The 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!)