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John Galsworthy – The Forsyte Saga: The Man of Property

October 26, 2010

123. The Man of Property by John Galsworthy (1906)
The Forsyte Saga, Book 1

Length: 295 pages
Genre: Family Saga, Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Started: 04 October 2010
Finished: 09 October 2010

Where did it come from? Bookmooch / Free e-book from Amazon.

Why do I have it? I have a penchant for British costume dramas, and a bad habit of adding the entire filmography of actors that I like to my Netflix queue. Thus, during my Ioan Gruffudd phase, I wound up Netflixing the miniseries, and the rest was a forgone conclusion.

How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 27 November 2007.

I’m doing things a little bit differently than normal for this book. The book on my TBR pile – The Forsyte Saga – is actually an omnibus edition of three separate books: The Man of Property, In Chancery, and To Let, plus two short stories. Rather than slogging through the entire chunkster in one go, I’m reading and reviewing the constituent novels one at a time… so here goes for the first one!

Even if you “own”
your wife, that doesn’t mean you’ll
really own her heart.

Summary: The Forsytes are a prime example of upper-middle class London in the late Victorian era. Descended from a successful working man, the ten siblings that make up the elder generation of Forsytes live in the lap of luxury, yet are constantly conscious of their position and their possessions. The first book in the Forsyte Saga primarily revolves around Soames Forsyte, one of the younger generation. Soames is well-to-do, and has possesses everything he could possibly want – except the affections of his wife, the beautiful but reserved Irene. Soames intends to move to the country, as a means of kindling some intimacy in their marriage, and he hires the young and struggling architect Phillip Bosinney, the fiancée of his niece, to design and build him a spectacular house at his property at Robin Hill. However, the heart of another is the one thing that can never be truly possessed, and Soames only slowly begins to realize that all of his wealth and status is not enough to buy him a loving marriage.

Review: My first introduction to the Forsyte Saga was through the DVDs of the recent miniseries, due to my Netflix’s strange tendency to accumulate British costume dramas. As a result, I was already familiar with the characters (and thank goodness, too, because there are a crowded city block’s worth of them) and I knew all of the main plot points, since it turns out the miniseries followed at least the first book extremely closely. Therefore, I was able to follow along with the story relatively easily, and pay more attention to the flow of the prose and the tone of the language.

And, it turns out, for all of my usual whining about how hard it is for me to deal with the language of the classics, that I really enjoyed Galsworthy’s writing. I was pleasantly surprised by was Galsworthy’s ability at evoking a scene. He’s particularly good at describing the feeling of a night, or of a spring morning, or of a foggy London street, in language that is clear and gorgeously evocative, albeit occasionally a little purple. He doesn’t focus on the “furniture” of a situation, and often doesn’t provide a lot of scenic details, but is so good at evoking the tone of a scene that the details fill in themselves.

While I can’t separate out how much of the characterizations were due to Galsworthy and how much were due to having watched the movies first, the characters really came alive for me. I’m actually going to say that it’s mostly Galsworthy – Irene is more of an on-screen character in the movie, while in the book she’s (intentionally) left as somewhat of a cipher, only ever seen through the eyes of the men around her. While reading, I found that she remained pretty mysterious, without the movie-version of her bleeding into my perception too much, so I’ll give Galsworthy the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the other Forsytes as well. Certainly, the older Forsytes were a lot more at the fore in the book, with their own POV sections, and I find that I now understand James and Old Jolyon much better than I did after just watching the DVDs. It’s one of those interesting books in which almost no character is entirely likeable (maybe Young Jolyon?) or entirely blameless, and you’re never entirely sure who to be angry at and who to pity – much like real life, in that way. And for all that it’s a saga, it’s not melodrama – it’s a real-seeming (if somewhat extraordinary) family, full of real people, dealing with real problems and recognizable emotions. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: If you like your novels to come with extensive and complicated family trees, have I got a book for you! It’s not for everyone, for sure, but if the phrase “Victorian family saga” piques your interest, then I found the first book of The Forsyte Saga to be surprisingly accessible.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Rebecca Reads, A Work in Progress
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: 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.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • Location 184: “And where Irene seems hard and cruel, as in the Bois de Boulogne, or the Goupenor Gallery, she is but wisely realistic – knowing that the least concession is the inch which precedes the impossible, the repulsive ell.” – a former measure of length, varying in different countries: in England equal to 45 in.
  • Location 234: “Close to the window, where he could get more than his fair share of fresh air, the other twin, James – the fat and the lean of it, old Jolyon called these brothers – like the bulky Swithin, over six feet in height, but very lean, as though destined from his birth to strike a balance and maintain an average, brooded over the scene with his permanent stoop; his grey eyes had an air of fixed absorption in some secret worry, broken at intervals by a rapid, shifting scrutiny of surrounding facts; his cheeks, thinned by two parallel folds, and a long, clean-shaven upper lip, were framed within Dundreary whiskers.” – long, full sideburns or muttonchop whiskers.
  • Location 237: “Behind him his cousin, the tall George, son of the fifth Forsyte, Roger, had a Quilpish look on his fleshy face, pondering one of his sardonic jests.” – a sly, cunning smile without actual humor or mirth, based on Daniel Quilp from Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop.
  • Location 474: “They had shares in all sorts of things, not as yet – with the exception of Timothy – in consols, for they had no dread in life like that of 3 per cent.” – the funded government securities of Great Britain that originated in the consolidation in 1751 of various public securities, chiefly in the form of annuities, into a single debt issue without maturity.
  • Location 504: ““Did you ever see such a collection of rumty-too people?”” – common, ordinary.
  • Location 735: “He remembered the days when he had been wont to slide him, in a brown holland suit, to and fro under the arch of his legs; the times when he rand beside the boy’s pony, teaching him to ride; the day he first took him to school.” – a cotton cloth treated to produce an opaque finish, as for window shades.
  • Location 900: “She was sombrely magnificent this evening in black bombazine, with a mauve front cut in a shy triangle, and crowned with a black velvet ribbon round the base of her thin throat; black and mauve for evening wear was esteemed very chaste by nearly every Forsyte.” – a twill fabric constructed of a silk or rayon warp and worsted filling, often dyed black for mourning wear.
  • Location 1107: ““I wonder what he thinks of it?” thought Soames, who knew well enough that this group was hopelessly vieux jeu; hopelessly of the last generation.” – old-fashioned; literally: old game
  • Location 1530: “When his old friend John Street’s son volunteered for special service, he shook his head querulously, and wondered what John Street was about to allow it; and when young Street was assagaied, he took it so much to heart that he made a point of calling everywhere with the special object of saying: He knew how it would be – he’d no patience with them!” – stabbed with the slender javelin or spear of the Bantu-speaking people of southern Africa.
  • Location 1681: “Even in the garden, that sense of things being pokey haunted old Jolyon; the wicker chair creaked under his weight; the garden-beds looked ‘daverdy‘; on the far side, under the smut-stained wall, cats had made a path.” – dowdy, unkempt.
  • Location 1847: “June was instantly compunctious; she ran to her aunt and kissed her.” – causing or feeling compunction; regretful.
  • Location 2215: ““I’m ordering the purple leather curtains for the doorway of this court; and if you distemper the drawing-room ivory cream over paper, you’ll get an illusive look.”” – a technique of decorative painting in which glue or gum is used as a binder or medium to achieve a mat surface and rapid drying.
  • Location 2430: “His thick white hair, on which Adolf had bestowed a touch of pomatum, exhaled the fragrance of opopanax and cigars – the celebrated Swithin brand, for which he paid one hundred and forty shillings the hundred, and of which old Jolyon had unkindly said, he wouldn’t smoke them as a gift; they wanted the stomach of a horse!” – The inspissated juice of an umbelliferous plant (the Opoponax chironum), brought from Turkey and the East Indies in loose granules, or sometimes in larger masses, of a reddish yellow color, with specks of white. It has a strong smell and acrid taste.
  • Location 2601: “This person had flogged his donkey into a gallop alongside, and sat, upright as a waxwork, in his shallopy chariot, his chin settled pompously on a red handkerchief, like Swithin’s on his full cravat; while his girl, with the ends of a fly-blown boa floating out behind, aped a woman of fashion.” – can’t find this on the internet; I’m going to assume it’s a variant for jalopy?
  • Location 2683: “He had long forgotten the small house in the purlieus of Mayfair, where he had spent the early days of his married life, or rather, he had long forgotten the early days, not the small house, – a Forsyte never forgot a house – he had afterwards sold it at a clear profit of four hundred pounds.” – environs or neighborhood.
  • Location 3491: “She hated having to say this sort of thing to a butler, it was so infra dig.; but what could you do with father?” – Beneath one’s dignity.
  • Location 4167: “There was no doing anything with that pertinacity of hers.” – the quality of being pertinacious; persistence.
  • Location 4185: “Her figure, of medium height and broad build, with a tendency to embonpoint, was reflected by the mirror of her whitewood wardrobe, in a gown made under her own organization, of one of those half-tints, reminiscent of the distempered walls of corridors in large hotels.” – excessive plumpness; stoutness.
  • Location 4553: “By a chance, fortuitous but not improbable in the close borough of legal circles, a good deal of information came to Soames’ ear anent this line of policy, the working partner in his firm, Bustard, happening to sit next at dinner at Walmisley’s, the Taxing Master, to young Chankery, of the Common Law Bar.” – in regard to; about; concerning.
  • Location 4714: “Sometimes they could not find the name of the company at all; and they would wait until James or Roger or even Swithin came in, and ask them in voices trembling with curiosity how that ‘Bolivia Lime and Speltrate‘ was doing – they could not find it in the paper.” – The internet is being thoroughly no help here. Clearly some kind of mineral/chemical.
  • Location 4882: “Her face was not the face of a sorceress, who in every look holds out to men the offer of pleasure; it had none of the ‘devil’s beauty’ so highly prized among the first Forsytes of the land; neither was it of that type, no less adorable, associated with the box of chocolate; it was not of the spiritually passionate, or passionately spiritual order, peculiar to house-decoration and modern poetry; nor did it seem to promise to the playwright material for the production of the interesting and neurasthenic figure, who commits suicide in the last act.” – an obsolete technical term for a neurosis characterized by extreme lassitude and inability to cope with any but the most trivial tasks.
  • Location 5010: “…and from and after her death or decease upon trust to convey assign transfer or make over the said last-mentioned lands hereditaments premises trust moneys stocks funds investments and securities or such as shall then stand for and represent the same unto such person or persons…” – any inheritable estate or interest in property.
  • Location 5015: “The Will had been drawn by James in his palmy days.” – glorious, prosperous, or flourishing.
  • Location 5208: “Across the street and back the hunted creature strode, not groping as other men were groping in that gloom, but driven forward as though the faithful George behind wielded a knout; and this chase after a haunted man began to have for George the strangest fascination.” – a whip with a lash of leather thongs, formerly used in Russia for flogging criminals.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 26, 2010 1:46 am

    I have been meaning to read these books for ages, but have always backed out of committing to a series. It looks like your approach works well – watch the mini-series first, then hit the books.

    Good review!

    • October 27, 2010 2:18 pm

      Nishita – To the best of my knowledge, the series actually goes on and on for something like nine books, but at least the first one is pretty self-contained. (i.e. if you didn’t care for it, you wouldn’t necessarily feel locked into reading the rest.)

      Watching the miniseries first was hugely helpful, though, for sure.

  2. October 26, 2010 10:52 am

    I’m not sure this is for me, but I bet my mother would love it.

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