Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Critical and Biographical Introduction by Henry Walcott Boynton (1869–1947)

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Henry Walcott Boynton (1869–1947)

By John Galsworthy (1867–1933)

JOHN GALSWORTHY belongs to the older group of modern English novelists: he is exactly a contemporary of H. G. Wells and Arnold Bennett. It is noteworthy that these three, like Kipling, were born in the late sixties; but their work, unlike Kipling’s, belongs to the twentieth century. None of them acquired precocious fame, none of them, at fifty, has plainly shot his bolt. A younger group, their disciples in some sense, has followed them; but they themselves remain young. Whether they have it in them to grow old gracefully is to be seen. The movement they represent is a movement of youth. Rebellion, reaction against the past and our inheritances from it, is the breath of their nostrils.

They are all very British,—none of them more so than Galsworthy. Mankind interests him more than the individual, but it is mankind in British terms. It is British convention, British hypocrisy, British complacency that raises his gorge. It is the British System, whether social or legal or political, that supplies him, as it supplies Wells, with an inexhaustible theme. But while to the protean Wells it is now a theme for laughter, now a foothold for hopeful forecast, to Galsworthy it is simply itself, a thing to be held up, in all its shamefulness as well as its absurdity, for the mournful consideration of whomever it may concern. In short, John Galsworthy, whether as a writer of verses or of novels or of plays, is first and last a satirist,—happily a satirist of noble temper as well as of keen vision and unerring hand.

To perceive this, hardly more is needed than a glance at his published work as a whole. From the time when, in ‘The Island Pharisees’ (1904), he struck and sustained the characteristic note, we have always been sure of his function. Prof. W. L. Phelps has said, not unfairly, that the title of this book “might stand as the title of his complete works.” It is the tale of the adventures of a hapless Briton in search of Truth. Rebelling against the insincerity and the stupid complacency of the circle and the class to which he is born, he sets out to find something better elsewhere in England. Now and again he seems to be on the track of it. He succeeds in making his way from social plane to plane, among all sorts and conditions of his fellow-countrymen: and in the end he has to admit himself beaten. He has to confess to himself and to others that Pharisaism is a national or racial characteristic, that the whole of British society is based upon pretense and an empty self-satisfaction. The book is purely a satire, cast in the convenient story-telling form. There is no attempt at unified action; all we find is a series of episodes and scenes strung together on the thread of the adventurer’s haphazard experience. It is a book of protest, a turning of the seamy side, and it pretends to be nothing else.

Now this, in a sense, may be said of Mr. Galsworthy’s utterance as a whole. As far as the substance of his work is concerned, it is always protestant, satirical, negative. He is the man who tells us what is wrong with the world. Mr. Wells tells us that, too, but he is never satisfied with the process. As fast as he tears down with one hand he must be building up with the other. As fast as he comes to a fresh diagnosis of the world’s disease, he is ready with a nostrum. Even Mr. Shaw, hard-featured and unblinking as he likes to appear, has had his dreams and theories of reform, Fabian and other. But Mr. Galsworthy is content to hold the mirror up to society; and if at times, as in the play ‘Justice,’ for example, the very vividness of his picture gives an impression of constructive moral force, that is simply the highest effect of satire.

And it is a proof of his quality as an artist. Here, however static his mood and matter, we are aware of a steady advancement from work to work, almost from year to year. ‘The Island Pharisees’ was a piece of overt satire, touching upon burlesque. There was no action in the larger sense, and the human figures were not above the plane of fine caricature. ‘The Man of Property’ (1906) is a book of far greater dignity and finish—more a story and less a satire. The theme has not changed, but the handling of it has changed greatly. This is a study of the British middle-class soul as embodied in a single family connection, and with a single “man of property” as its chief figure. Soames Forsyte (Galsworthy is fond of these punning names) stands as symbol of what the writer takes to be the prevailing national type. He is the smug embodiment of respectability and vested authority at whom Messrs. Shaw and Wells have so often laughed. Galsworthy presents him with a ruthless and unsmiling precision. He and what he stands for are summed up in a single passage:—“Without Forsytes,” cries the “Young Jolyon” of the story, “where should we be? My dear sir, the Forsytes are the middlemen, the commercials, the pillars of society, the cornerstones of convention, everything that is admirable!”—“I don’t know whether I catch your drift,” said Bosinney, “but I fancy there are plenty of Forsytes, as you call them, in my profession.”—“Certainly,” replied Young Jolyon, “the great majority of architects, painters, or writers have no principles, like any other Forsytes. Art, literature, religion, survive by virtue of the few cranks who really believe in such things, and the many Forsytes who make a commercial use of them. At a low estimate, three fourths of our Royal Academicians are Forsytes, seven eighths of our novelists, a large proportion of our press. Of science, I won’t speak. They are magnificently represented in religion; in the House of Commons perhaps more numerous than anywhere; the aristocracy speaks for itself. But I am not laughing: it is dangerous to go against a majority,—and what a majority!”

Such is the Galsworthy theme—the smugness of our civilized world, and the desperateness, almost the hopelessness of combating it. In ‘The Country House’ he pursues it upon the plane of “county” society, in ‘The Patrician,’ to a still higher social atmosphere. The plays also, notably ‘Strife’ (1909), ‘Justice’ (1910), and ‘The Pigeon’ (1912), express the same mood of half-despairing revolt against convention and respectability. The satirist’s distrust of the institution of marriage has almost the character of an obsession with him. Like many novelists contemporary with him, he appears to look upon the sex-relation as essentially restless and treacherous. Again and again, in ‘The Man of Property,’ in ‘The Country House,’ in ‘Fraternity,’ in his play ‘The Fugitive,’ he shows marriage as a bondage, a relation fated through its very legal fixity. But if his view is narrow and negative at times, it is never ignoble: even at his bitterest there is a high air of sincerity in his thrusts. Only once, in ‘The Dark Flower,’ has he produced something inherently unwholesome, tainted with that sex-mania which has disfigured the work of so many current storytellers of England.

Apart from his matter, from his atmosphere of brooding protest, from his character of satirist, he is to be valued for his singularly pure art. In an age when most writers have come to affect an informal, talking style, an imitation, or more properly adaptation, of the vernacular, with its brusque and ragged forms, Galsworthy has perfected a style, a true utterance of himself, which is plain and simple and yet distinguished. It is as finished a style as his contemporary Hewlett’s, and infinitely less bookish. It seems indeed to approach a genuine fusion of the scriptive and the loquitive, to use William Watson’s terms. You do not think of it as a style, but you are aware of it as a clear atmosphere in which the writer and his thought stand revealed, offer no obstacle to the eye or to the taste. And this is true of his style in the larger sense as well as the smaller. His perfection of phrasing marches with something very much like perfection of structure. ‘The Island Pharisees’ and ‘The Man of Property’ were of relatively loose texture. In his later novels, as well as in his plays, there is great economy of material and effect. In both he displays the playwright’s skill in admitting nothing irrelevant, in making every stroke count. A critic has noted his peculiar habit of giving each chapter a finish and unity of its own, almost as if it were a dramatic scene. Certainly Galsworthy’s theory and practice of the novel recognizes that a story, to be well told, should have something of the compactness and balance of the drama.

‘The Country House’ is perhaps Galsworthy’s most popular novel, and its popularity is largely due to its “well-built” character. In comparison with ‘Fraternity,’ which succeeded it, as well as with ‘The Man of Property,’ which preceded it, it has few persons and a carefully limited action proper. On the other hand, that action has a general and representative significance. It is based upon the perennial theme of the “triangle.” But Galsworthy does not treat it as an isolated “case.” Mr. F. T. Cooper has an admirable comment here: “If the story of George Pendyce and Helen Bellew were the only interest or even the central interest of ‘The Country House,’ there would have been small purpose in writing it…. But what Mr. Galsworthy has done is to use this episode of human frailty much as a scientist uses a germ culture, to study its effects upon others.” Its effects, that is, in view of those artificial arrangements of human society which the author deplores. The title of ‘Fraternity’ is, in the same light, purely ironic. The story shows what a mockery the brotherhood of blood-kinship may be, and what a mockery, under present conditions, the dream of a larger human brotherhood must be. The only noble figure is that of poor old Sylvanus Stone; and he, for his virtues, is an eccentric, a laughing-stock for strangers, an object of uneasiness to his family,—a haunting embodiment of unwelcome ineffectual truth.

Galsworthy’s later stories, ‘The Patrician’ (1911), and ‘The Freelands’ (1915), add nothing new to the author’s commentary on life. They have greater charm, greater care for characterization, and less satiric force than the earlier novels. Strictly speaking, they are better products of the novelist’s art, since here the artist comes nearer to confining himself to the real business of the serious story-teller—the interpretation of character through action. But during recent years Galsworthy’s chief interest has centered in the dramatic form—a form, which, with its compactness and its saliency, its fondness for types, and its convenience as a vehicle for satire, is singularly fitted for his genius.

I have emphasized the clear-cut and well-balanced character of Mr. Galsworthy’s novels. This quality of fine workmanship is even more strongly felt in his plays. Indeed, we may more easily recognize his force and distinction as a playwright than as a novelist, for the very reason that in his dramas as in his novels the Galsworthy “idea,” the idea of revolt against specific conditions, dominates his larger interpretation of life, and is more strikingly presented in the dramatic form. There is a touch of paradox in this—the protestant and revolutionary against the moral and social conventions of life, expressing himself with singular fidelity to the conventions of art. But this happens because in the one instance he feels convention to be founded on a false reason and morality, while in the other he accepts the established form as true and right. And the playwright has won a wide hearing for the critic of life. In ‘Justice’ he attacks the wooden system of the criminal law, and shows how unfair and how fatal its working may be in particular instances. In ‘The Pigeon,’ he illustrates the difference between a true kindliness of human relations, and the machinery of official charity. In ‘A Bit o’ Love,’ he handles rather inconclusively a problem of the conflict between formal Christianity and really Christlike conduct. In ‘The Fugitive’ he puts upon the stage that favorite theme of his fiction, the hopelessness and unreasonableness of trying to make an unhappy marriage permanent. Mr. Galsworthy has no insight into the flexibility and remediability of the marriage relation: his people are not changed by that relation, they merely test it in the light of a rigid “compatibility”—and usually the test fails. His latest play of serious importance, ‘The Mob,’ was written shortly before the outbreak of the War, and deals with the greatest of current problems—the reconciling of national and international morality and conduct with the principles which govern the life of the individual in all civilized countries. Here is what we do not always find in Galsworthy, a noble handling of an evil which all men recognize. The hero, a member of the House of Commons, publicly protests against the commission of a public crime on the part of England towards a weaker race, and is spat upon and finally killed by the Mob for his pains. Galsworthy’s plays have all been printed, and easily endure the difficult double test of reading and hearing.