Tag Archives: John Galsworthy

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.

Book Review: In Chancery (The Forsyte Saga part 2) by John Galsworthy

We pick up where left off at the end of the interlude between parts 1 & 2, with the death of Old Jolyon Forsyte. His will included a sum left to Soames’ estranged wife, Irene, which prompts Soames to go and seek a divorce, now several years after they parted. This is why the title refers to the process of legal proceedings, though the book is not consumed with a court case. As this comes in the middle of a trilogy, this whole review comes with a *spoiler warning* in case you are reading along.

The executor of Old Jolyon’s estate is his son, Young Jolyon, though since the passing of the former, the latter is henceforth simply referred to as Jolyon. In executing his father’s will, Jolyon befriends Irene and becomes a regular visitor to her haunts both in London and Paris. Meanwhile, it is revealed that Soames has a new interest, but before he can embark on any meaningful relationship with her, he must finish properly with Irene. In choosing to confront her face-to-face though, his former passion for her is rekindled and he finds himself torn between trying to pursue the divorce or try to find reconciliation. Underlying this, though, is the growing desperation for Soames to produce an heir. So he professes his love Irene, whilst at the same time loathing her for her affair with Bosinney and her leaving him. His motivation remains that of property; in this case, having someone around to whom he can leave his estate.

While this forms to the foreground of the plot, the background is laden with subplots, most notably the outbreak of the Boer War with some of the younger members of the Forsyte clan choosing to join up, including Jolyon’s son, Jolly.

From here, the pace of the narrative rather picks up and though I wasn’t a fan of some parts of The Man of Property, thinking them turgid, such passages are much fewer in this most enthralling of dramas. Irene refuses to take back Soames, pushing him into divorce proceedings, though not before Soames seeks better grounds by hiring what could be described as a private eye to spy on Irene and Jolyon. When the divorce is fulfilled, Soames gets to marry again, this time taking a French wife whose family and sensibilities are somewhat alien to his own middle class English peccadilloes.

So the focus then becomes the perpetuity of the Forsyte properties. With Soames’ father, James, in ill health, the race is on to have a son, though not before it is announced that Jolyon has wed Irene and that they are to have a child themselves.

The climax of the book comes with a moral choice, when Soames’ new wife, Annette, has difficulties in birth. The choice is that the doctor could operate, saving Annette’s life and in so doing, killing the child, or on the other hand the doctor could not operate and risk the lives of the both, but where both also have a chance to live. In either case, this would be the last child that Annette was ever to have.

Ultimately Soames makes the choice that suits his own selfish desires. Though there is no time to rest for Soames is straightaway summoned to be at the side of his father’s deathbed. And what more could send James happy to his grave than to hear that Annette had a boy to carry on the Forsyte name? Soames duly obliges by telling James of the birth of a son. But was it a boy he had? I’ll let you find out yourself.

As with The Man of Property, the book is appended by an interlude between volumes 2 and 3. Here, we pick up the story a few years later but solely looking at the family life of Irene, Jolyon & their young son. As with the earlier interlude, it seems to set up the next volume and in the context of this book seems a little out of place and time.

Here, more so than in the earlier volume, Galsworthy’s quality of writing is evident. He remains the passive narrator who breathes life into characters who have such depth that one could very easily imagine other parts of their lives off the page, making Galsworthy more of documentary maker. For an author to do that is high praise and it is clear to me why, even though he is far from a poetic writer, he won the Nobel Prize for literature.

If you’ve picked up The Forsyte Saga and struggled with the first volume, then please do carry on. This is an absolute treat.

Book Review: The Man of Property (The Forsyte Saga part 1) by John Galsworthy

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.

*spoiler warning*

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.

*end spoiler*

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.