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The extended Forsyte family live a more than pleasant upper middle class life in Victorian and later Edwardian England. The two central characters are Soames Forsyte and his cousin Jolyon Forsyte. Soames is a solicitor, all proper and straight-laced. His love for the beautiful Irene is his only weakness as is his beautiful daughter Fleur. Jolyon is the opposite, a free-thinking artist who abandons his wife to live with his children's nanny. Their lives and their children's lives will intersect over 30 years bringing happiness to some and tragedy to others. Written by
Comparisons between the 60s version of this splendid work and the latest one are difficult because they were both great. I have really enjoyed the last version especially as regards the performances of Damian Lewis and Gina McKee.
One previous contributor said that he found himself almost liking Soames which 'we were not supposed to do'. Is that right? Galsworthy intended The Forsytes to be representative of the upper middle class with some bad aspects - arrogance, lack of sentiment, conscious always of their respectability - but also with a positive side - sturdy, determined, ambitious, but ultimately concerned with ownership and property. Soames is an extreme example of his kind, to the extent that he regards people - especially his wife - as potential property. Irene, on the other hand, represents the new force which, along with the effects of WWI and the rise of the Welfare State, nationalisation etc will soon overthrow the old order.
Superficially at least, Soames is the villain. He appears to terrorise his wife, physically abuses her and more. However, is there another side to this? Irene marries him quite cynically for materialistic reasons. It's not merely a question of 'not loving' him. He positively makes her flesh creep right from the start. We are given the idea that she is forced to marry him by her stepmother and by her poverty. Force her?? As the story goes forward, we see that she is a strong character
no-one can force her to do anything. Her poverty? She has £50 per
annum from her father. This might not seem a lot, but it was about what an artisan earned in a year at that time (on which he was expected to keep a family). Despite his treating her as property, Soames does love Irene in his way and he does try his best to give her what she wants. In return she is openly unfaithful to him, denies him children and even conjugal rights. As regards his bad treatment of her, she certainly returns the compliment in kind. She could be looked on as something of a vampire - she sucks the life force from Soames and old Jolyan and wantonly destroys the happiness of her friend June and Bossiney (though admittedly he goes along willingly). As regards her own son her hatred of Soames tempers her dislike of Fleur so even her son is badly affected by her force of character and neurosis.
I think Galsworthy, as well as writing a simple commentary on Edwardian and Victorian life was also trying to divide his readers into factions
the pro-Soames camp who like the old ways, and the pro-Irene (the
'new woman' camp) who wanted change.
Whatever, I have to congratulate Gina McKee. She carried off that complex character of Irene so well. Her enigmatic Mona Lisa smile, did it display goodness? Or the opposite? I'm still not sure
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