"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.
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:] "...one 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.