To Let the third book of The Forsyte Saga opens several years after we last saw the Forsyte family, it is now 1920, and Fleur, Soames’ daughter and Jon, Jolyon and Irene’s son are almost nineteen, and so far have never met. Since the scandal which resulted in Irene marrying her ex-husband Soames’ cousin Jolyon Forsyte, the two sides of the family have not met. Fleur and Jon have so far heard no whiff of the events of twenty years earlier; their parents have shielded them from the past, each of them have existed comfortably in the world created for them by their adoring parents. When Jon and Fleur first catch sight of each other at an exhibition, he in the company of his mother, she with her father, it is instantly clear to both young people that there are things they don’t know. The world of the Forsytes is shrinking, and the only one of the old Forsytes who is left is old Timothy, now past a hundred, he is cared for with diligence and affection by servants who kept the First World War from him, and take great pride in the old man’s appetite.
“There are houses whose souls have passed into the limbo of Time, leaving their bodies in the limbo of London. Such was not quite the condition of ‘Timothy’s’ on the Bayswater Road, for Timothy’s soul still had one foot in Timothy Forsyte’s body, and Smither kept the atmosphere unchanging, of camphor and port wine and house whose windows are only opened to air it twice a day.”
Soames, who was once so keen to possess Irene at all costs, has, since his daughter’s birth poured all his devotion into her. Fleur is irrepressible and spoiled she enjoys her position at the centre of her father’s world. Soames’ relationship with his second wife Annette is predictably cool, he has never reached a true level of understanding with her, nor does it seem that he ever tried to. Jon on the other hand, living with his devoted parents at Robin Hill, is a lovely, good natured young man, thoughtful and close to both his parents. The twenty years that Jolyon and Irene have been married have been very happy, with Jolyon’s daughter Holly married to Val Dartie and living in South Africa and June the middle aged daughter of his first marriage living in London, they have enjoyed a largely quiet life.
Change is everywhere in the air, with the Great War over and a greater freedom for young people, it is inevitable that as Fleur and Jon begin to go out into the world, that they may discover the truth behind the old family feud. Val and Holly are back in England, and are warned that Jon knows nothing of the past, when it is arranged for Jon to spend time learning farming from his half-sister’s husband. Val Dartie’s mother of course is Soames’ sister, and so there is the inevitable meeting of Jon and Fleur at the Dartie home, much to Holly’s discomfort. Fleur and Jon, are instantly attracted to each other, they work hard to hide their growing infatuation with each other from the family, while trying to figure out what exactly the old family feud is all about.
Fleur and Jon manage to meet a number of times without anyone being aware just how close they have grown or how often they have met. When the true nature of their relationship is revealed, both sides of the family are horrified at the thought of Jon and Fleur marrying – their children the grandchildren of both Soames and Irene – a prospect Irene in particular cannot bear. While his wife spends increasing amounts of time with a rather odd Frenchman, the point of whom I was never sure of – Soames tries hard to convince Fleur to give Jon up. Fleur has attracted the attentions of another young man, the son of a baronet, who Soames isn’t sure of – but prefers to Jon. Jolyon is over seventy, his health is starting to break down, but he feels the one thing he must do is to separate Jon from Fleur as kindly as he can. Irene won’t ask Jon to do anything just for her, and ultimately leaves it up to him to decide. Fleur however is very much her father’s daughter.
“End it forsooth! She would soon show them all that she was only just beginning. And she smiled to herself on the top of the bus which carried her back to Mayfair. But the smile died, squeezed out by spasms of anticipation and anxiety. Would she be able to manage Jon? She had taken the bit between her teeth, but could she make him take it too?”
I found this instalment to be just as readable as the previous two volumes. There is a lovely sense of the world changing, things moving forward – and those who were once the younger generation of Forsytes are now the old guard.
You can also read about Liz and Bridget’s experience with To Let and I think Karen will be reading it soon.