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by James Hitchcock
November 9, 2002
Around l970 "The Forsyte Saga" was "the most popular series Masterpiece Theatre never ran", since thirty-some years ago Masterpiece Theatre did not yet exist but today people think it did. This Fall, however, there is a much more lavish version of the Saga which Masterpiece Theatre is presenting.
Based on a novel by John Galsworthy, it could be called an Edwardian soap opera, the story of three generations of an upper-middle-class English family from the apparent solidity of the Victorian era through the final collapse of that culture in World War I. It contains everything a good soap opera requires except perhaps murder.
In calling it a soap opera I do not mean it is insignificant. It is an engaging story which, however, flunks my personal test about such productions -- do I want to record it and watch all eight(?) hours again? It might also be called a sociological novel, interesting not so much for its artistic value as because it offers a revealing look at a particular social milieu, with no profundities to get in the way.
The central character is Soames Forsyte, the "man of property" who ardently woos and marries a reluctant Irene Heron. The marriage is not a success and, when Irene asks for her freedom, Soames will not give it to her, so strong is his sense of possession. Irene then leaves him and takes up with a free-spirited architect named Philip Bosinney, who at a crucial moment is killed in an accident.
Meanwhile Soames' cousin Jolyon, a free-spirited painter, leaves his own wife for his children's governess. In due course they have children of their own. When Jolyon's second wife dies, he finds himself attracted to Irene, whom Soames still regards as his wife. (The plot is considerably more complicated than I have made out.)
Galsworthy talked about the Saga with ambiguous playfulness, insisting that readers should not try to infer his own attitudes from those of his characters. On the whole the story seems to be a manifesto of "liberation" from conventional morality.
But the new production does seem to show more ambivalence about the characters than the earlier one did. Soames is allowed to have some humanity, and Irene is not so much the plaster saint. Nonetheless it seems clear that one is supposed to think that Soames, in refusing to give Irene a divorce, is wicked, while her attraction to Bosinney and Jolyon's to the governess are self-evidently good, because based on romantic love.
But there is a moral vacuum at the heart of the story, in that the author (or at least his characters) seems not to think that marriage and sex have anything to do with morality, that what is called morality is mere social convention based on respectability and property.
But looking at it in purely human terms, Irene acts badly because she marries Soames merely for economic security and expects to be let out of the bargain when she does not like it, Jolyon abandons his distraught wife and the children he will not see again for some years, and Bosinney, besides having an affair with another man's wife, plays fast and loose with Soames' money while building him a house.
Galsworthy's approved attitude seems to be expressed through Old Jolyon, who first disinherits his son for leaving his family, then in old age "mellows out" and even falls in love with Irene himself!
The Forsyte Saga is a landmark in the discrediting of the traditional concept of marriage, and it is loaded with cliches - marriage as merely a social convention, romantic love and sexual attraction as trumping fidelity, the artist as someone who courageously defies stifling bourgeoise values. The cliches can all be traced to earlier times, but Galsworthy purveyed them to the very middle class who were thereby being excoriated.
All this was no doubt exhilarating in 1920, and Victorian morality embodied its own distortions. But the values implicitly endorsed in the "The Forsyte Saga" would in time lead to the wholesale repudiation of the Christian morality of sex and marriage. In our own time, when in some places stable marriages are themselves almost unusual, the story can be seen as a stage in the process by which people heedlessly threw off traditional constraints without much regard for the long-term consequences of their actions.
James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. His two-volume book on religion and the Supreme Court has just been published by Princeton University Press. E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock
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