While I still enjoyed In Chancery and To Let, the second two novels of The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy felt less developed, less powerful, and less important. In essence, to me they felt like merely sequels to a powerful novel. My thoughts on the first novel of the trilogy were complimentary; these thoughts are a bit more mixed.
Galsworthy’s writing was just as beautiful and the stories were just as interesting in terms of the social history they tell, but I failed to relate to or enjoy the characters as much as I enjoyed The Man of Property. In a sense, the first novel was powerful because of the strong emotions the main characters faced. As the characters became less likable (first Soames, and then his daughter Fleur), I also felt like I could not relate to their emotions as much. In fact, in the third novel (To Let) I only felt a strong emotional draw in the very last scene as Soames reflects on his life.
When I first began this section, I mistakenly thought “Chancery” was a place. No: Chancery is a court in England. According to Merriam-Webster, “in chancery” now means:
1: in litigation in a court of chancery
2: in a hopeless predicament
The Forsytes certainly face rather hopeless predicaments in the turn-of-the-century England, as this section revolves around two significant divorce cases in the Forsyte family. Divorce was a scandalous public occurrence, and no one in the family wants the shame. However, divorce is the only way to pursue the path necessary for happiness. A few second-generation families must decide what is most important to them: reputation or happiness.
Again, young Jolyon Forsyte seems to put the difference between the generations in perspective best. He is of the second generation, speaking to his cousin:
We may live to their age, perhaps, … but self-consciousness is a handicap, you know, and that’s the difference between us. We’ve lost conviction. How and when self-consciousness was born I never can make out. My father had a little, but I don’t believe any of other of the old Forsytes ever had a scrap. (page 421)
Each generations of Forsytes gains more self-consciousness, and therefore less interest in the public appearance of things. The younger, Edwardian, generation makes personal choices that are in stark contrast to those that the image-important Victorian generation would make.
This section didn’t feel as developed as the first. Part of that may come from the fact that I loathed Soames far more than I did during the first part. Also, Galsworthy seemed to stop telling the story of Irene and Jolyon. I wanted to see their love affair develop; instead, I got to see Soames making another woman’s life miserable. I couldn’t relate to Soames’ self-centered adoration of the idea of a child; he never ceased to be a “Forsyte” in that he never stopped thinking of his image.
The most intriguing scene to me was that of the funeral of Queen Victoria: it was the end of the era in many ways. Just as Irene and Jolyon had rebelled against “reputation,” youngsters of that generation were repeatedly rebelling against Victorian ideals. Soames’ inability to understand the import of the upcoming Edwardian era was a stark contrast to the rebelliousness. (page 602-604)
Just as “Indian Summer of a Forsyte” seemed like a stand-alone story, this short interlude seems like one too. Young Jon comes to be aware of the people in his life, including his mother, who he loves and feels very close to. It’s a sweet story of a child growing up. I didn’t love it as much as I did the previous interlude, but in retrospect is was important to the final novel, as it described the reasons his relationship with his mother was so important.
The epigram at the beginning of the third novel, To Let, comes from Romeo and Juliet. Just as Romeo and Juliet fall in love despite their parents’ wishes, so do two young people in the 1920s. What is at stake once again is the conflicting ideals of marriage, self-determination, and the changing era in England.
Young Michael Mont says the line that captures the title of this novel.
“You’ll see,” he said. “There’s going to be a big change. The Possessive principle has got its shutters up. … The house is to let.” (page 859-860).
Soames becomes a rather minor character in this part of the story, as the story of the two young lovers takes center stage. However, I so strongly disliked Fleur that I disliked the story too; while I liked Jon, I couldn’t determine why he like Fleur. There was no convincing “love” between them, and all seemed superficial. Therefore, the entire premise wasn’t believable.
This novel, overall, felt plot-driven, rather than character-driven. In the other books, I enjoyed the internal monologues and debates and therefore could relate to some extent to the characters. The only emotional tie I had to this book was how much I despised Soames for his choices: it ended with Soames miserable and lonely, and I didn’t pity him at all. He lived his life selfishly, so he deserve misery in the end.
The Bottom Line
In the end, The Forsyte Saga was memorable as a look at the changing era at the turn of the century. I loved the first novel, but the second two didn’t quite stack up.
John Galsworthy’s writing carefully captures characters and I loved some of the introspection. On the other hand, it got tedious after 900 pages. If you are interested in experiencing Galsworthy’s writing, I’d highly suggest reading simply The Man of Property, which powerfully sets forth the issues and emotions dealt with during a volatile time of change.
A movie was made 1969, black and white, and a remake was made in 2002. While I don’t normally enjoy remakes of books I like, I was going to watch at least one of them to give it a chance. One commenter suggested that the remake is awful. Now I’m considering not watching either of them. Do I really want to spend another seven hours, let alone fourteen hours, with the Forsyte family? (Each movie is about seven hours, as these are series.)
Do you normally watch movies of books? Why or why not?