For the love of Ada

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Something happened to John Galsworthy in 1891.

We know what the rest of his family were like, because he won the Nobel Prize for Literature for describing them. Like the Forsytes, their fictional counterparts, the Galsworthys were men of property. Whenever an outsider joined them in marriage, the extended clan would assemble for a party that was really more of an inspection - the way the Forsytes gather, in the opening scene of the nine-novel series, to meet an architect called Phillip Bosinney and gauge, from the quality of his clothing, how much they would be expected to spend on an engagement present.

It was at such a party, at such a time, that John Galsworthy’s own life lurched off its pre-ordained course. The person being introduced to the wider family in 1891 was an obstetrician’s daughter from Norwich who was going to be married to his cousin. Even for a Victorian, Ada Pearson had an unusual middle name: Nemesis.

The marriage between Ada Pearson and Arthur Galsworthy, an army major, wasn’t a success. Within a couple of years, John Galsworthy’s sisters were whispering about why. Apparently, a certain "coarseness" in the bedroom was to blame. Men of property, and even the women who were their property, didn’t discuss such things at all readily.

Marital rape, in the 1890s, was regarded as a complete contradiction in terms. In strictly legal terms, it was unimaginable. To John Galsworthy, it was anything but: indeed, without the rage that such thoughts provoked in him, The Forsyte Saga might never have been written. For by 1895, he had fallen in love with his cousin’s wife.

That love affair changed everything in John Galsworthy’s life. Without Ada’s "encouragement, sympathy and criticism I could never have become even such a writer as I am," he wrote in the dedication to The Forsyte Saga in 1922. These words are more than the conventional thanks to a spouse. Without Ada wanting him to be a writer, he probably wouldn’t have considered becoming a writer. Without the opposition to their love, he might not have had anything to write about.

Instead, from his first novel, Jocelyn (1898) to the last, Over the River (1933), he rages against the straitjacket of social convention, the difficulty of divorce and - most of all - the oppression of women by men. The man Virginia Woolf dismissed as an Edwardian "stuffed shirt" might seem an unlikely feminist, but that is exactly what he was.

Oppression of women could, of course, take many forms, not all of them sexual. In the lottery of late Victorian life, Ada Nemesis had been relatively lucky, considering she had been born illegitimate, but her freedom was totally dependent on another man’s generosity. She and her mother were financially well provided for under the term of her adoptive father’s will, and both were encouraged to travel widely together as part of Ada’s education. According to one biographer, the one advantage of marrying Arthur Galsworthy, a career officer in the army, was that it would free her from the suffocating companionship of her mother.

But marriage turned out to be even more of a trap. Arthur Galsworthy was not, according to all the evidence, anything remotely like a Victorian stage villain - indeed one of the main reasons Galsworthy’s Soames Forsyte is such a credible anti-hero is that his creator based him on someone whose world he was able to imagine so completely.

When the Victorian marriage trap clanged shut, however, it did so with violence. Galsworthy usually spares us the details - in Over the River, there is mention of the trapped wife being spanked with a brush, but that is very much the exception to the rule. Our most direct evidence of how Ada’s miserable marriage haunted Galsworthy’s imagination is in his writing. Enter, for the prosecution, Soames Forsyte.

Because Galsworthy is so little read today, and the last TV adaptation of his novels before next month’s six-parter by Granada was BBC2’s classic production in the dim and distant (and certainly black-and-white TV) days of 1967, few people under 40 will realise that Soames Forsyte is one of the best-drawn anti-heroes in English fiction.

Soames isn’t completely a Victorian, however much he might like to be. He collects modern paintings, and commissions the architect Bosinney to build him and Irene a surprisingly modern home, but he doesn’t really understand anything about art apart from its price. When it comes to sex, however, Soames is eminently Victorian: possessive, repressed, completely unable to express his love for Irene Heron, the beautiful music teacher who reluctantly agrees to marry him.

So when Irene begins an affair with Bosinney, Soames rapes her. Although in BBC2’s 26-part epic, this was partly shown on screen and shocked the watching millions, in A Man of Property, the rape is only hinted at. Soames is shown rattling the doors of his wife’s bedroom and finding them, for once, unlocked. The next morning, trying to distract himself from memories of her sobbing, he reads the Times on the train journey to the office. His eye can’t help falling upon the forthcoming cases ("three murders and as many as 11 rapes, an unusually high number") to be tried in the coming sessions.

"The incident was really not of great moment," he consoles himself. "Women made a fuss about it in books; but in the cool judgment of right-thinking men, of men of the world ... he had done his best to sustain the sanctity of marriage, to prevent her from abandoning her duty. No, he did not regret it."

Lest we think that Soames and Irene have nothing whatsoever to do with Arthur Galsworthy and Ada, the evidence is against us. John and Ada made the connection themselves. John expressed the naive hope that Ada wouldn’t recognise herself as Irene because, "I have changed her hair to gold." And Ada, years later, writing to her nephew about the death of Major Galsworthy, deliberately changed his name to "Soames".

Before John fell in love with Ada in 1895, he was a hearty, sports-obsessed young man whose idea of perfect happiness was bagging "a right and a left" on a Scottish grouse moor. Afterwards, he is the completely chivalrous lover. He idolises Ada. Soon he will start campaigning for women’s suffrage and against the caging of wild birds, zoos, performing animals, ponies in mines and solitary confinement in prisons. You don’t have to be Freud to see a connection.

For her part, Ada Nemesis persuaded John Galsworthy to be a writer.

They became lovers on 6 September 1896. Unable to even contemplate marriage because of the opposition from his family, Galsworthy started the fictional dissection of all the bonds that kept them apart. Slowly, he thought himself out of his class. Gradually, in novels in which he was helped by advice from his friends Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford, he fixed his target. The Forsyte Saga, at least in its opening book, was always meant to be a lot more than a saga about the Forsytes.

"You talk of them," said Bosinney, "as if they were half England."

"They are," repeated young Jolyon, "half England, and the better half too, the safe half, the 3 per cent half, the half that counts. It’s their wealth and security that makes everything possible; makes your art possible, makes literature, science, even religion, possible. Without Forsytes, who believe in none of these things, but turn them all to use, where would we be? My dear sir, the Forsytes are the middlemen, the commercials, the pillars of society, the corner stones of convention; everything that is admirable!"

The Galsworthys were similar cornerstones of convention. Although he loved his father (also called John), who is the model for Old Jolyon, the most affectionately drawn of the older generation of Forsytes, the parental disapproval of his relationship with Ada was absolute. Galsworthy never pointed the accusing finger at his father’s hypocrisy, but it was real enough. His father was 86 when, in 1903, his wife left him, accusing him of an attachment to his grandchildren’s governess.

For both Ada and John, these were long years. Seven whole years of Ada being idolised and pitied by John before she finally left her husband. Seven whole years which he knew he would have to make up to her, which he promised her he would, when his father died and they could finally marry. Seven years of being kept apart by the moralising creed of Forsytism, the hate that was still to find a name.

Ada left her husband in 1902, and they lived apart for a further two years. Finally in 1904 came the news Galsworthy had both been dreading and looking forward to. His father died. Suddenly they were free to marry.

Almost immediately, John and Ada started living together. Even though they tried to be as discreet as possible - moving away from London to set up house in Dartmoor, there was still a social price to pay. Galsworthy was "cut" at his club, the Junior Carlton, and he was forced to resign from other clubs and companies; Ada’s solicitor resigned when she divorced and her mother refused to see her for years. On 23 September 1905, the day after Ada’s divorce came through and ten years after they fell in love, Ada Nemesis and John Galsworthy were married.

The first year of their married life passed in a creative blur. Free to write his attack on the Victorian family values that had dammed his life for so long, Galsworthy wrote The Man of Property (1906). After its success, he became second only to Shaw as Britain’s leading playwright for most of the next decade, tackling a huge variety of social issues, from the class divide to solitary confinement in prison (his play Justice is widely credited with changing Home Office attitudes to prison reform).

Yet despite (or, more likely, because of) the long wait, this wasn’t the perfect marriage. Others noticed that Ada had turned into a shrewish hypochondriac, but Galsworthy remained devoted to her, unable to forget all those years he had suffered through a marriage he could do nothing to end. He went along with her wishes even when he didn’t want to. When Ada decreed that they should sell their Dartmoor house and move back to London, he was particularly sad to leave. "I don’t say so, however," he noted to a friend.

It’s too glib to suggest that, over the years, Galsworthy started turning back into Soames - he was a vastly more creative and socially involved man - but that level of emotional repression was a worrying sign. When his nephews came to live with him in his Suffolk mansion, it was something they noticed. "We could talk about books," one remembered. "Emotions never." Gradually, John stopped calling Ada by her first name, although there was something almost childish in the way he always seemed to need her presence. As his nephews noted, if he met them on the stairs, the first question was always: "Where’s Auntie?"

In time, as his success spread and the demands on his time increased, the Galsworthys forgot about the social rebels they had once been. Ada tore out her diary entries for the years between 1895 and 1905, the year in which, by marrying, she became "respectable" again. John similarly resisted all biographical enquiries, and the first accounts of his life contained no mention of the fact that Ada had been married before she met him.

They had no children, but doted on their dogs (Ada even wrote a book about them). When their favourite spaniel died, in 1911, Ada was "prostrate" with grief.

That year, John Galsworthy lost his one chance to escape what seemed an increasingly stifling (and, according to indications in his diary, all but sexless) marriage. He was 44 and at the height of his fame when a beautiful 19-year-old dancer called Margaret Morris fell desperately in love with him. Although he returned his affections - to what extent we do not know - he ended the relationship after more than a year out of loyalty to Ada. His biographer, Catherine Dupr, rather wishes he hadn’t: instead of the thoroughly modern ideas of a younger woman to rejuvenate him, all he had to look forward to was an emotionally claustrophobic old age.

Against that, in The Forsyte Saga (Granada, 12.99), the book launched in conjunction with Granada’s six-part serial, Rupert Smith argues that Galsworthy’s actions mark him out as the moral opposite of Soames. True to his principles of emotional honesty, he told her of his attachment, and was distraught when she became physically ill with jealousy.

Twenty years after they first met, just over 20 years before he died, John Galsworthy could have left Ada. He did, after all, believe in free love rather than the old Forsytian concept of marriage as duty: indeed, his whole life was based on it.

In the end, he stayed loyal to her. He chose the woman who had stayed for years in an unhappy marriage because he wasn’t free to marry her. He chose a woman who was clinically depressed and ill rather than Margaret Morris, the beautiful "expressive dancer" at the Savoy Theatre 25 years his junior.

Maybe duty called. Maybe the Forsytes had won after all.

The Forsytes on TV

WHEN The Forsyte Saga was first shown in 1967, only seven million people could receive BBC 2. Six million of them tuned in to watch.

From then on, the 26-part series started breaking all kinds of records. When shown on BBC1 the following year, it gained an audience of 18 million. Clergymen complained it was killing off evening services, publicans that it was killing off social life. It was the BBC’s first major international syndication success, and was seen by 160 million worldwide.

Donald Wilson’s adaptation covered six of the nine Forsyte novels and some short stories. Because of its period setting and Galsworthy’s respectability, its subject matter - marital rape, infidelity - was seldom criticised, even though any attempt to show them in a modern setting would have been branded sensationalism.

The Forsyte Saga’s fusion of costume drama and soap opera were copied by other series in the 1970s and 1980s such as The Onedin Line, The Pallisers and Upstairs Downstairs, but it remained the benchmark.

Granada’s version is more restrained, but its six episodes are based on the first two books in the series A Man of Property (1906) and In Chancery (1920). Its casting is strong and distinct from the BBC version. Ioan Gruffudd makes a credible Bossiney, the architect who has an affair with Soames’s wife; the talented Gina McKee plays Irene; and Damian Lewis is Soames.

Director Sita Williams wanted Lewis right from the start. "He has tremendous self-assurance and poise, so you’re very drawn to him," she said. "But he can also give the impression of being quite distant." These qualities were evident in his role in Tom Hanks’s Band of Brothers, for which he was cast after he’d agreed to play Soames - a coincidence which will doubtless help the new The Forsyte Saga sell in America as readily as the old one.

The Forsyte Saga is shown in six episodes on ITV starting on Sunday 7 April at 9pm.

The book

WHO reads John Galsworthy now? There is no biography in print, the whole tide of modernism runs against him, and the world he describes seems hopelessly dated.

Yet for the first three decades of the last century, he was Britain’s most successful writer, with 30 novels and short stories and about the same number of plays to his name. What did his contemporaries see in him that we don’t?

If Galsworthy is ignored today, part of the reason may be because he is too closely identified with the world he wrote about. Unlike Dickens, that world was socially exclusive; unlike Tolstoy or Balzac, it hardly impinged on politics. The First World War, for all its cataclysmic effects, isn’t even a rumble in the Bayswater background. And unlike Lawrence, Woolf and Joyce, he believed that the novel didn’t depend on carefully unpicking his protagonists’ thoughts to the exclusion of delineating the effects of their actions.

Even in 1920, Galsworthy realised his books might be seen as old-fashioned. But just because they were set in a world of frock-coats and ornate drawing rooms, we should not be blind to their modern dilemmas. The satire is as sharp as Orton, the dialogue, elegant and witty, and the characterisation - particularly of Soames, the emotionally repressed solicitor who is the novel’s anti-hero - dazzling.

At first you think that he is just a "stuffed shirt" - the charge that Virginia Woolf levelled at Galsworthy himself. It’s only when you read on, and find yourself warming to a character who had originally seemed so heartlessly greedy and cynical that you begin to realise Galsworthy’s narrative skill.

Galsworthy hated and savagely satirised the Forsytes’ hypocrisy, but his background enabled him to understand it. And while his books, concentrating as they do on the upper-middle classes, only tell us how a small section of British society moved from the staid certainties of the Victorian age to the altogether more confusing modern world, it still remains the best portrait we have.