The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Forsyte Phonetics, Philology, and Fate

I have always been bemused by the fact that the received pronunciation of the first name of Irene Heron Forsyte, the heroine of John Galsworthy's masterful trilogy, The Forsyte Saga as "I-reen-ee," rather than the more common pronunciation, "I-reen."

In both the 1967 and 2002 adaptation, the less common is employed:

(By the way, that truncated clip, the poor quality, and the cheesy trailer don't do justice to a masterful adaptation, with great performances.)


(Yeah, I know. But it was this or watch through a whole episode on Hulu--after subscribing--to hear someone say her name.)

Although either pronunciation is correct, the consistent use of the more rare pronunciation (other than in the botched 1949 film adaptation That Forsyte Woman), raises the question why.

I have a hunch.

Galsworthy's novels are generally viewed as all-of-a-piece, but in fact the difference between The Saga and its sequel, A Modern Comedy, is in its treatment of Soames, Irene's first husband, who is the anti-hero--almost the villain of the earliest novel. The Man of Property but who is, by the time of Swan Song, pretty well redeemed, if not exactly warms and fuzzy. The Man of Property was originally intended to be a one-off, and its starker tone is notable in comparison to the other volumes.

One of the aspects of the books that has baffled generations of readers is his risky decision to have Irene viewed solely through the outside, to be seen only through the perceptions of others, as he writes in the preface to the collected Saga: "The figure of Irene, never, as the reader may possibly have observed, present, except through the senses of other characters, is a concretion of disturbing Beauty impinging on a possessive world."

This makes it impossible for us to know her the way we know any of the other characters. I can't help but wonder if this is due to the fact that John Galsworthy played the part of Young Jolyon in his own life, marrying his cousin's wife, Ada Nemesis (!) Pearson after an affair with her--but was loathe to depict his much loved wife in print more clearly than he absolutely had to, and tried to disguise her in the tale.

Nemesis, of course, is the Greek goddess who "appears chiefly as the avenger of crime and the punisher of hubris, and as such is akin to Atë and the Erinyes." (Yes, its Wikipedia, but it's also correct.) The Erinyes were "three netherworld goddesses who avenged crimes against the natural order. They were particularly concerned with homicide, unfilial conduct, crimes against the gods, and perjury. A victim seeking justice could call down the curse of the Erinys upon the criminal." The Erinyes sound fairly close to the name "Irene" yes?

Nemesis makes her appearance in the Forsyte Saga, and, as I pointed out last week, she is dangerous--to Old Jolyon, to Philip Bossiney, and certainly to Soames, whose death is traceable, ultimately, to the rejection of his daughter's love by her son Jon, because of Irene's and her dying husband, Young Jolyon, opposition to the marriage.

Nemesis is in the warp and woof of the Forsyte Saga and, cloaked as the Erinyes, or, rather, Irene, indirectly, precipitates the tragic end of the Modern Comedy.

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