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Was the real Soames Forsyte an Essex Yeomanry officer?

Was the real Soames Forsyte an Essex Yeomanry officer?

It is by now well known that the events fictionalised so memorably by John Galsworthy in his great Forsyte Saga were drawn, at any rate in part, from his own experiences. Thus The Man of Property, the central novel of the Forsyte series, telling of the breakdown of the marriages of Soames and Irene was an imaginative reworking of events which affected Galsworthy himself, his wife Ada and her former husband, his cousin Arthur. In this sense therefore Arthur Galsworthy was the ‘real’ Soames Forsyte.

Of course as a great novelist John Galsworthy was able to transform his raw material into the stuff of art and we must not attach literal truth to the fictional Soames or anyone else in the novel.

Arthur Galsworthy was John’s first cousin. After the usual public school education at Eton (John was a Harrovian) he settled down the life of a comfortably-off upper middle class young man. He has, it seems, little inclination for business and lived on an allowance from his father, a prosperous estate agent and property dealer. He had no interest at all in the literature or the arts.

He married Ada Cooper, daughter of a Norwich doctor, 1891 and it seems that from the first this was an ill-starred match. She was interested in these things and the tragedy of this, as of so many other broken marriages is a tragedy of incompatible temperaments.

Arthur Galsworthy was interested deeply in only one thing. He was a keen part-time soldier. In those late-Victorian days the British Army was a small professional body not in the least comparable with the vast conscript armies of the continent. We hardly needed an Army when. As then, Britannia ruled the waves so unchallengeably. But there was, alongside the Regular Army a nation-wide network of part-time units – yeomanry, volunteers etc. It was in one of these, the Essex Yeomanry, that Arthur held his commission.

One may readily picture the scene. While Ada prepares to receive her artistic and musical friends at North Kensington, including perhaps her cousin by marriage John. Arthur the while is donning his Yeomanry officer’s uniform (and a splendid affair it was in those days) and preparing to catch a train to Colchester, there to assume command of his platoon. Perhaps he planned to be absent for a number of days at a training camp somewhere in the Essex countryside. The two of them had so little in common that it has often been speculated upon why they should ever have married in the first place. We do not know the answer.

There is nothing to seriously suggest that Arthur Galsworthy was a man capable of prolonged mental and physical cruelty. The ‘real’ Soames was almost certainly not the torturer of the ‘real’ Irene that we might expect from The Man of Property.

The family, especially John’s two talented sisters, were well aware of what was going on, but a conspiracy of silence was maintained lest their father should hear of the truth. It was only when John Galsworthy and his cousins wife openly went off together to a farm on the edge of Dartmoor that Arthur, understandably but with much delay, finally took steps to divorce his wife citing his cousin. The marriage of Ada and John Galsworthy did not take place until 1905 though they had for years past met surreptitiously as lovers both in England and abroad. After the novelist’s father died they threw pretence to the winds.

Thus one feels a certain pity for the ‘real’ Soames. He was perhaps an innocent, he was not a man of vicious character. His second wife spoke of him with great respect and affection, but then she was a general’s daughter! Compatibility!

I like to imagine him in a first-class compartment in all the finery of his Essex Yeomanry major’s uniform departing from Liverpool Street to join his men in the depths of Essex, a simple man but a patriot and a loyal Englishman.

Addenda: Arthur Galsworthy rose to the rank of major during the Boer War in which he saw active service. Though over fifty he volunteered for and served in the Army in 1914.

By Frederic Vanson

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