The Life and Letters of John Galsworthy by H.V. Marrot appeared at the end of 1935, not quite three years after its subject’s death, and must be one of the very last examples of what was by that time a gravely endangered species. In the preface to Eminent Victorians Strachey had wittily mocked the solemn pretensions of the Victorian and Edwardian monumental biography, ponderously discreet as an old-fashioned manservant: but 17 years later Marrot found it still possible to produce a work of unblushing hagiography. To be fair, he makes no secret of his hero-worship, or of the fact that his work, in accordance with Victorian ground-rules, has been closely overseen by the great man’s widow. The significant thing, though, is that Marrot’s generation (his book was widely read and instantly reprinted) retained a faith in the writer not just as hero but as a kind of secular saint. Recalling the mild furore a few years ago over Robert Gittings’s life of Hardy, with its intimations that the great advocate of loving-kindness could be snobbish and mean-spirited, severe with his servants and a brute to his wife, one is bound to reflect that even today the faith is not quite extinguished, and that there are readers who still expect the lives of great men to remind us, if not that we can make our own sublime, at any rate that sublimity is possible.
If Marrot’s biography has an old-fashioned flavour even for its period, this may be partly because Galsworthy himself was, long before his death, an uneasy survivor from a vanished age. Younger than Conrad or Yeats or Kipling, his mind and outlook seem fixed, as theirs do not, in an epoch that itself did not survive his prime – and this in spite of the reputation he enjoyed, in his heyday, as an enlightened propagandist. Half a century on, the main pleasure of Marrot’s book is in the photographs it plentifully reproduces, which sometimes seem to have caught random but symbolic moments and exude the atmosphere of Galsworthy’s comfortable middle-class background: the large houses with mahogany furniture and deep carpets and silent servants; the heavy meals starting with brown Windsor soup and ending with Cabinet pudding; broadcloth and tweed, shooting and croquet and tennis, and holidays in huge hotels in Torquay or the South of France. There is a splendidly evocative picture of Galsworthy ‘in his Oxford rooms’ with a chum, ‘studying racing form at breakfast’ while a servant hovers against the dark wallpaper.
All this, with Harrow, Lincoln’s Inn and a private income, went to the making of Galsworthy, and neither Conrad nor Yeats nor Kipling – nor for that matter any of the writers of his period who still enjoy any kind of currency, not excluding Forster – had a background that resembled it, in its privileges and its limitations, its apparent freedom and the actual thoroughness of its conditioning. In an age when to be a serious writer it was necessary to be an outsider (and if not actually a Pole or an American or an Irishman, at any rate a miner’s son or a homosexual or a woman), Galsworthy stood almost alone in representing the constituency of the philistine bourgeois, a Wilcox rather than a Schlegel or even a Leonard Bast.