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Galsworthy: Novelists and Craft

 By Carol Smallwood

As writers we wonder about others who’ve influenced and shaped our favorite novelist’s apprenticeship and craft, want to know they’ve struggled and didn’t spring full-grown like Athena. In my case, I’m curious who John Galsworthy read and regarded the most highly–who helped this Nobel Prize winner become such a widely read, prolific writer of novels, plays, essays, short stories, and poems. After The Forsyte Saga began airing in 1969, the series became so popular that Masterpiece Theatre was created to meet the demand for great literary adaptations.

My own Galsworthy favorite, The Patrician, has been the novel I’ve savored since high school for its lyric beauty, how every one of its words builds an inevitability rivaling a Greek classic. Each time I read it, I learn something of style, characterization, narration, point of view, mood, tone, irony, theme, dialogue, satire, imagery: it never fails to satisfy, to bring a feeling of regret for leaving its world after the last chapter of Part II. And for weeks after find myself wondering what Miltoun, Barbara, Lady Casterley, Courtier, might be doing, sniffing the orange-flower water of Gustard’s, the dried rose-leaves of Mrs. Benton–wishing for a sequel but knowing none could match it. That to wish for any other ending would be to deny its very theme: Character is Fate. I’ve read his other novels several times but The Patrician continues to have no rival–although I do wish there had been more novels written featuring that most engaging character Dinny Cherrell than just the trilogy, End of the Chapter.

In his address, “Six Novelists in Profile,” Galsworthy places Charles Dickens first among English novelists because of his ability to convey human nature so vividly. Looking at the novel, Galsworthy notes, “Under Jane Austen, Dickens, Balzac, Stendhal, Scott, Dumas, Thackeray and Hugo, the novel attained a certain relation of part to whole; but it was left for one of more poetic feeling and greater sensibility than any of these to perfect its proportions, and introduce the principle of selection, until there was that complete relation of part to whole which goes to the making of what we call a work of art.” Galsworthy regarded Ivan Turgenev as writing “in terms of atmosphere rather than in terms of fact,” his poetry less poetic than his sketches and novels. I read some of Turgenev he mentions trying to catch the poetic moods Galsworthy admired without success—then realized I’d missed the obvious: writers borrow and transform, make it into their own and in the process lies the inevitable sea change.

Of Guy de Maupassant, Galsworthy writes, “The vigour of his vision, and his thought, the economy and clarity of the expression in which he clothed them, have not yet been surpassed. Better than any other writer, he has taught us what to leave out; better than any illustrated for us Flaubert’s maxim: ‘Study an object till its essential difference from every other is perceived and can be rendered in words.’” Galsworthy regarded him as a supreme craftsman who hated prejudice and stupidity capable of displaying deep emotion.

Galsworthy saw Leo Tolstoi’s wide canvas opposite of Turgenev’s, his mind more concerned with what he wanted to convey than the manner in which he did. Style according to Galsworthy, is “the power in a writer to remove all barriers between himself and the reader—the triumph of style is the creation of intimacy,” and Tolstoi the master of creating the feeling of actual life, War and Peace the greatest novel.

Joseph Conrad he credited with having more than other novelists with a “cosmic sense” in which fate plays the important role. Galsworthy considers him supreme in “word-painting,” of folding stories over and over giving “subtlety, richness, and depth” and placing Nature first, Man second. Every time I read Conrad I cannot believe English was not his native language.

Anatole France is described by Galsworthy as having a style that was “the poetry of pure reason” and credits him with influencing modern thought, perforating “prejudice and punctured idolatry so adroitly that the ventilation holes were scarcely visible, and the victims felt draughts without knowing why.”

Galsworthy observes that the novel “has always been the subject of a ‘tug-of-war’ between two schools of thought—the school that demands of it a revelation or criticism of life, and the school that asks of it nothing but pleasure-giving invention,” but contends art must have the quality of life: “a sufficient relation of part to whole, and a sufficient flavouring of the artist’s temperament. For only these elements give to a piece of work the essential novelty of a living thing.”

In this essay written in 1923, Galsworthy, concludes that the novelist needs to see widely, feel deeply and “mould what he has seen or felt into that which has a new and significant life of its own.” He compares the novelist with Manet equating painting with jumping into the sea without knowing how to swim.

“Four More Novelists in Profile,” Galsworthy relates that he began reading Dumas when he was twenty-five when crossing the Indian Ocean and read him for the next four years. Galsworthy notes, “At his best he had no peer at sustaining the interest of a tale. He generally had a number of plots, and drove them four-in-hand at a sharp and steady pace and with a fine evenness of motion.”  That Dumas was mostly interested in entertaining and offered no criticism of life.

Galsworthy considers Tchehov as revealing the “very soul” of the Russian people through “intuitive knowledge of human emotions” that gives his work a spiritual form in atmosphere and mood. His characters “are either too true to life or perhaps merely too Russian to be remembered by name.”

Robert Louis Stevenson is characterized by Galsworthy as living in the moment and not “the type which psychologises and worries about why and wherefores,” easy to read, and superior to Dumas and Dickens “in dexterity and swiftness” and an eternally youthful romanticist.

In W.H. Hudson there was “something of primitive man, something even of the beasts and birds he loved.” Galsworthy regarded Green Mansions as so unique that he didn’t catch its beauty till reading it again ten years later. “Rima, the bird girl of the forest, embodies at once the spell of Nature, and the yearning of the human soul for that intimacy with Nature which through self-consciousness—or shall we say town-life—we have lost.”

As to the future of the novel, Galsworthy concludes, “Art that can stand up above the waters of life, or that can smile apart, or that can do both, is rooted in deep and quiet things, in private and fervent feelings.” Written in 1928, it is interesting to note that he saw how hard it was to “call our souls our own.” And, applying his own definition that books not having “life” in them will be blown away by time, I cannot see that happening to Galsworthy.

In “Reminiscences of Conrad,” Galsworthy goes back to 1893 when he first met Conrad when sailing on the Torrens. Conrad was the experienced chief mate of the sailing ship and was convalescing from Congo fever. Galsworthy relates Conrad read “prodigiously,” and for the thirty-one years he knew him that he struggled with his health and although, “Conrad was critically accepted from the very start,” it was twenty years before his work generated many sales. Galsworthy noted that Conrad wrote “with blood and tears and needed seclusion for it,” that he “stared life very much in the face, and distrusted those who didn’t,” and credited him with having a huge memory for impressions, people, and detail.

In “Creation of Character in Literature,” Galsworthy regards Shakespeare’s as being first of all a poet who in character creation was more of a novelist. He notes that if he hadn’t been connected with acting that he might have held Cervantes’s place in realistic novelists; he regards Falstaff and Hamlet as characters created through the subconscious mind.

Galsworthy notes that Turgenev created one of his characters, Bazarov, from meeting a young doctor on the train. After the journey, Turgenev thought about what the young man’s way of life must be like in a diary he kept for months until he was familiar with the character, coining the term, nihilist. The sense that this was a new type, a modern character, provided the theme for Turgenev’s, Fathers and Children.

In a personal classic account of the creative process in “Creation of Character in Literature” Galsworthy wrote: “I sink into my morning chair, a blotter on my knee, the last words or deed of some character in ink before my eyes, a pen in my hand, a pipe in my mouth, and nothing in my head. I sit. I don’t intend; I don’t expect; I don’t even hope. I read over the last pages. Gradually my mind seems to leave the chair, and be where my character is acting or speaking, leg raised, waiting to come down, lips opened ready to say something. Suddenly, my pen jots down a movement or remark, another, another, and goes on doing this, haltingly, perhaps, for an hour or two. When the result is read through it surprises one by seeming to come out of what went before, and by ministering to some sort of possible future. Those pages, adding tissue to character, have been supplied from the store-cupboard of the subconscious, in response to the appeal of one’s conscious directive sense, and in service to the saving grace of one’s theme, using that word in the widest sense. The creation of character, however untrammelled and unconscious, thus has ever the guidance of what, perhaps, may best be called ‘the homing instinct.’”

So I shall continue to look with awe upon the reproduction of the handwritten first page of the manuscript of The Patrician I keep near my computer, marvel how few crossed out words there are in the first and beginning of the second paragraph, and try to decipher the words crossed out. Perhaps some day I’ll even see some of Galsworthy’s manuscripts and letters at Princeton University’s Firestone Library, Harvard University’s Houghton Library, or Oxford University’s Bodleian Library but till then can treasure his signed books.


Carol Smallwood co-edited Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching (McFarland, 2012) on the list of Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers Magazine; Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing (Key Publishing House, 2012); Compartments: Poems on Nature, Femininity, and Other Realms (Anaphora Literary Press, 2011) received a Pushcart nomination. Carol has founded, supports humane societies.


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