Swan Song the sixth book of the Forsyte Saga Chronicles is the third book in the second trilogy: A Modern Comedy – and I find it amazing that already I am two thirds of the way through the series. I will be taking a break from the Forsytes during August but nevertheless I am eagerly anticipating the third and final trilogy, in which we shall meet people only distantly related to the Forsytes – a whole new collection of characters. If the first two books of A Modern Comedy lack a little of the brilliance of the first and most famous Forsyte trilogy (I still thoroughly enjoyed them) then Swan Song is at least a return to great storytelling.
Galsworthy is still concerned here with the social issues of the day – the gulf between the working classes and the upper and middle classes, the living and working conditions for the majority of the population, but in Swan Song we have a fantastic conclusion to a story that has been building slowly through the last three books.
Events in the first two books of A Modern comedy; The White Monkey and The Silver Spoon were always leading to the inevitable coming together again of Fleur Mont and Jon Forsyte. The reader knows I think that no earthly good can come of this.
It is 1926 and the general strike is in danger of bringing the country to a standstill. The breech is famously filled by members of the middle classes – who suddenly found themselves working long hours driving engines, buses and keeping essential services going. As the novel opens Fleur is occupying herself beautifully by volunteering at a works canteen, supplying food to men (who bless their hearts) have never worked so hard. Fleur has now put the drama of the libel case behind her, and having spent several months touring with Soames and her husband Michael has returned to England and instead of collecting the darlings of society around her has found an interest in colonial students.
As the strike begins Jon Forsyte returns to England from America, leaving his wife and mother in Europe. With his half-sister Holly and Val Dartie, Jon is soon installed at Winifred’s house while volunteering on the railway, stoking engines. With Jon stoking engines and Fleur volunteering at a canteen, the inevitable meeting is not long in coming.
“When, looking down the row of faces at her canteen table, Fleur saw Jon Forsyte’s, it was within her heart as if, in winter, she had met with honeysuckle. Recovering from that faint intoxication, she noted his appearance from further off. He was sitting seemingly indifferent to food; and on his face, which was smudged with coal-dust and sweat, was such a smile as men wear after going up a mountain or at the end of a long run — tired, charming, and as if they have been through something worth while.”
Once Fleur has caught sight of Jon – she can think of nothing else – and in a sense she becomes once more, recognisably the spoiled daughter we first met in To Let. Fleur is older now – six years older – but possibly no wiser, and although she is now a wife, and mother to Kit – she allows herself to become completely obsessed. Fleur uses all her cunning to throw herself into the way of Jon, even once his lovely young American wife joins him, Fleur sees her as nothing more than a slight irritation to her plans. For Fleur sees Jon as her destiny – and pursuing him her absolute right. Watching the coming storm from the side-lines – all very quick to see the danger signs are; June Forsyte (Jon’s much older half-sister) Soames and later Michael, who has been made aware of his wife’s first love. Michael is also aware that his wife’s feelings for him are more muted than he might like, and sadly accepts the fact. Fleur wastes little time in letting Jon know that her feelings for him have never changed, Jon is torn between his wife Ann who he genuinely loves and Fleur who he finds himself unable to completely leave behind. Fleur knows what she wants and she goes all out to get it. As she plays the good loyal wife, a gracious hostess who spends her days setting up a rest house for disadvantaged young working class women Fleur plans committing adultery.
“To-morrow at this hour she would claim her own. The knowledge that there must be two parties to any contact did not trouble her. She had the faith of a pretty woman in love. What she willed would be accomplished, but none should know of it! And, handing her cups, she smiled, pitying the ignorance of these wise old men.”
Jon Forsyte is disappointingly weak and a bit pathetic – and I lost all respect for him – maybe that’s just me, I have little time for men of his sort. I never did like Fleur – however she is a brilliant character, in her Galsworthy has created a character readers might not like very much, but can’t help but be fascinated by. She is the epitome of spoiled brat – and poor Soames can‘t stop spoiling her – he can see the danger his treatment of her has created but she is the great love of his life – the one he replaced Irene with.
Meanwhile Michael Mont, still in parliament, has put the humiliation of Foggartism behind him and instead begins to consider the question of slums and the dire need of improving the living conditions of the people living in them. With his uncle Hilary – a clergyman, and other notable figures Michael forms a committee to tackle the problem.
There is great drama at the end of this novel, the consequences of Fleur’s selfishness, more devastating than she could ever have anticipated – I won’t say any more as my fellow Forsyte readers may not have read it yet. By the end of A Modern Comedy Soames – the man we loathed so much in A Man of Property is a character the reader is fully sympathetic with – he is mellower and more humane – I have found myself liking him more with each book. The last few lines of the book – perfectly lovely and rather poignant.
You can read Liz’s thoughts on Swan Song here, and I know Bridget will be reviewing soon too.