Great Books: The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy

The Forsyte Saga was the great novel of the City of London when published in the early twentieth centuy and yet it is in danger of being forgotten. It deserves revisiting.
forsythe saga
The 1949 film adaptation of the The Forsyte Saga. Credit: Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.
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The life of John Galsworthy (1867-1933) is a lesson in the fickle nature of authorial reputation. In 1929, a survey conducted by the-then Manchester Guardian named Galsworthy — who would be awarded a Nobel Prize just three years later — the author most likely to be read in a century’s time. With nintey-three of those years now gone, it’s fair to say their prediction missed the mark.

That Galsworthy’s work is so unfashionable now is something of a shame, but understandable. The work that cemented his fame, The Forsyte Saga, seems fundamentally unsuited to our modern moment: a near nine-hundred-page long chronicle of the fall of a commercial English family, through whose eyes we see the passing of the Victorian era, is a hard sell. When the three novels that make up the ‘saga’ were published as a single whole in 1921, Ulysses and the hurricane of modernism was just a year away, preparing to tear down the comfortable vestiges of the old world in favour of the new.

In a sense, The Forsyte Saga is the last gasp of the tradition of the English realist novel, the final scion of a dynasty including Dickens, Eliot, and Trollope. Like these writers, Galsworthy’s mission is to explore the vicissitudes of English society through a small group of central figures, the eponymous Forsyte family. Lawyers, bankers, estate agents, professional men to the bone, they are the epitome of Victorian England, ‘with its principles of trade and individualism at five per cent – and your money back,’, as one figure wryly remarks. 

One of the reasons why Galsworthy is so good at representing such people — and at sending them up, as he does continually — is that he was one of them. Born in 1867 to a family of property developers in the comfortable London suburb of Kingston upon Thames, his early life of prep school, Harrow, and Oxford marks him out as exactly a member of the class to whom he would later devote his writing. But though he trained as a barrister and was called to the Bar, a trip overseas to take care of some aspect of the family shipping interest — which also entailed a meeting with a certain Joseph Conrad, then serving as a merchant seaman — marked the start of his divergence from the professional life to which he was raised. After a string of minor successes, The Man of Property, the first volume of The Forsyte Saga, was published in 1906, ushering in the acclaim that would last until his death in 1933.

When the trilogy starts, it is 1840, and the Forsyte family is at is apogee. The ten children of patriarch ‘Superior Dosset’ Forsyte, a mere country builder, have escaped their humble roots and now represent the backbone of Victorian society; they are, as Galsworthy says, the very oak of England. The family is the product of ‘64 years that favoured property and … made the upper middle class; buttressed, chiselled and polished it, till it was almost undistinguishable in morals, speech, appearance, habit and soul from the nobility,’ but remain cripplingly aware of their self-made origins. At the saga’s end, in 1920, the daughter of the central character marries into the aristocracy, thus obliterating the distinction for good — and, in a sense, the spirit of the entire Forsyte clan as well.

At the centre of the work are two junior members of the family: Soames, the titular ‘man of property,’ a solicitor and collector of art, and his cousin ‘Young’ Jolyon, artist and black sheep of the Forsytes, in disgrace for running away with his daughter’s governess. It is from these two figures — who end up marrying the same woman — that Galsworthy constructs the fundamental opposition that drives the novels, the contrast between ‘English common sense [and] the power to have things’ and the ‘spirit of universal beauty.’ The wife they have in common, Irene, serves as a cipher for this battle between the commercial and the artistic, with little doubt left as to which side we are meant to support. 

Soames, the solicitor, treats his wife like a piece of property, just like any of his houses or artworks, and cannot understand why she doesn’t love him. For Jolyon, on the other hand, she is the artistic ideal of ‘Titian, Giorgione, [and] Botticelli’ made flesh — a reductive vision in its own right, but one that marks him out from his peers. The feud that emerges between the two rends the family in half, and reverberates through successive generations, to the near extinction of the Forsyte name.

Irene’s experiences with her successive husbands highlights one of the central themes of the novel: the changing experience of women in Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. When the books start, the women of the family are almost without exception wives or spinster aunts, but by its end we find the youngest generation of Forsytes chafing against the constraints of traditional society in a way that profoundly alarms their elders. This alarm is perhaps best demonstrated by Soames’ relationship with his daughter Fleur, who constantly eludes his attempts to control her. She is a double for Irene, though, whom Galsworthy shows the change that has been wrought on the whole of society.

For Soames, his wilful daughter is emblematic of the new age into which he has passed, one where there is ‘nothing ever again firm and coherent to look up to,’ a phrase strikingly in tune with the modernist sentiments of Joyce and Eliot. Change is Soames’ arch enemy, with his overwhelming need to possess and control, as he does the pictures in his private art gallery. He clings to the crumbling facades of England’s ‘glorious past’ even as it vanishes from view. Jolyon, by contrast, is more sanguine about the passing of time; as he sees it, ‘under slightly different surfaces, the era was precisely what it had been.’

The Forsyte Saga is also the great novel of the City of London, with a great deal of its action taking place among the courts of Chancery and the banks of the Square Mile. This, far more than social occasions like the Eton vs Harrow cricket match (which the Forsytes attend en masse despite many of them not having gone to either school), is where the family belong. It is here that the family fortune — ‘a cool million’ — was made. But as the tribe discovers, although the price of Consol bonds might imply a permanence, a family’s stock can go from boom to bust in no time at all.

The Forsytes are, with few exceptions, an unlikeable lot, and part of Galsworthy’s genius is making them sympathetic. This in a large part is done through humour, which though often caustic is never cruel. Rather, it reveals the tragic short-sightedness of the family and their obsession with property and money, which is so entrenched that when one of the elderly aunts reflects on the Bible verse ‘In my father’s house there are many mansions,’ she feels comforted because of ‘its suggestion of family property.’ The life of this clan is ultimately a sad one, an endless bout of looking over their shoulders and batting off questions of respectability. 

Galsworthy would continue the story of the family in two further trilogies, The Modern Comedy and The End of the Chapter, albeit for the most part under their new name. These representatives of Victorian England do not belong in this inter-war period; even while some of the middle generation still live they are antiques of an era that has passed into history, one that had ‘canonised hypocrisy, so that to seem to be respectable was to be.’ In Galsworthy’s work we can gain a fleeting glimpse of that world; it is up to us to decide what has changed, and what remains, ‘under slightly different surfaces,’ the same.

Edward Thicknesse

Edward Thicknesse covers transport and industry at CityAM, and has also written for Reaction. He studied Classics at university.

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