By the time you get to my age (I, just about, remember what I was doing when I heard JFK had been shot), there are not many childhood ambitions you have either not fulfilled or not given up on. I made it to the Volvo, but not President of the United States (an early disappointment reading a DC Comic – if being born on Krypton ruined it for Superman, Stoke Newington wasn’t going to do much for my chances).
Well, last Saturday night I finally fulfilled an ambition that first entered my head one Spring day in 1970. I remember walking into the school library, the most junior of juniors, and asking the duty prefect to order a copy of John Galsworthy’s “The Forsyte Saga”. I had been gobsmacked by the 26 hour BBC adaptation that had been showing in 1968/69 and I thought I would have a go at the original. Either because the prefect knew that the book was about something resembling incest (inbreeding), or because he was an illiterate moron, instead of encouraging my literary pretensions, he threatened me with detention. Illiterate moron. Definitely.
Last Saturday night, having logged out from normal life for four complete Saturdays in a row, I finally finished the trilogy that is the Forsyte Saga. It did not disappoint.
It possesses one of those story lines that would not disgrace ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ (which I saw for the first time on Friday – somebody told me a number of the characters were thinking of taking up acting; I hope not). I will try a short synopsis (if you are under 18, despite the word ‘incest’, this is a family site, so I suggest you clear off). Names are a bit of a bind: there is Jolyon and Jo and Jolly and Jon – not to mention, June. So I shall use letters.
Back in the 1880s, Mr A and Mr B are first cousins who don’t like each other very much. Mr A marries first but later runs off and marries his daughter’s governess, abandoning his daughter (A minor) to her mother and his father (Mr Old A – the wives’ names are not important). Mr B marries Mrs B (her name is very, very important) but she cannot stick him. Mrs B steals A minor’s fiance, who proceeds to top himself . Mrs B walks out on Mr B. Mrs B falls in love with widower Mr A, and Mr B names them both in a divorce suit. Mr A marries Mrs B, while Mr B marries a French woman who is not important. Mr A and Mrs B have a son (AB minor), while Mr B has a daughter (B minor). AB minor and B minor fall in love and want to get married. This cheeses off just about everybody. Just to add to the fun, Mr A has two children from the governess, one of whom dies in the Boer War, while the other marries Mr B’s nephew (this is a daughter – which would have been stating the obvious in the 19th century), her second cousin. She is the only really sensible one in the whole book, deciding not to have children because – thanks to the family connection – they might be born with two heads.
There is, however, something that was, to the best of my juvenile memory, completely missing from the BBC series. The trilogy is about unabashed capitalism – Soames Forsyte (Mr B), the books’ main protagonist, along with almost all the Forsytes, is obsessed with property and the individual’s right to own as much of it, in all its forms, as possible. That fits well with late Victorian England, but there is a great leap to the last book from 1901 to 1920, which Nobel Laureate Galsworthy was writing in real-time (published 1921).
This was immediately after the Great War, when the aristocracy and middle classes were living in real fear of what might happen to the country. Income Tax had already been hiked before and during the War. But, while Soames and various Forsytes bewail the inroads the income tax and super-tax are making into their fortunes, they live with a far greater fear which, given the timing of the book, is almost palpable. Three years earlier, King George’s doppelgänger cousin, together with his family, had been murdered by the Bolsheviks. In Britain, with universal suffrage (that is ‘the vote’ for any under-18s who did not heed my advice above), the Labour Party was rising rapidly and there was a real concern of either outright revolution or wanton nationalization. As it turned out Labour foamed and fizzled, it requiring another World War to deliver them a sustainable parliamentary majority. Meanwhile, ignorant of what the future held, Soames (and Galsworthy) hid their Top Hats and flashy cars in the hope of not being noticed.
A hundred years on, and it is interesting to note that the Social Protests as well as the writings of the likes of that Frenchman Thomas Piketty have not led the nouveau-riche to hide their wealth. Quite the opposite – they appear to flaunt it. It will be interesting to see how this one pans out. Whatever happens, I will not be around for the BBC series in 2068 (although, I imagine ‘The Bold and The Beautiful’ will still be going strong).