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John Galsworthy – THE MAN OF PROPERTY

By John Galsworthy – THE MAN OF PROPERTY
London: Headline Publishing Group, 2007
From the 1906 original
ISBN: 978-0-7553-4085-9
367 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
March 2014

I came to this novel having forgotten that a couple of years ago I saw a few episodes of The Forsyte Sage on TV. As soon as a few of the names came up, especially Swithin and Soames, I remembered a bit of them, and thus I was suspicious. Suspicious since the TV shows were rather melodramatic and just reminded me of the sort of entertainment that doesn’t much challenge me and which I sort of regard as “junk TV”. (Although there are times when I’m not in the mood for a serious challenge and do enjoy my “junk TV.”)

Thus I began reading with a good deal of skepticism. However, on the other side I was taken with a claim the author makes on the very first page in which he sees inter family relations as a history of civilization writ small. I was fascinated with this notion. The history of the family, on this view, tends to represent the nature of human beings in much the same way, but on a smaller scale, as the history of the world itself. That suggestion made me think I might be in for something larger than a soap-opera-novel.

Now, having finished this first volume of the lengthy many volumes of The Forsyte Saga, I’m sort of torn between the two views. One the one hand there is lots of the soap opera sort of predictability in the story, yet on the other hand it often rises above that limitation (at least a limitation on my view), and rises to something a bit more challenging and interesting.

In any case, in this first volume we are introduced to many of the Forsytes and presented a family tree and we are even introduced, at least, to nearly 40 of the Forsytes of this period, the 1880-1890s.

The sort of organizing character is Jolyon Forsyte, about 80 as the novel opens and the recognized head of the family. He was not born a man of property, but became a very successful tea merchant and earned a sizeable fortune. He knows that he doesn’t come out of the titled class and will always be looked down upon by that class even at it respects his wealth and rise in society over his 60 or so working years.

We are introduced early on to his granddaughter, June. She is to inherit his wealth, and has recently become engaged to Philip Bosinney, a relatively poor young man, but an architect with a seemingly rising career.

Jolyon also has a son, Jolyon, Jr. but he is fairly well disowned by the family. He left his wife and ran off with the governess. He is relatively poor, now has two children, and ekes out a modest living as a painter and does other various odd jobs.

Since he is in disgrace, it will be June who will inherit Jolyon, Sr.’s considerable wealth.

June becomes engaged to Bosinney, but grandfather Jolyon won’t approve of the marriage until Bosinney has settle into some work in which he has an adequate salary that will provide a decent life for June.

The next central character we meet is Irene. She is June’s best friend, and a very beautiful woman. She is married to Soames Forsyte, Jolyon’s nephew. Jolyon doesn’t like Soames much, and even though Jolyon made his fortune in “trade” (tea in his case), Soames is also in trade and this seems the root of Jolyon’s dislike of Soames. On the other hand, as we meet Soames as the novel moves on there are few of the readers who will like him. He’s just not a very decent fellow.

Even Irene, Soames’ wife, dislikes him. He doesn’t know why. Irene is a beauty and sort of a trophy for Soames. In trying to find ways to please her and make her like him more, Soames dreams of getting her out of London and the society crowd and into a fancy country estate. So he buys a building site out of the city and Bosinney is going to build him a house.

When the building project begins, which sets the stage for the rest of the novel, it is about 1886. The rest of the novel centers on Jolyon’s family, his (disgraced) son and family, June, who soon becomes engaged to the architect Bosinney, and Soames and his wife Irene.

Before long the country house which Soames is building to both attract his own wife to him and to get her out of the social life of London, is the center of the novel. Author, John Galsworthy draws a radical difference between the meaning of life in the city and life in the country. He makes an analogy to art:

“There are moments, too, when in a picture-gallery, a work, noted by the casual spectator as ‘*** Titian – remarkably fine’, breaks through the defenses of some Forsyte better lunched perhaps than his fellows, and holds him spellbound in a kind of ecstasy. There are things, he feels – there are things here which – well, which are things. Something unreasoning, unreasonable, is upon him; when he tries to define it with the precision of a practical man, it eludes him, slips away, as the flow of the wine he has drunk is slipping away, leaving his cross, and conscious of his liver. He feels that he has been extravagant, prodigal of something; virtue has gone out of him. He did not desire this glimpse of what lay under the three stars of his catalogue. God forbid that he should know anything about the forces of Nature! God forbid that he should admit for a moment that there are such things! Once admit that, and where was he? One paid a shilling for entrance, and another for the programme.”

Thus this central theme is established, the contrast between city life and country life. However, as the title suggests, “The Man of Property,” what is central to this generation of Forsytes is, indeed, property. It is the young and disgraced Jolyon who defines what a Forsyte man is: a “man of property.”

“. . . a ‘Forsyte’ is a man who is decidedly more than less a slave to property. He knows a safe thing, and his grip on property – it doesn’t matter whether it be wives, houses, money or reputation – is his hall-mark.”

As the third section of the novel moves forward it does become much more like a soap opera. June and Bossiney become engaged, and Bossiney’s future seems assured when Soames decides to hire Bossiney as the architect builder to oversee the building of this magnificent country home for his wife, Irene. However, Irene and Bossiney fall in love and complications galore enter into the story.

June is deeply disturbed that her dear friend would steal her finance, especially since she is already married to Soames. Old Jolyon realizes that he had been too harsh on his son, Jolyon, and patches up their family battle, embracing the younger Jolyon, his wife and two young children, whom Jolyon falls in love with. Eventually he settles most of his estate on his son, while leaving a decent portion of wealth for June’s security as well. The soap opera effect plays itself out and that is best left for the reader to discover on one’s own.

The rather curious ending of the novel is an “Interlude: Indian Summer of a Forsyte.”

It may well be curious and soap operish, but it is touching nonetheless. Old Jolyon, now 80 gets to know Irene, Soames’ wife, (and thus his niece-in-law) and to enjoy her company and need her as a friend of his last days.

That last section of the story was quite touching and fascinating. While I am 5 years younger than “old” Jolyon was at this part of the story, I could well understand his confusion with the loss of much of his old “power” and being-in-the-midst of things, and how the gentle and kind Irene could come to play an important role in his last days.

In the end I really enjoyed the novel. I’m still a bit puzzled that it seems the primary reason John Galsworthy won the Nobel Prize was because of the many volume set, The Forsyte Sage, yet while this first volume seemed to be a significant cut above a typical soap opera, and parts of the novel were quite interesting and informative, I ended my reading wondering if this was of the quality of other Nobel Prize winners I’ve been reading, and I’m just not fully convinced it is.

I think I’ll have to tackle one or two more volumes of the “sage” to figure that out.

Bob Corbett


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