John Galsworthy was a writer who reaped the rewards of literary acclaim in his own time—and suffered the pangs that attend artists who prove truer to the tastes of the public than to an inner vision of personal potential. Galsworthy won the esteem of his countryfolk with a play, The Silver Box, and a novel, The Man of Property, published in a most notable year, 1906. From that time on, he was a major figure in the British literary establishment, even winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1932.
Idealist, optimist, and activist, Galsworthy was a perennial champion of the underprivileged in his works. Women (especially unhappily married ones), children, prisoners, aliens, and animals (especially horses and dogs) engaged Galsworthy’s sympathies. His literary indictments of the injustices forced on these victims by an unfeeling society helped to arouse public support for his causes and frequently resulted in elimination of the abuses. After World War I, Galsworthy’s crusading spirit was somewhat dampened, but despite the author’s disillusionment, his conscience remained sensitive to inequities of all sorts.
Although popular as a writer of fiction and influential as a spokesperson for humane, enlightened personal behavior and public policy, Galsworthy was not the sort of writer who changes the course of literature. His early works contain some powerful satire and some experiments in probing and expressing his internal conflicts. By upbringing and inclination, however, Galsworthy was too “gentlemanly” to be comfortable with self-revelation or even with introspection. Thus, while the English novel was becoming increasingly psychological because of Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, and D. H. Lawrence, Galsworthy continued in the nineteenth century tradition of Ivan Turgenev and Guy de Maupassant, carefully describing social phenomena and assessing their impact on private lives. Most of his characters are individualized representatives of particular social classes, whether the rural gentry, the aristocracy, the intelligentsia, or the London professional elite. He excelled at presenting the fashions, politics, manners, and phrases peculiar to certain milieus at certain times. In creating the Forsytes—and most notably Soames,“the man of property”—Galsworthy’s talent transcended that of the memorialist or mere novelist of manners and provided England with a quintessential expression of the shrewd, rich, upright middle class of Victorian London, a group whose qualities subsequent generations found easy to mock, possible to admire, but difficult to love.