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Englishry and Artistry

ISSUE:  Summer 1936

The Life and Letters of John Galsworthy. By H. V. Marrot. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $5.00.

It is well that the letters of an eminent man should be published soon after his death. Though they may not be needed to combat “the iniquity of oblivion,” they may prevent fallacious concepts of his private being that will ultimately influence opinion upon his works. Such simulacra of personalities can become ghosts that even the most sapient and indefatigable exorcists of untruth find hard to lay.

“The Life and Letters of John Galsworthy,” by H. V. Marrot, is in part a timely attempt, chiefly by evidence in the letters, to devitalize a belief that took shape years ago and has, says Mr. Marrot, been fostered by Galsworthy’s very virtues. “The vast majority mistook emotional poise for emotional frigidity . . . and labelled as sentimental a strong and authentic tenderness.” Akin to this detrimental notion is the idea, that Galsworthy, having been born in Victorian times and not being George Bernard Shaw, must lack noteworthy intelligence. Hence Mr. Marrot wishes to let Galsworthy show himself “within his wide personal limits, an exceptionally deep, broad, and shrewd thinker.”

Upon these two points Mr. Marrot has offered abundant and convincing evidence. He has also done more than defend Galsworthy; he has shown the man in his habit, neither untrussed nor stiff starched, and much alive. Galsworthy rides, plays with his multitudinous dogs, visits London or South Africa, writes novels in the sunshine. We see the paper on his knee and the inkwell beside him. We read many of the letters that he received.

Subsequent biographers will not need all of Mr. Marrot’s Galsworthyana. Later evidence may conceivably reveal more concerning the “impatience” and the “prejudice” that Mr. Marrot mentions as momentary nullifiers of Galsworthy’s “high self,” for Mr. Marrot is confessedly just this side idolatry. His is doubtless not the last word on Galsworthy, but it will be weighed in the preparation of whatever word at any moment is the last.

Between Mr. Marrot’s view of Galsworthy and what Galsworthy’s works reveal and imply about himself there is no clash. Though a critic of his nation and period, he was distinctly of both. Not the widest travel or frequent sojourning in foreign lands of delight could win him from love of the soil in which both stems of his family were rooted. With all his cosmopolitanism he was as deeply English as Dickens. He was, too, an Englishman of the late nineteenth century, distressed that so much of English life was held in chancery to the past, that individualism had withered into Forsyteism, that the prospect of harmony and beauty in the future should be obscured by a growing collective bad taste. His earlier work was largely an attempt to break the chancery, an effort that, though he was by no means defeated, he gradually relaxed ; his later work was largely an attempt to ride the postwar maelstrom smilingly and to assure England that there will never be a last Englishman. Though he was not despondent, he was not gay, possibly because he came to maturity in the twilight that was deepening upon the diverse gods of an epoch.

One of the most interesting features of Mr. Marrot’s book is Galsworthy’s expressed distrust of social criticism as an art form. He reveals no pride in the force, restraint, and comprehensiveness that distinguish his arraignment of England. He denies that his plays, even “Justice,” have any more specific purpose than the incarnation of a “main idea.” He will admit no didacticism anywhere in his works beyond the setting up of “a sort of mental and moral ferment.” As early as 1910 he writes: “The more I consider things, the more I find that I am only a social critic by accident.” He finds in his books “a steady decrescendo in satire . . . and . . . a steady increase of the desire for beauty.” Indeed, he finds the change beginning after the first of his novels, “The Island Pharisees.”

Perhaps all this is in part exasperation at being endlessly called propagandist, or in part the let-down of increasing age; yet it must also express an artist’s discontent, a sense of emptiness following the gratification a sublimated Forsyte might feel at getting things done, at having letters from the prime minister about solitary confinement in prisons, and in being the main agency to reduce that evil. At any rate there is no question about the change that Galsworthy has pointed out in his work, as witness the difference between “The Man of Property” in 1906 and “In Chancery” in 1920. In the interval, still going on vigorously with complaint upon the plague of custom and the institutions of old, Galsworthy also cultivated quite another strain. This appears most definitely in “The Dark Flower,” which is essentially a lament upon nonfruition of love and beauty, a wastage that under the given circumstances implies but little social criticism.

“In Chancery” contains criticism more decisive than this yet more humane than that in “The Man of Property.” The latter novel thrusts forward the possessive instinct at times obtrusively; at times Galsworthy treats it as if he did not know just how deep it lies in maleness, maternity, and the satisfaction of being oneself. “In Chancery” utilizes this instinct more truly for what it is, a part of humanness, a quality of the late-Victorian Englishman harmful only when excessive. Indeed, Galsworthy is on the point almost of mourning its diminution at the end of the Victorian Age with the accompanying wane of British vitality. The property instinct, moreover, has become, in “In Chancery,” but one of several important interests, and the reader is consequently more at ease with it. There are no more such bothers as appear in “The Man of Property” because it was not the property instinct that first rendered Irene cold to Soames, or because it was the property instinct that made Soames come half out of character on “a certain night” and that killed Bosinney so foggily.

With “In Chancery” Galsworthy entered fully into the making of what he could best make, the record of a changing England about which there is much to lament and ridicule and more to love. This record he could not make in plays, for he found them on the whole barren and cramping. It needed the big novel, “The Forsyte Saga,” capable of being what he hoped it might be, his “passport . . . for the shores of permanence.”

Galsworthy can make fictional beings (even Americans, though not always “Amuricans”) come alive in a sentence, a few words; but his major persons, like Jane Austen’s and Thackeray’s and unlike Dickens’, grow into full being only by repeated contacts with one another and the reader. They are rather more looked into than Thackeray’s. They think much and always in their own idiom, sometimes with veritable silent soliloquies; but they are never taken by the heels and emptied out. These people are to us what people are in real life save that we are very sure of them and have been moved by some of them as their like would not move us in actuality. Many a reader must have been surprised to find his eyes misty as he watched the unlovable Soames at the deathbed of his father, the equally unamiable James Forsyte. Conrad, whose way with his people was not Galsworthy’s, said of the hitter’s first novel that it was notably faithful to the “surface of life” yet notably without shallowness. It is a comment upon Galsworthy that will bear repetition and thought.

It implies, for example, that Galsworthy’s work moves on levels not too far above the walks of the average intelligent reader. Galsworthy need not be studied before he can be read. His symbolism, for instance, requires no interpreter; for his dark flower, his House at Robin Hill, his Irene Forsyte, and that amusing portent, Tymothy in his dotage, are much more than symbols. In his pursuit of beauty Galsworthy takes us along willingly, asking us to admire only what has always charmed us. He does not disturb us with the joy of high tragedy, for he produces pity rather than that misnamed but essentially tragic emotion, terror. He has moments of sentimentalism (there should be no grave in “The Apple Tree”); but he can, as in the death of Old Joly-on, make sadness and beauty firmly one; and in his elegiac moods, faintly ironic or entirely pensive, he is at his excellent best.

As has been impressively declared by many a good critic, Galsworthy is no Tolstoi or Dostoevsky; but such is the case of many an admirable author. Another grievance of more point is that Galsworthy expended much of his mature power in the telling but rather random account of a dozen or so post-war years too close for adequate perspective, and that he did not plan his whole chronicle with more of a Jules Remains’ thoroughness. But so it had to be, no doubt—Galsworthy was essentially an English novelist and a man of what seems an interminable age between ages. He was also, Mr. Marrot devotedly attests, a gentleman of well governed intelligence and feeling who would grace any age. And to the end of his days he offered what any age needs, “the precious fluids, revelation or delight.”


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