The White Monkey – John Galsworthy
Published in 1924 this is the fourth in Galsworthy’s nine book Forsyte marathon or, if you prefer, the first of the second trilogy. Principally it is the story of Fleur Forsyte and Michael Mont, the man she married after giving up Jon but one she does not love. To complicate matters, Wilfred, Mont’s ostensible best friend, is besotted with Fleur. Will she leave Michael for Wilfred or be content to just string him along?
Set in 1922, the wind of change is blowing through the fustian world of the Forsytes. Timothy, the last of the remaining older generation of Forsytes dies midway through the book. The Labour party is in the ascendancy and Soames is worried that his wealth will be absorbed by taxation. He also appears to be losing his touch, taking the fall for a scandal which he uncovers while serving as a director on the board of an insurance company. For a man who never took a business risk and was the epitome of prudence, this is a bitter blow to a man precious of his reputation. He also finds himself out of touch with the younger generation, particularly his daughter, Fleur, on whom he still dotes. On overhearing their slang, he murmurs in exasperation, “Good Gad, what jargon!”
Perhaps even more telling, Galsworthy allows the low orders to play a part in the book, stylistically making a telling contrast to the comfortable and carefree life that Fleur and Michael enjoy. We meet the Bickets initially through the husband, who is sacked from Michael’s firm for stealing books to pay for his wife’s treatment for pneumonia. They have a dream of emigrating to Australia and Bickert is reduced to selling balloons and his wife to modelling for artists. Their hand to mouth existence is as far removed from the Forsyte’s gilded cage as you can imagine.
The title of the book is drawn from the name of a painting bought by Soames and given to Fleur. The monkey eating an orange is symbolic of the modern generation, one that enjoys the moment and doesn’t give much thought to the consequences or the purpose of it all. “They suck out the life and throw the orange peel away…” It is not too difficult to see that there is a timelessness to Galsworthy’s satire, many of the observations are as true of the generations that were to come as they were of those who lived during and enjoyed the roaring Twenties.
The book is an easy read, but, as with many that form part of a series, does assume a certain level of understanding of what has gone before. It is a difficult balance for a writer to strike, how to attract new readers with a book that stands on its own two feet, and yet avoid the risk of losing faithful readers with too much repetition of what has gone before. Galsworthy may have struck the right balance, although it would have been interesting to come to it completely fresh and see whether that made any difference to my appreciation of it.
Compared with the first three books, there is far less in the way of action. It is more a subtle, and in some parts less than subtle, portrayal of how various segments of society are coming to terms with the changes that the fall-out from the First World War and the rising socialist movement are bringing about. There is a sense that both Soames and, in a different way, Fleur and Michael, will become like fish out of water, unable to cope with, let alone comprehend, the enormity of the changes that have been set in motion.
Doubtless these are all themes to be explored in the next volume, The Silver Spoon, as well as how Fleur’s love triangle, likely to be made even more complicated by the impending return of Jon, will work out.