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Was Anthony Powell right about John Galsworthy?

The Forsyte Saga novelist has fallen out of favour since his death

By on Monday, 10 February 2014

Goldworthy, whose popularity has declined since his death in 1933 (CNS)

Goldworthy, whose popularity has declined since his death in 1933 (CNS)

Winter is the season for reading, and the longer the book the better. Indeed, if it is a series of books, even more so. And so it is that I have decided to tackle Galsworthy.

John Galsworthy, who died in 1933, was once one of the most highly regarded of English novelists. He is chiefly remembered for The Forsyte Saga, a series of five novels chronicling the rise and fall of an English family from the late 19th century until after the First World War. When I was a child The Saga was still talked about, because it had been the subject of a famous television adaptation in 1967, and there is nothing quite like a television series to bring a book or books to the forefront of the popular imagination. But by the time I went to university in the mid-1980’s, the Saga, if one was aware of it at all, was regarded as the archetypal example of bad writing. (Even the term “Saga” had earned itself, by association, a bad reputation.) This change in its fortunes, I was vaguely aware, was something to do with the Virginia Woolf, who has ushered in a whole new way of writing fiction.

Essentially, if memory of what I learned as an undergraduate serves, Virginia Woolf wrote in a way that allowed one to experience the stream of consciousness of her characters, whereas someone like Galsworthy (along with Arnold Bennett, the other titan who had fallen right out of favour) merely described his characters from the outside. Mrs Bednarowska, my revered tutor, spoke of Galsworthy as an author who indicated the most dated of tastes, and she prefaced this remark with an elegant snort of asperity.

Why bother with Galsworthy now? One reason for turning to neglected writers is that one always secretly hopes that they have been unjustly neglected, and that you are about to discover a secret pleasure garden that you will have all to yourself. Moreover, someone like Galsworthy, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, after all, must have once been considered good. Therefore it is fun to try and work out what it was that people might have seen in him. To read a neglected author is an exercise in literary archaeology, an opportunity to explore the forgotten tastes of yesteryear.

There is another reason. It is widely accepted that the novelist St John Clarke in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, is a lightly disguised portrait of Galsworthy. I love Dance more than any other work of fiction; St John Clarke and his works are touchstones of bad middlebrow taste in the novel sequence. Various characters admit to liking his works, and that is never, one feels, a good thing. The Clarke oeuvre – he is credited with writing Match Me Such Marvel and Fields of Amaranth, among others – is held up as just the wrong sort of fiction. Moreover, Clarke is a snob and an armchair Marxist. If there is one theme running through Dance it is the hatred that Anthony Powell has for armchair Marxists. Powell clearly loathes Clarke, though, being Powell, this is subtly conveyed. In reading Galsworthy, who is supposedly Clarke, one wants to find out the answer to the question: was St John Clarke as ghastly as Powell seems to indicate?

Purists will no doubt shudder at the way I have blended fact and fiction here. I am aware that Powell is not Nick Jenkins, the protagonist of Dance, just as Galsworthy is not Clarke. But it is nice to have a bit of fun when reading, so purists can step back for the moment.

And the answer? How good or bad is Galsworthy? Was Powell right?

The truth is Powell was right. Galsworthy is not much good. One can see by reading one volume that Galsworthy must have exerted a fascination for a certain type of reader, but I am not that reader. I have been formed in my tastes by Woolf, I suppose. I have read one volume of the Saga, and will, perhaps go back to it. In order to cleanse my palate, though, ironically, I turned back to Dance, and am now on volume ten of twelve. After Powell, it will be Galsworthy. How that would have annoyed the Nobel Laureate, to think that he is now really just a footnote to Powell!