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Family saga: Sherry Ashworth

novel novels century sagas

In the preface to The Forsyte Saga (1922) John Galsworthy remarks of his title: ‘the word Saga might be objected to on the ground that it connotes the heroic’ How the mighty have fallen! At the start of the twenty-first century, in literary circles, the word ‘saga’ is, if not exactly contemptuous, belittling. We have Aga sagas, even lager sagas, and of course, family sagas. For most of us, the label ‘family saga’ brings to mind a long, possibly rather trashy, put-on-the-kettle-and-put-your-feet-up good read. Fortunately, family saga is much, much more than that.

The great Victorian novels generally aren't family sagas. There are families, but they are static entities, they are given. The novels focus on the hero or heroine and their struggles for autonomy. It is only in the century post-Freud, when family dynamics have been deemed worthy of serious interest, and we accept more than ever that upbringing is a significant factor in forming and destroying character, that the family has been seen organically, and can be the subject of the novel. And what a rich, infinitely fascinating subject it is.

The first substantial and successful family saga of the twentieth century is indubitably John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga. It begins with the novel The Man of Property (1906) and runs on through In Chancery (1920), To Let (1921), and numerous others. Galsworthy's setting is London, his period is late-Victorian England, and his family come from the prosperous, property-acquiring, upper-middle classes who live in or around Hyde Park. Galsworthy's novels are informed by a satiric vision; he is particularly interested and delighted by the limitations of the Forsytes, their money-grubbing ways and their bafflement in the face of Art. The novels are worth reading for the study of the relationship between Soames and Irene alone. What also motivates Galsworthy as a writer is the creation of the whole world that the Forsyte family inhabits—it is beautifully realized.

The first serious, literary saga, I suggest, is comprised of the companion novels The Rainbow (1915) and Women in Love (1920) by D. H. Lawrence. These concern the Brangwen family and in every respect they conform to the conventions of family saga: they are concerned with three generations, the setting is specific in time and place (the beginning of the twentieth century, Nottinghamshire), and the structure of the books is episodic. We follow the story of Tom and his marriage to the Polish refugee Lydia, the courtship of his nephew Will to Anna, and the quest of their daughters Ursula and Gudrun for a soulmate/lover. Lawrence's uncomfortably accurate psychological insight, the insistent rhythms of his prose and his desire to shock his reader mean he will never be forgotten, and will always be an irritant, either to the respectable classes or feminist critics. A family saga not to be missed!

For light relief, look at the novels of Mazo de la Roche. She was a Canadian, whose novel Jalna (1927) inspired sixteen others, chronicling the affairs of the Whiteoak family from generation to generation. Like her own family, they own a farm in Ontario, and there are, not surprisingly, lush descriptions of the countryside. Set and written in the first half of the twentieth century, there is a period charm to the novels, with characterization which is a little predictable.

For a startling contrast to Galsworthy's irony, go to R. F. Delderfield's God is an Englishman (1970). The title is more politically incorrect than the novel itself, which charts the setting up of the Swann family business, a nationwide road transport network, competing with the railways. The novel presents a tender and moving central relationship between the hero and his wife. It is set in nineteenth-century England—one can almost hear the national anthem playing faintly in the background. In fact, Delderfield has written a Victorian novel, leisurely, panoramic, and long. The saga continues in three further novels. As an antidote to Delderfield's patriotism, move straight to Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy (1993), a family saga set in post-independence India and based on Seth's own family. Family relationships are explored deftly and tenderly. This is one of the most accessible of sagas, and is tremendously wide-ranging in its appeal, being neither simplistic nor pretentious. Its digressions into Indian politics are not untypical of family saga, because writers often wish to give their family a socio-political setting, class being a significant factor in the formation of family values.

This is also very true of Isabel Allende. Her novel, The House of the Spirits (1985), is a family saga with a difference, the difference being magic realism. Allende's humour, her astonishing imagination, and detailed knowledge of her background make this novel a masterpiece, the best literary family saga there is. It is set in a mythical South American country and spans the whole of the twentieth century, but focuses particularly on the way politics and the class system impinge on the life of her family, or indeed, families, for there are two, one upper, one lower caste. The novel opens with the short life of the beautiful Rosa—a mermaid—and moves on to her younger sister Clara, who is to be the matriarch of the saga—one who can communicate with the spirits.

For a stark contrast of setting, move on to the English Elizabeth Jane Howard's The Cazalet Chronicle, which incorporates The Light Years (1990), Marking Time (1991), Confusion (1993), and Casting Off (1995). These also attempt to move between classes as they include the narrative viewpoints of servants as well as the ‘upstairs’ characters in her family group. The many interior mind-scapes in the novels give the books a literary feel. The novels move slowly and focus on the personal lives and inner conflicts of the characters, while evoking the period around the Second World War in Sussex. This is no nostalgic portrait—Howard is often drawn to examine the darker side of life, and the ways in which a family can be dysfunctional.

The same is not true of Rosamunde Pilcher. Her saga The Shell Seekers (1987) is a shameless romanticization of England, English middle-class values, and the English country garden. All the clichés are there, together with strong, silent heroes and women doing all the cooking. Nevertheless, it's a likeable novel and a good read, but ought to be taken in conjunction with Zoe Fairbairns' Stand We at Last (1983), the first and only feminist saga. The author obeys the conventions of the genre while writing feelingly about real women's lives, but interestingly there is the same exhilarating sense of progress apparent that exists in Delderfield. This is because both writers feel they are charting a period when history is being made.

As yet another contrast to Pilcher, look at Maisie Mosco's trilogy starting with the novel Almonds and Raisins (1979). This is another twentieth-century set-in-England best-seller saga, but with a difference. The family are Jewish immigrants to Manchester, and thus class issues are seen from a new perspective. The family-saga format works particularly well when the family in question has a specific problem—in this case, establishing itself in a new country. On reflection, perhaps the first true family saga is the Old Testament itself, where the same description applies. Family sagas continue to sell steadily and please readers. A contemporary author who has done well in the genre is Harry Bowling, who writes Cockney sagas, set in the East End of London and beginning in the late nineteenth century. His novels are page-turners—they're the sort of good-natured not-too-depressing books you might choose to give someone recovering from flu! They read rather like soap opera, with quick-change scenes and a scattering of cliffhangers. This is most definitely not a criticism; the quality of the writing is high and the books are successfully entertaining.

The last word must go to the novelist who has created the anti-family saga, Kate Atkinson. Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995) is set in Yorkshire, and also covers four generations of women, but is constructed so as to unpeel, layer by layer, the truth about families that we prefer to keep hidden, and in the process reveals the family as a dark beast, rather than the clannish, self-serving, ultimately triumphant animal of de la Roche and Delderfield. Her writing is witty, she captures place and time with tremendous accuracy yet succeeds in writing a novel which is both best-seller and a challenging read.

Thus it is that family saga is far more than just genre fiction—the family is, I suggest, a worthy subject for a novel, possibly the best subject of all. Some family sagas affirm social survival; others show the stifling claustrophobia of the family unit and so focus instead on the development of character. All of us have emerged undamaged or otherwise from families and our curiosity about them and the way they work will never be sated. This is why the family saga has such universal success.

See also SHERRY ASHWORTH

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