The Forsyte Saga, in particular The Man of Property, is John Galsworthy’s most enduring work. It is the story of one upper middle-class family in England in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The most important character is Soames Forsyte, the title character of The Man of Property. He is a successful lawyer and a collector of paintings. He is married to Irene Heron, whom he and society regard as his property. At the climax of the book, Soames rapes her. Galsworthy was horrified at the situation of a woman who is forced into the sexual act with a man she does not love. He did not agree with the prevailing attitude of the time that a husband had the right to his wife’s body.
In Chancery picks up the story several years later. Soames and Irene are still legally married, but separated. Soames becomes obsessed with the need to father a son, but Irene refuses to go back to him. Soames then casts his eye on a young Frenchwoman, Annette Lamotte. The only ground on which Soames can divorce Irene, however, is adultery, but she had not taken a lover. Irene has developed a friendship with Soames’ cousin, Jolyon Forsyte. They are seen together in public, but it is only after Soames confronts them that they consummate their relationship. They do not contest the divorce proceedings, so Soames marries Annette, and Jolyon and Irene legally become husband and wife.
The book ends with the birth of a son, Jon, for Jolyon and Irene and a daughter, Fleur, for Soames and Annette. Annette has a difficult birthing. Soames’ doctor gives Soames the choice of saving his wife or his child. Soames chooses the child, although had he known it would be a girl he might have chosen differently. Annette survives, but she cannot have any more children.
To Let takes up the story twenty years later. Jon and Fleur meet and fall in love. Soames approves the match, but Jolyon and Irene oppose it. In a reversal of attitude, Galsworthy shows Jolyon and especially Irene as treating Jon as a possession, but shows Soames to be a loving parent. The book ends with Jolyon telling Jon the story of Soames and Irene. Jolyon dies shortly afterward, and Jon breaks off the relationship.