The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy (In Chancery and To Let)

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.

In Chancery

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)

Awakening

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.

To Let

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?

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. Great review (as usual!)… Now I’m not quite sure where to put this book on my list of books I was thinking of reading. The length was always a turn-off, but compounding that with you finding 2/3 of the series a bit of drag makes me uncertain whether I do want to read this. I think I’ll leave myself open to it, but not any time soon.

    As for whether I watch movies based on books, I will, but generally if I have any inkling that I might want to read the book I tend to refuse to watch the film until I’ve read the book. I don’t know how well this works for me though, as I tend to be disappointed with the movie afterwards as I feel they rarely live up to the book!

  2. Steph, that’s why I say just read the first novel: the 900 pages is actually three full-length novels. It’s a bit much, I agree. But the first is pretty spectacular, I think!

    I feel the same way about movies normally (i.e., waiting until I’ve read the book). But I’m trying to be open and just know they will mess it up. I was looking forward to seeing the Victorian dresses and seeing how the change the setting from the 1880s until the 1920s. So I may still watch it….we’ll see.

  3. This trilogy is on my TBR shelf and I am looking forward to it, even though you do not wholeheartedly recommend the second two. . I have been let down by trilogies before. I think that sometimes I enjoy the first book the most just because it is all new.

    My mom just listened to the whole thing and I might do that. It is one of the few books available from m,y library for instant download to iPod (as compared to the many available for other types of MP# players). It would be just the thing for a long road trip.

    As for movies from books: I generally like to see a movie if I’ve read the book, but not for a couple fo years so that it seems new again. If I know I want to read the book, then I will wait on the movie for a long time. For instance, we haven’t watched Revolutionary Road yet because I want to read the book first but haven’t gotten around to it.

  4. This is exactly why I’ve never read the Forsyte saga – it sounds like totally my type of book (series), but I’ve heard from several different people now that the other books don’t even come close to being as good as the first. And I can’t start a series and not finish it. I just can’t. (Except for Anne Rice’s vampire books…)

    I often enjoy films of books – generally much more so if I haven’t read the book lately. If the film’s too faithful I often get bored, and if it’s not faithful enough I get irritated. 😛

  5. Rose City Reader, Listening to it might work well. By the end, though, I was ready for it to end, even reading and I know listening is a lot slower for me…..But maybe for a veeeeery long car ride! That’s a good point about waiting a couple of years. I did want to see the movies (both of them) and I even requested one from library transfer, but now that I’ve finished reading the book, I’m ready for something new. Maybe in another year.

    Jenny, well, this is the first trilogy of three trilogies of the family: i.e., there are nine 300 page novels in the entire “Chronicles.” Plenty to keep you going! I’m done after three; I don’t have qualms about stopping a series if I don’t like it!

    Yes, bored and/or irritated is generally my lot with books of movies. I may try Rose City Reader’s idea and what a little while before watching them.

  6. I have actually seen the newer movie version of this, and I remember enjoying it, although it was very dark and depressing. It is sort of a hobby of mine to read book/watch movie/compare. Even if the movie is horrible, I just am quite interested in how it all gets put together. (I could not, however, even finish Age of Innocence with Michele Pfieffer–I hated it.) I also like to get a good visual of the time period.
    I’m learning all about Chancery because I’m reading Bleak House by Dickens which revolves around a never ending court case. It’s a long one too, so it may be a while before I get to Galsworthy!

  7. Shelley, yeah, the book was depressing to some extent, considering the protagonist was a possessive man in the Victorian/Edwardian age. I do like seeing how they put it together but I’m always angry when they “mess it up”!

    I tried to watch Age of Innocence right after I read it and I could handle it. Then I watched last month and it was ok. Why did you hate it? It was pretty slow. I disliked the narrator. But I loved seeing all the food they ate and the costumes of the age.

  8. The TV-version of the Forsyte Saga was my grandmother’s favourite TV-show, so it might be worth watching. I remember her and my mother talking about it and watching reruns on TV during the 80s.

  9. I don’t think my aversion to Age of Innocence was based on plot, I think maybe I just didn’t like the casting. I’m not a big fan of either of the leads. It’s been a few years since I made the attempt. Maybe I should try again. I saw a movie version of House of Mirth that was okay.

    1. Have you commented on “House of Mirth” yet? It’s one of my favorite films, though not as much as “The Age of Innocence”. Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) is so tragic, that a pall of gloom and a feel of authentic Greek tragedy lies on this story!

      I read one blog in which this film was proclaimed “the most depressing film ever!”. Well, they haven’t seen “Brokeback Mountain”, obviously, but it IS depressing, and for a number of reasons.

      It’s wonderfully acted and though paced a bit too slowly, it has that “Wharton Feel” of form observed and harmony “so carefully balanced; it could be shattered with a whisper”, as she writes in “Age of Innocence”.

      One of the great surprises was the almost entirely American cast, especially those usually associated with comedy, such as Dan Aykroyd, or gritty dramas, such as Eric Stoltz in “Pulp Fiction” and Laura Linney as the odious Bertha Dorset.

      This film will likely depress you to no end, but you’ll probably watch it every month or so!

      1. Gwynneth » I’m not really a movie person, so no, I haven’t watched THE HOUSE OF MIRTH yet. I am craving a reread of the novel, though 🙂 that’s my favorite part of classic literature, the wonderful reread experience!

  10. I was a bit surprised that you despised Soames MORE in “To Let”! Here, at least, he shows a more compassionate, human side than in the the previous two stories, especially in his love for Fleur. What bugged me about him most in the first two (and this continues, with only a few brief insights) is his utter insistence that is was entirely Irene’s fault that she can’t love him! He mulls his own appearance and qualities over and over, wondering why she basically cannot “force” love! It’s absurd, yet Galsworthy’s own cousin (who was married to Galsworthy’s mistress, then wife, Ada) was basically Soames.

    Likewise, Galsworthy gives Young Jolyon, the original “absentee Dad”, a LOT of excuses for his actions! if you stack him up, morally, against Soames, he doesn’t fare that well, for all his tolerance. He abandons June, his first wife, then forces his second wife to live with the father who disinherited him and made her life more miserable! THEN, he buys Soames’ house and lives in it with June, who is expected to abide TWO stepmothers (Helene and Irene), and even forgive the latter (who never apologizes) for stealing her fiance!

    I would never say that I felt much sympathy for Soames, but in his lack of ability to see himself, he IS pathetic. Jolyon, the smarter and more self-aware, should be more attentive and loving. He is not, except where Irene is concerned. Is it because of her beauty, as he raves on and on? I think so.

    As for Fleur; she is easy to dislike, especially as her love affair with Jon unravels, but having been raised in a loveless home, by Soames and the cold-hearted, cheating mother, Annette, what could you expect? Jon, I find, just too treacly and conscience-ridden to be attractive. He is, as Fleur accuses him of being, a “Mama’s boy”, who lets his mother’s disastrous mistakes and Soames’ crimes deprive himself and Fleur of what I believe is real, once-in-a-lifetime love, despite the fact that he later marries.

    SPOILER (in case you haven’t read “A Modern Comedy”:

    This decision of Jon’s comes back to bite him and hurt Fleur in A BIG way, when he returns to England, to find that she is as much in love with him as ever, and — surprise!–that he still loves her!

    Fleur plots to “steal him back from a filching Providence”, arranging to see him at her cousin Val and Holly’s farm, then at various other places, culminating in a brief fling in the famous “coppice” at Robin Hill.

    Though Galsworthy writes (in Jon’s voice) afterward, “No man could have resisted Fleur’s kisses…!”, one must ask, “Really?” Is Jon that weak-willed? Does he love his new wife enough? Though Holly, Val and probably Irene, not to mention Jon himself (!) lay all the blame on Fleur; I object! As my mom used to say “It takes two to tango!” This is Galsworthy at his most jejune, making excuses for his own adultery and deception (which occurred even when he was with Ada).

    If you don’t believe this, read his novel, “Jocelyn”, whose publication so embarrassed him, he refused to allow it to be printed in the U.S., and only briefly in the U.K. Here, you see the TRUE Galsworthy. Much as I adore his writing and story telling, I’ve not much use for his so-called “morality”.

    1. Gwynneth » it’s been a while since I read the Forsyte Saga, but I think I may simply have tired of Soames. As you say, he was so horrible in the first two books. The IN CHANCERY he was a more minor character but I didn’t mind seeing him be unhappy in the end simply because I had come to dislike him. As for the “absent father” Young Jolyon, I guess I liked him because he was not fake and he was sincere. But as I said, it’s been a few years since I read this and wrote and this post so the details are fuzzy. I haven’t (and don’t intend to) read the rest of the saga. I was pretty tired of Galsworthy by the end of these three, impressive as his writing was!

      1. Thanks for your reply! Yes, Soames is very easy to detest! If anything, I hated him more in “In Chancery”, since after all this time, he STILL doesn’t have a clue why Irene can’t stand him, still won’t accept that she can’t love him (even when she explains it) and pursues her and threatens Jolyon, in his insane quest to get Irene back. He compares her to “taking possession of an empty house” he owns! Ugh. I, too, wasn’t sorry when he was thwarted in the end (it gets worse in “Modern Comedy”).

        I used to idolize Jolyon for many years, but in recent readings, I’ve judged him more harshly, probably because I’m a parent now and see what his kind of laissez-faire attitude can do to a child. For instance, he’s off in Paris, wooing Irene when his son Jolly is left without guidance and joins the army to fight in the Boer War.

        I know Galsworthy has many flaws as a writer, but I always feel immersed in his world and characters, and my love of the Victorian age is always satisfied by re-reading these books.

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