There are many books which we are told from time to time that we should read. Either that or there come lists which ask “how many of these books have you read?” Nearly always weighted towards fiction, they are often arbitrary but will often have various books in common. One that regularly appears as a ‘great’ of English literature is John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga. Though upon opening it, one soon realises that, like The Lord of the Rings, it is not a single book, but a trilogy. As such, I shall review each part as I go along, regarding each as a separate book, though I hope you don’t think this is in any way cheating on my part as a way of increasing the numbers of books I read this year. Already, I am a long way behind last year’s comparison. This is partly because some of the books I’m reading are rather lengthy but also because, having since moved to London, I get less time on my daily commute.
So, on with the review. We open with a scene where we are introduced to all the members of the Forsyte family. They are described as upper-middle class, residing in London in the latter part of the 19th century. Each member gets a cursory description in order that we can get to know a little about them, though most of the main character development is made later on in the novel.
The man who is the subject of the title of Soames Forsyte, who wishes to have a new house built on the outskirts of London for his wife Irene. He hires a builder, Mr Bosinney, to construct the house in accordance with his wishes and later on, for Bosinney to decorate it too. Yet all is not well in the marriage between Soames and Irene, with a hint of an affair in the offing for the latter. But such things are not readily discussed by members of the Forsyte family, which we see at first as a matriarchy led by Aunt Ann. So while on the face of it, they are a prosperous and respectable family, what Galsworthy does is to slowly (sometimes very slowly) peel back the layers to show that all is not well. For example, Old Jolyon and Young Jolyon are shown speaking together for the first time in many years.
The collective Forsyte pride in their ownership of property leads to a view that they never really die; their identity is bound up in what they own and what they own is what they pass on when they pass on. This is put to the test, though I shall not spoil it here by saying which family member(s) die (though a glance at the chapter titles gives a big clue!).
At times, Galsworthy’s writing style is a little long-winded, and we get various vignettes of dialogue which seem unrelated to the overall plot, though given that there are two later volumes I wonder if these side-plots are developed much further. Another point particularly to note is that at the start Galsworthy states that this as much an allegory of how countries behave towards one another as it a statement about the 19th century gentry. Yet do not think that gentry implies genteel. Though Galsworthy writes as a neutral narrator, one cannot help think that the things he chooses to portray are demonstrative of a condemnatory attitude that he wishes to impute to the reader. Nowhere is this stronger than in what is referred to as “the ultimate act of property” a husband exerts upon his wife. Though the act is not spelled out, it is hinted at and referred to after the event occurred, so we do not precisely when or how it happened. Though it is a hideous and vile act, credit must be given to Galsworthy as to how he dealt with it.
The book ends in two parts. The first is the end of the first published volume, with the latter being an interlude that was published a few years later, but which in the volume I read was counted as the coda to The Man of Property. The first of these two endings focuses on Irene leaving Soames following the death of Bosinney and pondering the question of what will happen to the property, the construction of which precipitated the major events of the novel. In this respect, it almost becomes a character in and of itself, though several locations may lay claim to a similar personification. In the interlude, Indian Summer of a Forsyte, we meet Irene again, sometime later as she meets up with Old Jolyon. The two embark on reminisces of Forsyte family life while much of the family was abroad. The second ending sees the death of Old Jolyon as he was embarking on a quite intimate friendship (another affair?) with Irene.
The fact that the book contains a large amount of dialogue makes it easy to see why it has been adapted for visual media so often. The writing style gets a little turgid at times and had it been a standalone novel, almost a quarter of it could have been cut out without suffering any significant loss. As it is, though, I am willing to give Galsworthy the benefit of the doubt by believing that he may pick up on some of the loose threads in the later volumes, which I shall be reading shortly, alternating with some other types of writing before coming back to fiction.