Friday, September 18, 2009

The Dark Flower

As Frisbee readers know, I declared in one impetuous post that I would devote the autumn to John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga (nine volumes). Then I branched out from the Forsytes to Galsworthy’s out-of-print The Country House, which I also enjoyed. Now, lo and behold, I have discovered another in-print novel by Galsworthy, The Dark Flower, reissued by Capuchin Classics. This poetic, enchanting, if uneven, novel, first published in 1913, spans 30 years in the love life of an artist, Mark Lennan, from the age of 18 in 1880 to 48 in 1910. What does love mean in late adolescence? What in the mid-twenties? What in middle age? This is a little slow starting out, but is worth reading. Part Two and Three are excellent.

Age is important in The Dark Flower, as it defines the intensity of characters' emotions. The first part, “Spring,” is a kind of predecessor of Colette’s Cheri (1920) and The Last of Cheri (1926), and centers on a young man’s affair with an older woman. Mark is an immature student at Oxford, young for his age, still climbing trees during his vacations, and guileless in love. Anna Stormer, the miserable, 36-year-old wife of his cynical tutor, falls in love with Mark, since he is perhaps the only man with whom she has contact. (Mark seems too young for Anna - that tree-climbing! - but the narrator of Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance also incomprehensibly climbed trees. It's an "Eden-ic" activity.)

Point-of-view is key in this novel: Galsworthy beautifully charts the shifting emotions of Mark and Anna from their unhappy, separate points- of-view in alternate chapters. When Mark accompanies Anna and her husband on vacation, Anna and Mark have a brief affair: she gives him a dark flower, which symbolizes her mature love. The affair ends when Mark has an opportunity to compare Anna with a sweet young girl, Sylvia. The dark flower, which Anna had taken back, is thrown out of a moving train.

Perhaps Anna's name refers to Anna Karenina, who also does a lot of traveling on trains and suffering.

Galsworthy seems to think she has the relationship because she wants to recapture her youth.

Part Two, “Summer,” focuses on Mark’s affair in his mid-twenties with another married woman, this time his age. They do a lot of hand-holding, but the pretty Olive hesitates to commit adultery, frightened of her abusive husband, Cramier, and reluctant to break her marriage vows. Her uncle, Colonel Ercott, who is half in love with his niece, realizes that it is only Olive’s prettiness that makes men fall in love with her - and that it endangers her. He wishes he could save her from Cramier’s and Mark’s attentions, which he recognizes will not last beyond youth. In the end we wish he could, too.

Galsworthy also explores the feelings of Mrs. Ercott, who is hurt by the Colonel’s attention to his niece. We understand her feeling of being thrown away: women, when older and no longer pretty, lose status.

In Part Three, “Autumn,” Mark is middle-aged, bored with his marriage to the lovely Sylvia (whom we met in “Spring”), and falls in love with an 18-year-old girl who makes advances to him (a fantasy?). Like Anna in “Spring,” he understands his love is inappropriate, but is captivated by youth and spurred on by his own unhappiness.

This lyrical novel deals with the emotions of men and women at different ages. Mark’s love for the girl seems inappropriate, but we understand, as does Galsworthy, that imagination and midlife crises spark love. And he is also compassionate toward the women - especially towards Sylvia. (There are a lot of dark flowers in this book - but Sylvia is not one of them.)

Though The Dark Flower is not as good as The Forsyte Saga, it is a perceptive study of love in all its vagaries, and I’ll read it again. It's the thoughtful kind of book that is much more complex and tightly woven than it seems on a first reading. (I've already reread parts of it, and am impressed.)


Ellen said...

On my blog a comment said the reason costume dramas are so good is they are so often based on great books. The Dark Flower sounds like another. Galsworthy did explore sexuality candidly (in Forstythe too). The French were not the only ones doing it.

I like that cover.

I haven't gotten myself the DVDs of Forsythe saga; I'm waiting for 2 more checks to come in.


Mad Housewife said...

The Dark Flower WOULD make a good costume drama. I read that it was adapted or read aloud on "Radio 4" last year.

David said...

It was indeed adapted for Radio 4, and broadcast from December 2008 to January 2009.

The book reminded me of Hardy's strange and wonderful novel The Well-Beloved, in which the protagonist falls in love with three generations of women from the same family. Somehow, he makes it work.

Thanks to all for the kind comments about Dark Flower.

David Birkett (from Capuchin Classics).

Frisbee said...

Thanks for stopping by! Hardy's The Well-Beloved is on my list.

I wish I could hear the Radio Four broadcast, but that's not possible here!