“But wait!” I can hear you protesting. “The Forsyte Saga is the name of that TV miniseries. John Galsworthy wrote individual novels, didn’t he? Surely you read individual books?” I did: they were The Man of Property, In Chancery, and To Let, packaged as The Forsyte Saga bundled together along with two “interludes” that bridge the gaps between them. Adding confusion are the multiple adaptations of this literary property. A 26-episode TV series began airing in the UK in 1967 (18 million Americans saw its finale in 1969, thank you Wikipedia). A more recent and succinct version starred Damian Lewis of the US TV series “Homeland” as Soames Forsyte.
This is a lot of context, but I couldn’t seem to shake free of it. Nor of the fact that John Galsworthy was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1932. That seems like a preposterous honor for a body of work that I’ve always thought of as solidly middlebrow. Finally, I was sort of obsessed by the fact that The Man of Property, set in 1886, was actually completed in 1906, just 20 years after the events it was describing. It looks so clinically at the mores of the time, at such a short distance!
So — was I not really concentrating on the work itself? I have to say I was often guilty of that. John Galsworthy is not exactly a lively writer, and his intent is to reveal the single-minded possessiveness of the English upper middle class at the turn of the century. (Hence, of course, the title of the first book.) Everything that happens — and it’s actually quite a bit — takes place politely. The central character of the trilogy is lawyer Soames Forsyte, who marries the beautiful and poor Irene Herron. But he can’t see Irene as more than a piece of property — he has no inkling of her emotional makeup. Not surprisingly, Irene’s affections stray and all kinds of havoc ensue, even unto the next generation. The Forsyte family is a large one, so that alliances and enmities among cousins can provide counterpoint to the central Soames/Irene drama. I’ve probably made it sound dull, and it would be except that Soames is a terrific character. Galsworthy equips him with just enough vulnerability so that you pity his denseness. Time and again, he approaches Irene, motivated by longing but expressing only his obstinate sense of possession. The sociocultural details are also wonderful; Galsworthy is describing his own world with a dextrous blend of objectivity and sympathy.
And after a while, the length and stately pace of these books work in his favor. You sit down to read, and, oh, yes, there you are at Robin Hill, the country house designed for Soames and now inhabited by his cousin Jolyon. The bluebells are blooming, tea will soon be served, and what will become of young Fleur and her unloved husband Michael Mont? I’ll let you know. That’s the next trilogy, A Modern Comedy.