Marriage hell: “The Forsyte Saga” (2002)
27 September 2010
Now, friends of Feminéma will know she’s no fan of marriage. Long story, but I maintain that no one who’s ever considered the history of the institution and the way it squashed women’s rights for so long can feel otherwise. And after watching the Granada/ ITV series “The Forsyte Saga” I feel not only confirmed in my prejudices, but as if I’ve been handed a visual record of evidence to support them. As much as I maintain a ridiculous weakness for 19th-century courtship melodramas and romances of all kinds (I’m a big fan of romance and relationships, just not marriage) this tale of 19th-c. marriage hell is utterly riveting and believable.
Irene (the beautiful Gina McKee) agrees to marry the lovestruck Soames Forsyte (both above) not because she loves him, but because she’s penniless, strongly pressured by her pragmatic stepmother, and bereft of any better offer. She sees it from the beginning as a marriage of necessity. Even in the late 19th century women like Irene might liken such marriages to prostitution — implicitly or explicitly — for she was most certainly in it for the comfort and respectability. But when she finally agrees, she makes Soames promise that he will “let me go” if they cannot be happy. He agrees, but we know he’ll never do it.
Damian Lewis does no favors for other ginger-haired Englishmen so mocked in that country (speaking of odd prejudices) in the role of Soames. He manages to combine a despicable aristocratic coldness with a smothering possessiveness that Irene can hardly bear. On those nights when he “exercises his duties as a husband,” to use the parlance of their time, Irene sneaks off to the bathroom afterward to douche rather than risk pregnancy. Sex becomes so onerous that she demands they sleep in separate bedrooms — gossip about which quickly flies around the family, mortifying Soames. Their chilly détente of a marriage might have continued indefinitely but for the appearance of Philip Bossinney, a young architect (Ioan Gruffudd, who can design my house any day), newly engaged to Soames’ winsome cousin June. Bossinney is smitten with Irene, and she begins to melt under his gaze. Who wouldn’t, really, given those eyes and that wide, sensuous mouth of Gruffudd’s? As Irene falls hard for the young architect, her distaste for her husband hardens into a bitter hatred and her lifelong obedience to social rules begins to crumble. One night at a ball, wearing a vivid, strappy red dress, she dances with Bossinney with such pleasure and such a smile on her normally placid face that everyone knows precisely what is going on.
Glimpses of the couple’s mutual attraction drive Soames to distraction. Always given to jealousy, he now emanates a white-hot fury in most of his interactions with his wife. And as if their interactions aren’t awful enough, one night as she sleeps he sneaks into her bedroom and rapes her as she cries out in anguish, “No! No! No!” The housekeeper who hesitates at the bedroom door with a tortured expression, not knowing where her loyalties lie, ultimately stays out of the room and follows her duty — Soames, after all, is the one who pays her, even if she sympathizes with the woman.
John Galsworthy’s five-volume Forsyte Saga attacked many aspects of high society and social convention, not just marriage. But in boiling the books down to ten 70-minute episodes, the screenwriter Stephen Mallatratt seems to have found that the problem of marriage — centering on the private horrors of Soames and Irene, but mirrored in other marriages, too — offered the tale a vivid immediacy that could serve as a metaphor for the more abstractly hypocritical qualities of 19th-century society. Moreover, with bad marriage so prevalent, true love could offer some of the series’ characters the possibility for redemption. Perhaps with those themes in mind, the cinematographers offer us the richest, most enjoyable close-ups of the characters’ faces as their emotions and repressions and furies wash over them, twisting their hopes and damaging their relationships. This series teaches us that true love occurs outside of marriage; bad marriages drive families apart and make women miserable, enslaved. (And honestly, I’m okay with that.)
My own lovely partner refuses to watch these shows with me anymore, ascribing this aspect of my Netflix queue to a particularly stereotypical girly propensity of mine. Whatever. I maintain that “The Forsyte Saga” is more akin to gothic horror — and it reminds me why we call ourselves “partners” rather than “spouses.”