Reading The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy was one of the reasons why I haven’t posted on this blog for a while. It is a massive tome, 1140 pages long and consisting of five books: The Man of Property, Indian Summer of a Forsyte, In Chancery, Awakening and To Let. Of course, it’s been adapted for television and cinema, time after time, and ‘nobody’ reads the books anymore, do they? Well, I did, and I’m really glad I did.
(The other reason I haven’ t been posting is a four-letter word – Work.)
I first started reading it early in October, at Gatwick, as we were waiting to board our plane to Tenerife, using a leather-bound copy, which had been a school prize awarded to my father. (I do hate that bit where you’re sitting on the plane, waiting to take off and you’re not allowed to read your Kindle.). As I started to read the first pages, this rather precious volume started to fall apart, so, as soon as we reached our holiday apartment and got the internet sorted out (no mean feat), I downloaded it on to my Kindle and put the book away. I always thought of the Forsyte Saga as a sort of Downton Abbey for my parents’ generation. As I rapidly realised, it’s no such thing!
The title of the first book should’ve warned me straightaway: Man of Property. How scornful, how dismissive, how derisory is that! Galsworthy did not approve of the Forsytes. In fact, an associate of George Bernard Shaw and Joseph Conrad, Galsworthy demonstrated that he did not share the middle class values of his characters, particularly their preoccupation with things and possessing things and how regarded everything as a possession, even wives. In other works, as well as the Saga, Galsworthy championed women’s rights, prison reform, animal rights, and – particularly – attitudes on divorce.
The story of the Forsyte Saga (which takes place between mid-Victorian era and the 1920s) is predominantly (but not solely) concerned with the relationship between Soames and Irene. Irene, very young and very beautiful, and desperately unhappy as Soames’ wife, has an affair with Soames’s architect, Bosinney, who is also engaged to June Forsyte, Irene’s only friend in the Forsyte tribe. This affair only ends when Bosinney is killed in an ‘accident’ (which may have been suicide). Irene then leaves Soames to live on her own modest income, but is chanced upon by Soames’ uncle, Jolyon, who befriends her and leaves money to her. Soames, meanwhile, thinks about divorcing her, because he wants a son and heir, but changing his mind, even though ten years have lapsed, tries to resurrect his marriage to Irene.
What television and film viewers of the Saga miss is Galsworthy’s flowing descriptions, of London, where most of the action takes place, and of his characters’ movements and expressions. It is the detail that’s so amazing. Here is a random example:
Soames watched his daughter give her hand, saw her wince at the squeeze it received, and distinctly heard the young man’s sign as he passed out. Then she came from the window, trailing her finger along the mahogany edge of the billiard-table. Watching her, Soames knew that she was going to ask him something. Her finger felt around the last pocket, and she looked up.
The English usage is also interesting. Galsworthy hyphenates everything: billiard-table, Good-bye, self-conscious, even after-noon. He also uses em dashes a lot. He uses exclamation marks far more frequently than would be approved of now, several times on every page.
Characterisation is not particularly perceptive. The men are very mannish and the women girly. His best-drawn character is the rake Val Dartie, a middle-ranking character.
The plot is pretty water-tight, although I never really understood why Irene was physically repelled by Soames, despite an inadequate explanation is given much later in the book by the younger Jolyon. She shuddered when he tried to kiss her, before they were engaged. Why then did she marry him? I fully understand that marriage is what Victorian women did, but, even then, there were limits as to what a cash-strapped woman might take.
The plot also reflected the era in which it was set very effectively, despite Galsworthy’s radical views and being written half a century later than the time of its setting.
All the time I was reading The Forsyte Saga, my one and only husband was telling all about the television presentation and which actor played whom. I’m so glad I never saw it. If ever a series of books deserved to be read, not viewed, it’s these.
If you’re a writer and interested in historical fiction, take a look at my other book, Write On. There’s a lovely historical fiction competition for you to enter.
Sorry. Too late to think about suitable photos. Above are two of Tenerife, where – a tangential link here – I read the first part of it. I think Galsworthy would have enjoyed both of them, although Soames probably would not have appreciated the second.