The Forsyte Saga,
Man of Property
By John Galsworthy
Audible read by David Case
Kindle, free from Amazon
It must be more than 50 years since I read, listened to on radio and watched on tv Nobel Prizewinner John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga. As part of my plan to re-read some of the books of my teens and twenties I am joining Ali and Liz and their friend Karen and others in the re-reading of this old favourite.
This time I will mainly be listening, 42 hours on Audible. The Man of Property, elegantly read by David Case, kicks off this complete read of the whole Saga. For this marathon read I shall combine audio with Kindle. This is a perfect example of the joys of technology for those of us with VI, and something I am looking forward to in the short, dark days of winter.
The Man of Property (first published 1906)
To all intents and purposes, all the Forsytes are men of property because this is what they value most and this is what has earned them their position in upper middle class London Society.
However, these first two volumes and the interlude, Indian summer of a Forsyte, after setting the family scene, concern mainly the story of Soames Forsyte, son of James and Emily, and his unhappy, beautiful wife Irene.
Soames is a rather solemn lawyer who is somehow lured into commissioning the building of a modern house in the exquisite setting of Robin Hill, just outside London. The house is to be designed and built by the clever and impecunious architect, Philip Bosinney, who is engaged to Soames’s Uncle Jolyon’s granddaughter, June.
The airy new house is built on a hill close to an old oak tree in a meadow which, in the long hot summers, glows with sunshine, buttercups and daisies, violets, long grass, butterflies and bees. Wonderfully evoked in Indian Summer of a Forsyte.
Bosinney’s vision is to create a modern structure of light and space, the antithesis of the usual darkness and claustrophobia so admired by the Fordytes. And, at some level, Soames hopes that this new property will please Irene and make her love him.
Galsworthy’s brilliance seems to me to rest on his use of vivid descriptions to characterise individual members of the Forsyte family by depicting them in their natural surroundings of grand dark houses and imposing Board Rooms, surrounded by possessions. No wonder they all become so fascinated with the building of Robin Hill.
Galsworthy writes with heavy authorial irony, but none of his characters show wit or humour themselves and hence have no insight into their own behaviour.
I am struck by the description of a family dinner party when he describes a painting overlooking the dinner table. The picture is a valuable acquisition (if only they or Galsworthy had known just how valuable!) and is by Turner. Galsworthy describes the subject as one of ‘cordage and drowning men’ in order to emphasise the gloom of the setting. And on another occasion, kind old Jolyon comforts Irene by showing her his collection of delicate Old Chelsea porcelain. Property is how they relate to each other. Propert is security and comfort.
All life is here: property, pleasure, conventional pastimes such as opera, art, good food and wine, health and commerce. There is also illicit romance, jealousy, passion, tragedy, legal and commercial practices, the position of women and Galsworthy’s liberal political attitudes. Incidentally, I read somewhere that he refused a knighthood.
The snobbish Forsytes conveniently forget that, just a few generations ago, they are descended from a family of west country quarrymen, brothers who had an aptitude for making money and founded the family’s fortune.
My response on re-reading hasn’t changed very much. Probably, in the past I wouldn’t have been able to put the cultural ironies into context, but I still remember the power of the relationships and the wonderful evocation of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. I suppose the main difference is that, with the passage of time, I see how relevant these novels are to the present day.
What, sadly, is not surprising is that 100 years on this novel echoes the greed and materialism in today’s market economy. The Camerons and Osbornes could easily be descendants of the Forsytes. And where would Thatcher have fitted in?
28 more hours of listening to go! Looking forward to it.
Have any of you read the Forsyte Saga? Or have you re-read any of your old favourites and what do you think of them now?