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Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Forsyte Saga (1906-1922) by John Galsworthy

Edwardian fashion

Book Review
The Forsyte Saga (1906-1922)
 by John Galsworthy

  The Forsyte Saga is actually a series of three novels, 1001 Books counts it as a single "book" which seems inconsistent with their practice up to this point.  For example, they don't have every Palliser Novel (there are 6) by Anthony Trollope listed under a single heading, but simply put Phineas Finn (the third of six) on the list and omit the others.  But for that reason it took forever to make it through The Forsyte Saga- two weeks plus.

  Like other English novels of the 19th and 20th century, The Forsyte Saga is a novel about marriage and property, and quite explicitly at that.  The central unhappy marriage, between wealthy lawyer Soames and the younger Irene, influences the semi-incestuous relationships that percolate throughout all three volumes.  Once again, an unhappy literary marriage caused me to reflect on my own recent experience with divorce.

   Something I came to believe about six months into my separation/divorce is that it is unfair to be angry at a woman who makes what you consider an irrational decision to split up, when in fact, it may have been an equal or even greater level of irrationality that caused you to be together in the first place.  Men who have "done nothing wrong" to create a divorce- and here I'm talking about both my own experience and what I've read about in books- in marriage, always take the position that it is the decision to split that is the ultimate evidence of irrationality, but really it's probably the decision to get married that was more irrational, and the decision to break up less.

 In the Forsyte Saga the central motif is the Forsyte men as "possessors of property" whether they be inanimate (houses, stocks) or animate (livestock, women.)  It's clear that Galsworthy writes with a mixture of understanding and satire when he depicts the Galsworthy men. The women are more opaque.  Galsworthy does a better job with older/single women, but when it comes to Irene, the central female figure of all three books, we are left grasping for motivations.  Specifically, there is a decade plus long gap between the initial split between Soames and Irene and their divorce, and Galsworthy provides no insight as to what Irene actually did during that entire period.  She is literally shuffled off to stage right, and I actually imagined the character smoking cigarettes in the wings of the theater while time passed in the book.

 Aside from the frank depiction of happy and unhappy marriage, The Forsyte Saga is notable as a near compete portrait of the post-Victorian Edwardian period.  In my mind, the Edwardian's are like a coda attached to the Victorian, who dwarf the Edwardian's in every way, and who had the good sense to vanish before the onset of modernity.  Here, Galsworthy depicts modernity but in a very Victorian fashion.  There is none of the narrative experimentation that characterizes authors like Henry James (who were writing at the exact same time as Galsworthy.)

 The Forsyte Saga is a throwback to Novels of the prior half century, but seeing as that was absolutely the golden age of the pre-modern novel, it is not a bad place to be.  Please, note this series is very, very long and is to be avoided unless you have a ton of time to read or read very fast.

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