Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Man of Property by John Galsworthy

Elegant writing about unpleasant people
English novelist and playwright John Galsworthy won the 1932 Nobel Prize in Literature, largely due to his extensive series of novels and stories known as The Forsyte Chronicles. Within these Chronicles are three trilogies and a number of “interludes.” The Man of Property, published in 1906, is Galsworthy’s first published Forsyte novel and the beginning of the first trilogy, entitled The Forsyte Saga. Later, however, Galsworthy did publish some prequels to this book. One really needs a diagram (see Wikipedia) to sort out the confusing sequence of the series. I am certain, however, that The Man of Property was the first Forsyte novel, so that’s where I started.

The Forsytes are an upper-middle-class English family centered in London. Their ancestors were farmers rather than noblemen, but through generations of workaholic self-made men they have elevated themselves to financial aristocracy. According to one character, who presumably speaks for Galsworthy, what distinguishes the Forsytes is their extreme “sense of property.” Every decision they make is based on a practical assessment of the wealth, luxury, and status it will generate. The only passion indulged is the passion for making money. As third-person narrator, Galsworthy often uses the word Forsyte to refer not only to a member of the family in question but also to an entire class of people. This gets annoying fast, and even more so when the characters themselves use the word Forsyte in the same pretentiously broad and cavalier manner.

The story takes place in the 1880s. The novel opens upon a large Forsyte family gathering, one of several that occur throughout the book. The first chapter bombards the reader with Forsytes, a brood so prodigious it is difficult to tell who’s who and how they’re all related. For help, one can Google Forsyte family trees, but unfortunately many of them contain spoilers such as notations of deaths and divorces, so perhaps it’s better to map out your own.

The central plot of the story centers around a love quadrangle. The main “man of property” to which the title refers is Soames Forsyte. He is married to a very beautiful woman, Irene, who doesn’t love him. His cousin, June Forsyte, is engaged to be married to Philip Bosinney, a struggling young architect. Bosinney’s lack of means already marks him as the object of scorn by many of the Forsytes, and matters get worse when he starts to display an attraction towards Irene. Soames sees what’s coming and, perhaps with the unwise philosophy that one should keep his enemies close, he hires Bosinney to design him a lavish country house. The business dealings between the two soon turn sour, while the affair between Bosinney and Irene escalates. The pair openly cavort with one another at Forsyte family gatherings, while Soames does his best to act like he’s not bothered by it.

Galsworthy is clearly a talented writer with a mastery of the English language who can draw vivid scenery, create multidimensional characters, and deliver social commentary. The behavior of all parties involved in the scandal, however, was unrealistic, and I just didn’t care about any of these characters. I guess I was supposed to sympathize with Irene and Bosinney, but I found them just as despicable as the rest. The only likable character is Young Jolyon, the Forsyte family outcast. At times I felt pity for Irene, but pity and sympathy are two different things. The Forsyte Chronicles will likely appeal to Anglophiles who enjoy BBC television series of the family saga variety. Reading this first novel, however, did not make me want to follow the Forsytes any further.

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