The Forsyte Saga is set in a time of exciting expansion for London, when new wealth rather than old hierarchy influenced artists' and designers' lives. Soames Forsyte is a man whose desire to possess beauty is both dominated and thwarted by his inability to win the love of his first wife, Irene. The entire Forsyte family gets caught up in the complications of their relationship, which reverberate through the generations.
The book combines three volumes and two short interludes.
Volume I: The Man of Property focuses on Soames's marriage to Irene, in which he tries to buy her affection. He thinks only in terms of possession, however, and the more he is seduced by her beauty the more she withdraws and becomes cold towards him. Instead she falls in love with a young architect, Philip Bosinney, who is engaged to Soames's cousin's daughter, June.
Soames has employed Bosinney to build him a new house in the country, where he can move Irene and so isolate her from her London friends. He becomes incensed at the effect the affair has on Irene. Husband and wife have separate bedrooms, but Soames forces his way into Irene's bedroom one night and rapes her. She leaves him. Soames sues Bosinney over the building project. Bosinney is killed in a road accident.
Volume II: In Chancery begins with the funeral of Soames's uncle, Old Jolyon. The family is slowly disintegrating as the old guard die out. But before he died, the old man was reunited with his wayward artist son, Young Jolyon. He bought the house Bosinney built so they could all live together in the country. He caused upset by leaving a substantial trust fund to Irene, with whom he kept in touch in the years after she left Soames.
This book is about the legal ramifications of marriage, birth, death and divorce. Soames and his sister both decide to divorce their partners, a scandalous decision in nineteenth century London, especially when Soames names his cousin, Young Jolyon (now widowed), as co-respondent.
This volume ends with the funeral of Queen Victoria in 1901. Soames sets about accquiring a new wife, Annette, who bears him a daughter, Fleur. Irene marries Young Jolyon and gives birth to a son, Jon.
Volume III: To Let begins in 1920, after the Great War has brought about the destruction of the Victorian ethos under which the Forsyte dynasty had prospered.
The hatred between Soames and Irene attains Shakespearean proportions when their children, scarcely out of their teens, meet and fall in love with each other. Irene is willing to allow love to take its course, but Soames can't stand the emotional conflict it arouses within him. Meanwhile Fleur has another suitor, the aristocrat Michael Mont.
Fleur and Jon are left as unhappy as the rest of the family.