by John Galsworthy
Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
reviewed by Carol Smallwood
Style is difficult to detect in your own writing, though it’s automatically sensed in others. The Patrician, a novel published in 1911, is the work I think of in connection with style because it fits so well Galsworthy’s definition of it in his preface to Green Mansions: “Style should not obtrude between a writer and his reader; it should be servant, not master. To use words so true and simple, that they oppose no obstacle to the flow of thought and feeling from mind to mind, and yet by juxtaposition of word-sounds set up in the recipient continuing emotion or gratification—this is the essence of style; and Hudson’s writing has preeminently this double quality.”
Many times when struggling with my own writing, it has helped to remember that Pulitzer Prize-winning Galsworthy admitted: “to write well, even to write clearly, is a woundy business, long to learn, hard to learn, and no gift of the angels.” I learned from some of his letters to a critic that he used the two sides of his own background of (upper- and lower-class ancestors) in the main character of Miltoun.
Galsworthy dedicated The Patrician to Gilbert Murray (1866-1957), an Oxford scholar of Greek literature and humane studies who informed Galsworthy that he regarded it as “the most beautiful and perhaps the most poignant of your novels.”
Galsworthy knew the patrician set and as a writer wrote that he wanted to “get in a blow at, or at all events to make a picture of, the stereotyping, drying, formalizing, effects of authority.” He further explains, “If I establish the ’drying’ effect of aristocracy, which is the effect which your observing nature records, it’s all I care to do; because there are points to aristocracy—points of natural merit. I have always thought that this book would displease both Camps. The Patricians certainly won’t like it, and the Democrats won’t like it either.”
The book, largely written between Galsworthy’s plays, is available online as a Project Gutenberg, and eBooks Cube. When I checked Alibris, it had 83 copies ranging from $2.95 to $314.95 but found none were available that were signed or in limited editions. My copy was acquired in high school—one of the books my father had for a class and fortunately kept. I’ve never had Galsworthy in a literature or creative writing class but his novels had a revival when The Forsyte Saga aired in several countries in the late 1960’s in twenty-six hour segments.
What keeps me rereading Galsworthy, and in particular, The Patrician, is poetic quality. Elizabeth Bishop’s observation of Flannery O’Connor’s high level of poetics in her novels and short stories may be applied to Galsworthy. It is not in his poetry that I find this essence but in his half tones, moods, and reticence—word painting of fiction. For me he has no equal in his ability to convey beauty and poignancy whether in nature, human interaction, or a life force—his lyricism of the “beauty and colour and rapture of life” never fails both to make me catch my breath and fight rare tears. No matter if it is Lady Casterley, the gray guardian of the patrician way of life, Mrs. Benton, a minor character as Courtier’s landlady, or the main character of the torn Miltoun, we know them well. And when I reread The Patrician, they are as fascinating as if I’d never visited them before or wondered about them long after finishing it the last time: were Courtier’s belongings he left behind still in the trunks in Mrs. Benton’s cupboard smelling a bit of mice? Were the bags of dried rose-leaves she packed in the trunks tied with ribbon? And enjoy the symbolism of the flying hawks, fluttering moths, the cast of the Apache chief. The book’s theme reminds me of Amy Lowell’s lines: “Christ! What are patterns for?”
My own reaction to Audrey is not that sympathetic—she reminds me of Irene, the wife of Soames in The Man of Property and respect Miltoun giving her up because he must follow society’s rules however unfair they may be if he is to rule others. Galsworthy, however, wrote that he “makes me shudder” and hoped he never would be in power.
The quote, Character is Fate, appears in Greek on the half title page, and is the last sentence of The Patrician. The beginning of Chapter I resembles an entrance song of a Greek tragedy: “Light, entering the vast room—a room so high that its carved ceiling refused itself to exact scrutiny—travelled, with the wistful, cold curiosity of the dawn, over a fantastic storehouse of Time.” And, as in a Greek tragedy, it is followed by dialogue. Greek myths such as the River Lethe are alluded to in the novel. Bliss Perry, in his Introduction to The Patrician, compares Lord Dennis’s solution “with the finality of a Greek chorus.”
The book is divided into Part I and Part II. It opens at Monkland Court, the seat for centuries of Miltoun’s family, and ends at Lady Casterley’s house at Ravensham. Fraternity, published two years before, foreshadows Miltoun’s struggle with the words: “Life devises for each man the particular dilemmas most suited to his nature.”
I suspect I will read it many times yet, each time catching a new facet of this gem, lingering among the tall lilies in Lady Casterley’s glass house, listening to the cuckoos on the moor, hearing “Gude naights” of the regulars leaving the village inn.