I spent almost as much time with The Man of Property as I did with Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants, which is three times as long, and the reading experience was strangely inverse in nature. Follett’s book spans over 20 years of Euro-American history, hitting the high spots and aiming to keep the pages turning. John Galsworthy isn’t at all interested in plot and The Man of Property moves very slowly over the course of a few months in 1886. It’s set in a narrow slice of society, the upper middle class of London. But the most important difference is that while Follett places his invented characters into historical episodes, Galsworthy focuses his microscope so closely on the members of the Forsyte family that they take on universality. I must say, this novel was very slow going, especially at first, as Galsworthy lumbers through the family relationships, gradually exposing the sources of dramatic tension. Yet in the end, it was hugely satisfying because the main characters really come to life. I won’t be reading the next Follett book in this trilogy, but I moved on right away to the next novel in what’s now known as “The Forsyte Saga.” (Yes, as in the TV series that introduced us to Damian Lewis.)
Galsworthy’s drama arises stems from his characters’ collisions with the values and practices of their class. The Forsytes are a large clan — nine elderly siblings survive at the book’s opening. Most of them are rich, and intend to hang onto their money, while still spending enough to be “respectable.” But human nature erupts through the controlled, predictable behaviors expected of the Forsytes, most notably in Soames Forsyte’s marriage. Soames is that complex creation, an unsympathetic character who nevertheless excites the reader’s compassion. He is a lawyer, cautious and analytical, but rashly married the beautiful and poor Irene Heron — who doesn’t love him. Has never loved him, has never made any pretense of loving him. In an impetuous moment, Soames commissions a country house from his cousin June’s fiancé Philip Bosinney. Bosinney, aside from being handsome enough for the family to nickname him “The Buccaneer,” is somewhat Bohemian, more motivated by his artistic judgments than by money. Irene and Bosinney fall in love.
It doesn’t end well. It couldn’t, really. Galsworthy is setting up the Forsyte family to stand in for the bourgeoisie of the English empire, and he intends to demonstrate how their obsession with property interferes with human relations. He makes this very clear, using “Forsyte” as a general term for the upper middle class. His achievement is making these archetypes into believable, compelling characters whom we are willing to follow through a suspense-free narrative.
Galsworthy’s biography adds a few interesting details to the reading. First, that he had an affair with (and later married) his cousin’s wife and that her middle name was Nemesis. The relationship seems to have inspired the Soames/Irene/Bosinney triangle. Second, if I read the bio correctly, The Man of Property was initially a play, which explains its structure as a series of conversations or dialogues in different, largely domestic settings. And finally, Galsworthy won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1932.