The Forsyte Saga is a trilogy about a London family at the end of the Victorian era, published as one book in 1922. Its first volume was based on the author's own family members, with all their private dramas and public personas ironically drawn. Galsworthy shifts the story back a generation to the time when he was a child, a time when London was expanding and new wealth rather than old hierarchy influenced artists' and designers' lives.
I have loved this book since I was young and heard it dramatised on BBC Radio. I always 'got' that Irene was forced to stay in her marriage because women had no hope of economic independence outside of marriage. While I joined with the rest of the UK television audience in loving its serialised form in 1967, the story was not quite right. Across Europe, however, social life, and especially life in the drinking houses, almost ceased during transmission, so popular was this version.
The central story is that of Soames Forsyte, a man whose desire to possess beauty is conflicted by his desire to be admired for knowing the investment value of it. He eventually draws his entire family into the conflicts that arise from his inability to express love. His wife, Irene, grows to loathe him even as the rest of his family increasingly admire her for her beauty and grace.
Galsworthy presents Irene Forsyte’s sexual choices and resistances as a set of ideas for middle-class readers trying to deal with the end-of-the-century ‘woman question’. Irene, by Galsworthy’s own admission, exists only in the other characters’ heads, fuelling a perception that he cannot portray women convincingly. Virginia Woolf several times took Galsworthy (and other popular authors) to task over this:
[...] here I come to the rows of books by Mr Galsworthy and Mr Kipling [...] Do what she will a woman cannot find in them that foundation of perpetual life which the critics assure her is there. It is not only that they celebrate male virtues, enforce male values and describe the world of men; it is that the emotion with which these books is permeated is to a woman incomprehensible. [...] The fact is that neither Mr Galsworthy nor Mr Kipling has a spark of the woman in him. Thus all their qualities seem to a woman [...] crude and immature. They lack suggestive power. (Woolf, A Room of One's Own, 1929/77, 110)
The great delight of The Forsyte Saga is that it is so much about art, music, architecture and home interiors. It is very visual, Galsworthy's skill lying in his ability to combine description with point of view and create a sense of seeing what his character sees.
This book is important because it is the founding volume of an entire new twentieth century genre of fiction, and because its author was the only one of probably hundreds of saga authors to be awarded the rare accolade of the Nobel Prize in Literature (1932).
The essence of this and other saga fictions is their portrayal of a world and a way of life that ended around 1900, as Queen Victoria was passing away and the British Empire began a long slow economic collapse. The industrial revolution is over by the end of the Great War. There will be no hope of going back, and nostalgia becomes a powerful influence in popular novels.
David Cannadine (1989) The Pleasures of the Past Glasgow, Fontana.
Catherine Dupré (1976) John Galsworthy: A Biography London, William Collins Sons & Co Ltd.
Tracy Hargreaves (2009) ‘There's No Place Like Home’: History and Tradition in The Forsyte Saga and the BBC' Journal of British Cinema and Television, Volume 6, pp. 21-40 DOI 10.3366/E1743452109000661
Robert Hewison (1987) The Heritage Industry: Britain in a Climate of Decline London, Methuen
QD Leavis (1932, reissued 1965) Fiction and the Reading Public London, Chatto & Windus.
Virginia Woolf (1929/1977) A Room of One's Own Grafton