Galsworthy’s The Man of Property (The Forsyte Saga, Volume 1)

Forsyte Saga Penguin NewKaren at Kaggsysbookishramblings has embarked on a year-long reading of Nobel Prize winner John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga with Heavenali and some other bloggers.

I very much approve, because I am a Galsworthy fanatic.  And so I am “reposting” my thoughts about The Man of Property from my old blog in 2012.

John Galsworthy’s work has pretty much died out except for The Forsyte Saga, a series of three trilogies, The Forsyte Saga, A Modern Comedy, and The End of the Chapter.  There was a wonderful BBC series of The Forsyte Saga in the late ’60s, and another very good Granada series in 2002.

John-Galsworthy-The-Man-of-Property-The-Forsyte-Chronicles-1_1Each time I read The Man of Property, I consider it from different points of view.

Galsworthy’s Forsytes are an upper-middle-class family who are smug about their success as lawyers, real estate agents, and merchants.  They do what is expected of them–they eat mutton for dinner, chat about their money, and don’t get divorced.

Galsworthy writes,

Those privileged to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes have seen that charming and instructive sight–an upper middle-class family in full plumage.  But whosoever of these favoured persons has possessed the gift of psychological analysis (a talent without monetary value and properly ignored by the Forsytes), has witnessed a spectacle, not only delightful in itself, but illustrative of an obscure human problem.  In plainer words, he has gleaned from a gathering of this family–no branch of which had a liking for the other, between no three members of whom existed anything worthy of the name of sympathy–evidence of that mysterious concrete tenacity which renders a family so formidable a unit of society, so clear a reproduction of society in miniature.

At the center of The Man of Property is the triangle of Soames Forsyte, his wife Irene, and the architect Bosinney.  Soames is the quintessential Forsyte, a lawyer with a strong sense of property who collects art, and that includes his wife Irene.  She does not love him; she asked when they get married that he free her if it didn’t work out.  He pretends not to remember this. He believes she will eventually love him.  And after he hires Bosinney, the fiance of his cousin June, to design a house for him in the country, he pretends not to notice the growing friendship between Irene and Bosinney.
The scandal burgeons.  The other Forsytes notice.  But they keep the scandal in the family.  They will not admit that a marriage can fail.

Another Forsyte marriage has failed.  Young Jolyon, an artist, the son of Old Jolyon Forsyte, a tea merchant, left his wife and daughter June 15 years ago to live with the governess, and eventually married her.  The Forsytes have ostracized him for 15 years.  Old Jolyon has raised June.

After June’s engaggement to Bosinney, Old Jolyon makes peace with Young Jolyon.  And he rages against the Forsytes for keeping him and his son apart for 15 years.

I love Old Jolyon.

The first time I read this, I was completely bowled over by the relationship of Irene and Bosinney.  They deserved to be together, and the obstacles are tragic.

June Forsyte

June (June Barry) & Bosinney (John Bennett) in the Granads “Forsyte Saga.”

But as time goes on I think more of June, the young woman who helps “lame ducks,” and is drawn to Bosinney because of his talent and poverty.  June is so much in love with him that she tries to help him by suggesting at a dinner that the Forsytes hire him to build country houses. It backfires.

Then the engagement breaks off, without anyone’s saying anything definite, and much suffering on June’s part, after Bosinney falls in love with Irene. June is devastated, because Irene was her best friend.

One of the saddest things in the novel is when she sees Bosinney in the street and he doffs his hat without saying anything to her.

June flourishes in later Forsyte novels, but her life was partly wrecked by the wrecked romance.

She is a more interesting character than the beautiful, mysterious Irene, but perhaps only to women…  Galsworthy has his own point of view, and had an affair with his cousin’s wife, Ada; after her divorce, she and Galsworthy married and stayed together till his death.

eric porter as soames-in-overcoat

Eric Porter as Soames.

It is impossible to like Soames, but one feels sympathy for him.  He loves art and literature, but if it’s not worth money, he doesn’t know what to do with it. There is a missing link in him.

This is a very, very sad novel in many ways.

Love is hard, often heart-rending, and Galsworthy knows it.

13 thoughts on “Galsworthy’s The Man of Property (The Forsyte Saga, Volume 1)

  1. Lovely to hear your thoughts on the book, Kat, and thanks for the link. I think if I’d read the book younger, my reactions would have been different (in the same way they would have been to Anna Karenina). Nevertheless, I found Soames not to be quite the villain I expected, and I agree that Old Jolyon is wonderful! Looking forward to reading on through the series, and I do love Galsworthy’s prose.

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    • Yes, we’re not as sympathetic to Irene as we might have been years ago. I’m sure when I first read this, I read as Galsworthy would have intended, in complete sympathy with Bosinney and Irene. And she is a lovely character, if rather remote. but my heart goes out to June. It is possible that I am a “simpler” reader now than I used to be? Perhaps I am!

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      • I don’t think simpler is right. I think maybe we see the wider picture. A young romantic reader is going to see the love story of Irene and Bosinney (or indeed Anna and Vronsky) and think that love must win out over all. The older reader (well, me anyway) thinks that life is not so straightforward and there are the consequences – June and Soames and Karenin. There is a certain selfishness in the lovers that perhaps we don’t appreciate when young.

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        • Yes, we bring all that we know to our reading. I always liked June, but I very much disliked Soames and Karenin my first time through (so many years ago…). Every reading is different because we change.

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  2. In the first BBC series, which I recently watched again, June develops wonderfully as a character — realistic but sympathetic, thus her affinity for lame ducks. She even becomes a bit manipulative, enlisting her father, “Young Jolyon”, in supporting her interests. She likes art and artists, but goes for the human side, unlike Soames who has to see future value in what he collects.

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    • Nancy, I do remember she has that side to her. She seems to me to develop into a sympathetic “old maid” character. Odd how interested those Forsytes are in art, isn’t it? I would love to see the BBC series again.

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  3. I so enjoyed reading this, and can’t wait for the next instalment. I think I sympathised more with Irene than Bosinney I didn’t like him as much, although not sure why, I did feel for June though, her hurt and humiliation were palpable.

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  4. Pingback: The Forsyte Sage on TV | Silver Threads

  5. Great post and really enjoying the comments! I’ve read the Forsyte Saga many times since I was 12 and my mum first gave me her old Penguins with photos from the BBC series on the covers – re-read it last summer, and had the same feelings about Irene and June. These days I find June and her lame ducks one of the most poignant parts of the book, and have much for sympathy for Jon’s wife, Anne, as well. Perhaps it’s partly because I know how the story is going to end, so have more interest in the characterisation and the things that happen along the way rather than just the main plot. I do like the development of Irene’s character after Bosinney’s death, when she gets to know Young Jolyon.

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    • Oh, I agree: Irene is a great character! I think The Man of Property is Galsworthy’s best, but I do hope to join in rereading some of the later books. In To Le, I am so sorry for Jon and Fleur. They don’t deserve the family tragedy hanging over them.

      It’s always great when Mum introduces one to books!

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  6. I’m fascinated by the differences in tone, style, and pace between Man of Property, published pre-war and the rest of the series, published in the 1920s (I think!). Man of Property seems properly Edwardian in its density and slowness, whereas the other novels move much more quickly and, as far as I remember, have less description and more focalization. I’ll have to join the year-long re-reading!

    As for mothers and books, I bought mine The Ghost and Mrs Muir for Christmas, on your recommendation, and we both really enjoyed it, so thank you! It’s utterly charming. Reminded me a bit of Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent, and of some of D.E. Stevenson’s novels in which her heroines try to escape from their awful relatives.

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    • You’re right: he wrote the other Forsyte novels later. Someone–a daughter? a niece?–suggested that he write sequels. I don’t dare reread The Man of Property, because it keeps coming up at book clubs and I’ve read it at least three times. But I am enthusiastic about rereading the others.

      Glad you liked The Ghost and Mrs. Muir! II thought it was so much fun. And you remind me:, I’ve got some D. E. Stevenson to read because Sourcebooks has reissued some of her books! Sometimes light reading is the key.

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