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John Thornton and Soames Forsyte. The Women They Love.

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve become enthralled with The Forsyte Saga and I’ve threatened to continue subjecting my dear readers to more scattered thoughts on the plot and characters, so here it goes…

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Today I will be focusing on the, in my opinion, central relationship in the series, meaning that of Soames Forsyte and Irene Heron.

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I’ll be doing so by comparing them to another favourite pairing of mine, Margaret Hale and John Thornton from North and South.

Let me start by stating my opinion and them I’ll spend the rest of the post trying to claw my way back up from the hole my statement has created.

The difference between the outcome of the Forsyte relationship and the Margaret+Thornton one is determined not by the amorous men, but by the women they loved.

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If we compare Soames and Thornton, they actually have a lot in common

Both are respected members of Victorian society, successful, admired and come from tight-knit families.

They are viewed as authorities, but deep inside they have issues of low-self esteem, though the origins are different.

Despite their cool exteriors, under those well-cut expensive clothes beats a heart full of passion and they both fall for women who society would deem beneath them as both Irene and Margaret are plain old skint.

What’s even more interesting is that both gentlemen develop feelings for, and woo, women who simply don’t like them.

Despite knowing that their affections are not reciprocated, but encouraged by others (Irene’s step-mother, Hannah Thornton), against their better judgment, they both propose marriage.

This is where the seemingly correlated stories depart.

I argue that it is Irene and Margaret who determine the outcome of their respective plots by the decisions they make at this crucial juncture.

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Irene Heron is under the guardianship of her pragmatic step-mother and they are living on a tiny income generated from her deceased father’s estate.

Mrs Heron is desperate to get rid of her beautiful step-daughter as she has plans to re-marry and feels that Irene attracts too much attention from men.

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When Soames Forsyte appears, a wealthy bachelor from a prominent family who is clearly enthralled by Irene, Heron’s widow bullies Irene into accepting the man who is so very different from what she envisioned her true love to be.

It’s this crucial decision to marry a man she doesn’t even like that sets the stage for all the following events.

In her last act of independence, or maybe in an act of sheer desperation, Irene forces Soames to promise that he will let her go if their marriage is not a success.

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Although Soames seems like a man who keeps his word, she would soon learn that her husband is nicknamed The Man of Property for a reason and that he would never allow that which he possesses to be taken away from him.
Therefore, Irene is trapped in an unhappy marriage to a man who, although passionately in love with her, makes her skin crawl.

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When John and Margaret find themselves at the point where marriage seems like the most logical option, and Miss Hale’s reputation hangs in the balance, instead of taking the easy way out, she acts on her pride and stubborn nature to decline his offer.

Of course Margaret is in slightly different circumstances than Irene as she has the support of her family and her financial situation does not force her to accept the marriage proposal from a wealthy bachelor.

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Let’s for a moment, as some N&S fanfiction authors have before, imagine how the story would progress had Margaret accepted Thornton.

She would be tied to a man that she, of her own admission, didn’t like and felt was beneath her, someone who was in trade and would treat her as a commodity to acquire.
By moving to Marlborough Mills she’d lose her independence and would be forced to become a member of a tight-knit family who thought very little of her.

Forced into such circumstances, the natural growth of affection that we observe in Gaskell’s story, would probably never have taken place.

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Mr Thornton would marry the woman he so passionately loved and desired, but would have to be aware that circumstances, and not her affections, drove her into wedlock.

From what we know about Margaret’s character, if forced to marry John, I venture a guess that she’d have no qualms about expressing her misery and, apart from doing her wifely duties, she’d be unable to form any attachment to him.
What’s more this situation would have been made much more difficult because of Hannah Thornton.

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Although the Forsyte family is very close, and meddling in the affairs of the members is almost like a sport, I felt Irene was supported by them till the moment she ran away (and, in some cases, even beyond that point).

This is evident when Irene discusses her failed marriage with June Forsyte and Soames’ mother.

They both, in their own way, try to help Irene in her misery, offering very different solutions to the crises she had found herself in.

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Margaret would have been offered no such comfort from the women around her.

Of course, one may argue, that once married Thornton would never treat his wife as Soames did Irene.
I’d hate to give the impression I believe John would exhibit the same possessive behaviour by smothering his wife and forcing himself on her.

The relationship between Thornton and his mother proves that he regarded women as his equal and I think he would extend that to his wife, although he adopted a paternalistic approach to Fanny.

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 I believe that John would have offered Margaret as much space and freedom as the times and social conventions would have allowed him.

One thing, though, that the men have in common is they’d both  find themselves under one roof, and in such close proximity, to the women they desire and yet cannot have.

Perhaps in hopes of warming Margaret’s heart, Thornton would have taken actions which could be deemed beneath him, but I’d like to think he’d wait patiently for Margaret to discard her prejudices and open up to him.

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Nevertheless, I truly believe that had it not been for Margaret’s stubborn nature, her disregard for what was appropriate, her recklessness at rejecting a man who was such a good match, she saved them both from a miserable marriage and allowed for events to unfold as they learned more about each other, culminating in some juice kissing and a marriage founded on love.

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Had Irene taken a leaf from Margaret’s book and found the courage to reject Soames despite the pressures, I think she would have encountered a like-minded man, an artistic soul with whom she would have formed a happy marriage with.

Despite being Irene Frostbite rather than Forsyte throughout her marriage to Soames, we learn that she is capable of great passion towards the man she loves.

Had she been released from the prison her marriage had locked her into, I truly believe she would’ve learn to think better of Soames and both of them could have moved with their lives rather than linger in painful limbo.

Speaking  of the possessive smotherer, undeterred by rejection, he would have probably found another object of desire to add to his collection to stifle, another piece of pretty property that would have complemented his position in society.

More importantly, he would have found a woman willing to subject to his vision of what a marriage should be, one who could settle for being merely his wife and a mother to his sons.

In other words, had Irene and Soames stayed true to their hearts, they would have got their ‘happily ever after’.

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If you haven’t seen The Forsyte Saga, you can watch the episodes on YT.

To read more about the concept of love and marriage in The Forsyte Saga, check out  this great post by Feminéma.

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About Agzy The Ripper

Sew, Rip, Repeat... and love each moment of it! Join me as I embark on a myriad of sewing and crafting shenanigans.

17 responses »

  1. Very interesting analysis of both plots. I’m getting more and more curious about The Forsyte Saga!! I have to find time to watch it!! 😉

    Reply
    • Go on, be a devil and check it out! Take the Forsyte plunge and don’t come up for air till you like it and are ready to go over every detail with me 😉

      Reply
  2. Hey, thanks for the shout-out, AgzyM! This is a great piece and I’m so glad to see people pushing these wonderful series.

    Reply
    • I wrote it, then came across your post and I stopped feeling so smug 😉
      I really need more people to get on board The Forsyte Saga and am frankly shocked it hasn’t amassed a North and South following, so I’m hell-bent on cramming in down my reader’s throats and hoping someone will bite!

      Reply
  3. I’ve been meaning to read the book for ages! LOVE the series, season 3 isn’t on Amazon so I may have to check if I saw those back when. I felt extremely sorry for Irene and gosh does Soames make my skin crawl, i like his brother much MUCH better! Interesting comparison and Margaret was far luckier in her circumstances that she had family support to be allowed to make unconventional choices

    Reply
    • Irene’s like Marmite- you either love her or hate her, but you can’t help feeling sorry for her.
      Margaret’s circumstances were so much better than Irene’s, but I really believe ultimately it was about strength and character. Irene needed a tragedy and being pushed close to the edge to grow a pair and become independent.
      BTW, as far as I know there are 2 series of FS. The second one is called To Let and is shorter than the first.

      Reply
      • Thanks! I cleared up my confusion about the episodes yesterday. I don’t know why when searching it on amazon (on demand) season 3 comes up as a suggestion.
        I’m curious if your reading of the book informed your feelings about the characters?

        Reply
        • The book was interesting, although it was a bad idea to read after watching the series. There’s a lot more about the oldest generation of the Forsytes as some siblings were excluded from the plot. There are some bits and bobs about their humble roots which I found interesting. In general, I really do recommend the book 🙂

          Reply
          • That’s good to know; cause in that case I would want to read the saga before revisiting the series.

          • It’s always best to read first. I couldn’t help but feel a tad sorry for Soames and I know that’s because of the way Lewis portrayed him in the series and not the way Galsworthy had probably intended him to be.

          • Yeah, Lewis manages to sneak in vulnerability with the creepiness. I watched this before my fangirling days though I did follow his first American tv series which unfortunately didn’t get a second season.
            As far as reading before watching it can set you up for disappointment of the adaptation so I like a period where I can forget all the details of the book and still use it to inform me about the back stories. That’s what I’ve been doing this summer reading in preparation before the movie and the series will be released. I’ve yet to start Outlander and the ocean between the seas gotta hurry w the book thief!

          • Do you mean the series Life? As much as I like watching Lewis in Homeland, I really in the mood to see him in a project where he uses his English accent.
            Re what’s coming out soon, I try to read before I see. My friend really enjoyed Beautiful Creatures. He hated the film, I didn’t care for it either and was so disappointed with the casting. Now I have the actors faces stamped on the characters, I can’t force myself to actually read the series. My mistake.

  4. I’m not convinced Irene had less choice than Margaret- for although Margaret had a loving family, her father had made choices that had left the family in penury. Until Mr Bell became her benefactor, Margaret was in a vulnerable situation, reliant on her relatives for support. Irene did ultimately support herself- as you point out, she only took this step after Bossinney died – but if she really loathed Soames she could have done that earlier and avoided marrying him.

    My main beef with Irene is that she married Soames in order to be financially secure but seemed to make no effort to make it work. Maybe if we had seen scenes where she was trying, I might have had more sympathy. But she married him under false pretences and the more she pushed him away the more extreme his obsession with her became. Was her life really so bad? She had a creepy (but strangely attractive!) husband, money, a nice home and a decent extended family ( unlike Margaret who had the prospect of Hannah Thornton as a mother in law!). For the times, she was pretty fortunate.

    Reply
    • Don’t get me started on the Hales. Mr Hale was irresponsible and, on the one hand, exercised his rights to make vital and life-changing decisions regarding his family, on the other wasn’t strong enough to provide a safe environment for them and lacked a focus as to what would actually become of them.
      I think it’s also important to remember that at that time women of their class were reliant of men to survive and live in the comfort they were used to. I’ve heard the notion that prostitution was their only option, either through marriage like Irene, or actual selling oneself to make a living. After she left Soames, the Forsytes suspected that Irene was selling herself, or was tied to a wealthy gentleman who supported her because it was unimaginable that she could actually make a living through using her skills and talent. The sheer fact that she could “make it on her own” speaks to he credit and, to a point, we learn that she can be strong strong.
      BTW, I always find it heart-breaking when Soames finds Irene with Jolyon and shouts that he hopes she treats her new lover the way she treated him. That really is a horrible thing to wish on anyone. In his misguided way Soames really did try and such coldness from the woman you love is painful enough to drive any man mad.

      Reply
  5. Pingback: Richard Armitage Legenda 95: Stuff worth reading | Me + Richard Armitage

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