I was first introduced to Galsworthy’s amazing, nine-volume Forsyte Chronicles [the link is to online full texts] in high school back in the early 1960s.
Last year at the wonderful Chamblin’s Uptown, I stumbled onto the whole Scribner Library Contemporary Classics paperback series from forty years ago.
I am now reading the fifth volume, The Silver Spoon (1925).
The book is set among the British propertied classes of London in 1924-1925.
Michael Mont is a sympathetic, reflective protagonist, son of minor nobility and a new member of Parliament.
His wife Fleur is the daughter of Soames Forsyte, the “man of property” whose decades-long story ties all nine books together. Fleur is a self-absorbed, ambitious young socialite, whom her father ruefully admits was born with “the silver spoon” in her mouth.
In this scene, Fleur is bathing their baby boy Kit (Christopher), while Michael looks on.
For one aged only fourteen months this naked infant had incredible vigour—from lips to feet he was all sound and motion. He seemed to lend a meaning to life. His vitality was absolute, not relative. His kicks and crows and splashings had the joy of a gnat’s dance, or a jackdaw’s gambols in the air. They gave thanks not for what he was about to receive, but for what he was receiving….
Michael watched him, musing. This manikin, born with all that he could possibly wish for within his reach—how were they to bring him up? Were they fit to bring him up, they who had been born—like all their generation in the richer classes—emancipated, to parents properly broken-in to worship the fetich—Liberty?
Born to everything they wanted, so that they were at wits’ end to invent something they could not get; driven to restive searching by having their own way? The war had deprived one of one’s own way, but the war had overdone it, and left one grasping at license.
And for those, like Fleur, born a little late for the war, the tale of it had only lowered what respect they had for anything. With veneration killed, and self-denial “off,” with atavism buried, sentiment derided, and the future in the air, hardly a wonder that modernity should be a dance of gnats, taking itself damned seriously!
Such were the reflections of Michael, sitting there above the steam, and frowning at his progeny. Without faith was one fit to be a parent?
Well, people were looking for faith again. Only they were bound to hatch the egg of it so hard that it would be addled long before it was a chicken.
“Too self-conscious,” he thought. “That’s our trouble!”
The passage encapsules much of Galsworthy’s critique of his own age and generation. He has a profoundly compassionate yet ruthlessly honest eye.
Born to everything they wanted, so that they were at wits’ end to invent something they could not get; driven to restive searching by having their own way.
The disturbing irony for me is that Galsworthy could be describing the self-absorbed middle classes of the present age, with this dark echo of baby Kit’s ecstatic dance:
With veneration killed, and self-denial “off,” with atavism buried, sentiment derided, and the future in the air, hardly a wonder that modernity should be a dance of gnats, taking itself damned seriously!
What are we to do?
4 comments On John Galsworthy: “Born to everything they wanted….”
We need to create our own reality, one which includes a gift economy. In that system, we live as a community, caring for one another and not counting the cost.
Yes. And it can be done locally. The challenge is to address distributive justice beyond the local.
I like Joanne’s idea of a gift economy very much. It’s dispiriting to see the number of reality shows about people preparing for apocalypse by building elaborate shelters for themselves, hoarding water and food and the weapons they feel are necessary to protect it all. Those folks seem to have invented something to feed that restive, frightened place inside. Too bad there aren’t shows that infect people with a desire to gain meaning through reaching out and sharing.
I loved the quote about faith: “Only they were bound to hatch the egg of it so hard that it would be addled long before it was a chicken.” I think we’re seeing that in action all around us, too.
You write: “Too bad there aren’t shows that infect people with a desire to gain meaning through reaching out and sharing.”
Sadly, the show is in the street, where we see homeless and mentally ill wanderers every day.
Watching shows passively doesn’t infect us. It only momentarily gives us a rash.
We have to walk up to people face-to-face to become infected with the desire to serve them.
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