John Galsworthy (1867-1933): Power, Property and Utopia in ‘The Forsyte Saga’


Dr Gail Cunningham, Emeritus Professor of English, Kingston University, Surrey

21 March 2016


[Additions, including pages 1 to 4, and pages 13 to 17 by Dr Robert Blackburn]

To a foreigner, the age through which we ourselves have been living is the age of Galsworthy, Wells and Shaw; before them of Wilde. Something, doubtless, besides literary enjoyment, guides this taste.’ GM Young Victorian England: Portrait of an Age (1936)

This quotation from Young’s well known book begins the Preface of another study, published in 1963 as part of the Oxford History of English Literature. This was JIM Stewart’s Eight Modern Writers, in its time an important landmark in English literary criticism. Of the four writers named here by Young only Shaw is included by Stewart.  The others are Hardy, Henry James, Conrad, Kipling, Yeats, Joyce and Lawrence. These overviews are between thirty pages (Yeats) and 109 pages (Lawrence) long. For Stewart, the Edwardian age of Galsworthy (b.1867), Wells (b.1866) and Arnold Bennett (b.1867) belonged to a now distant time, and had little to do with modern writing.

John Galsworthy, author of the still world-famous Forsyte Saga, is not much read or studied academically in Departments of English Studies. The last biography of him, a good and interesting one by Catherine Dupré, was published in 1976. The Forsyte Saga, broadcast in 1967/8, was the BBC’s first big television costume drama. Long before the digital age, when programmes had to be watched in real time, church service times were changed and pubs emptied, so that people could follow the Saga on Sunday nights. In due course, some 160 million viewers saw it worldwide.

Much feted in his lifetime, John Galsworthy, who died aged 65 in January 1933, was a prolific writer who worked very hard, but always, within himself, knew his own limitations. Someone said, after the ITV series of The Forsyte Saga in 2002, starring Damian Lewis as Soames Forsyte: ‘Poor old Galsworthy may have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but now he is just a footnote in televisual history.’ Yet The Forsyte Saga is still read, even if Galsworthy’s other novels are neglected. Several of his plays are recognised as being of fine quality, and addressed subjects which in their day were of great public interest, such as poverty, justice and prison conditions. Soames Forsyte is by common agreement one of the most interesting and distinctive characters in English fiction.

Galsworthy was born in Coombe, Surrey and spent his childhood in a vast mansion, Coombe Warren, built by his father in the village of Malden, a house later re-named Coombe Court. It was tall and angular, a Victorian Gothic building of red brick. Two more houses were built for the family on the same large piece of land, Coombe Croft and Coombe Leigh, and it seems that the family moved from one to another before finally leaving Coombe for ever in 1881. A later owner of Coombe Court was the Marquis of Ripon.  Now known as Galsworthy House, it has been extended in modern times, and is now a residential care home. John Galsworthy Senior had married late, at 45, in 1862.  His wife was a well-born Worcestershire woman, Blanche Bailey Bartleet, and their four children, for whom John Senior provided in the most admirable way, were Lilian (Lily), John, Hubert and Mabel, born between 1864 and 1871. John admitted that he found his mother’s pettiness and small-mindedness irritating, and wrote later that: ‘My father really predominated in me from the start, and ruled my life. I was so truly and deeply fond of him that I seemed not to have a fair share of love left to give to my mother.’  The son admired the father’s devotion to the arts, and to beauty in all forms, saying of him that: ‘… a pretty face, a beautiful figure, a mellow tune, the sight of dancing, a blackbird’s song, the moon behind a poplar tree, starry nights, sweet scents, and the language of Shakespeare - all these moved him deeply, the more perhaps because he had never learned to express his feelings.’ The father was very well read and loved the theatre, including opera. John inherited his father’s fastidiousness of appearance, but also much of his emotional inhibition.


In April 1891, when he was 24, and had recently graduated in law from New College, Oxford John Galsworthy attended the wedding of his cousin, Major Arthur Galsworthy to Ada Nemesis Pearson Cooper (Nemesis was the additional name her mother had given to the girl). That marriage was anything but a success. Ada confided her unhappiness to John’s two sisters, Lilian and Mabel, and in September 1896, John and Ada became secret lovers. A year earlier, Ada, who was in reality three years older than John (born 1864, though she officially claimed 1866) had suggested to John in Paris that he should become a writer. ‘You’re just the person’ she apparently said. Much has been made of this, though it is almost certain that he would have abandoned law anyway as a profession, and become a writer.

There had been no real love between Arthur and Ada, and it was silently clear to their entourage from early on that only disaster was likely to be the outcome of their legal union. Arthur was an insensitive bully, and badly mistreated Ada. The Soames-Irene relationship in The Forsyte Saga is largely based on that of Arthur and Ada, even though the real Arthur and the invented Soames are quite unlike each other. The character of Young Jolyon in The Man of Property, a much paler and more emollient figure than Soames, is modelled partly on Galsworthy himself, Ada’s rescuer.

Ada finally left Arthur in 1902, after years of disapproval from John’s father (John Galsworthy Senior, always a Methuselah-like, bearded figure in the surviving photographs).  He was almost certainly the model for Old Jolyon in The Forsyte Saga. But Jon’s father died in 1904, leaving John and Ada free to marry at last. They set up house on Dartmoor, to escape the gossip and social coolness in London and were married on 23 September 1905. Already his encourager and amanuensis for years, as well as his mistress, following their marriage Ada became his secretary and critic, as well as his legal wife. She was at the centre of John’s life and remained so until his death, 27 years later.

Ada’s parentage was kept secret during her long lifetime. Her mother was Anna Julia Pearson, a working-class woman who lived in Victoria Street, Norwich. There was a son, too, Arthur. The natural father of these two children is unknown, but it certainly was not Dr Emanuel Cooper, a leading Norwich obstetrician, and a man of some wealth. Cooper had decoded to adopt Ada and Arthur as his own, setting it all out in his 1866 Will, so that the family would be well provided for in the future. He died in 1878, when Ada was 13, leaving plenty of money for the children’s future education, especially Ada’s, but nothing specifically to the mother, Anna Pearson. Nevertheless, Anna travelled with her children extensively in 1883-5 and again in 1887-9. By this time, Ada had blossomed into a handsome, striking young woman in her twenties. This takes us up to her marriage to Arthur Galsworthy, a traditional army man, in April 1891.

Whatever we may know about John and Ada’s later years is based partly on speculation, but also on his diaries. The sexual element in their marriage declined to zero, and their relationship changed as she grew older, and her limitations became clearer. Ada’s day-to-day domination of his life became increasingly emphatic as she gradually turned into  ‘… a shrewish hypochondriac’. John’s own life, especially during and after the Great War, became ‘… sadder and more stricken’, as his biographer Catherine Dupré puts it, and as ‘an inner tragedy burned within him.’ (Dupré, pp. 132/133).  In 1911, when Galsworthy was 44, he began a close relationship with a young 19 year-old dancer, Margaret Morris, who admired Galsworthy deeply.  Could it be, on one level, that Margaret was the daughter he had never had? Or that he was a father figure for Margaret?  It is not known if the affair was ever consummated. In any case, it did not last long, as John was forced by Ada to end it for good.


John and Ada Galsworthy in 1926

There were no children of John and Ada’s marriage, only a succession of dogs. Ada, who had been shielded by John from the outside world, always at the expense of his own work and plans, was herself physically tough and resilient, and outlived him by some 24 years, finally dying in 1957, aged 93. John was devoted to her till the end of his life, though he ceased to call her ‘Ada’ long before that. She became ‘Auntie’ to him and to his various nephews and nieces. John and Ada were never short of money at any time, and lived in a continual atmosphere of prestige and admiration. At the end, John had been awarded the Order of Merit as well as the Nobel Prize for Literature, and was also, on a humbler level, President of the PEN Writers’ Club. Their lives had been extremely comfortable, with a succession of fine houses, but one senses an ultimate sadness at the core, a personal joylessness in the story by the time John died, ably cared for by Ada, in January 1933.

The background to the Forsyte story is the restlessness of the English middle class and the Victorian migration for country to city. London’s growth in the 19th century, in particular, was spectacular. The Forsytes were John Galsworthy’s own class, securely moneyed and insecurely bred. Galsworthy’s grandfather was from Devon. The Forsyte dynasty was founded by ‘Superior Dosset’ a Dorset stonemason who came to London and made his money by building houses. He had ten children, of whom the significant ones were James (father of Soames and Winifred); Old Jolyon (father of Young Jolyon and grandfather of June); and the maiden or widowed aunts, Ann, Juley and Heater. It was in the middle generation that conflict arose - Soames himself, Young Jolyon, Soames’ wife Irene, nee Heron, June, and June’s fiancé, the impoverished, bohemian architect, Philip Bosinney. Then there is the younger generation, Jon, son of Young Jolyon and Irene, and Fleur, daughter of Soames, whose attraction to one another is frustrated by family interference, and who as a result end up by marrying other people. The background theme is that of property - ownership, buying, and material possession. It is symptomatic that modern editions of The Forsyte Saga family tree, such a feature of the book, provide addresses as well as dates. The aspect of material possession is contrasted with the non-material world of love and the spirit. Yet even there, Art, Nature (land) and Woman are equally available as possessions.

Central to the story is the conflict between Soames and Old and Young Jolyon.  A house (Robin Hill) and a woman (Irene) are at the heart of this. Soames struggles to exercise his power of ownership, while Old and Young Jolyon cleave to ideas of free-floating Beauty. On the one hand, stands old-style English philistinism and materialism, and on the other, the love of art, beauty and transcendence. Wells or Forster would have polarised these two opposites neatly, but for Galsworthy, matters were not so straightforward.



When Galsworthy died in January 1933, there were two strands to the obituaries. One stressed the ‘great man’ aspect, the embodiment of Englishness. According to this view, he was seen as: ‘… a monument to a class… which did great things for England’, and as ‘a man who left an ineffaceable mark on… the literature he adorned and the country of which he was so central a type.’  The other stressed how middlebrow and traditionalist he was, a second-rate writer, even a ‘commonplace spirit’, a man of smugness and self-complacency.

Galsworthy was born in 1867 into considerable middle-class comfort, and never had any material worries. He was suave, handsome and self-assured (at least outwardly). His manners and consideration for others were always impeccable. He attended Harrow School, where he excelled as a scholar and as an athlete) and New College, Oxford, where he read Law. At Oxford, Galsworthy loved the racetrack, and gambled too much, mixing mainly with Old Harrovians and Etonians. The historian HAL Fisher, who was his contemporary at New College, said of him that: ‘… he moved among us somewhat withdrawn, saying little, and that in a gentle voice, a sensitive, amused, somewhat cynical (as we thought) spectator of the human scene.’ Wherever he went, the tall, good-looking John Galsworthy displayed perfect control and decency, and had a genuine feeling of sympathy for the oppressed in all parts of the world, which grew with time.  He was anti-war after 1914, and was always a feminist in his instincts. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1932, close to the end of his life, he was too ill to deliver his acceptance speech in person, but had it read out for him.  In it he said:

‘… if my picture of life has any quality of endurance, if they have any seeming truth, those pictures will be found in the long run to have been painted by one who has loved England, but who has never been part and parcel of the England he has loved.’


Portrait of Ada Galsworthy, by Rudolf H. Sauter, 1930



Although we know it as The Forsyte Saga, the work was not originally conceived as a saga. It contains the following, stretching chronologically from 1886-7 to the present, (i.e. 1920):

·       The Man of Property (published 1906, set in 1886-87)

·       ‘Interlude’: Indian Summer of a Forsyte (published 1917, set in 1892)

·       In Chancery (published 1920, set in 1899-1901)

·       ‘Interlude’: Awakening (published 1920, set in 1909)

·       To Let (published 1921, set in 1920)

The Man of Property stood alone for eleven years, until Galsworthy decided in 1917 to continue the Forsyte narrative. He went on to produce two further trilogies, A Modern Comedy (1929) and The End of the Chapter (published posthumously as a set in 1934), six further novels in all, though inspiration flagged, and these works never achieved the same level of popularity as The Forsyte Saga itself. A Modern Comedy, dedicated to Max Beerbohm, takes the Forsyte story through the 1920s, with the complex lives of Fleur, Michael, and their only son, Christopher (Kit), and the reappearing Jon, to Soames ‘ death  (as ‘Old Forsyte’) in 1926,aged 71. The last three novels were about the Cherrell (Charwell) family, cousins of the Forsytes, of whom the men have been public servants, soldiers, clergyman and administrators. Galsworthy takes their story into the last period of his own life, the 1930s, with the Great Depression and mass unemployment as part of the background.



The Man of Property is indeed an extraordinary achievement, Galsworthy’s finest piece of work in fiction. At its centre is Soames Forsyte. Property is his way of apprehending the world, in the form of two particular things, a woman and a house. The woman is his wife Irene, born Irene Heron, and ‘… ate the lover of the architect Philip Bosinney, while the house is Robin Hill, in the Surrey countryside, designed and built for Soames by Bosinney.’ These two should ideally come together to form a home; and indeed the first words of the novel are in Chapter One’s title ‘At Home at Old Jolyon’s’. The date is June 15, 1886, at about four in the afternoon, at Stanhope Gat, London, to celebrate the engagement of June Forsyte, old Jolyon’s granddaughter, to Philip Bosinney.

Straight away, Galsworthy describes how, in this English upper- middle class family in full plumage:

‘… no branch of (this family) had a liking for the other, between no three members of whom existed anything worthy of the name of sympathy - evidence of that mysterious concrete tenacity which renders a family so formidable a unit of society, so clear a reproduction of society in miniature. He (the observer) has been admitted to a vision of the dim roads of social progress, has understood something of patriarchal life, of the swarming of savage hordes,, of the rise and fall of nations. He is like one who, having watched a tree grow from its planting… one day will see it flourishing with bland, full foliage, in an almost repugnant prosperity, at the summit of its efflorescence.’ The Man of Property (1906) Penguin ed., p11

The Forsytes are alert, on their guard, sensing danger. Their fragile family security is threatened by Bosinney, the Buccaneer, and architect, wearing ‘a soft, grey hat,’ and virtually that remote and barely understandable thing, an artist. We learn that Irene is deeply unhappy with her husband Soames, and that she has (it is rumoured) asked for separate bedrooms in their London house. She meets Bosinney, and there is strong mutual attraction. Gradually, Bosinney deserts June to begin an affair with Irene, even as he is designing Soames’ planned country home at Robin Hill. Soames is genuinely baffled by his wife’s coldness, and deeply resentful of her undisguised fondness for Bosinney.

The other Forsytes are displayed as weak and ineffectual. James (1811-1901) is irritable ad querulous. He says ‘I don’t know, I can’t tell’ and ‘Nobody tells me anything’. Old Jolyon (1806-1892) shows himself unable to control June, while Swithin (1811-1891) the ‘Four in Hand Forsyte’, owns horses that run away with him. Timothy (1919-1920) retired to his bedroom in his fifties and is cared for by his sisters, Ann, Julia, Hester and Susan. In a generally very long-lived family, Timothy nevertheless lives the longest, born in the same year as Queen Vitoria, and living beyond the end of the Great War. The family has no over connections to political power, and thus entirely inhabits the world of business and commerce, showing little understanding of anything outside it.

Soames, in ‘Voyage to the Inferno’, asserts his power and rapes Irene, though Galsworthy does not use the modern word, but speaks of Soames ‘… asserting his rights over an estranged and unwilling wife, and acting like a man.’ No writer of our own time would put it like that. In the London Underground, Irene tells Bosinney what has happened, and Bosinney wanders in torment through the thick fog of London. Soames brings legal action against him over the rising cost of Robin Hill, and wins the case. Bosinney will be bankrupt as a result. Irene, meanwhile, had planned to run away with him, and goes to his lodgings, only to find him absent.  She has taken none of the jewellery Soames has given her, and Soames realises from this how deeply she hates him. Bosinney, meanwhile, has been run over and killed in the fog, and has lain unidentified in the morgue for three days. James, Soames, Old and Young Jolyon go to identify the body, leaving Irene to find out about Bosinney’s death from the newspapers. Irene returns to the marital home, where Soames finds her sitting in the dark. He sees her as having ‘… come back like an animal wounded to death, not knowing where to turn.’ Irene looks ‘… like a bird that is shot and dying.’ Young Jolyon goes to Soames’ house to tell Irene, unaware that she already knows about the disaster:

‘Might I see your wife for a minute? I have a message for her.

Soames gave him a strange, sidelong stare.

‘My wife can see no-one.’ He muttered doggedly…

Young Jolyon answered gently: ‘I shouldn’t keep her a minute.’

Soames brushed past him and bared the way. ‘She can see no-one,’ he said again.

Young Jolyon’s glance shot past him into the hall, and Soames turned. There in the drawing room doorway stood Irene, her eyes were wild and eager, her lips were parted, her hands outstretched. In the sight of both men that light vanished from her face; her hands dropped to her sides: she stood like stone.

Soames spun round and met his visitor’s eyes, and at the look he saw in them, a sound like a snarl escaped him. He drew his lips back in the ghost of a smile.

‘This is my house’, he said ‘I manage my own affairs. I’ve told you once - I tell you again; we are not at home.’

And in Young Jolyon’s face he slammed the door.’

(The Man of Property, Part Three, Chapter 9, Penguin ed. p.314)


Portrait of Galsworthy by Rudolf H. Sauter, 1932


When Galsworthy picks up the story again in 1917, he focuses on the creation of a home, and steadily builds this single house, Robin Hill (Kingston) into a site of redemption, through Nature, Art, Love and the solid values of continuity and decency. By this time, Soames and Irene are divorced (in 1900) and in 1901 Soames, aged 46, marries the 21 year-old Annette, daughter of Mme Lamotte. He is thus 25 years Annette’ senior, and their daughter, also born in 1901, is Fleur. Irene, meanwhile, has married Young Jolyon (1947-1920) and their son Jon (another Jolyon) is also born in 1901. Despite their closeness as they grow up and reach maturity, to the point where they are in love, Fleur and Jon marry other partners, Fleur to Michael Mont, a man she does not love, in 1923, and Jon to Anne Wilmot, in 1924.

It is Fleur, who, In To Let, asks the question ‘Where is Robin Hill, Father?’ It is indeed a good question, and a typical question for a Forsyte to ask.  In The Forsyte Saga, Galsworthy states that ‘… the position of their houses was of vital importance to the Forsytes… since the whole spirit of their success was embodied therein.’  The location of the houses is meticulously detailed. They all live at stated intervals around Hyde Park: Stanhope Place, Park Lane, Green Street, Hyde Park Mansions, Montpelier Square. These are all in the London A to Z. They are not just physical locations, but also ‘habitats’ - for ‘… without a habitat a Forsyte is inconceivable,’ as Galsworthy puts it. So Fleur’s question is extremely pertinent. Where, exactly, in the real or imagined map of the novels, is Robin Hill?

Its surroundings are meticulously name-checked - Putney, Surbiton, Wimbledon, Epsom, Richmond, and so on. Characters are constantly going from London to Robin Hill via well-mapped routes: Kensington, Fulham, Putney, Wimbledon, all named. But once one reaches the edge of Wimbledon Common, they fall off the map. They arrive merely ‘at the station’, walk from ‘the village’ up ‘the road’ and ‘the lane’. Yet the shortest ride or walk brings characters instantly back into the real world - the gate into Richmond Park, the hotel on Richmond Hill. In this most topographically precise of novels, Robin Hill occupies a hole in the middle of the map. It is literally Utopia - Not Place, or Nowhere.

It is this Not Place that redeems Old Jolyon, saves Irene, and fulfils Young Jolyon. And Soames, who paid for the house to be built - to display his art collection and remove his wife from the temptations of London - is forever locked out. Constantly on the verge of understanding, struggling with true feeling, for Soames, Robin Hill is the better self that has been put forever beyond his grasp by his violent possession of Irene.

Here are three passages, one from each novel in The Forsyte Saga. They are strikingly similar, using sensuous apprehension of Nature to sharpen the reader’s understanding of Forsyte values.  In this first passage, Soames takes Bosinney to Robin Hill to choose a site for the house:

The larks sprang up in front of his feet, the air was full of butterflies, a sweet fragrance rose up from the wild grasses…. The sky was so blue, and the sun so bright, that an eternal summer seemed to reign over the prospect…. The heat danced over the corn, and pervading all was a soft, insensible hum, like the murmur of bright minutes holding revel between earth and heaven. Soames looked. In spite of himself, something swelled in his breast. To live here in sight of all this, to be able to point out to his friends, to talk of it, to possess it!

This striking passage sets up an expectation that Soames will be morally or spiritually affected by the beauty of nature: but the swelling in his breast does not signal the birth of a better self.

By the second novel, In Chancery, Young Jolyon is living at Robin Hill after the death of his first wife, Helene:

Birds fluttered softly in the west shrubbery: the swallows swooped past, with a steel-blue sheen on their swift little bodies… Under the sun-soaked wall ran a narrow strip of garden bed full of mignonettes and pansies, and from the bees came a low hum in which all other sounds were set the mooing of a cow deprived of her calf, the calling of a cuckoo from an elm tree… Who would have thought that behind them, within ten miles, London began that London of the Forsytes, with its wealth, its misery, its dirt and noise.’

In the passage immediately after this, Soames finally understands that Irene will never return to him, as she is now with Young Jolyon. It is just before Jolyon hears of his son’s death in South Africa. Hence the references to the cow and calf, and the cuckoo. But this passage also signals the reality of separation, the ten miles of ‘moat’ between Forsytism and the secure values of Robin Hill.

To Let completes the trilogy, and brings it up to date - in 1920. Irene and Jolyon are at Robin Hill, married and with a grown-up son, Jon. It appears to Jolyon, sitting beneath the oak tree at Robin Hill that with all his longings fulfilled, and ‘… having put everything in perfect order, he had not better close his eyes and drift away’:

From where he sat, he could see a cluster of apple trees in blossom… Blackbirds sang recklessly… swallows were flying high… Irene’s flowers in their narrow beds had startling individuality that evening, little deep assertions of... life… And just then he saw them coming up the field: Irene and the boy, walking from the station, with their arms linked…

‘We had an encounter today’

‘With whom?’


So the serpent is circling the garden - not directly in the person of Soames, but in the form of his daughter Fleur. As suggested by the urgency of the natural description here - fruit trees in blossom, birds singing recklessly, flowers as ‘deep assertions of life’ - this is the time of youthful passion. Jolyon cannot die until he has separated Jon and Fleur. He achieves this by telling his son about Soames’ rape of Irene. But this also signals the end of Robin Hill. Young Jolyon dies, Jon leaves the country, Irene puts Robin Hill up for sale or To Let. Fleur has destroyed Utopia.



As we all know, the devil has all the best tunes. We must say something now about Soames, and Galsworthy himself. Soames is a man excluded by his own character and actions from what he most values. One recalls Galsworthy’s own words at the end of his life about not belonging to the England he most loves.  Soames is a wholly unsympathetic character with whom we nevertheless sympathise. Each of the three novels deliberately ends with Soames. The Man of Property closes with the dramatic ‘Not at Home!’ passage, quoted in full above. In Chancery (before the ‘Little Jon’ interlude with his mother,) ends with:

Ma petite fleur!’ Annette said softly.

‘Fleur’, repeated Soames: Fleur!' we’ll call her that.’

The sense of triumph and renewed possession swelled within him.

By God!.. this thing was his!’  In Chancery, Penguin ed. of The Forsyte Saga, p.632

And at the end of To Let, old Uncle Timothy, the centenarian, has finally died, and is interred in the family vault in Highgate Cemetery. Soames goes later to Highgate cemetery to reflect, sitting there a long time:

’… dreaming his career, faithful to the scut of his possessive instinct, warming himself even with its failures… The waters of change were foaming in, carrying the promise of new forms only when their destructive flood should have passed its full. He sat there, subconscious of them, but with his thoughts resolutely set on the past - as a man might ride into a wild night with his face on the tail of his galloping horse… And only one thing really troubled him, sitting there - the melancholy craving of his heart - because the sun was like enchantment on his face and on the clouds and on the golden birch leaves, and the wind’s rustle was so gentle, and the yew tree green so dark, and the sickle of a moon pale in the sky. He might wish and never get it - the beauty and the loving in the world!’

To Let, Penguin ed. of The Forsyte Saga, p906


Bury House, West Sussex, the house owned by the Galsworthys in later years

Galsworthy’s best cameos involving Soames include the moment when his warm tears drop on Irene’s jewels as he realises for the first time that she hates him. Another weeping moment is when his daughter Fleur leaves her wedding for her honeymoon, as he unconsciously translates his father’s words: ‘… he didn’t know; he couldn’t see.’ In times of emotional crisis, Soames has two responses. One is to ‘go home’ - to the site of nurturing parents. The other is to turn to his art collection, a collection which unwisely, he can never value for its own sake as art, but always for its monetary value, as property.

The most powerful ending for Soames is not in the final scene of To Let, but in one of the preceding chapters. At Lord’s, for the Eton and Harrow cricket match, he sits with his wife Annette and Fleur, aware that Fleur is thinking all the time about Jon. He then sees Young Jolyon and Irene. Soames feel a great surge of resentment, and looking back to the past, thinks ‘fantastically’ that all the modern laxness about marriage (as he sees it) was Irene’s fault:

‘… she (Irene) had started it, till all decent ownership of anything had gone… And now - a pretty state of things! Homes! How could you have them without mutual ownership? Not that he had ever had a real home!.. And overcome by loneliness… hailing a cab, he said: ‘Drive me to the Bayswater Road.’

Galsworthy packs a huge emotional resonance into the commonplace, even the banal. He turns in his distress towards the Bayswater Road, always associated with his childhood securities, back in the late 1850s and 1860s.This was where Soames’ aunt lived, the one who had always welcomed him in earlier times. He is thinking of his maiden aunts, now all long dead. There is a need to understand the pathos in darkness of Soames, as well as the sunlit Utopia of Jolyon and Irene. Perhaps this is the doubling in Galsworthy too.  Indeed, we fall off the map as soon as we reach Robin Hill. But if we actually look at a map of South-west London, following Galsworthy’s directions and reference points, there is no doubt at all as to where Robin Hill is.  It is Kingston Hill, where Galsworthy was born, at Coombe Lodge, in 1867, living in a series of houses built by his father for the first twenty years of his life.

Then there is Galsworthy’s life history - a ten-year affair with his cousin’s wife, with all the secrecy and obloquy that involved at the time. Following her divorce, in which Galsworthy was named as co-respondent, the couple married in 1905. He waited until his father’s death both to make the relationship public, and to publish The Man of Property. The link between the life and the work is too clear to ignore. Galsworthy’s story is such a close parallel to that of Young Jolyon. But there is no model for Soames in Galsworthy’s family. Perhaps Soames ‘the Other’ was a deliberate foil to Young Jolyon, even to Galsworthy. This shows what Forsytism can become when linked to a measure of self-awareness. Arnold Bennett famously said ‘We are all Forsytes.’  In making this comment about the divisive world of class and money in late Victorian and Edwardian England, Bennett was speaking for his and Galsworthy’s generation, which chronicled these divisions and tensions in such a polarised society, shining light on its emotional depths and passions even when, as in The Forsyte Saga, public events are largely at the margins, or are ignored altogether. Bennett’s next anniversary is in 2031, and Galsworthy’s two years later. In a fast-changing world, these anniversaries will certainly be marked by literary historians, but it is not easy to imagine a transformation in their status as English writers compared with the present time.



The Forsyte Saga was dramatised for television in the 1960s by Donald Wilson, a great admirer of Galsworthy’s novels. He incorporated six of the nine Forsyte novels, together with some short stories. It was first shown on BBC2 in 1967, the centenary year of Galsworthy’s birth. At that time only seven million people could see it, theoretically, because of technical limitations in broadcasting, but six million actually did watch it. It was shown again on BBC1 in 1968, and the audience tripled to 18 million. It was, of course, a fusion of period costume drama and soap opera - hence its wide appeal. Soames Forsyte was played by Eric Porter (1928-1995), Irene by the New Zealand-born actor Nyree Dawn Porter (no relation, 1940-2001) and Young Jolyon by Kenneth More (1914-1982). Philip Bosinney was played by the well-known character - actor John Bennett (1928-2005). It is interesting to reflect now that Kenneth More was fourteen years older the Eric Porter, but certainly did not look it. If anything, Porter looked the older of the two; perhaps this had something to do with the role of Soames in the story.


Kenneth More as Young Jolyon, Nyree Dawn Porter and Eric Porter, 1967


Nyree Dawn Porter and Irene with John Bennett as Philip Bosinney, 1967

In 2002, Granada broadcast a new, much shorter version, in six episodes, reaching a new generation of viewers, many of whom would barely have heard of Galsworthy, if at all. However, it was based only on The Man of Property (1906) and In Chancery (1920). The director was Sita Williams, who had cast Damian Lewis (b.1971) from the start as Soames Forsyte. Lewis, who had Welsh grandparents, but was brought up in London by English parents, has said that he ‘… went to English boarding schools (including Eton) and grew up around people very much like Soames and in a milieu very much like the Forsytes.’  Gina McKee, famous from her role as Mary in Peter Flannery’s Our Friends in the North, played Irene, and Ioan Gruffud played Bosinney. Lewis, aged 31 in 2002, was a much younger, and younger-looking man than Eric Porter had been in 1967. Porter had then been only 39, but looked ten to fifteen years older.  Soames, born in 1855, is supposed to be about 44 or 45 at the time of his marriage crisis over Irene.


Eric Porter and Nyree Dawn Porter as Soames and Irene, 1967



Galsworthy read Law at Oxford, and was called to the Bar in 1890. His writing career, once begun, took over completely, and he never practised law again. This is a list of his main works:

1904    The Island Pharisees


1907    The Country House

1909    Fraternity

1911    The Patrician

1913    The Dark Flower

1918    INDIAN SUMMER OF A FORSYTE (A 46-page Interlude)

1920    IN CHANCERY (INCLUDES 20 page Interlude: Awakening)

1921    TO LET

1922    The Man of Property, Indian Summer of a Forsyte, In Chancery , and To Let, were published together as THE FORSYTE SAGA

1924    The White Monkey

1926    The Silver Spoon

1928    Swan Song

1929    The White Monkey, Silver Spoon and Swan Song were published as A MODERN COMEDY

1931    On Forsyte Change (stories)

1931    Maid in Waiting

1932    Flowering Wilderness

1933    Over the River (posthumously published)

1968    Maid in Waiting, Flowering Wilderness and Over the River were published by Heinemann in one volume as THE END OF THE CHAPTER

Galsworthy was a prolific playwright. In his time, he was compared with Shaw and Pinero, though was very different from both. Of his 27 plays, some stood out, such as The Silver Box (1906), Strife (1909) Justice (1910) and, of the later ones, Loyalties (1922) and Escape (1926). These last two, along with The Skin Game (1920) were later filmed, as was The First and the Last (1919). This was adapted in 1940 and retitled 21 Days, starring Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, It was directed by Basil Dean and the script was by Graham Greene.

MGM bought the film rights to The Forsyte Saga in 1937, and in 1938, a screenplay was prepared by James Hilton, author of Lost Horizon. The original stars were to have been Myrna Loy and Clark Gable. Several attempts were made in the USA to bring it to reality, but it was not until the late 1940s that this was done. Based only on The Man of Property, this movie appeared in Britain in November 1949 as The Forsyte Saga, but in the USA as That Forsyte Woman, a title Galsworthy would surely have hated. Greer Garson played Irene, Erroll Flynn Soames, Robert Young played Bosinney, Janet Leigh played June, and Young Jolyon was played by Walter Pidgeon .The film was directed by Compton Bennett and produced by Leon Gordon, while Jan Lustig headed a team of at least five scriptwriters.


© 2016 Professor Gail Cunningham (with additions by Dr Robert Blackburn)


John Galsworthy at his writing desk