John Galsworthy
Public DomainJohn Galsworthy

While John Galsworthy (1867-1933) was a small child, William Morris was translating the Icelandic Sagas that would influence a whole generation of artists and thinkers, including J.R.R. Tolkien. Galsworthy referenced the Sagas in his explanation of the title of the Forsyte family's story, and so gave the family saga genre its name. His 1922 preface makes it clear that the title was in his mind from the start:

'The Forsyte Saga' was the title originally destined for the part of it which is called 'The Man of Property'; and to adopt it for the collected chronicles of the Forsyte family has indulged the Forsytian tenacity in all of us. The word Saga might be objected to on the ground that it connotes the heroic and that there is little of heroism on these pages. But it is used with a suitable irony, and, after all, this long tale, though it may deal with folk in frock-coats, furbelows, and a gilt-edged period, it is not devoid of the essential heat of conflict... the folk of the old Sagas were Forsytes, assuredly, in their possessive instincts ... the tribal instinct was even then the prime force, and ... 'family' and the sense of home and property counted as they do to this day." 


John 'Jack' Galsworthy was born in Surrey, England, into an established and well-off family. He was the second of four children, eldest son of John and Blanche Galsworthy. He attended Harrow School and New College, Oxford, before training as a barrister. He was called to the bar in 1890, but instead of practising law he travelled abroad on behalf of his family's shipping business. While travelling he met Joseph Conrad, then the first mate of a sailing ship, and the two future novelists became close friends.

In 1895 Galsworthy began an affair with Ada, the wife of his cousin Major Arthur Galsworthy. Eventually (after the death of Galsworthy's father) they provided Arthur with evidence of their adultery to force him to sue for divorce. They married on 23 September 1905 and stayed together until Galsworthy's death in January 1933. 

Galsworthy wrote prolifically, and his published work included stage plays, short stories, letters and articles. But he is most famous and best loved for his nine novels about the Forsyte family. His plays reflect his interest in socialism, and he was politically active in defence of writers' freedom of expression.

During the last years of World War I, Galsworthy worked as a masseur (physiotherapist) in a hospital in France, having not been selected for military service. He was elected as the first president of the International PEN literary club in 1921, was appointed to the Order of Merit in 1929 (having refused to accept a knighthood). He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1932. He was too ill to attend the Nobel awards ceremony. He died the following year from a brain tumour at his London home, Grove Lodge in Hampstead.