Holly's Reviews > The Forsyte Saga

The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy
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Jan 13, 2012

it was amazing
Read in January, 1969

Back in the Jurassic age---when the heart was young!--- I first saw the black-and-white version of The Forsyte Saga on PBS. For me it was love at first sight. And being a bookish kid I immediately ran out and bought the trilogy. I found it to be a massive volume, initially intimidating to any youngster who had not yet tackled Tolkien. It was composed of 3 novels: THE MAN OF PROPERTY, IN CHANCERY and TO LET, linked by two short "interludes." But after awhile I just sat down and tackled the thing. And now, over 40 years later, I still remember it as one of the best reads I've ever had.

THE FORSYTE SAGA begins in 1886 with a lengthy description of this upper middle-class English family. The Forsytes are practical, self-serving, determined, stubborn, greedy and highly acquisitive. Epitome of the "type" is Soames Forsyte, nicknamed the man of property. Soames has married a beautiful, artistic girl named Irene whom he treats as a possession; but Irene has a mind of her own and soon comes to hate him. It may even be said that the entire trilogy is about their mismatched union and its far-reaching, often tragic consequences. Ultimately Soames rapes his unwilling wife, thereby precipitating the series of events that culminates in her leaving him.

By volume 2 Irene is living apart from Soames, who nonetheless tries to move heaven and earth to lure her back. He fails. Instead she turns to his widowed cousin Jolyon, the free thinker of the family who is, in many ways, Soames' polar opposite. Yet Jolyon himself has Forsyte blood---the will to HAVE, to POSSESS---and he must make a conscious effort not to "appropriate" Irene. By 1900 there is a messy divorce, with Irene marrying Soames' cousin soon afterwards. Soames, wanting an heir, then weds a French girl half his age, mostly because he sees her as a good potential breeder. Yet ironically, the second Mrs. Soames nearly dies in childbirth and is unable to bear any more babies in future. And it's a DAUGHTER that she produces, not the son he had so hoped for. Notwithstanding, as soon as Soames sees the beautiful infant Fleur he melts. Volume 2 ends on a note of surprising tenderness and pathos with Soames regarding the newborn and thinking: "By God! This---this thing was his!"

Volume 3 of the trilogy is a Romeo-and-Juliet tale. In the spring of 1920 Fleur Forsyte has a chance encounter with her handsome cousin Jon, Irene's son. Predictably, the two callow kids fall in love. And it is then that Irene's true nature becomes apparent, along with her cowardice and hypocrisy. For Irene opposes the union yet refuses to tell Jon the reasons why. She doesn't want her son to know the details of her own sordid past. Understandable, that, but it's disturbing to see the way she consistently puts her own happiness ahead of Jon's. And Jolyon humors her in this wrong-headed behavior because...well, because Irene's still beautiful, you see, and he's still very much under Irene's spell!

But Irene's worst nightmare turns out to be Fleur, a true Forsyte who's greedy and determined and single-mindedly obsessed with having Jon. In the subsequent tug-of-war only Soames appears to any advantage. He is now mellowed by age, a lonely old man who dotes on his daughter and just wants to see her happy. How ironic that Soames, former villain of the piece, should behave more unselfishly than "goddess of love" Irene in the end!

Ultimately Jolyon keels over dead from all the stress that Irene has caused. Jon abandons the girl he loves---again, because of Irene---and leaves the country. Fleur on the rebound marries her other suitor, the aristocratic Michael Mont. In the final chapter Soames attends the funeral of a centenarian uncle, "last of the old Forsytes," and broods on his own mortality. The trilogy ends with the man of property still wondering what he did wrong, all those years ago, and why he never could claim Irene's heart and soul. "He might wish and wish and never get it---the beauty and the loving in the world."

THE FORSYTE SAGA is a soap opera, yes, but brilliantly written and conceived. By today's standards it may seem rather sentimental...and Galsworthy himself is apparently blind to the faults of Irene, whom he hopelessly romanticizes. The character is purportedly based on his own wife Ada, who left a loveless first marriage to be with him in, as we say, "real life." But how much did Ada Galsworthy resemble Irene? Irene is depicted as self-indulgent, cowardly and passive aggressive. Her "sexual shrinking" from Soames seems a tad absurd, even by Victorian standards. But then love is blind, so we can only assume that these defects matamorphed into virtues in the author's mind! Read this book and decide whether you support Team Soames or Team Irene. As for me, I know which side I'm on!
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