To Let – John Galsworthy
Going through my library on my Kindle I found that whilst I had read the first two books in Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga, Man of Property and In Chancery, I had not completed the trilogy. Looking for something different from my diet of Golden Age detective fiction, I decided to give the final part, To Let, published in 1921, a go. Galsworthy went on to write another six books about the family he created, but this book brings to an end the story of the old generation with the death of Timothy. I’m not sure the book stands up on its own merits and to enjoy and appreciate it, you need to have read its predecessors.
Perhaps because of this, the book is more immediately engaging than the earlier ones, Galsworthy assuming that his reader is up to speed. The story has moved on twenty years since the bitter divorce of Soames and Irene. Soames has married again and has a beautiful if high-spirited and spoilt daughter, Fleur. Irene too has remarried, to Soames’ cousin, Jolyon, and she has a son, Jon. Inevitably, Fleur and Jon fall in love, an affair that is doomed but one that rakes up the bitter coals of their parents’ past.
Galsworthy’s strengths lie in his easy narrative style and his readiness to poke fun at middle class mores. His characterisation is first rate and setting the unlovable and rather staid Soames at the centre of the book, whilst a risk, pays off. We get to know him, warts and all, and begin to see what makes him tick. His world order is falling apart, his elder relatives are dying off and the youngsters are so different in attitude, living for the moment rather than building a solid portfolio of investments and property, that he cannot understand them. He also concerned that the well-established certainties of life are under attack and looming large in his thoughts is the threat of taxation that will hit his slowly accumulated wealth.
Soames has not got over the loss of Irene, made worse by the fact that she married his cousin and lives in the house he had built for her and which was the start of where their relationship went wrong. The reader can readily understand his despair when he learns that his daughter is pursuing a dangerous liaison. Besotted by her, the only possession that he has that he truly loves, he feels he has to support her, despite the pain it brings him. he death of Jolyon forces matters to a head and Jon has a difficult choice to make. I could not help thinking that he made the right one.
Fleur, of course, was resilient enough to move on and settle down with someone who, at least in her father’s eyes, was a much more suitable match, and came with the prospect of a title, something that the Forsytes had previously looked on with disdain. After all, they were men of substance, measured in bricks and mortars, and pounds and pence, not fancy titles.
The events of the book force Soames to take stock of his life and his philosophy and ends on a rather gloomy note. ““To Let”—the Forsyte age and way of life, when a man owned his soul, his investments, and his woman, without check or question. And now the state had, or would have, his investments, his woman had herself, and God knew who had his soul. “To Let”—that sane and simple creed!”
But it is not a depressing book. The story is well told and plotted, the characters, even the minor ones who flit in and out, are well fleshed out. Imperfections are not hidden. The Fleur Jon storyline could easily have gone into Romeo and Juliet territory but Galsworthy, rightly, resists the temptation and allows the love affair to reach its natural conclusion. With the exception of Timothy’s servants, who are a little too stereotyped for my taste, the characters are painted in a naturalistic style and the reader can believe in them and their motivations.
I enjoyed the book.