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