Friday, 7 October 2016

Book Review: The Dark Flower by John Galsworthy

2016 review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

Just like the body ages and changes with time, emotions don’t stay the same during a whole life. Therefore the experience of love can be very different depending on how old we are when it comes over us, be it like a coup de foudre or only gradually. However much we like the idea of eternal love, we have come to distinguish between three, four or even more seasons of love with good reason. The protagonist of The Dark Flower by John Galsworthy, the Nobel Prize laureate in literature of 1932, is a sculptor and unlike the average Englishman of his time who has learnt to appear calm and poised under all circumstances, he is full of emotions that he finds difficult to control and hide. Three times in the course of nearly thirty years he is swept away by passionate love to women who are forbidden to him because of the bonds of their or his own marriage

John Galsworthy was born in Kingston upon Thames, England, U.K., in August 1867. After his law studies in Oxford and the bar exam, he worked with the family’s shipping business because it allowed him to travel. Only in 1897 he made his literary debut with the short story collection From the Four Winds published under the pen name John Sinjohn. The novel The Island Pharisees (1904) was his first work to appear under his own name, it was the play The Silver Box (1906), though, that made him known. It was followed by the novel The Man of Property (1906), the first book of The Forsyte Saga (1922). While popular in his time thanks to plays like Strife (1909), Justice (1910),  and The Pigeon (1912), he is now best remembered for the novels The Country House (1907), The Patrician (1911), The Dark Flower (1913), The Freelands (1915), Five Tales (1918), Saint’s Progress (1919), and the sequels to The Forsyte Saga, namely the trilogies A Modern Comedy (1929) and End of the Chapter (1934). In 1932 the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to John Galsworthy who couldn’t attend the ceremony for health reasons and died six weeks later in London, England, U.K., in January 1933.

The first love of Mark Lannon and the story of The Dark Flower begins in Oxford in Spring 1880. He is not yet nineteen years old and a frequent guest of his tutor Harold Stormer and his much younger wife Anna. The woman in her mid-thirties has become infatuated with the boy and not without hesitation she decides to live out the unexpected passion. Her husband has long ceased to treat her like a person who counts anyways. At her suggestion Mark joins them for their summer holidays in Southern Tyrol and she quickly succeeds in turning the inexperienced youth’s head. The impregnable composure of her husband who is obviously aware of what is going on annoys her and one day she realises what is behind it:
“… How dare he think her like that—a nothing, a bundle of soulless inexplicable whims and moods and sensuality? A thousand times, No! It was HE who was the soulless one, the dry, the godless one; who, in his sickening superiority, could thus deny her, and with her all women! ...”
The desired love affair, however, is prevented by Mark’s being called back to England for his sister’s advanced wedding and Anna Stormer soon loses her power over him. Moreover, he is attracted to the sixteen-year-old bridesmaid Sylvia whom he has known all his life and he goes abroad to become a sculptor. In Summer 1886 he meets beautiful, though unhappily married Olive Cramier and they fall passionately in love with each other. Her jealous husband warns both of them, but the threat pushes Olive to finally yield to Mark and the escapade takes a tragic end. After a few years travelling about Mark settles down with Sylvia. In Autumn 1908 they have been married for fifteen years, when the daughter of his room-mate in Oxford, almost eighteen-year-old Eleanor “Nell” Dromore, enters their life. Before long, the charming young creature awakens an ardent desire in him that makes him philosophise on the nature of passion one night:
“… What memories a fire gathered into it, with its flaky ashes, its little leaf-like flames, and that quiet glow and flicker! What tale of passions! How like to a fire was a man's heart! The first young fitful leapings, the sudden, fierce, mastering heat, the long, steady sober burning, and then—that last flaming-up, that clutch back at its own vanished youth, the final eager flight of flame, before the ashes wintered it to nothing! …”
He knows that this love is only rebellion against his fading youth. Besides, he dearly loves his wife and can’t bear to make her suffer. Thus, he struggles.

Told from the point of view of an omniscient observer The Dark Flower shows an artist who three times in almost thirty years finds himself overwhelmed by passionate love in the forms characteristic of adolescence, adulthood and what seems to have been considered old age in the 1910s, but would be called mid-life today. Each of the love stories is set in a different season and thus progressing from warm spring over the hottest summer to mild autumn mirrors the stage of life that the protagonist has reached. His first love introduces the dark flower from the title, a clove carnation of the darkest red with “a scent moving, dark and sweet”, and it clearly serves the author as the recurring symbol of passion, while the changing white flowers connected to the protagonist’s wife are quite obviously a symbol of serenity if not purity. As for the various characters of this short novel, they are without exception awfully clichéd, i.e. they are typical upper-middle class men and women following without demur the unwritten rules of Victorian and Edwardian society. Only the women trapped in unhappy marriages to men who can’t see them as feeling human beings like themselves, at least try to break out. I enjoyed the read very much, also thanks to John Galsworthy’s elegant and unpretentious language.

All things considered, The Dark Flower by John Galsworthy is an entertaining read about the almost irresistible urges that drive a man when he falls in love. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t be fair to call it light or a romance because between the lines it has rather marked overtones of social criticism. Little more than a hundred years after its first release, our daily lives may be very different from those of the characters in this book, but the vagaries of love itself haven’t changed. Not even men who disrespect women treating us like soulless things to possess instead of accepting us as equal partners with dreams and desires unfortunately haven’t vanished from the surface of the planet. Since I haven’t yet ventured at reading The Forsyte Saga, I can’t tell if this short novel is one of the author’s better or poorer works, it’s definitely a book that deserves my recommendation, though.

Nota bene:
Nobel Prize laureate of literature John Galsworthy has been dead and buried for much more than seventy years now and this means that all English editions of his works are in the public domain. You can find most, if not all of his books as free downloads on sites like Project Gutenberg, ManyBooks or Forgotten Books.

* * * * * 

This review is a contribution to
(images linked to my lists):


  1. I like your opening sentences in this review about love across the stages of life. I purchased The Forsyte Saga some years ago but have not read it so far. I had forgotten that Galsworthy won a Nobel prize.

    1. The idea of the seasons of love caught me although I came across it in another classic that I read only after The Dark Flower. I found it in Annie Vivanti's The Devourers that I'll review soon.

      As I mentioned, I haven't read The Forsyte Saga either. It was on my list for Read the Nobels 2016, but then I opted for something shorter from Galsworthy's pen.

  2. Your style is so unique in comparison to other folks I have
    read stuff from. Thanks for posting when you've got the opportunity, Guess I'll just book mark this blog.


Dear anonymous spammers: Don't waste your time here! Your comments will be deleted at once without being read.