I recently watched 2002 Granada Television production of John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga again to immerse myself in the world of the Victorians. I was struck again by the character of Irene Heron Forsyte, the mysterious, and aloof beauty that is at the heart of the first series. During the course of the first six episodes she manages to enchant not one but three of the Forsyte men as well as stealing the heart of Philip Bosinney, the fiance of her good friend June Forsyte.
She leaves her husband Soames, which causes a scandal, that reverberates throughout the second series. Soames is never really able to get over losing Irene. Irene is certainly a Scandalous Woman but it is less about what she does than how the men in her life perceive her that makes her so Scandalous.
When we first meet Irene in both the television series she is living in Bournemouth with her stepmother. Her father who was a Professor (we are not told of what) has died, leaving Irene with only 50 pounds a year to live on. Irene is a middle-class provincial girl who has very little prospects in terms of marriage. She has no impressive dowry to offer and no real skills in terms of employment. She can play the piano very well and she is amazingly beautiful. Galsworthy describes her as "The gods had give Irene dark brown eyes and golden hair, that strange combination, provocative of men's glances. The full soft pallor of her neck and shoulders, above a gold-colored frock, gave to her personality an alluring strangeness."
Irene's stepmother is desperate to get rid of her. She has the desire to get married again herself and can't do that with an alluring step-daughter living in her house. When Soames Forsyte arrives in Bournemouth, Mrs. Heron is ecstatic that this rich man is willing to take her step-daughter without a dowry. Irene, however, is not intersted in marrying Soames. She realizes from the beginning that they are tempermentally unsuited to each other. Irene has a natural intelligence, sensitivity and wit while Soames is the typical button-upped Englishmen, completely shut off from his emotions. He feels passion, certainly for Irene, but he doesn't know how to express it. His love becomes smothering and possessive after they are married.
After asking her to marry him about six times, Irene finally agrees to marry him but demands that Soames agree to release her if the marriage doesn't work out. Soames agrees, and then promptly forgets his promise. After all what woman would want to leave a man who can offer so many material possessions as Soames? After all he is a Man of Property (the title of the first Forstye novel). The minute they are married, Soames treats her less as a wife and more as a possession, something beautiful that he has bought to grace his house, he sees her as the perfect woman to be the mother of his children.
It all goes downhill after that. Irene and Soames are introduced to Philip Bosinney, an up and coming young architect (think Frank Lloyd Wright or Charles Rennie Mackintosh) with new ideas of how houses and buildings should be designed. He and Irene are more tempermentally suited to each other, and soon they have fallen in love and begin an affair, despite his engagement to June Forsyte. Soames realizes that he is losing Irene which in turn makes him more possessive of her.
Galsworthy describes Irene has not even trying to make her marriage work. She barely speaks when they are in company, and at home she decided that they need to sleep in seperate rooms. Of course the gossip gets back to his family which Soames finds intolerable. For Soames appearance is everything. He resolves to move Irene out of London into the country where he can isolate her even further. He hires Bosinney to build a house for them called Robin's Hill. One night, not being able to take her indifference to him any longer, Soames rapes Irene. When she tells Bosinney what happens, tragedy strikes. Irene resolves that no matter what, she can no longer live with Soames and leaves him, leaving all the clothes and jewelry that he had bought her behind.
Years past and we learn that Irene has been living in a small flat in Chelsea, teaching music, and helping fallen women. Old Jolyon Forsyte who has bought Robin's Hill finds her there one day. They become great friends which leads to gossip amongst the family about what is really going on between the two of them. This is compounded when Old Jolyon dies and his will is read. He left Irene 15,000 pounds, a considerable sum in the 19th century. Old Jolyon's son, Young Jolyon is the administrator of the will, and he and Irene also forge a friendship that eventually turns to love. Soames meanwhile lurks in the background ready to strike at any opportunity. He wants to move forward with his life, remarry and have the son he's always longed for, but he also can't get over his obsession with Irene. It is her elusiveness that makes her so attractive to him. He can't possess her the way that he can a painting or a building.
Ironically his obsession pushes her into the arms of Young Jolyon. Soames and Irene are finally divorced and she achieves happiness with Young Jolyon. They marry and have a son called Jon. Soames, meanwhile, marries a young French girl named Annette who is more practical when it comes to marriage than Irene. She doesn't love Soames but she is willing to marry him because he is rich. Annette too becomes pregnant, but instead of the longed for son, she has girl called Fleur.
While watching the series and then reading the book, I was struck by how passive Irene seems for the most part. Things happen to her, rather than her initiating them, the way most Scandalous Women do. Even her relationship with Bosinney, she succumbs to his passion, rather than giving into her own. Irene also has tendency to sulk. She wants true love, and when she realizes that she will never achieve that with Soames, she acts like a small child who takes her toys back and refuses to play anymore. In the mini-series, knowing how much Soames wants a child, she douches to make sure that she never gets pregnant. Having a child would tie her to Soames forever. Not once does she think about what she is doing to June by falling in love with Bosinney. Irene lacks the courage to break out on her own until Bosinney's death. Before that she is content to fall in line with his vision of their life together as Bohemians living without money, just love and each other. She's a victim, but to a certain extent she's responsible for her own problems.
In the miniseries, Irene breaks out in small ways. Dancing at a ball at the Forsytes, although she is still in mourning. Wearing the red dress that so resembles the dress worn by Madame X in the famous portrait to a ball and dancing with Bosinney in such a way that there can be no doubt to all that is present that the two are lovers. It is this scene, both in the book and the novel, where June Forsyte finally realizes what is going on and is heartbroken, betrayed by both her friend and her fiance.
In a certain way, each man projects his own version of Irene onto her. To Soames, she is the perfect woman, the ideal Victorian wife and mother, a possession, like the art he collects. To Bosinney, she is a romantic heroine, a pre-Raphaelite beauty, a damsel in distress that he must rescue, to Old Jolyon, she represents youth, vitality, a 'second chance' at life. Only Young Jolyon sees her for who she really is, perhaps because they were friends first before they fell in love. She and Young Jolyon are also more tempermentally suited to each other. Young Jolyon was the Forsyte family rebel, who left his wife and young child and ran off with the governess. He has also made his living somewhat as an artist.
Galsworthy in a foreword to the complete edition writes that he deliberately had Irene present only through the eyes of the other characters. He calls her a 'concretion of disturbing beauty impinging on a possessive world.' This makes her something of an enigma, the reader never once knows what Irene is thinking or how she views the world. She's like a beautiful painting behind glass in a museum, that one can look at but not touch. Soames represents the old order of Victorian England that is slowly dying towards the end of the century. While he sees that things are changing, he still holds tight to the things that he has been taught.
Galsworthy based the story of Irene, Soames and Bosinney partly from life. His cousin Arthur married a woman named Ada Nemesis Pearson Cooper in 1891. Within a few years, Ada and Galsworthy were lovers, and in 1902, Ada finally left her husband for Galsworthy. They lived happily together until his death in 1933, apart from a slight hiccup when Galsworthy became enthralled with a young actress, who pursued him relentlessly. When Ada found out, it almost wrecked their marriage. Galsworthy quickly ended the relationship when he saw the pain it was causing her. Apparently the Galsworthys believed in free love in principle but not in practice.
In the end, Irene finally achieves the happiness and the love, that she had always sought, but it comes at a great price. She loses the first great love of her life, but she must grow up and learn to be truly independent and stop being a victim before she can find what she seeks.