Tag Archives: John Galsworthy

The Silver Spoon

The Silver Spoon – John Galsworthy

Galsworthy’s Forsyte Chronicles stretched to nine volumes and the Silver Spoon in some senses marks the midway point, being the fifth in the series and the second of the Modern Comedy trilogy. Published in 1926, it follows the story of Soames Forsyte and his daughter, Fleur, now married to Michael Mont and mother of a son, Kit, described as the eleventh baronet.

There have been some cosmetic changes at Fleur’s house. Gone is the Chinese décor and the Pekinese has been replaced by a new pooch. Fleur, though, is still the same social gadfly, collecting admirers and the company of the movers and shakers in London society. It is this trait in her character that leads to the central moment of the book, a libel case. At one of her soirees, Fleur is accused by Marjorie Ferrar of being a snob, neither having the wit nor personality to create the sort of salon that she is desperate to have. Soames overhears the remarks, calls Marjorie a traitress and orders her to leave. As neither side will back down in what today would seem to be a storm in a cocktail glass, the matter goes to court.

Soames uses all his guile to build up a convincing defence for Fleur. The case does offer Galsworthy the opportunity to explore the change in moral attitudes amongst the younger crowd in London society, raising questions of morality and comparing and contrasting standards of behaviour with the more staid and stuff outlook of Soames’ generation. Francis Wilmot, a young American guest of Fleur’s, who brings her news of her long-lost lover, Jon, falls under Marjorie’s spell and betrays his host. Although Fleur prevails, it is at some cost, becoming a social outcast and feeling that she cannot remain in London and play the part she desires in society persuades her doting father to accompany her on a trip around the world.

Fleur’s husband, Michael Mont, has left the world of publishing and has secured himself a seat in Parliament. He has become an advocate of an eccentric political philosophy, Foggartism, one of whose tenets is to ship youngsters off to parts of the empire, to ease unemployment at home and provide a labour force to the colonies to enable them to supply the motherland with goods and produce. Despite general ridicule and the failure of some social experiments to help the workers, Michael is determined to soldier on and feels that he is unable to accompany Fleur on her jaunt, only promising to join her when Parliament is in its summer recess.

One of the interesting aspects of the Chronicle is the change in treatment of Soames. In the early books he was clearly a villain, for whom the reader was invited to have little sympathy, set in his ways, concerned only for property, his art collection and money. Much of that remains, of course, but Galsworthy’s portrayal appears more sympathetic. He is a lost soul in a world he barely recognises, let alone understands. What he thought was an act of kindness to his daughter, the relentless pursuit of a frivolous court case, has backfired and left her unhappy. His reflections are often astute, amusing and filled with regret.

And the silver spoon? The sense of entitlement that pervades through the book, personified in the behaviour and attitudes of Fleur and the air of expectation that surrounds young Kit.

The White Monkey

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.

Book Corner – December 2020 (1)

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.

What Is The Origin of (118)?…

gotmygoat

Get my goat

This idiom is used to indicate that something has caused someone displeasure or irritation. The commonly accepted starting point in searching the etymology of the phrase is a prison memoir written by the mysterious convict, Number 1500 – presumably written to celebrate the fact that he was not a number, he was a free man – called Life in Sing Sing, published in 1904. In a chapter entitled Slang Among Convicts he defines goat as meaning anger or to exasperate.

Perhaps the earliest example of our idiom is a series entitled Experience of a Shop Girl, written by Elizabeth Howard Westwood and serialised in the Public opinion. The edition of 21st October 1905 featured a chapter called In the Working Girl’s Home and when someone criticised Alice Bailey’s table manners she said, “Well, that gets my goat, gasped Alice when we recovered speech. The nerve of her”. The sense and usage matches that of the current idiom.

The following year the Jersey Journal provides us with a couple more examples. In a report of a trial for assault (June 2nd) the accused, William Carmody, is reported as saying “Judge, he got my goat” while on December 14th its reporter was able to make a little joke about the phrase, “it is easy to get the goat of the police…for locked up in a cell at the Seventh Street police station is a Nannie that was arrested …for her obstreperous behaviour in Jersey Avenue yesterday”. Unlike Number 1500 the journalist was confident enough to use the phrase without the need to define it, suggesting that it was in currency at least in the area at the time.

Shortly thereafter the phrase crops up in sports journalism. In August 1908 William Kirk wrote of a baseball game, “The supreme contempt shown by Manager Mac for the club on top evidently got the goat of Mr Frederick Clarke” while in the same month, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, Rollin Hartt said of certain baseball players, “a little detraction will get their goat”. Away from temperamental baseball players the phrase cropped up in boxing reports where you can easily imagine a bit of provocation would easily raise an opponent’s ire. Richard Barry in the Prize Ring, published in Pearson’s Monthly in 1910, passed on the following advice from the reigning English lightweight champion, Freddie Welsh, a vegetarian with puny hips, to potential pugilists “get his goat”.

In this article, Barry attempted to explain the origin of the phrase. In horseracing circles, to prevent a favourite from going stale, the trainer would put a goat in the stable. Those wishing to nobble the favourite would break into the stables and remove the goat which would reduce the highly strung nag to a bag of nerves. Whether there is any truth in this I cannot say but it is more convincing than another theory I came across. Whilst Captain Cook was anchored off Tahiti some natives boarded his ship and stole the ship’s goat. This provoked fierce reprisals – canoes were burnt and hostages taken – until the goat was returned. Quite why it would take some 130 years for the phrase to surface in the argot of those incarcerated in Sing Sing is anyone’s guess.

It was not until 1924 that the phrase crossed the pond, in John Galsworthy’s White Monkey, “that had got the chairman’s goat” and if we wanted any confirmation that it was an American by origin, the Times in 1925 satirised the lingo of American tourists thus, “whispering Americans aloud, wa-al Sadie, those durned three star things get my goat”. I think we can conclude that it was prison slang that spread like wildfire into common currency.