I didn’t think I would ever actually get around to reading The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy. My edition has The Man of Property, In Chancery and To Let in a single volume of 724 pages and I had been saving the book up in case I ever broke my leg and couldn’t get to the library. The book has been hiding in the stash of books inside my bedside table for about 25 years,* and only came out when I was watching the television news a few weeks ago (sigh) and thinking about the things I would regret not having done if the world came to a sudden end.
Then, once I actually started reading The Forsyte Saga, I didn’t think I would ever get through the book. I seemed to be reading it day and night; on the train, in the lunchroom at work, in bed, while I was stirring things on the stove and not making so much as a dent in the pages. But the story was enthralling, and I kept reading and reading, and eventually my bookmark was sitting around the middle of the book. Mysteriously, I flew through the last half, in the same way that the fuel indicator gauge in my car sits on ‘full’ for 500 kilometres, then all of a sudden drops to halfway and then, less than thirty kilometres later, the ’empty’ light is flashing and I’m no way near a service station…
At this rate, my review of The Forsyte Saga is going to be about as long as the book, but that isn’t entirely incongruous as the story goes into a lot of detail about the Forsyte family of London, their lives and loves and their values.
The Man of Property starts off with an ‘At Home’ at Old Jolyon Forsyte’s house in London one summer afternoon in 1886, with a gathering of the Forsyte clan to celebrate the engagement of one of Jolyon’s grand-daughters to an architect called Bosinney. The Foryste family are upper-middle class and financially successful. As individuals, they are characteristically self-important.
Soames Forsyte is the main character in The Man of Property. He is extraordinarily interested in real estate (this is true of most of the Forsytes) and as such, includes his beautiful wife Irene amongst his property. Soames is desperate for Irene to love him and cannot understand why she is repelled by him. When Irene agreed to marry Soames, following a relentless campaign which took him years, he agreed to set her free if she ever asked, but Soames dismissed her request for freedom when it came.
Soames engages Bosinney to build a mansion in the country where he intends for Irene to live in isolation, hoping this will force her to love him. During the building of the mansion, Irene and Bosinney fall in love. When Bosinney dies, Irene leaves Soames, leaving them in limbo as Soames continues to love Irene and does not want to expose his private life to the scrutiny of the media should they divorce.
While I was sympathetic to Irene, there weren’t many pages I turned without wondering why on earth she had married Soames and brought all of this trouble on all of them. This question was eventually answered to my satisfaction, and the answer was certainly in keeping with the Victoria and Edwardian times of when the story was written.
In Chancery has Soames and Irene having been separated for 12 years. Soames still wants Irene, but he also recognises that he now wants a son too, and he has been spending time with a beautiful French woman 20 years his junior, with the intention of marrying her if Irene won’t have him.
Young Jolyon, Soames’ cousin, has been acting as Irene’s financial trustee and becomes Irene’s protector when Soames tries to force Irene to live as his wife again. Irene and Young Jolyon fall in love and when Soames divorces Irene, Irene and Young Jolyon marry and have a son, Jon. Soames marries the young French woman and they have a daughter, Fleur.
The last part is To Let, by which time Fleur and Jon are young adults, and unaware of their parent’s history, they meet for the first time and fall in love. Obviously Irene and Soames are unhappy about their children’s relationship.
There are a cast of thousands in the Forsyte family, and each of them have their own stories, trials and tribulations, but it is Irene, Young Jolyon and Soames who the reader spends the most time with and has the most sympathy for.
The family’s interest in real estate, particularly in Man of Property, is similar to the mindset of middle class Australians now. We talk endlessly about the price of real estate, we are mad about renovating, and we worry about new home buyers’ inability to save up for a house deposit in a rising market (the suggestion that young Australians give up their weekend smashed avocado brunches at fashionable cafes or their regular overseas holidays has been howled down as being unrealistic, fuddy-duddy advice) and we watch television shows promoting home ownership and renovations.
I nearly fell over when I realised there are another 463 (or some other equally ridiculous amount) of sequels to The Forsyte Saga, but once I got over the shock I found a copy of the next book to hide in the bedside table stash in case I ever get an infectious disease which prevents me from getting to the library.**
I believe there is also a movie, or an old television series based on The Forsyte Saga, but I don’t have time to watch it at the moment. Eventually, maybe, but at the moment I’m addicted to watching Beachfront Bargain Hunt and The Block.
*I have to hide my book purchases, because He Who Eats All of Our Leftovers thinks I have too many books already, and he shakes his head in a disappointed way when I come home with more. At least with The Forsyte Saga, I was able to say with perfect truthfulness, “Oh this old thing! I’ve had this for years!”
**Next to my super-secret stash of chocolate. You are all under strict instruction never to tell He Who Eats All of Our Leftovers about this hiding place.