The Forsyte Saga

By John Galsworthy; Geoffrey Harvey | Go to book overview
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INTRODUCTION

IT is surprising, in view of the continuing appeal of The Forsyte Saga in particular, that John Galsworthy's reputation as a novelist is not higher. The years of critical acclaim were those which saw the publication of The Man of Property in 1906, the completion of the trilogy in 1921, and its issue as a single volume in 1922. At first Galsworthy attracted praise as a scourge of outmoded Victorian social codes and moral hypocrisies. However, his writing career coincided with the emergence of Modernism. His achievements in fiction were soon overshadowed by those of Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and D. H. Lawrence; and by contrast with their experiments with narrative form--with temporal discontinuities, decentred narratives, myth, and symbolism--his more traditional writing quickly came to seem dated.

The new writers understandably defined their own art by challenging that of their predecessors. The focus of Virginia Woolf's attack on novelists such as Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, and H. G. Wells, was their constricting materialism, a charge which she makes eloquently but unfairly in her well-known essay, 'Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown'.1 Perhaps more typical of critics' attitudes to Galsworthy is D. H. Lawrence's influential essay of 1928, in which he argues essentially that Galsworthy betrayed his art. Lawrence describes The Man of Property as potentially 'a very great novel, a very great satire',2 but then goes on to denigrate its characters for being rooted in a material social world, and to scorn what he terms their shallow and sentimentalized passions.

Another factor which contributed to the decline of Galsworthy's reputation was his adoption of the saga, with its apparent emphasis on character and content rather than form, and on expansion rather than concentration of narrative effects. His fiction was not regarded as being of sufficient seriousness, or

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1
Virginia Woolf, "'Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown'", in Collected Essays ( Hogarth Press, 1925), i. 319-37.
2
D. H. Lawrence, "'John Galsworthy'", in Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence ( Heinemann, 1936), 540.

-vi-

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