In the month of my father’s birth, April 1909, John Galsworthy was in the midst of writing a play titled The Eldest Son, which was, however, not performed until 1912. Galsworthy was one of the proportionately many winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature on whom the conferral of the prize did not also confer literary immortality, or even much in the way of longevity.

Galsworthy is now generally regarded, I think, as irredeemably middlebrow. Virginia Woolf reprehended him because (according to her) he dealt only with the externals of life, presumably by contrast with life’s internals. Galsworthy was, so to speak, dermatologist to Woolf’s gastroenterologist.

Shakespeare weaves the personal and the political into a perfectly seamless robe.

For myself, I can’t quite decide whether the internals or externals are the more important to literature. After all, in the absence of consciousness, nothing in the universe could be of the slightest importance; conversely, only a very spoiled, self-obsessed, and superficial person could deny the impact of the external on the internal. Perhaps Shakespeare alone managed the perfect fusion of the two. Though we have never ourselves been destituted of great power, we learn when we listen to Richard II exactly how it feels to be so destituted, as if it had happened to us. But irrespective of how Richard felt himself, his destitution was to have enormously important effects on public events, provoking a civil war that lasted until the downfall of Richard III more than eighty years later. Shakespeare weaves the personal and the political into a perfectly seamless robe.

To whichever brow—high, low, or middle—Galsworthy appealed, he was an accomplished dramatist, very much in the Bernard Shaw mold. With what for the time must have been considerable daring, Galsworthy tackled moral and social questions that are with us still, namely—in a volume I happened to pick up in an idle moment that contained both The Eldest Son and his most famous play, Justice—those, respectively, of sexual hypocrisy and the proper relation of punishment to crime. Justice was also written in the year of my father’s birth.

The Eldest Son would probably be difficult to stage today, not because of any dramatic defect but because it is set in the world of the landed gentry whose hunting and shooting vocabulary has become too unfamiliar to most of us. But it is undoubtedly a powerful condemnation of hypocritical class-based morality, of there being one law for the rich and another for the poor.

Sir William Cheshire is an almost feudal landowner whose family has been important in the district since the thirteenth century. He has two sons and three daughters. One daughter is married to a morally conventional, unctuous clergyman at the time when the Church of England was still the Tory Party at prayer. Another is married to an army officer, and the third is unmarried.

The two sons are also unmarried. The oldest, Bill, is a typical upper-class wastrel, good for nothing except gambling and getting into debt. Sir William and his wife are eager to marry him off to the daughter of Irish landowners in the hope that he will then settle down, having sown his wild oats.

At the beginning of the play, a young gamekeeper in Sir William’s employ, Dunning, has made a village girl, Rose, pregnant. Dunning doesn’t want to marry her, but Sir William threatens Dunning with dismissal unless he does so, for he refuses to employ someone responsible for a scandal in the village of which he, Sir William, is the moral guardian and most important inhabitant.

Then it emerges that Bill, the elder son, has made Freda, Lady Cheshire’s maid and the daughter of the head gamekeeper, Studdenham, pregnant during a brief fling. Bill proposes to “do the right thing” by Freda and marry her. In contrast and in direct contradiction to his attitude towards Dunning, Sir William forbids Bill absolutely to marry Freda, saying that he will cut him off without a penny if he does so.

Naturally, it was the upper and middle classes who patronized the play, but self-flagellation is often a delight to them.

There is a clever twist or dramatic reversal at the end of the play. Dunning realizes that it is his duty to marry Rose, while Freda, under the influence of her father who thinks that Bill is not good enough for her, refuses to marry Bill. The lower classes are thus shown to be more genuinely principled than the upper. (Naturally, it was the upper and middle classes who patronized the play, but self-flagellation is often a delight to them.)

In the course of the play, there are discussions that are not without contemporary significance. Dot, Sir William’s unmarried daughter, is on what would now be considered the liberal side of the question of Dunning’s marriage (that is to say, before he decides himself that it is his duty to marry the pregnant girl). She asks her sister, “When people marry, do you believe they ought to be in love with one another?” and the sister replies that this is not the point. Dot then asks her whether she would have married her husband if she had not been in love with him, to which she replies, “Of course not.” She gets a similar reply from her mother when she asks her the same question.

Then she says, “If they’re tired of each other”—Dunning and Rose—“they ought not to marry.” Her sister protests, “You don’t understand in the least, it’s for the sake of the—.” Dot then exclaims, “Out with it. . . . The approaching infant! God bless it!”

This seems a rather airy dismissal of the interests of the child, especially given the attitude of society to illegitimate children at the time the play was written. The liberal would say, however, that the problem is not illegitimacy itself but the attitude to illegitimate children and single parenthood; when Galsworthy wrote his play, this was not a completely unjustified idea. The stigma of illegitimacy was visited not only on the mother of the child (on the father less so), but also upon the child itself, which is surely a monstrous injustice under any possible view. Moreover, I can remember at the beginning of my career the presence in lunatic asylums of women who had spent fifty years or more in them only because they had had a child out of wedlock half a century before. Galsworthy’s instincts, then, were generous.

Moreover, he was not writing a tract or pamphlet, he was not sermonizing or preaching, but composing a play, and therefore he had to allow something to be said on the other side for there to be any dramatic tension at all. With considerable skill, he lets Rose herself say it, with a kind of inarticulate eloquence. She is called into the presence of Lady Cheshire:

Lady Cheshire: I just wondered whether you’d like to ask my advice. Your engagement with Dunning’s broken off, isn’t it?

Rose: Yes—but I’ve told him he’s got to marry me.

Lady Cheshire: I see! And you think that’ll be the wisest thing?

Rose [stolidly]: I don’t know, my lady. He’s got to.

Lady Cheshire: I do hope you’re a little fond of him still.

Rose: I’m not. He don’t deserve it.

Lady Cheshire: And—do you think he’s quite lost his affection for you?

Rose: I suppose so, else he wouldn’t treat me as he’s done. He’s after that—that—He didn’t ought to treat me as if I was dead.

Lady Cheshire: No, no—of course. But you will think it all well over, won’t you?

Rose: I’ve a-got nothing to think over, except what I know of.

Lady Cheshire: But for you both to marry in that spirit! You know it’s for life, Rose . . .

Rose: . . . I think he ought to marry me. I’ve told him he ought.

In essence, lower-class Rose is in agreement with upper-class Sir William (at least until his son proposes to marry the pregnant Freda): the duty to marry is deontological, not contingent on utilitarian considerations. To have a child out of wedlock is simply out of the question for Rose, but not on account of any practical consequences, and her obstinacy, which we sense is caused by deep anguish, is more moving that any rational argument on her part would have been. Here Galsworthy shows himself to be an artist.

Lady Cheshire’s arguments to dissuade Bill from marrying Freda may be snobbish but are not without force. Bill does not love Freda and will soon grow bitter and resentful at the life that will result from the marriage (Sir William will cut him off without a penny). She says:

All such marriages end in wretchedness. You haven’t a taste or tradition in common. You don’t know what marriage is. Day after day, year after year. It’s no use being sentimental—for people brought up as we are, to have different manners is worse than to have different souls. Besides, it’s poverty. . . . What can you do? You have no profession. How are you going to stand it; with a woman who—? It’s the little things.

Marriage was not so easily dissoluble then as it is now, and even today ill-assortment, exceptions notwithstanding, is not a recipe for conjugal happiness. The day is saved in the play by Freda’s father, who concludes that it would be better for his daughter to endure the stigma of single motherhood (“She’s not the first this has happened to since the world began, an’ she won’t be the last”) than suffer marriage to a man as worthless as Bill. In the end, the desire for personal happiness outranks, and evidently to Galsworthy should outrank, convention and social obligation. Galsworthy was a prophet of modern individualism.

Justice was Galsworthy’s most successful play. It is startling to me that one of the characters in the play, the prison doctor, was acted at the first performance by Lewis Casson, who was still on the stage when I started to go to the London theater. That thread with the past, of course, has long since been broken, but the play still resonates with our predicament.

Justice is an implicit plea for the understanding of the criminal.

Justice is an implicit plea for the understanding of the criminal rather than unthinking condemnation and stigmatization of him, as well as a call for lighter punishment.

A twenty-two-year-old clerk in a hyper-respectable lawyer’s office, William Falder, one day adds a zero to a check that he is asked to cash at the local bank, keeping the difference and in the process implicating a former employee of the firm who by happy coincidence has just left its employ. William’s motive for his theft is to pay for his and Ruth Honeywill’s escape to South America to start a new life. Honeywill, whom Falder loves and who loves him, is twenty-six and married to a violent drunken brute whom the law at the time will not allow her to divorce.

The theft is discovered before the couple can flee, and the senior partner of the firm, James How, insists that the law must take its course, while the junior partner, his son Walter, pleads for leniency: giving William, who has promised to return the money, another chance.

There follows a trial scene in which William is condemned and sentenced to three years’ penal servitude (greatly more severe than any punishment today). The next scene takes place in the prison, where we see the pathetic effect of imprisonment on William, whom we know to be a not evil young man.

The final scene—the denouement of the tragedy—takes place in the lawyers’ office once more, three months after William’s release from prison. In the meantime, William has tried to find work, but as soon as the other employees discover that he has been in prison, they make his life intolerable and he is forced out. He has come to his former employers to ask for his job back; at first, the senior partner says that he will give him a second chance on condition that he gives up his irregular liaison with Ruth, the only thing that makes his life tolerable, for the liaison is a stain on the firm’s respectability. The senior partner, though deeply conventional, is not, however, entirely hard-hearted, and eventually relents.

At that moment, though, the policeman who first arrested William reappears to arrest him a second time on a charge of having forged references to obtain his employment after his release from prison, the forged references being the only way he could have obtained such employment. The policeman leads him away, but William throws himself down the stairs of the office building, breaks his neck, and dies. The last scene is of Ruth, who has been present for the suicide, and who has herself lived her own calvary since his imprisonment, crouching over his body and saying, “My dear! My pretty! No one’ll touch him now! Never again! He’s safe with gentle Jesus!”

I have never seen the play acted, but I would imagine that the last scene is deeply affecting in the theater. Galsworthy has manipulated (if that is not too derogatory a term) our feelings with skill and, I suspect, with sincerity on his part.

The play has all the tropes, and indeed might be considered a locus classicus, of subsequent liberal criminology and penology. Galsworthy did not know, nor could he have known, that he had the luxury of living in what was possibly the most law-abiding (though nevertheless poverty-ridden) large-scale society that has ever existed, in which it was plausible to believe that most crime was committed under the impulsion of dire necessity. And it is certainly true that, by our current lights, the Edwardians’ greater outrage at the illicit relations of a married woman with another man (albeit not yet sexual) than at the brutish behavior of her husband, who among other things has tried to strangle her, are mealy-mouthed, hypocritical, and morally outrageous. Here Galsworthy was undoubtedly right.

In the eloquent speech for the defense by William’s lawyer at the trial, the trope of crime as illness is put forward:

It is impossible for you to doubt his distress on the morning when he committed this act. We well know what terrible havoc such distress can make in weak and highly nervous people. . . . Is a man to be lost because he is bred and born with a weak character? Gentlemen, men like the prisoner are destroyed daily under our law for want of human insight which sees them as they are, patients, not criminals.

There is no doubt, I think, that this is a view with which Galsworthy himself sympathized, given the heartrending denouement of the play. But he is also a literary artist, so that he allows the prosecuting counsel at the trial his own eloquence and logic:

We have . . . the plea that a man who is sane at ten minutes past one, and sane at fifteen minutes past, may, for the purposes of avoiding the consequences of a crime, call himself insane between those points in time.

Here we cannot help but think of two recent cases in Scotland, in which convicted rapists claimed to be changing sex, so as to be sent to women’s rather than men’s prisons.

Another trope in the play is that it is imprisonment that makes the criminal rather than that punishment is the consequence of criminality. In his speech for the defense, counsel says:

If the prisoner be found guilty, and treated as though he were the criminal type, he will, as all experience shows, in all probability become one.

And, in fact, William’s subsequent fate seems to bear this out. By the emotional impact he obviously intends to create, Galsworthy supports this contention.

But once again, he proves himself to be a literary artist and not merely a propagandist for what he believes. The judge, in his sentencing remarks to the convicted man, puts the opposite case forcefully:

He [counsel for the defense] claimed that you should be treated rather as a patient than as a criminal. And this plea of his . . . he based in effect on an indictment of the march of Justice, which he practically accused of confirming and completing the process of criminality. Now, in considering how far I should allow weight to his appeal, I have a number of factors to take into account. . . . I have to consider the necessity of deterring others from following your example. . . . Your counsel has made an attempt to trace your offence back to what he seems to suggest is a defect in the marriage law; he has made an attempt also to show that to punish you with further imprisonment [William had been held two months on remand] would be unjust . . . . The Law is what it is—a majestic edifice, sheltering all of us, each stone of which rests on another.

Again, Galsworthy has manipulated our feelings so that we come to the conclusion that he wants us to, but not in outrageous fashion.

He was not to know where the incontinent extension of his attitude would lead. His liberalism was, at the time, humane, understandable, and largely justified, even if he failed to consider whether it might be the top of a slippery slope or what would be its reductio ad absurdum. All intellectuals take the strengths of their societies for granted, or do not even notice them; problems, by contrast, loom large in their imagination—that is why intellectuals so often are destructive forces. But Galsworthy was a social liberal in an honorable sense, and we should not throw brickbats at him because of a mere label.

As to the charge that he dealt only with externals and not with internals, hence with nothing really important, this is not true on two grounds: first, anyone with the slightest imagination can enter into the inner life of his characters, and, second, the subject matter with which he treats is hardly unimportant.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 10, on page 36
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