Magazine article The Spectator

Interest Still Accruing

Magazine article The Spectator

Interest Still Accruing

Article excerpt

Galsworthy is one of those writers who obstinately survives.

Critical opinion wrote him off long ago. His plays are rarely staged. Most of his novels have sunk below the horizon. Yet the three which make up The Forsyte Saga have rarely, if ever, been out of print, and continue to be read -- not only on account of the famous TV dramatisation -- and A Modern Comedy, the trilogy he wrote as a sequel, perhaps also, even if his grasp of the world after 1918 was uncertain, sketchy, journalistic.

The Saga itself was not conceived as such.

The Man of Property was published in 1906, In Chancery not till 1920, with To Let following the next year. One has the impression that at some point Galsworthy thought, 'I can do more with these characters.' In doing so he mined a popular seam, but it may be that his reputation would be higher if the first book had been allowed to stand alone.

It is harder and colder than its successors, though also somewhat muddled. Just what did he think of his Forsytes? The entry in Margaret Drabble's Oxford Companion to English Literature concludes that 'his detached stance has tended to provoke the suspicion that some part of him respected the qualities he professed to satirise'. A fair judgment; yet this ambivalence is what gives the work its strength. Evelyn Waugh, in an introduction to a new edition of The Man of Property, suggested that 'the drama of Galsworthy's own love affair' (with the wife of a cousin) 'was heightened by the fact that he was himself a Forsyte ... one of the circle he was disrupting.' Waugh quoted approvingly a letter from Gilbert Murray to Galsworthy in 1922:

The rum thing is that, after reading it all and admiring it and loving it, I don't feel that I know in the least what a Forsyte is like and am not conscious of having seen one. I believe you have a queer poetical method which simulates realism in order to attain beauty.

Waugh calls this 'a profound criticism' and asks whether the Forsytes ever really existed. 'Their obsession with urban commercial matters is not an English characteristic.' I suspect he was wrong, and that the Forsytes represented a stratum of late Victorian England he had never encountered, the members of which did not aspire to set up as country gentlemen. Consider the occupations of the brothers. Jolyon is a tea-merchant, James a solicitor, Swithin an auctioneer; Nicholas deals in house property, Timothy is a publisher. …

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