The three novels which make up The Forsyte Saga chronicle the ebbing social power of the commercial upper-middle class Forsyte family between 1886 and 1920. This, the only critical edition of Galsworthy's popular masterpiece, contains detailed notes which are vital to the saga, explaining particularly the contemporary artistic and literary allusions, and slang of the time.
A plus for me personally, the novel spans something like 40 years and three generations; I'm truly a sucker for the epic story, be it in the form of literature or movies. The ambiance of the late Victorian era, WWI, and the beginning of the Jazz age are all covered, and Galsworthy relates them well. Furthermore, you really, really KNOW the characters when you're done. I was almost sad to leave Soames and the gang behind in the end.
The family stories are engaging, and each of the many Forsytes have their own distinct personalities, even as they're shaped by the times in which they live. The oldest generation ranges from the reclusive Timothy to the softened-by-age Old Jolyon, to the crotchety James. The middle generation is much different from their elders, both as a reflection of the change in attitudes brought about by the turn of the 20th century and as a reaction to their parents' values. Much of the substance of the series turns on members of the second generation - Soames, his wife Irene, and Young Jolyon in particular. But they also have their turn as the older generation as their children come of age and have ideas of their own about what's important in life. However, one can never really escape the past; some actions have effects that reverberate through the generations, however much one tries to ignore them and move on.
Although a long read, it was enjoyable and not difficult to follow at all. The family themes of love, duty, forgiveness, second chances, and propriety are set against the backdrop of changing times - not only the turn of the century, but the first World War, the Boer War, and the change of lifestyle brought on by the popularity of automobiles.
Recommended for: people who liked Pillars of the Earth or Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence, people who like to watch miniseries, Anglophiles.
Quote: "The persistence of the past is one of those tragi-comic blessings which each new age denies, coming cocksure on to the stage to mouth its claim to a perfect novelty."
Bonus quote: "This great and good woman, so highly thought of in ecclesiastical circles, was one of the principal priestesses in the temple of Forsyteism, keeping alive day and night a sacred flame to the God of Property, whose altar is inscribed with those inspiring words: 'Nothing for nothing, and really remarkably little for sixpence.'"
The novel traces the lives and travails of three generations of an English family residing in London at the end of the 19th century through the first couple of decades in the 2oth. It's a story of a wealthy family embedded in the Victorian tradition that sees the transition to modernism among the younger generation. It has a vast number of characters, all family relations which makes it difficult, at the beginning, to keep track of who is who and who is related to whom. My copy has a very handy family tree that helped identify the characters and their relatioins.
Galsworthy does a great job in depicting the peronalities and emotions of the novel's characters. And they cover the whole range. Some of them are clearly dumb while other are very intelligent. Family and social tradition plays a key role for many of the characters, particularly the older generation. The younger generations, as it always the case, rebel and do not value those traditions necessarily, with dire results for the family.
I recommend reading this novel- but it requires some time because of it's length. It's entertaining throughout.
A word of warning: There is a huge cast of characters in this book and they can be hard to keep track of at first. Don't use the family tree at the front of the book to do so... (even though it is wonderful.) Spoilers abound and I already knew the endings since I'd seen marriages listed in the family tree that were to come later on in the book.)
So glad I read this one... I enjoyed it enough that I plan to read the remainder of the series at some point.
I have to admit that by the third book I was quite tired of reading about Soames and Irene as well as their overdone “soap opera” plot. While Soames’ journey through life was difficult, I didn’t feel much sympathy for him as I found him quite pompous and rigid. At the same time, I found his wife, Irene too cold and distant to ever feel that I knew her so I couldn’t generate much interest in her story either. In the later books, I did like both Fleur and Jon, but it was easy to see what was going to happen with this relationship so I was never emotionally invested in their story.
Galsworthy spreads his story over a large canvas that includes all the various members of this family and we learn a little about each member over the course of the three books and many different sub-plots are developed along the way. Personally I much preferred these sub-plots that featured the other Forsytes and while I grew tired of some of the characters I can certainly attest to the appeal of this story with it’s descriptions of wealthy English lifestyles and conventional society morals at the turn on the century.
Did Nature permit a Forsyte not to make a slave of what he adored? Could beauty be confided to him?
Unlike Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes, John Galsworthy dissected the lives of the people of his own class. Galsworthy could not tolerate the obsession of his peers with buying and selling. The idea that one could “own” ineffables such as beauty and love, whether as art or a wife, was contemptible to him. He channelled his disgust into the creation of the odious but unforgettable Soames Forsyte, jealous husband of the beautiful Irene (pronounced in the Edwardian style: I-REE-nee). Galsworthy was clearly in love with the character of Irene, making her story of self-determination the unifying thread of the entire tapestry. Indeed it is hard to miss his empathy for women in this series.
The Forsyte Saga has been serialised twice on television, most recently and lavishly by Granada TV with Damian Lewis as Soames and the elegant Gina McKee as Irene. If the print format seems daunting at 912 pages (Oxford paperback), I highly recommend the audiobook narrated in a beautiful Edwardian drawl by Fred Williams.
I did a combination of reading and listening for this saga. I picked up the audio narration performed by Fred Williams. After the first 6 hours, I had to stop and switch to a narration by David Case. What a difference! Williams is basically just reading a very long book. Case performs the different voices of the characters and really captures much of the passion and feeling behind this emotional book.
"His heart made a faint demonstration within him while he stood in full south sunlight on the newly whitened doorstep of that little house where four Forsytes had once lived, and now but one dwelt on like a winter fly; the house into which Soames had come and out of which he had gone times without number, divested of, or burdened with, fardels of family gossip; the house of the 'old people' of another century, another age."
The passage of time is strong in this book and Galsworthy's precision and wit so timeless, I can recognize in Soame's misgivings about motor cars my own dizzy suspicions about cellphones. Whether it's the 19th or 20th century that's turning, things only seem to go faster. This is not going back on the shelf. I'm tucking this dogeared beast under the bedside table so I can reread all my favourite parts.