Friday, March 30, 2012

Book Review: The Forsyte Saga

I have a bit of a problem when it comes to books: I love to buy them! (I used to have an entire shelf in a book case of books "to be read".) Since I finally got my reading mojo back, I thought I would try to tackle some of the books that have been on the shelf the longest, which also happen to be among the thickest of the books on the shelf. One of the books I had procrastinated on the longest was The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy. (I bought the book in 2004. In my own defense, I remember trying to read it back then, but only made it through a couple of chapters before giving it up for something lighter.) So I packed this 878 page epic into my carry-on luggage and brought it with me on vacation. In a funny coincidence, the woman seated next to me on the plane had also brought the book (albeit a different edition) to read on the flight. How random is that!?! She asked me if I was reading the book because of "Downton Abbey"!?! A kindred spirit! A sign from the gods of Masterpiece Theater! We started chatting away, and I told her that I had first heard about this book when the miniseries was on Masterpiece. (Add it to your Netflix queue if you haven't seen it; it is a great program!)

The Forsyte Saga is a commentary about money, class, and morals at the end of the Victorian era/start of the Edwardian era. It focuses on an upper middle class family that has earned its money over the last two generations through varying interests (tea, publishing, property). Two of the branches of the family, the Jolyon Forsytes and the James Forsytes, are the focus of the story, and it is mainly their interactions and conflicts that drive this saga. The plot focuses this family, with its need to expand its Wealth and Holdings (not just for themselves, but for future generations of Forsytes), in the presence of Beauty, which is represented by the character of Irene, the wife of Soames Forsyte: a woman of great beauty, but without money or love for her husband.

The anti-hero of the piece is Soames Forsyte (son of James): solicitor and, what his uncle Jolyon Forsyte dubs, "a man of property." This refers not only his possessions (houses, artwork, club memberships), but his relationships with other characters in the book, especially his expansive family. Soames has confused love with ownership, and his journey throughout the saga is complicated by his rigid unwillingness to appreciate Beauty for what it is, not as something he can own. Soames is a character you love to hate, but by the end of the book, I pitied him.

Soames' opposite is his cousin Jolyon Forsyte, who is my second favorite character in the book (the first being his dad, "Old"/Uncle Jolyon). "Young" Jolyon, an impoverished artist estranged fom the family, is interested in appreciating beauty and loving people, but not possessing either. Jo is able to have an understanding and perspective about the family from the advantage of being removed from them. (However, Jolyon does make his share of mistakes, and, by the end of book, I found myself growing more critical of him, although he is played in the miniseries by the wonderful Rupert Graves, so it isn't like I could really be THAT critical of him. ::winkwink::)

The character of Irene is more elusive in the book than she is in the miniseries. The reader never knows what she is thinking or doing, except as it is related by other characters. (This is especially so in the first part of the saga: "Man of Property".) I found this reinforced the concept of Irene as Beauty: distant, removed, and (somewhat) unattainable. Over the course this of the saga, we grow to learn more about Irene's inner workings, but the mystery of Irene is never completely revealed.

Despite the length of The Forsyte Saga, I found the book to be really a very fast read - an engaging page turner, even for someone who has already seen the miniseries. Even though I had some misgivings about the prose back in 2004, the style really isn't very complicated, and there is a nice balance between description and conversation. (Personally, I prefer books not to be too descriptive.) Like Charles Dickens, Galsworthy includes a lot of well drawn out characters, both major and minor, and there are a number of little subplots that add to the story, which, I will be honest, does get a bit "soap opera", but in a good way.

This book is so incredibly turn of the last century English, with very specific references to life in London: walks down "the Row" (Rotten Row in Hyde Park); handsom cabs to the City; cricket at Lord's; the Tate and the National Galleries. My edition of the book didn't have any footnotes, and I think that I ended up looking up one or two things on Google, but I would recommend that any reader who isn't a regular Masterpiece watcher or reader of late 19th century English literature pick up a copy of the book with footnotes. (The woman from the plane had them in her copy.) Some readers might like to have a map of London to see where all the action takes place. Both editions had family trees; it was essential to me when first starting out as the miniseries cut a lot of the more peripheral characters. Granted, I am on vacation, but I inhaled this book, completing it in a week, and I already have begun reading the sequels to the Saga. I highly recommend The Forsyte Saga, and I know I am not alone in singing its praises- it won John Galsworthy the Nobel prize in literature in 1932.


  1. I have read The Forsyte Saga for several times. In very deed, it is amazing, graceful and in the same stunning masterpiece. The image of such a big family tree, where each member is depicted with all the feelings, secrets and surrounding intrigues - that is truly inspiring. I believe that The Forsyte Saga should be "a resource book" for every Londoner!

  2. I loved this book too, but somehow I just couldn't get into the TV series -- it seemed to move really slowly. I may have to give it another try -- I love Rupert Graves too, ever have since A Room with a View. RIght now I'm watching a crime series on PBS called Scott & Bailey and he plays an absolute jerk, but I still love him. Thanks for linking your review to the Back to the Classics Challenge!



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...