Book Review: To Let (The Forsyte Saga part 3) by John Galsworthy

As this is the 3rd part of a trilogy, this review comes with an inevitable *spoiler warning*. If you haven’t read the first 2 parts, then this will be unlikely to make much sense to you. Link to part 1. Link to part 2.

We pick up the story in the 1920s with Soames and Jolyon now old men who haven’t spoken to each for a long time. They’ve brought up their respective families as strangers to one another. But could they remain separate forever? Of course not.

This volume is rather slow to get started as we are reintroduced to the surviving members of the Forsyte clan, as well as recounting the passing of those who haven’t survived this far. The story starts to gain a little traction when there is a chance meeting between Fleur, Soames’ daughter, and the youngest Jolyon, who is here mostly referred to as Jon. It is a meeting that the two sides of the family would rather had never happened, though Jolyon & Irene are more accommodating to Fleur than Soames is to the idea of her having anything to do with Jolyon ever again. In referring only to Soames, this is because his wife, Annette, is rather anonymous and is subdued under the force of his convictions. Some might think that this indicative of an element of misogyny on the part of Galsworthy’s authorship, though I see it as Galsworthy portraying Soames’ own misogyny.

The emphasis of the book drift in its focus, so while Soames has been the dominant character in the first two volumes, as he is now an old man, the force of Fleur’s personality starts to come to the fore and the narrative now begins to centre itself around her and her affairs. The chance meeting is followed up by a more deliberate meeting and so Jon and Fleur become friends, aware that they are related, but they are kept in the dark by their respective families, who wish for the past to be forgotten.

But as the friendship grows, the background narrative demonstrates a change in the way the world is working and how that threatens the traditional values that are held dear by the Forsyte family. An example of this may be seen in how various members of the family refer negatively to the rise of Labour as a political power, fearful that it may adversely affect their capital.

Things can no longer go on as they once had though there is a recognition that the once middle class name of Forsyte might now be regarded as upper class, that class can no longer enjoy the privileges that used to come with it. The young are ever more headstrong, as amply demonstrated in the forthrightness in which Jon and Fleur speak to their respective parents about their growing affection for one another, even in spite of the fact that there is another suitor knocking on Fleur’s door.

The pace of the novel picks up in the second half with the revelation to Fleur of how it came about that the two sides of the family separated. So we have a tension whereby she has fallen for Jon and he for her, but only she is enlightened as to the events of the family history that seek to keep them apart. Eventually Jolyon writes a letter to Jon to put his side of the story over and Jon and Fleur must decide between them if they are to marry, now that both are in possession of the facts. Whether they do or not, I will not spoil for you.

There is a marriage and there is a death. But whose, I shall leave for you to find out. The book ends with us looking once again at Soames and pondering if life has passed him by, with his obstinate character making him unable to enjoy the life he has had.

And so ends The Forsyte Saga. One is reminded of the first page of the first volume, where Galsworthy speaks of the affairs of the family as a small scale version of the affairs of nations. It seems the link got more and more tenuous as the Saga went on, but the quality of the writing did not. It is clear, with hindsight, to see why Galsworthy was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature with the citation mentioning The Forsyte Saga. It is a tremendous body of work, loaded with rich characterisations, a sense of time and place and all bound together with a riveting, yet believable narrative. It certainly took a long time to get through (interspersed with other reading, of course) but it was well worth it.

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