The Man of Property

man of propertyThe Forsyte Saga, published between 1906 and 1921 by John Galsworthy, consists of three novels and two “interludes,” or novellas, placed between them — a thousand pages in all of Forsyte personal drama. It’s been on the periphery of my reading vision for some time, but it took the enthusiastic prompting of my friend Stacey to put it on my TBR list, and then to push it up far enough to make me read it. Right now I’m in the thick of it (two novels and two interludes down, and one novel to go!) and I’ve been dithering about the logistics of reviewing it. Wait until I’ve finished the entire trilogy, and do it all at once? Book by book (and bird by bird)? I finally decided to talk about it a bit at a time, so you wouldn’t have to deal with a several-thousand-word review when I was completely finished. You can thank me later.

The Man of Property starts slowly, because it takes the time to establish the concept, as it were, of the Forsyte family. And it does take some explaining, because these people are not quite like others I’ve read about before. The Forsytes (and Galsworthy implies that they are merely the archetype of an entire class) are interested in property — in money, in land, in possessions of all sorts — and in nothing else. Their money does not prompt them to art, to leisure, to education, charity, or love, to sport or to religion; possession is for its own sake. If they behave well according to society’s rules, it is so that they may make good connections for their business. If they enjoy a good cigar, it is because their own money bought it, and they have the right to it. There is none, absolutely none of the open-handed (if sometimes frivolous or cruel) liberality that accompanies the nobility; the Forsytes are “keeping alive day and night a sacred flame to the God of Property, whose altar is inscribed with those inspiring words, ‘Nothing for nothing, and really remarkably little for sixpence.'”

One of the coldest and most grasping of this family is the “man of property” of the title, Soames Forsyte, married to Irene. He is bewildered and angry at her lack of response to him; he wants to own not only her presence in his home, not only her beauty on his arm, but her thoughts and her heart. He decides that it is the distraction of London causing the rift, and chooses a spot in the country to build a house where he can have her all to himself. But the up-and-coming young architect, Bosinney, proves a friend to Irene, and his firm possessive grasp on his wife begins to slip.

I said that this book had a slightly slow beginning, and that’s true. But I must say that I was riveted, more by the economy of the book than by anything that occurred in it. The love story, the tiny shifts of possible infidelity, the slow movement of Irene’s bid for independence — her life is as confining as anything in The Yellow Wallpaper or The Awakening — and the violent emotions that erupt at the end are interesting, of course. But I kept asking myself, “Who are these people?” If most characters from Jane Austen or George Eliot had met one of the Forsytes, they would have shuddered in shock. These are not people who are interested in being gentlemen (or women). They are in trade — trade is their life’s blood — and they aspire to none of the things that make life lovely for most of us. It doesn’t even seem to enter their heads, except as a danger to them.

Art appears to be the opposing force to Money (or, more precisely, to Possession) in this book. The one Forsyte who abandoned the altar of the God of Property is Young Jolyon, who left his wife for his daughter’s governess, and became a painter. Bosinney, the architect, doesn’t have any money, but his vision is clear. Soames collects paintings, but only for their monetary value: he stands in his gallery and thinks about when he should sell a painting whose popularity has gone up and is likely to start declining soon. His wife is in the same category.

I’ve probably made it sound as if this book is quite simplistic, and as if the characters are caricatures: grasping hags versus free-and-easy artists. It’s not that way at all. There are real people in this book, even though the voice of the author has an almost Trollopian cast of judgment in it, and there’s redemption in relationship if the characters care to seek it. The structure of the book is based on the notion that there is more in store, so it’s off balance for just this one novel. But I highly recommend reading it, just for the experience of encountering a class of people you may never otherwise have met: the Forsyte class. (And I’ll be back to tell you about the rest!)

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17 Responses to The Man of Property

  1. Rohan says:

    I’m so glad you’ll be writing about this. I bought the whole saga a couple of years ago and it sits there looking so tempting — but I’ve never been quite sure what I would find when I started it. You make it sound like something I will really enjoy, slow beginning or not.

    • Jenny says:

      It’s become more and more engaging as I go on, with succeeding generations and offshoots of the family looking at money, art, beauty, and freedom from different perspectives. It’s also (as Alex says below) a lovely little glimpse at a whole class shaken by WWI. We usually get that from the point of view of the nobility (Downton Abbey etc) but this is fresh. I’m really enjoying it.

  2. I read the first three “books” back when the BBC miniseries was popular in the early 2000s but haven’t been able to find the rest of the saga as it’s not back in print. I loved it! Have recommended it to many. Coincidentally just started watching the miniseries again w my husband (who hasn’t seen it before) yesterday!

    • Jenny says:

      I expect your library could get the sequel-trilogies for you. My friend Stacey didn’t even know they existed, so I feel absolved of the need to read them! I will watch the miniseries when I’m done reading the books, though.

  3. These books are required reading in my family, with everyone owning their own complete set, and I can’t even remember how old I was the first time I read through the series. Probably twelve or thirteen but I’ve reread it many times since then and love it more each time.

  4. Alex says:

    I remember the earlier BBC series in black and white from the 1960s and I immediately went out and bought the complete set. As you say, there is nothing simplistic about them. They perfectly document the crumbling of an element in society devastated by the First World War and the changes it brought in its wake. Everyone should read them.

    • Jenny says:

      It does seem to fill in a niche with regard to social class that I haven’t seen treated much before. The books are giving me more and more interest and pleasure as I go, and I’m very much looking forward to the end of To Let. Have you read all three trilogies, or just the first?

      • Alex says:

        I read all three trilogies, Jenny. I think you’ll find once you’ve got to the end of the first one you’ll want to know what happens next.

  5. Finally, something about Naturalism that makes sense. Because I have definitely seen these people before (“interested in property and nothing else”), but in Balzac and Zola novels.

    Or am I way off? I haven’t read Galsworthy.

    • Jenny says:

      No, that’s the piece I kept groping for and not quite getting. This isn’t much like Zola (he likes wallowing in dirt a lot of the time) but a great deal like Balzac. Just like, in fact. What surprised me was that the British will rarely be so straightforward about this interest in property; I haven’t seen this almost-gentlemanly class in quite this way in English literature. Indeed, there’s a nice little piece in the third novel about how the French do this differently and how cynical they are compared to the British, who drop a veil of sentiment over the whole thing. Ha!

    • So 60 years for someone in English to figure out how to use Balzac. That’s pathetic – but good for Galsworthy!

  6. Biblibio says:

    Oh oh, I’ve been meaning to read this for years, but I’ve never really felt any sense of urgency. But it sounds like exactly the sort of representative social commentary literature I like. I’m curious to hear more.

    • Jenny says:

      It seems like something you’d enjoy! I don’t see it much around the book blogosphere, but I think a lot of the bloggers I follow would enjoy it.

  7. Scott W. says:

    Like Rohan, I’ve had this staring down from the shelf for no small amount of time. I’d almost written it off as something no one ever reads anymore (not that that’s a good reason for writing something off), so I’m glad to hear that it’s still being read – and liked.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, I suppose that makes me feel very faintly like I have something to offer. I do recommend it as something that is perhaps second-tier but solidly written, culturally reflective, and very enjoyable. So yes! Liked!

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