“Life calls the tune, we dance.” ― John Galsworthy
PBS Direct has just released Forsyte Saga – The Complete Series back to DVD. In celebration of the release – meet the Forsytes!
The Forsyte Saga chronicles the lives of the leading members of a large upper-middle class English Family. Only a few generations removed from their farmer ancestors, the family members are very much aware of their status as “new money.” The main character, Soames Forsyte is nicknamed as a “man of property” in the family by virtue of his ability to accumulate material possessions — but this does not bring him pleasure in his marriage to his beloved Irene or in life in general.
First, let’s hear Damian talking to PBS about the Forsytes and then Soames :
“They’re only two or three generations into the money. They’re not an old family with standing, and they certainly don’t want to be reminded of that. Old Jolyon Forsyte, played by Corin Redgrave, is a bit of a maverick, more of a fully rounded, loving person than the other Forsytes, and he likes to stir up the family on this score. At the dinner party in the opening episode he alludes to their humble origins. The pride and snobbery of the Forsytes is such that no one wants to be reminded of that. They want to feel they’ve always belonged to the upper class. It’s that very English thing of “clubability,” that obsession with belonging to the right places.
“Soames is fastidious, smug, and conceited. But he’s also a person capable of love, though unfortunately unable to express it in a satisfactory way, especially to a young woman. He understands life in terms of contracts, property, and duty. And if any of those things is threatened, he falls apart. He can be cruel and small-minded, but that’s often generated by this repressed passion that he’s unable to express fully, or successfully, or healthily.”
JaniaJania made a fantastic blog post about Soames earlier here. I am sure each one of will write about this very complex character sooner or later. However, today, I’d love to talk a bit about the novel that made its author win a Nobel Prize in literature — big thanks go to my dear JaniaJania who has said in her blog post “having only read a bit of the book, I don’t know if Galsworthy’s original vision for the character was sympathetic or not” and intrigued me to do a bit of research about the man who gave us The Forsyte Saga.
Well, everything starts with the book, doesn’t it? It turns out Damian also read the books before he gave Soames to us. When asked about whether he read the books, Damian says: “Yes, absolutely. I also bought a couple of books on Victorian mores and social customs. And I have some quite useful printouts from the Internet about the roles of wives and husbands in Victorian England. So I’ve got a wealth of information to go on.”
Well, John Galsworthy was an English novelist and playwright whose literary career spanned the Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian eras. He was born in Kingston, Surrey, UK on August 14, 1867 and died on January 31, 1933.
In addition to being a highly prolific writer, Galsworthy was also a social activist, and an outspoken advocate for the women’s suffrage movement, prison reform and animal rights. Galsworthy was the president of PEN, an organization that sought to promote international cooperation through literature. Pretty cool guy, huh?
Galsworthy was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1932. He could not make it to the prize ceremony because he was sick and he died soon after receiving the prize.
Here is what the Nobel Prize Committee says about why they awarded the Nobel Prize to Galsworthy.
The speech is rather long, and spans the entire career of Galsworthy. I choose to share with you a few paragraphs from the speech in which the Nobel Committee interprets the characters of Soames and Irene as “property” and “beauty” and also talks about how the Forsyte Saga very successfully brings to the reader not only the three generations of Forsytes, but also the transformation of the English society at the time, socially, politically and economically.You can see the award ceremony presentation speech by the Prize Committee Member Anders Osterling here.
“With the Forsyte type he now aimed at the upper middle class, the rich businessmen, a group not yet having reached real gentility, but striving with its sympathies and instincts toward the well-known ideal of the gentleman of rigid, imperturbable, and imposing correctness. These people are particularly on their guard against dangerous feelings, a fact which, however, does not exclude accidental lapses, when passion intrudes upon their life, and liberty claims its rights in a world of property instincts. Beauty, here represented by Irene, does not like to live with The Man of Property; in his bitter indignation at this, Soames Forsyte becomes almost a tragic figure.”
“The novelist has carried the history of his time through three generations, and his success in mastering so excellently his enormously difficult material, both in its scope and in its depth, remains an extremely memorable feat in English literature – doubly remarkable, if we consider that it was performed in a field in which the European continent had already produced some of its best works.”
“In the Forsyte novels we observe the transformation and the dissolution of the Victorian age up to our days. In the first trilogy comes to life the period that in England effected the fusion of nobility and plutocracy with the accompanying change of the notion of a «gentleman», a kind of Indian summer of wealth before the days of the storm.”
“The gallery of types is admirably complete. Robust businessmen, spoiled society ladies, aunts touching in an old-fashioned way, rebellious young girls, gentlemen of the clubs, politicians, artists, children, and even dogs – these last-mentioned especially favoured by Galsworthy – emerge in the London panorama in a concrete form, alive before our eyes and ears.”
An interesting fact in Galsworthy’s life is very well connected to the novels. Well, according to his Wikipedia page, Galsworthy began an affair with Ada Nemesis Pearson Cooper (1864–1956), the wife of his cousin Major Arthur Galsworthy, in 1895. They married 23 September 1905, ten years after she got a divorce and stayed together until Galsworthy’s death in 1933. Brace yourselves now! It turns out “the character of Irene in The Forsyte Saga is drawn from Ada Pearson, though her previous marriage was not as miserable as that of the character.”
Now… I have a quite old copy of The Forsyte Saga — a 1949 edition! There is a quite interesting Foreword by John Galsworthy in which he shares the reader feedback he received on Soames and Irene as well as his thoughts on the couple and why the relationship did not work.
“One has noticed that readers, as they wade on through the salt waters of the Saga, are inclined more and more to pity Soames, and to think that in doing so they are in revolt against the mood of his creator. Far from it! He, too, pities Soames, the tragedy of whose life is the very simple, uncontrollable tragedy of being unlovable, without quite a think enough skin to be thoroughly unconscious of the fact. Not even Fleur loves Soames as he feels he ought to be loved. But in pitying Soames readers incline, perhaps, to animus against Irene. After all, they think, he wasn’t a bad fellow, it wasn’t his fault; she ought to have forgiven him, and so on! And taking sides, they lose perception of the single truth, which underlies the whole story, that where sex attraction is utterly and definitely lacking in one partner to a union, no amount of pity, or reason, or duty, or what not, can overcome a repulsion in Nature.”
Yes, Mr. Galsworthy, I am exactly the reader you are talking about. I just cannot get what lack of sex attraction you are talking about. Are you sure we’re talking about the same man here? 🙂
But, honestly, I don’t think you would still think the same about him should you have had met OUR Soames… Chances are, you would incline to animus against Irene, too 🙂
Now, dear fans, if you know the Soames I do know, you know what I’m talking about. If not, first thing you have to do is to get that DVD and meet Soames Forsyte immediately. And, just to get you in the mood for the Forsyte Saga,
here is the theme music “Irene’s song” sung by the wonderful opera singer Bryn Terfel — this music haunts me every time I hear it, and quite often, too, because it’s my ringtone! ENJOY!