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Today is the birthday of John Galsworthy (1867-1933), the Nobel Prize-winning English novelist and dramatist. Galsworthy’s most famous work, a group of novels and stories collectively referred to as “The Forsyte Saga”, chronicles the rise of the bourgeois Forsyte family from arriviste to establishment in Victorian/Edwardian London. Today the general public is familiar with Galsworthy, if at all, since sadly he does not seem to be read much anymore, primarily because of the first volume of the series, “The Man of Property”, which has been turned into film and television adaptations several times. The book was particularly scandalous when written, and is still uncomfortable to read today, since the tortured Soames Forsyte, Galsworthy’s central character, rapes his soon-to-be-ex-wife Irene toward the end of the novel when he learns she is cheating on him with the architect he has hired to build them a suburban villa.
Galsworthy, somewhat like Balzac, tried to create a world-within-a-world by carefully intertwining the lives of his fictional characters with the reality of the changing times which they would have experienced over the course of the late 19th and early 20th century. Dealing primarily with the middle classes and nouveaux-riches, rather than with the nobility and gentry, Galsworthy is able to allow a greater degree of freedom to his characters’ choices as, somewhat similarly, in an earlier generation, Jane Austen’s middle-class heroines were able to move more freely than the blue-stockinged sisters of the toffs who pursued them. Unlike Austen, however, Galsworthy’s heroes often end up alone, unfulfilled, miserable – or dead. This is not to say that Galsworthy is obsessed with tragedy, in the manner of Hardy, but he is a more of a realist than Austen, who was writing in a different age and about country pursuits, rather than the difficulties of urban life.
Lovers of finely-crafted literature, however, would do well to learn of two later writers whose work is perhaps even less familiar today than Galsworthy’s, but who in my view inherited Galsworthy’s mantle of chronicling the British middle classes and their reactions to the changing times, albeit in very distinct ways: English author Anthony Powell, and Scottish author Guy McCrone.
Anthony Powell (1905-2000) wrote a great deal of work during his career, fiction and non-fiction, as a novelist, dramatist, journalist and screenwriter. However it is his magnum opus “A Dance to the Music of Time”, consisting of twelve novels chronicling the fortunes of four men from the English middle and upper-middle classes, that is perhaps the English language equivalent to Proust’s seven-volume “À la recherche du temps perdu”, albeit often from a more comic standpoint. “Dance” begins with four boys at public school, soon to leave for university, and follows them over the arc of the twelve novels through the Jazz Age, World War II, and up through the hippie era. Their lives intersect at various points, sometimes for long periods, at other times only for short intervals, but their exploits are often a chance for Powell to satirize the social movements and morays through which they pass.
Each of the four main characters in “Dance” is more or less a type, familiar to anyone who has spent time in English society. Nick Jenkins, the narrator, comes from an army officer’s family with a fairly solid, middle England background. Like an avatar, he provides some grounding for the reader since he reveals little about himself as compared to his schoolfellows. Charles Stringham is part of a complicated but interesting clan somewhat reminiscent of Sebastian Flyte’s. Peter Templer is a City-money lush who has luck with the ladies, and the enigmatic social climber Kenneth Widmerpool is eager to outstrip them all.
The successes and failures of these men occupy the reader through the passage of time, and show how English society abandoned the straitlaced conventions which Galsworthy, a generation earlier, was already beginning to tear. Whereas Galsworthy focuses on the members of a single, extended family, as well as those who seek to become members of it, in Powell it is ultimately the individual’s desires, for good or for ill, that prevail over family ties. By the end of the novels, this independence of the characters from where they began is exactly mirrored by the strange new world of the later 20th century in which they move.
Guy McCrone (1898-1977) is certainly the most obscure of these three novelists, and this is a very great shame indeed. As of this writing, he has not even merited an entry on Wikipedia. His absence from that abattoir of questionable information however, is in no way a reflection of the great charm that characterizes his writing, nor of the pleasure that can be taken from reading his work.
In scope comparable to Galsworthy, but in a style very different from both Galsworthy and Powell, McCrone chronicles the rise of a Glaswegian clan in his “Wax Fruit Trilogy” of novels, as well as a few additional, associated novels and short stories. The Moorhouses, like the Forsytes, come from farmers and tradesmen, but rise to become provincial haute bourgeoisie in Victorian Glasgow. As they rise in society, they mix with the establishment and try to continue their ascent, not unlike the characters in both Galsworthy’s and Powell’s epics.
Here the comparisons end, however, for while “The Forsyte Saga” views money and power as inherently dangerous and leading to tragedy and emotional suicide, and “A Dance to the Music of Time” views these, or at least their pursuit, as at equal moments comic and disastrous, in “Wax Fruit” these are seen primarily as instruments to be used, not good or evil in and of themselves. Perhaps McCrone, as a Scot, took a different and more sympathetic view of the value of economy and investment than did his English colleagues, who only saw the negative impact of the quest for influence. For McCrone, money is not necessarily the root of all evil, if in fact it is kept under control.
Certainly there are problems created by the search for higher position on the part of McCrone’s characters, particularly in the absolutely outstanding Aunt Bel – a part which surely needs to be brought to the screen and given to a great comic actress to bring to life. Bel is often thwarted in her efforts to put on the right sort of show for society, but she is never mean-spirited in her attempts to raise her family higher, and there is a great deal of genuine love and affection among the members of the clan. The psychologically twisted and scarred characters in both “The Foryste Saga” and “A Dance to the Music of Time” would be anathema to the Moorhouses. In these very Scottish stories, there is a wonderful quality of lightness and wry humor, contrasted with the darkness of industrial Glasgow, that keeps McCrone from falling into the camp of either the socialist propaganda of Victorian social crusaders like Dickens, with his inevitable street urchin coughing up a lung, or putting on the rose-colored lenses of some ancien régime-style dramatist trying to keep the establishment blind to the realities around them.
While none of these three novelists make for easy reading, all deserve to be much better-known than they are at present. Admittedly, only a few weeks of summer remain, and with the resumption of school days for many, little time remains for reading large tomes such as those suggested here. However, even if their books are approached in a piecemeal fashion, Galsworthy, Powell, and McCrone are all outstanding exemplars of English language novelists worth getting to know.