The Forsyte Saga
• The Man of Property, 1906
• "Indian Summer of a Forsyte", 1918
• In Chancery, 1920
• "Awakening", 1920
• To Let, 1921
The Man of Property
Those privileged to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes have seen that charming and instructive sight--an upper middle-class family in full plumage.
When a Forsyte was engaged, married, or born, the Forsytes were present; when a Forsyte died—but no Forsyte had as yet died; they did not die; death being contrary to their principles, they took precautions against it, the instinctive precautions of highly vitalized persons who resent encroachments on their property.
To every man of great age—to Sir Walter Bentham himself—the idea of suicide has once at least been present in the ante-room of his soul....
The Forsyte Saga / The Man of Property
The Forsytes take the stage
It is difficult to separate The Forsyte Saga from the justly acclaimed films and television series that have been based on it. The adaptations have enchanted everyone who followed them, most of whom have likely never read the books.
But this is actually a compliment to the books' author. John Galsworthy's best-known work has been repeatedly adapted for other media because his writing lends itself so well to dramatic interpretation. Despite concerning itself with what might be considered dull, off-putting topics for a modern audience—the personal travails of an exclusive, upper-class family in Victorian and Edwardian England—the exposition is accessible and engaging, much like in a well-directed film.
In The Man of Property and the other novels and stories making up the Saga, Galsworthy creates wonderful scenes that cry out for cinematic treatment. The chapter that kicks it all off, "'At Home' at Old Jolyon's", gathers the entire Forsyte clan at the eldest brother's home. At little more than a dozen pages, it is a compressed master class in introducing myriad characters, noting their individual and shared worlds, while also easing into the main points of conflict that will come to dominate the narrative. This trick draws on Galsworthy's first calling as a playwright. Born twenty years later he might have become a screenwriter. He quickly moves around the stage, bringing on characters to play their large or small roles, keeping the viewers'—I mean, readers'—interest at a peak, as we gobble up small juicy bits in the relations and start to piece together the larger story. We can almost imagine a movie camera swooping around the rooms, lingering on a bit of dialogue here, catching a discreet reaction there.
The story continues to advance by scenes. There is little narration about what is going on. We get everything we need from the interaction of the characters. This interaction is, to a great degree, carried by simple conversation. As an accomplished playwright, Galsworthy is a dab hand at dialogue. The civilized, unaffected English sounds like how those characters would speak, while bringing out the suppressed emotions under their calm exteriors. More importantly, it pushes the plot contradictions forward. It makes for an easy read that translates well to screenplays.
The figure at the heart of the drama is Soames, a thirtyish member of the younger generation of Forsyte cousins who is the "man of property" of the title, his most prized possession being his slightly younger wife Irene. Her struggle to be free of her abusive husband to join a young professional man she falls in love with, the fiancé of her friend June Forsyte, and the awkward positions other Forsytes are placed in by the double scandal make up the central dilemmas of the first novel in the series. Questions of women's rights and economic inequality are raised, which you might think would make this a work of great relevance even today.
Frankly though, much of this socially conscious drama comes across as a bit of a bore today. It just seems too much in the past. The moralizing among the various Forsytes make it seem like a minor contretemps within a type of secretive well-to-do family whose day is long gone.
What really does get the interest flowing though is the character of Soames Forsyte himself. His machinations work to isolate Irene from the world and, when that fails, to wreak his vile revenge on her and her lover. Soames is despicable. And yet...and yet we get how his own feelings have been deadened by the social strictures of the time and by the narrow, if exalted, role he has been born to play. We want to see him brought down, we yearn for him to be severely punished, but we'd also like to see him realize what he's done. A hope we suspect is forlorn.
After The Man of Property—and a break of twelve years—Galsworthy takes up threads of the family scandal again with "Indian Summer of a Forsyte" (1918), a short story that was eventually placed in The Forsyte Saga as an "interlude" between the first two novels. This piece, featuring a touching relationship that develops between Irene and the dying Old Jolyon, is often cited by Forsyte fans as their favourite part of the saga, though others find it too sentimental. The story is painted in soft, golden tones, a little different from the matter-of-fact writing in the Forsyte novels.
Soames is back in the spotlight again in the second novel, In Chancery (1920), the title referring to divorce court. But other relationships among the Forsytes and their spouses also come into the plot. Then, after another interlude, the third novel of the sequence, To Let (1921), moves the drama on to the next generation, with Soames's daughter Fleur (by his second wife Annette) and Irene's son Jon (by young Jolyon) falling in love, while their respective parents have fits.
Soames is still the same person, but the edges have come off in the last two novels of the sequence. He's objectionable but not virulently hateful. And, at last, by the end of To Let, Soames does come to some kind of realization of what a fool he's been.
Stop wherever you like
He's not done yet though. Galsworthy follows up The Forsyte Saga with another sequence on the family, A Modern Comedy (1924–1928), consisting again of three novels and two interludes, focusing on Soames and his daughter Fleur, who marries a man she does not love because she can't have Jon Forsyte. Soames has really calmed down now and the series as a whole is not much concerned with carrying on the story of the elder Forsytes. Rather the stories focus on the social scene involving young people in Britain after the war. Previously prominent figures from the clan make only cameo appearances. And Soames leaves the scene for good by the end of A Modern Comedy.
One more trilogy of novels nominally dealing with the family, End of the Chapter (1931–1933), was published. These narratives make only the most fleeting mentions of the Forsytes, depicting instead the travails of an offshoot of the family, the Cherrells. Rather than being obsessed with the accumulation of wealth, the Cherrells are involved in public service—through government, the church and the military. Each of their three novels focus on a scandal and moral dilemma facing the family, which is diverting enough. But it doesn't grab as the problems of the Forsytes did, especially as the early novels featuring Soames at his most loathsome did.
Taken all together, these novel and story sequences are called The Forsyte Chronicles, sometimes including one or two other short pieces Galsworthy wrote to fill gaps in the family history. But it is really the first series, The Forsyte Saga, and especially the first novel in that saga, The Man of Property, that most repays reading.
It seems to be a common phenomenon in famous novel series. They start strong and, just like movie sequels, they lose their drive as the series drags on. And my advice for this is the same as for other series we've looked at: for sure, read the first novel and, if you appreciate it, go on the the next one and the same for the next one and so on. Read only as far as you're getting something out of the books. You're not compelled to read an entire long series just because after producing a masterpiece or two the author keeps going back to the same well.