An unforgettable family saga and social satire


The Forsyte Saga | John Galsworthy

The Forsyte Saga consists of three novels (A Man of Property, In Chancery and To Let) combined with two short novellas (Indian Summer of a Forsyte and Awakening) following the fortunes of an upper-middle class family, the Forsytes, from 1886 to 1920. It’s a multi-generational family saga about class, money, morals, family and marriage, particularly the changing position of women in a competitive male world.

This is literary fiction with elements of the sensational. It’s got family scandals and secrets, divorce, gambling, illegitimate children, adultery and more. We’re in Mary Elizabeth Braddon territory here!

On publication, Galsworthy was praised for depicting the outdated and hypocritical social codes of the Victorian era as England transitioned into a post-imperial democracy. But his writing style was itself traditional, and he would soon be upstaged by Modernist writers such as E.M. Forster, Joseph Conrad, et al. They in turn would criticize Galsworthy for being rooted in a materialistic world and portraying relationships in a shallow and sentimental way.

Moreover, the very form of The Forsyte Saga, written as a very readable trilogy emphasizing story and character rather than style, was soon to be seen as in itself outdated, to be replaced by new forms and writing styles.

All of this contributed to Galsworthy’s lack of widespread recognition. However, it also explains why his Saga is so accessible for a modern reader. It was written to be gripping and readable. And while critics may have undervalued him, readers have continued to love his books.

This series was made into a much-loved BBC TV series in 1967. The 2002-2003 remake of that series was pretty awful. I’d stick with the books.

“Those privileged to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes have seen that charming and instructive sight—an upper-middle class family in full plumage. But whosoever of these favoured persons has possessed the gift of psychological analysis (a talent without monetary value and properly ignored by the Forsytes), has witnessed a spectacle, not only delightful in itself, but illustrative of an obscure human problem. In plainer words, he has gleaned from a gathering of this family—no branch of which had a liking for the other, between no three members of whom existed anything worthy of the name of sympathy—evidence of that mysterious concrete tenacity which renders a family so formidable a unit of society, so clear a reproduction of society in miniature. He has been admitted to a vision of the dim roads of social progress, has understood something of patriarchal life, of the swarmings of savage hordes, of the rise and fall of nations.”

A Man of Property, Part 1, Chapter 1: ‘At Home’ At Old Jolyon’s – John Galsworthy

See also: 19th century authors: Mary Elizabeth Braddon

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