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“An intimate incarnation of the disturbance that Beauty effects in the lives of men”

I had never seen either the landmark 1967 adaptation of John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, starring Eric Porter, Nyree Dawn Porter and Kenneth More as the three points of the major love story triangle, nor the 2002 remake with Damien Lewis, Gina McKee and Rupert Graves, but I did, I thought, know the story, despite not having read Galsworthy’s 3 volume epic, with two interludes.

Though originally published as a complete set as ‘The Forsyte Saga’ in 1922, Galsworthy had been writing his saga of an upper middle class family for over 15 years as the first volume The Man of Property had been published in 1906. In fact, he continued to follow the generations of Forsytes in the writing of a second trilogy The Modern Comedy between 1924 and 1928, and then a third three volume set, End of the Chapter, between 1931 and 1933.

Eric Porter, Nyree Dawn Porter, Kenneth More

And I must say, that though some aspects (for example the laying out of details of matters financial and legal in terms of entails, wills, investments, death duties and the like) had me reading without due focus and attention, I found this a fascinating, absorbing, moving read. Characters are wonderfully drawn, shown in complexity, and the rifts, risings and fallings of society itself, as followed through the generations of one particular family, which in this first trilogy of Galsworthy’s three trilogies, spans the period 1886 to 1920, works brilliantly

Damien Lewis, Gina McKee, Rupert Graves

We start in the high stability and certainty, with this family, in the Victorian era. Two generations earlier the Forsytes had been settled in Dorset, farmers. Now they are men of property, solicitors, financiers, investors, doing very well for themselves. The ‘old generation’ whose fortunes are first followed, are the ten, very wealthy, sons and daughters of “Superior Dosset” Forsyte, who became a builder, and amassed the family wealth through property

The first book, The Man of Property, begins with an engagement party gathering, of the great-grand daughter of Superior Dosset (long deceased) The family fortunes, togetherness and standing are at their height.  It is 1886 The last volume of this first trilogy is the marriage of a much younger great-grand daughter of Superior Dosset, one who is part of that giddy generation of flappers, young men and women fortunate enough to have been born a little too late to have engaged in the 1914-18 war

The main protagonists and driving forces in the novel are two cousins, very different from each other, ‘Young’ Jolyon Forsyte, an artist, son of Old Jolyon, a tea merchant and chairman of various companies, and Soames, the son of solicitor James. Old Jolyon and James, now elderly men are 2 of the 10 children of Superior Dosset. Soames, The Man Of Property believes in ownership – whether of artefacts – he is a successful speculator in art collection – or of people. Soames is married to the much younger Irene, an unwilling kind of femme fatale, purely because she is an eternal kind of beauty – of soul, as much as of body.

Could a man own anything prettier than this dining-table with its deep tints, the starry, soft-petalled roses, the ruby coloured glass, and quaint silver furnishing; could a man own anything prettier than the woman who sat at it?

The artist Young Jolyon has a different kind of worship of beauty – whether of people, or of art, nature, or any other manifestation of beauty – that it cannot be owned

it had been forgotten that Love is no hot-house flower, but a wild plant, born of a wet night, born of an hour of sunshine, sprung from wild seed, blown along the road by a wild wind. A wild plant that, when it blooms by chance, within the hedge of our gardens, we call a flower; and when it blooms outside we call a weed; but, flower or weed, whose scent and colour are always wild!

A struggle goes on between what Galsworthy terms ‘the Forsyte nature’ as typified by Soames – those aspects of society which seek to own, confine, regulate, and are cautious, rational, and repress or are uncomfortable with mystery, and what art seeks, meaning beyond the tangible.

the sanctity of the marriage tie is dependent on the sanctity of the family, and the sanctity of the family is dependent on the sanctity of property. And yet I imagine all these people are followers of One who never owned anything. It is curious!

I can’t and won’t say more about the strong narrative, the complexities and contradictions of character, and how the author is able to look at changes in culture, thinking, the progress of science and industry, politics, and much more through his complex family saga. He writes crisply and prosaically when needed, but, my how he also soars with metaphor, as appropriate

Suffice it to say, I have pages and pages of underlinings – Galsworthy’s truly epic piece of work is one of those which, as much as the reader would like to read on, read on, in order to discover ‘what happens next’, they are bound, if they really want to get the richness of the books, to stop, reflect, and absorb everything which the author is exploring

The Forsyte Saga UK
The Forsyte Saga USA

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