A Series for A Long, Cold, Winter

January 26, 2016

The Winter creates strong readers.  While Spring and Summer weather go well with “light” stories that demand little focus, winter blizzards are perfect for stories that hold the reader’s attention.  When the drifts are piling up outside and the thermometer plummets, I want a story with structure and design, one that commands my attention through the long, dark days.  For the like-minded readers who have already read their way through Dickens and committed Austen to memory, I would like to make a suggestion.  Stuff a copy of The Forsyte Saga into your pack of cold-weather emergency supplies.  You’ll have a something good to read until June.

The Forstyes are an English clan who define themselves through their upper-middle class status and an uncomfortable status that is.  They’ve accumulated enough money to be preoccupied by it to but they lack the antecedents and Savior Faire needed for social success so every move of the first generation is ruled by two questions: 1) Will I profit (monetarily) from this action and 2) will this comport with propriety?  If either answer is “No”, some Forsyte will veto the idea.  When Jolyon Forsyte and his children start basing their decisions on happiness instead of social mores or money, shock threatens to destabilize the family structure.  Before they can recover, the Forsytes meet Irene.

The watchful, possessive Soames Forsyte,
as played by Damien Lewis

Part of what drives The Forsyte Saga are the contradictions inherent in two central characters, Soames Forsyte and his first wife, Irene Heron.  Soames is the quintessential Forsyte.  Driven, judgmental and self-centered, he is “The Man of Property” in the first book’s title.  For Soames to see himself as a success, one property he must acquire is a wife and he likes the look of young Irene Heron.  She’s accomplished, she’s beautiful and if she’s not rich, that means she’ll stay dependent on him.  Yet, the harder he pursues Irene, the more reluctant she becomes.  And every polite refusal she gives makes him want her all the more.

Gina McKee as the enigmatic Irene

Others are drawn to Irene because she is an enigma, a woman so passive we only see her through the eyes of other characters.  To Soames, she’s a maddening cipher, the one goal that continually escapes he grasp.  To the conventional Forsytes, she’s the creator of scandal.  Soames is an honorable, effective provider so why won’t the woman settle down and be happy?  To the bohemian side of the family, Irene is a victim to be cherished and rescued from the inexorable Soames.  Without ever meaning to, Irene splits the family so completely that subsequent generations don’t meet unless by accident. The results of those meetings can be predicted by anyone familiar with Romeo and Juliet and each meeting threatens to unearth the old, buried scandals.  It is a tribute to the author’s skill that after four Forsyte generations, we still want to know what happens to them and we end up pitying Soames instead of hating him.

John Galsworthy won the Nobel Prize for Literature based, in part, on his Forsyte Saga and it’s been adapted for film multiple times.  However, nothing has the flavor of the books themselves.  They are easy to find but written for an audience with more time for reading than most people allow themselves today.  There are dozens of characters to keep up with and a narrative style that encourages readers to relax instead of rush through the pages.  “Everything in Life is here in the story” the author seems to imply, “enjoy yourself, don’t rush for the end.

Authors aren’t encouraged to write like this anymore; publishers and agents are searching for page-turners with first lines that grab you.  But Winter is something you can’t hurry through and you’ll need a book that can hold its own with the season.  So, before the next low pressure trough aligns itself aligns with a cyclone of snow, prepare to wait it out in style.  Lay in the firewood, locate the longjohns and as the first flakes start falling, open your copy of The Forsyte Saga.  Few books can make you so glad to be a victim of inclement weather.

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