Monday, April 13, 2020

The Man of Property ("...a palpitating tale of passion...")

"We are, of course, all of us slaves of property, and I admit that it's a question of degree, but what I call a 'Forsyte' is a man who is decidedly more than less a slave of property."

Hubert, surrounded by Forsytes, and looking particularly Forsytean.

The Man of Property (1906) is the first novel of John Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga. While virtually every Forsyte in this novel crowded with Forsytes could be considered a man of property, the man of property is Soames Forsyte. 

But we first meet the Forsytes gathered at an open house to announce June Forsyte's engagement. There are ten Forsytes in the elder generation, six male and four female, but in this novel the two most important of the elder generation are Jolyon (old Jolyon) Forsyte, June's grandfather, and James Forsyte, Soames' father. June is to be engaged to Phillip Bosinney, a modern, possibly up-and-coming architect who has no money. But Jolyon is fond of his granddaughter and she will have money someday. He's all the more fond because he's estranged from his son, his only child, who ran off with June's governess when June was a small child. But we're early given clues that the strong-willed June may be more interested in Bosinney than he in her.

Couples not in love is a recurring theme in the novel, and Soames' wife Irene is not in love with him as well; he doesn't know what to do about it, nor does he really understand why; but he undertakes to build a house--a property--in the country and hires Bosinney to design and build it. It seems like such a good idea: he and Irene will have a place to get away to, maybe fix their marriage, and June's young man will make some money, making him a better prospect, and more acceptable to the family.

Seems like such a good idea. Oh, well.

The novel is often written as if it were a satire of the philistines of a haute bourgeois society and as such it's frequently funny:
[The Forsyte philosophy:] " could reckon on having love, like measles, once in due season, and getting over it comfortably for all time."
"As every Forsyte knows, rubbish that sells is not rubbish at all--far from it."
 [A Forsyte thinking about Titian:] "There are things, he feels--there are things here which--well, which are things."
"...that fellow Wagner had ruined everything..." 
"The core of it all is property...And yet I imagine all these people are followers of One who never owned anything."
But while the novel does satirize the Forsytes as a group, it has an underlying sadness to it that touches upon each Forsyte as an individual. The men in particular, but also the women, are inarticulate, ostensibly only caring about the value of a pound, and who has the most of them, but there's a yearning we see even if they can't express it.

Old Jolyon, probably the most likeable Forsyte, can't bear to be estranged from his son though society demands it; he manages an opening to young Jolyon; his reasons are selfish--he's about to lose the company of June--but also tender. James, the least expressive of them all, sees that his son Soames' marriage is a mess but can't do anything about it, or even say much; and Soames behaves horrifically and knows he behaves horrifically but can't think what else to do.

The powerful ending leaves most everything the way it started, except for Bosinney and June, but badly broken.

However, if you're a person who worries about the overuse of exclamation marks, you may want to steer clear.

I thought it was very good.

Which frankly surprised me a little bit. Galsworthy's reputation is a bit better than it was, I guess; I think the BBC mini-series (which I haven't seen) helped, but his reputation took some hits from authors I like and take seriously. Virginia Woolf pans him in passing in her essay 'Modern Fiction' (1919, found in The Common Reader) preferring Conrad and Hardy and Joyce; Orwell also contrasts Galsworthy unfavorably with Joyce in his 1942 essay 'The Rediscovery of Europe.' And in his 'In Defense of the Novel' of 1936, Orwell writes of The Man of Property, well, I can't resist quoting, for he calls it:
"A palpitating tale of passion, a terrific soul-shattering masterpiece, an unforgettable epic which will last as long as the English language,..."
Wow. But since it's Orwell you might guess he doesn't quite mean that; the full quote is:
"But on a scale of values that makes The Way of an Eagle a good book, The Constant Nymph is a superb book, and The Man of Property is--what? A palpitating tale of passion, a terrific soul-shattering masterpiece, an unforgettable epic which will last as long as the English language,..."
Clearly Orwell thinks The Man of Property is the best of those three novels, but it is rather damning with much too extravagant praise.

I expect to read the two remaining volumes--In Chancery and To Let--of The Forsyte Saga soon.


  1. Excellent review! I can't summarize a novel the way you can for review purposes. I am impressed. I agree with the underlying sadness and the feeling the characters have of wanting to do something about their behavior that they know is wrong but being unable to do so, whether due to conventions or habit or whatever. Soames, as awful as he is, is still understandable and sometimes even to be pitied, I thought.

    1. Thanks! I'm always worried about giving too much away.

      Soames certainly starts out as pitiable, but by the end, I'm less inclined...

  2. i've wondered about this series... "a palpitating tale of passion" might be a bit much at my advanced age, tho... but i do like to see good but not very well recognized authors get an outing...

    1. I think Orwell is to be ignored in this case; I'll certainly carry on, at whatever risks to my health!

  3. I have been curious about the Forsyte Saga for some times. Still not sure I'll like it, but your review intrigued me a little more. :)

    1. Good! I definitely liked this one well enough to carry on. I hope to have finished the next one sometime this week.

  4. Well, I said I was looking forward to your reviews and here we go ...!! After reading your review, I'm so excited to read the book. I probably shouldn't ask this question and wait to see for myself, but do the characters have an attachment to property purely for the sake of money and status, or is there a deeper connection to it that is formed (I'm thinking of Mole in The Wind in the Willows which I'm reading now; even though he prefers the open spaces and the river, there is an intrinsic connection to his burrow)?

    "However, if you're a person who worries about the overuse of exclamation marks, you may want to steer clear." That made me laugh. As far as I know, I'm not sensitive to exclamation marks, but I'll let you know when I finish. Perhaps I have an unrecognized condition, lol!

    Have you read Anthony Trollope's The Palliser novels? I expect Galsworthy's books to be similar. I wonder which to read first ...

  5. As for what property means to the Forsytes, it does vary a bit between them, but I'd say none of them are shown as having that deep connection to place that Mole shows in The Wind in the Willows. Old Jolyon or Irene get closest to it, and even then more in the interlude/short story (Indian Summer of A Forsyte) that follows The Man of Property.

    I've only read the first of the Palliser novels (though all of the Barsetshire novels) so my ability at the moment to compare is thin, but I'd say I prefer Galsworthy. I find Trollope OK, but in the book-blogging world there are a lot of people who love him much more than I do.

    Glad you enjoyed the review. You should read it! Then we can compare.

  6. I do not think the Forsyte novels are much like the Palliser novels. For one thing, French literature had intervened. Flaubert, Zola, that crowd. For another thing, the 1890s happened. A lot of attitudes changed.

    1. That's very true. Galsworthy may be insufficiently modern for Woolf and Orwell, but he's not a Victorian anymore.

      I was thinking more as a reading experience, and even there I think I prefer Galsworthy. I'm generally perfectly happy with Victorians, but I can take or leave Trollope usually. I'll have to better articulate it someday, but it has to do with his attitude toward his villains. I can put up with Uriah Heep. But Trollope's treatment of George Vavasour (and others) annoys me.

    2. i read the Barsetshire novels last year and really developed a taste for Trollope's writing style... what i didn't like so much was his repetitiveness: he just doesn't like telling about something once!

  7. I was curious to see if you'd enjoy these and I'm so pleased you did. (And I echo my recommendation of the TV series, which I'd also like to rewatch, with Damian Lewis, via Hoopla, for any others in Toronto/Canada.) Wasn't there always a prejudice against good ol' storytelling when it came to literary criticism back then? Prominent literary figures they may be and may have been, but they're still just readers, with their own preferred sorts of stories. (And undoubtedly there are and were more edifying choices, as there always are.)

    1. Woolf, of course, isn't really averse to storytelling--I like that in her--but I understand why she looked down on Galsworthy. Orwell was a bit more of a surprise, because he really does like good storytelling: he's fond of Dickens; he even has nice things to say about Kipling, though Kipling's politics naturally appal him. It's class issues, I think, more than the politics that put Orwell off; Galsworthy sees that his haute bourgeois are very likely philistines, but they're human, too, and I think it's that that irritates Orwell. Though there was one moment in Orwell where I thought he was about to break down & say something nice about Galsworthy, but he couldn't quite do it...

      I've definitely got those Forsyte Saga videos in mind once I've finished some more print versions.