know if he has a wife already — to an Army officer. And soldiers are proverbially fickle; they love and ride away. And then what would become of me? But the delight I felt when he put his arms round me — can there be anything in the world more beautiful than love? And I have so often laughed at it; but indeed I do not know myself any more, nor where my sense of humour has gone. To think that only three weeks ago we were in the packet crossing to Calais — it seems a century; and all the towns and people I have seen are faded as if I had dreamed them; and just these last few days seem real. Or perhaps this is the dream and I shall wake up and find that I have never met him. Fancy! If we had not gone into the Pump rooms that night at Ems, I never should have met him. Those divine valses we danced together — how elegantly he dances! It was love at first sight, and I have behaved most immodestly, but that does not seem to me to matter at all. Yet sometimes I wonder what he thinks of me when I am not with him. After all, I am thirty years old, not just a young girl as perhaps he believes, for he says I look so young. His Englisches Mädchen — he calls me! Oh me! How difficult is life! I am surprised to find that all the deportment and good conduct I have been taught seem to count for nothing when I am with him. I am really naughty, for it makes me smile to think what John and Eleanor would feel and say if they only knew where their ‘dear demure Hester’ had been last night, and how all she is thinking about now is how to get away from them again to-night and meet him under the lime trees in the Platz at Bonn. It is nearly seven by my watch; I must close you now, my diary, and get ready for the chaise . . . .

“Wednesday evening. Oh! dear, how many stories I have told! First I said I had a headache after the jolting in the chaise, and was going to lie down and sleep, so as to be fresh for dinner. And then I listened till I heard John and Eleanor in their room, unpacking; and out I stole. He was there already — all impatience, and his boots all dusty; for he had ridden all the way and was going to ride back for his inspection in the morning. Ah! what a beautiful hour; but not so beautiful as last night because there were people about, and, though the linden trees were thick and lovely, they didn’t hide us as I would have liked. Yes, I would — I am quite abandoned! To-night — dare I write it even in you, my diary? — he says he will come to my window. When I chose to be on the ground floor, did I think of that? Yes, I will be honest, I did; so that’s that! I shall never smile again at people in love. It is too sweet, and too upsetting. It makes you do what you would never dream of doing, and feel quite proud of it, so long as nobody knows. And then, when I was coming in, I met John and told him I had been pining for air to cure my headache, and so I had gone for a walk. And I quite enjoyed seeing dear John so deceived! Yes, and I said I should be all right tomorrow if I went to bed EARLY AFTER DINNER. Poor John, he is very trustful, and has such nice eyes. Eleanor is very fortunate, I think. It is all so smooth for them! Ah me! It is so different and difficult for us. It is too cruel that he is not English. Bernhard — the name is beautiful and very strong — just what a name should be; only, I like it better without the ‘h.’ He is six feet tall and twenty-eight years old, and he thinks I am twenty-four; and I have not told him that I am not. When he touches me nothing matters, not even the truth. I feel it is fortunate that we can only speak to each other in a broken way; it seems to excuse me for deceiving him about my age. Yet, after all — thirty and twenty-eight — there is not much difference; and he is so big and strong and manly, I feel humble enough with him to be the younger. There is something so romantic about this beautiful Rhineland that I do not feel as I should feel in England; in England I could never act as I am acting now, indeed no — I should be ashamed of having such violent, such delicious feelings. I am writing in bed, for fear dear Eleanor should come and find me up, after I had said that I was going to bed at once. But I think I can venture soon now to get up and lock my door, and then I shall don my mauve négligé; it goes with my hair, and I shall keep my hair down. I know how daring that is, but sometimes I feel as daring as a tigress defending her young; and then, all suddenly, it is as if my heart would creep out at the soles of my feet, to think that I have a sweetheart coming to my window. ‘Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?’ Oh! Why is he not English? It would all be so much easier. For then he could woo me openly. If anybody knew he was coming to-night, could I ever hold up my head again? And yet, if I were sure no one would ever know, I should feel like a bird, free and happy, rejoicing that its mate was coming to it in the moonlight. Only birds do not come to their mates in the moonlight. How silly I am! But oh! if he should be seen! I will not think of that; I will not. Be brave, my heart! He says I am ‘so schone’— such a pretty word. But I know I am not really. I have not the pink cheeks, the corn-coloured hair, the coral lips of these German maidens. I am dark, and thinner. Perhaps that is why he admires me. Oh! how my heart is beating! I must put you away now, my diary. What — ah! what will have come to me when I write in you again! . . .

“Friday afternoon. I am distraught. I cannot tell what to do, I cannot tell. All today my mind has been going this way and that, ever since I had his dear letter. I have made it all out with the help of the dictionary. His regiment is marching tomorrow to Frankfort, and he begs me to come to him there. He says we will be married, and he will make me ‘ever happy.’ But until he goes he is so busy that he cannot come again. I know it is my besetting weakness not to be able to act for myself; Ann is always at me about it. I wonder what she would say if she knew that if I could act now I should go to him and disregard the consequences. It is not that I am afraid of the consequences, but it is so difficult to act all by myself; there are so many things I must do if I am to go. Ah! if only someone could do them for me. It is not my soul, but my body that lags and lags. I wish I were like Ann, who always does at once what she feels to be right. Is it that I am ashamed of what has happened? No, not to myself. How can I be ashamed of obeying the dictates of my heart and his? But I cannot face having to explain to John and Eleanor. They would be so horrified, and how could I make them understand? And then there is the arranging for my journey and selling my necklace, for I have not enough money. He would send me money if he knew, but I could not ask him. Oh dear! it is all so difficult. Yesterday I was intoxicated on the memory of our night, it still makes me burn; but today my courage and my energy is all run out of me. Our night! Never, never could I write of it, even in you, my diary. It was too wonderful, and terrifying, and sweet. Did I care then what I was doing, do I care now what I did? A thousand times no! If he were here at this moment it should be again as it was. I think I must be wanton by nature, for I am proud of it to myself. But to the world — and then John and Eleanor! After all their kindness in taking me this tour, how can I leave them without a word? And if I do not, how can I ever tell them what I have done — what we have done! I should die of shame! But if I cannot make up my mind to leave them without a word, and do all those other things that are necessary, I must go on with them to Cologne, and back to London, and never see him again. Soon he will not remember me. I shall be just a night of love. Perhaps one of many nights, for what do I know of him but that I love him, and that he seems to me brave and beautiful? If I look up I can see him there leaning above me in the moonlight. O God! I was wicked, but I was happy. There is the bell for supper. Yes! I am distracted. Perhaps in the night I shall gain courage to act, because I shall want him so! . . .

“Sunday, Cologne. All has moved on as it seemed without me, and my body has come here with John and Eleanor. I have just written to him. I have told him that if he really loves me, he will come to England to claim me; but I know he will not come. I feel it is the end. I am not a fool. John and Eleanor think I have a touch of the sun; it was very hot in the chaise. It is a touch of the moon I have. The moon! I, Hester, who always laughed —! Ah me! I have a lump of lead in my chest. Eleanor came to my room early yesterday morning and insisted on helping me to pack; she is so kind; we started at eight o’clock and drove all day. Now we shall go to the Cathedral and tomorrow travel by train, and in four days we shall be home. John said to-night: ‘Well, I think it has been a very enjoyable little tour.’ He is a dear nice fellow, but quite blind! When I go home I shall kiss them all and say: ‘Oh! such a lovely tour!’ As I sit here in my bedroom writing, I seem to see myself with malice: Dear prim proper little Hester! Ugh! I have not cried at all, but an’ I would —! To-morrow morning we shall travel on and on and on away from him. All my mind and will feel paralysed, my heart only is alive and sore; I know that if it came over again I should act just the same. And my nature will always be like this; always want love and freedom, always be free in thought but not in deed . . .

“Saturday. I have not written in you for days, my diary. What was the use? Yesterday we crossed in the packet and came up to London. I laughed when I saw our house, but I was not amused. It looked so pokey, and like other houses. Oh! Rolandseck! and the moonlight on the river! There was no letter from him. I have been a fool; I know it now. My pride is hurt, and I am sore — sore. Ann looked at me so hard, I could not help smiling bitterly. Poor Ann! And Juley gushed about my looking pale. She is a fool. I feel much older than them both. And now I shall go on day after day doing exactly what we have always done; but I shall never feel the same again, for I have been where they have not. I have had my little tour . . .”

In her capacity of editress Francie had added: “This is surely a curious little sidelight on the nature of our Victorian foremothers.”

“F. F.”


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54