Waxing pithy on Forsythia
By Peter Hovenden Longley
iUniverse, $37.95, 706 pages
Fans of popular Edwardian-period shows and literature like Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs, or Pride and Prejudice will fall in love with this hefty tome that examines the culture of that alluring time period through parallel lenses. Drawing skillful comparisons between the fictional family of Forsytes from John Galsworthy’s epic work titled The Forsyte Saga, and his own family history and youth in England, Longley invites us into a world far different from our own. He recommends that prior to reading the book, we familiarize ourselves with the Galsworthy book, but possibly the 2002 BBC mini-series of the same title would provide a similar foundation on which to begin. With expert compare and contrast style, Longley carefully illuminates passages from the fictional Galsworthy work with stories from real life. We learn about the Longley-Hovenden-Cuthbertson-Collings family of the author’s nativity, as he uses incidents and illustrations from his own history and the stories of his antecedents. Fictional narrative comes alive as we see true-life samples of the disparity between master and servant, strict cultural mores and rules, incidentals like an organ-grinder, ginger-beer, and waning traditions like the garden parties and social clubs. Morality is examined in context as well, as the Forsyte characters deal with a failing marriage, pivotal to the story’s central themes of the decline of an era and a woman’s place in society. Characters from author Longley’s own history stand out as colorful as any fictive Forsyte: Granny Longley, progenitor Charles William Hovenden Longley, the author himself, and more, take on amusing and interesting lives of their own.
Unveiling the mystery and rigidity of social class in intimate and minute detail, where ‘Forsythia’ becomes a term referring to the attitudes, unwritten laws, and sometimes outright chutzpah of the haut monde, this precis on not only The Forsyte Saga, but Edwardian and Victorian periods heading into the transitional periods of wartime and upheaval provides a meticulous, comprehensive history replete with copious detail and entertaining stories. A genuine reading pleasure especially for students of history or classic literature.