Swan Song – A Modern Comedy

A review of Swan Song by John Galsworthy

Originally published in 1928, Swan Song is the third in Galsworthy’s A Modern Comedy trilogy. While it, just about, stands on its own merits, to get the most out of the book the reader should read the first two books in the trilogy and, especially, the interlude, Passers-By, which he wrote in 1927. In that, Soames takes his daughter, Fleur, along with her devoted, politician husband, Michael Mont, on a world tour to help her get over her first love, Jon Forsyte, who was forced by family pressure to brutally reject her. To Soames’ horror his party bump into Irene, Soames’ first wife, Jon and his new wife, Ann, and it takes all of the old devil’s scheming to prevent the two star-crossed lovers from meeting.

Swan Song opens with the General Strike of 1926 which the upper and middle classes see as an opportunity to pull together and defeat the (rightful) claims of the workers. Mount encourages Fleur to run a canteen to feed the strike-breakers. It is here that she meets Jon once more, the latter having left America for good and volunteered to work as an engine stoker. The sight of Jon is enough to relight the flames of passion in Fleur’s breast and the news of his return to Blighty to cause Soames considerable anxiety.

Fleur, a spoilt brat who reverts to the character we encountered in To Let (the third book in the Forsyte Saga) loses her head, all too willing to abandon her child, Kit, and husband, who has thrown himself into a scheme to improve slums, in pursuit of her first sweetheart. She does everything in her power to engineer meetings with Jon and her passion for him grows and grows until a tumultuous encounter at a spot they favoured when they were initially courting. Jon seems happy to be swept along in this maelstrom of passion, an indication of a certain weakness that had not previously been evident in his previous characterisation, but nonetheless is torn between his first love and his duty to his wife.

All the relatives on the side lines realise that the reawakening of the tempestuous love affair between Soames’ daughter from his second marriage and the son from his wife’s second marriage is fraught with disaster and, in their own ways, do their best to frustrate Fleur’s plans, none more so than Soames who is wracked with worry and despair. Irene, his first wife, remains a ghostly presence throughout the narrative and we do not find out what her attitude is to this revived love affair which she did so much to stop in the first place. Mont has an air of resigned acceptance.

What brings Jon to his senses is Ann’s announcement that she is pregnant and, rather brutally, he sends a note to Fleur telling her he will never see her again, the 1920s equivalent of dumping by text. This second rejection throws Fleur into paroxysms of despair.

Throughout the book there is a sense of matters moving inexorably to a conclusion. Soames is anxious to ensure there is a succession plan in place for handling the trusteeship of the Forsyte fortunes, given his and his faithful retainer’s respective ages, and visits Dorset to track down where the Forsytes first came from. His first love is his art collection which he adds to and makes arrangements to bequeath to the nation.

There is a fine line between comedy and tragedy which Galsworthy traverses with aplomb at the end of the book. It is fitting that Soames’ two obsessions, his almost suffocating love for Fleur and his pride in his art collection, should in their own way contribute to his demise. It seems a fitting end to a man of strong character, a man increasingly out of tune with the modern world, and a man who could not forget and had much to regret.

Galsworthy seems to have recovered his mojo in this book. It is more entertaining than the first two books in the trilogy and gives his leading man, Soames, a fitting send off.


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