Friday, August 28, 2009

The Country House (Worshipful Society)

“To those many thousand readers who know Galsworthy only through the Forsyte novels, Worshipful Society will be a new experience.”
--Book jacket blurb, Worshipful Society, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932

The bookshelves in the room have a cobwebby Miss Havisham look. There is no order. The Book of Games is next to Creating Colette, which is next to War and Peace, which rests on top of a Paint-by-Number set. There are boxes of books on the floor, arranged a la hopscotch. I stepped over a box of Leonard Woolf’s autobiographies, turned right at a set of John Christopher’s classic Tripods novels, and came face to face with the Barbara Pyms (two copies of A Few Green Leaves, if anyone wants one).

Then I rummaged around in the Northeast corner bookshelf.

“I saw it just the other day.”

It was there: John Galsworthy’s Worshipful Society, a one-volume edition of three of his novels, each of which the book jacket says "presents contemporary society in a different phase - in The Country House the theme is divorce; in Fraternity it is class consciousness; in The Patrician it is unyielding family pride.” I ordered it from Amazon a few years ago for some incredibly cheap price (it starts now at $3.19), anticipating the moment when I would want to read it.

That is now.

It’s actually quite good, in the way minor Trollopes are good. Minor Trollope is everything (thirty-some novels) besides the Barsetshire novels, the Palliser novels, and The Way We Live Now; my favorite is probably Orley Farm. Minor Galsworthy seems to be everything besides The Forsyte Saga, though I can’t claim knowledge of his other work. Yet I am remedying that out of a kind of obsessive curiosity.

Halfway through The Country House, I find it immensely enjoyable and readable, though the characters are certainly not as vivid as the Forsytes and the structure of the novel is much looser. Published in 1907, a year after The Man of Property, The Country House centers on a Forsyte-like family of landed proprietors, the Pendyces, whose son, George, is having an affair in London with an unconventional woman, Mrs. Bellew, who left a drunken neighbor of the Pendyces. Although the subject is divorce - George is named as correspondent in a divorce suit against Mrs. Bellew - I confess I am much more fascinated by George’s extraordinary mother, Mrs. Pendyce, a sweet, compassionate woman who loves the country and has the imagination to see beyond the scandal: her son is not “sowing wild oats” as his father thinks, but is genuinely in love. Jasper Bellew will drop the suit if George agrees not to see Mrs. Bellew. What will happen? Horace Pendyce is sure George will agree. Mrs. Pendyce is not so sure.

The portrayal of Mrs. Pendyce, a gentle soul and passionate gardener who has saved her orchard for 30 years from her husband’s pruning and improvements, is memorable.

“They were as yet the only things she had fought for in her married life, and Horace Pendyce still remembered with a discomfort robbed by time of poignancy how she had stood with her back to their bedroom door and said, 'If you cut those poor trees, Horace, I won’t live here!'"

In a sense she defends George as if he is one of her trees: he will thrive if left alone, but, alas, must be rescued form this tangle if possible.

There are many gorgeous descriptions of the garden in springtime. Mr. and Mrs. Pendyce love the family's country house, and their values are rooted in a late-Victorian conventionality and love of tradition. And though George and Mrs. Bellew should be main characters, so far they are mere ciphers, and we are seeing most of the events through the eyes of Mrs. Pendyce and her husband, Horace.

Mrs. Bellew is not a sympathetic character like Irene. She comes across as hard.

By the way, the name Pendyce sounds a bit like Forsyte. But the Pendyces are not as obnoxious as the Forsytes,. Of course that quality makes the Forsytes so fascinating.

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