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John Galsworthy

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The Forsyte Saga (1906–1921)


The Man of Property (1906)

British Literature

The Forsyte Saga (1906–1921)

Passing greatness

Some writers are said to be so much of their own time they cannot be of all time. This is supposed to be particularly true of writers whose work is a social critique of their times. Once the times being critiqued have long passed, what should we care for the critique?

Hence—by this line of thinking—the decline of interest in John Galsworthy.

In his lifetime Galsworthy was considered one of the greatest of modern writers—possibly the greatest British writer—on par with or above his colleagues Joseph Conrad and Thomas Hardy. Unlike them, however, after his death Galsworthy's reputation dropped quickly. It's been periodically lifted by movie and television treatments of The Forsyte Saga (1906–1921), a small part of the writer's output that included hundreds of novels, plays, stories, poems, essays, sketches and lectures—only to sink back into obscurity, the books unread by successive generations.

Part of the neglect of Galsworthy is sometimes attributed to his becoming identified as a once sharp critic of social injustice who eventually sold out and settled for a life of irrelevant intellectual maundering. His early novels, such as The Man of Property (1906, first book in in The Forsyte Saga sequence) skewered the pretensions and prejudices of the well-to-do upper middle class in the Victorian era, from which Galsworthy himself had sprung. Later volumes gradually softened the attack, showing compassion for the position of the upper classes in the changing world of the twentieth century.

Temper of his times

Galsworthy's pre-World War I plays, like The Silver Box (1906) and Strife (1909), were seen as radical, practically socialist, in bringing the plight of the working class to the public conscience. Today they are more easily viewed as calls for class conciliation. And his later plays more often deal with conflicts over social issues within the wealthy classes.

But is this the explanation for Galsworthy's falling popularity? Does his focus on the temper of his own times and within his own social circles limit his appeal to later generations?

This can't be the whole story. Many writers have built enduring reputations by exposing the foibles of their own elites. The masterpieces of Leo Tolstoy a generation before Galsworthy, for example, dealt with the moral failures of the nineteenth-century Russian aristocracy of which he was part, and yet the works still stand at the pinnacle of literary achievement long after those aristocrats have been wiped from the earth. William Shakespeare found drama in the relations of kings and queens, princes and princesses, dukes and duchesses and other rulers of medieval and early bourgeois societies, without losing our interest in the centuries since these figures have faded from relevance.

Still, with one or two exceptions, it is hard today to identify with the concerns of Galsworthy's creaky characters. His exclusive folk are wrapped up in quandaries that for the most part no longer resonate with us.

The remaining scraps of interest in these characters bring to mind a comment of that esteemed cultural critic, Stewie on Family Guy. Preparing to watch a prestigious television series, the precocious lad describes it as a "British show about a wealthy family dealing with slight change". The most famous example of that kind of acclaimed British series was, of course, The Forsyte Saga in the 1960s, based on Galsworthy's works.

What this world is coming to

But this may be unfair. The changes faced by the young generation of Forsytes in the books have to do with women's rights, sexual assault, class conflict, national identity, militarism and religion. Not so "slight". Hardly dated.

Granted, in Galsworthy's hands, these issues do arise amid an increasing amount of grousing by older characters over passingly minor social phenomena—a lot of "I don't know what this country/family/generation/world is coming to". Over the course of the works the bemused old figures transform into golden figures—kindly, avuncular, understanding. The younger generation, who earlier had rebelled against their stuffy elders, or at least had worked around them, come to consider them fonts of wisdom.

This is part of the progression, or regression rather, in attitude in at least some of Galsworthy's novels. In his first big success of The Man of Property, he creates a great villain in Soames Forsyte, a ruthless representative of the obscenely rich who treats his wife as a possession. Oddly though, in the course of the three novels and two stories that make up The Forsyte Saga, we come to understand Soames as well as, if not better than, those who risk social and economic disaster to defy him. As the extended Forsyte family story continues in subsequent collections, A Modern Comedy (1924–1928) and End of the Chapter (1931–1933), the focus shifts from a critique of the wealthy class to an appreciation of their public service in a changing England. The young post-war generation resolve their quandaries largely by preserving the hoary old verities of family and personal honour.

George Orwell, in a 1938 review of a collection of Galsworthy's essays, noted this change in Galsworthy from a writer once considered subversive:

The picture he was trying to build up was a picture of a money-ruled world of unspeakable cruelty—a world in which an obtuse, beef-eating race of squires, lawyers, bishops, judges and stockbrokers squatted in saecula saeculorum [forever and ever] on the backs of a hypersensitive race of slum-dwellers, servants, foreigners, fallen women and artists.... But quite suddenly something happened; Galsworthy's private quarrel with society (whatever it may have been) came to an end, or perhaps it was merely that the oppressed classes began to seem less oppressed. From then on it was obvious that he was in no essential way different from the people he had made his name by attacking.

There's quite a bit of truth in this, but again it seems unfair as a summary of what Galsworthy was up to for his entire writing life. For, if we read Galsworthy past his early successes, we find he continues to take up political and social causes on the behalf of some group he considers the ill-treated underdog in society. It just doesn't necessarily break along economic class lines.

Beyond the Forsytes

Perhaps the enduring appeal of classic social critics like Tolstoy and Shakespeare, has to do not so much with what they wrote about but with how they wrote about it? Did they have some common touch, some trick of style, some way of affecting readers of other times, that Galsworthy lacks?

You might think, from all that's been said, Galsworthy's writing style may be off-putting, too fussy, elevated or complex. On the contrary, his prose is highly readable. Galsworthy is as plain-spoken as any popular writer of the early twentieth century.

If anything, his novelistic prose is too smooth, with the rough edges sanded off. His measured prose evokes almost a wistfulness for the era whose passing he is chronicling. A thoughtful calmness reigns throughout the novels, no matter how much the privileged world of the Forsytes or their peers is threatened by crisis.

Galsworthy never develops an intriguing voice or plays with innovative narrative techniques, unlike his contemporary and mentor Joseph Conrad. It's just straight-ahead, step-by-step, third-person narration. Nothing to get excited about in the tale or in the telling. Perhaps as a holdover from his more prolific dramatic writing, Galsworthy's novels are organized around naturally delivered dialogue. Much of the narrative is driven through exchanges between family members. They are forever consulting each other. They may be given too much to rambling conversations about the state of society and nostalgic passages evoking worlds past, but Galsworthy has a good ear for dialogue, as befits the prolific playwright.

His dramatic work itself is almost entirely forgotten. Yet for most of his writing career, he was considered mainly a playwright, producing more than two dozen works for stage.

The plays were known for bravely tackling a diversity of social issues. There's a certain pattern to them. Usually in a Galsworthy play there are two groups at odds: one privileged and one oppressed, although the distinctions tend to get blurred in later works.

In his first noted play, The Silver Box, the divide is between a wealthy politician's family and an unemployed man's impoverished family. After a silver cigarette case and a prostitute's purse are allegedly stolen, the two groups of suspects are dealt with very differently by police and the courts.

In Strife three years later, the obviously opposing sides would seem to be the owners of a factory and the striking workers. But it becomes apparent the wives and children of the workers are those who suffer most due to the intransigence of both the capitalists and the unionists.

Galsworthy's acclaimed play Quality (1912) takes the side of a craftsman, a shoemaker, against the big companies that mass-produce footwear. (He would also publish a prose version of "Quality" as a sentimental short story that would be widely anthologized.)

By The Skin Game (1920), adapted for film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1931, the struggle has become a fight between different factions of the wealthy. A family of old established gentry fights a land war with a nouveau riche, formerly working class, clan intent on despoiling the countryside with industry.

In Loyalties (1922), sometimes considered Galsworthy's best play, we're back to a robbery at a wealthy house. But this time the victim is a rich Jew, who is eventually also blamed for the death of the man who robbed him. To Galsworthy's credit, it shines a rare light on anti-Semitism in Britain at the time, albeit as a contradiction within the upper classes.

Galsworthy wrote many other plays over this time, but perhaps these selected highlights of his dramatic work show how his attention shifted. Issues of economic disparity make way for other injustices. Which is not to say only works criticizing the concentration of wealth are worthy or that only stark class warfare provides a proper topic, but only to note how one writer's moral focus adjusted over the years.

This shift if it exists, cannot entirely explain why Galsworthy's work is largely neglected today. Maybe, rather, it's some combination of musty subject matter, a placid style, and something altogether external such as radically changing times that unfairly relegate an otherwise worthwhile writer to the literary sidelines.

I don't know exactly. I just know it's always easy and enlightening to read Galsworthy, but it's difficult and deadening to keep reading him past a certain point.

— Eric


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