Written over a period of four decades and covering more than 50 years of British history, Galsworthy’s nine Forsyte novels (THE FORSYTE SAGA is the name given only to the first three books) provide often trenchant social criticism of England’s upper-middle class, represented in these novels by the landowning, mercantile Forsyte family. Galsworthy’s underlying concern in this vast cycle of novels is the moral and spiritual decline of the social class embodied by the Forsytes, whose greed and blindness to social progress leaves them unprepared for the cataclysm of the 20th century.
Primarily a realist in his technique, Galsworthy at his best perfectly captures the social rituals and the physical settings that characterize the Forsyte way of life: the business meetings in bank offices, the receptions held in stuffy drawing rooms, the joyless weddings in expensive but lifeless houses. His characters are nevertheless types that are easily recognizable in real life: Soames Forsyte, the prosperous but unfulfilled man of affairs; his wife Irene, bored with possessions and in need of passion; Old Jolyon Forsyte, the dynasty founder; Soames’ daughter Fleur, the new woman. Through the use of such a huge time frame, Galsworthy is able to convey the stark differences between the various generations treated in the novels, while also commenting upon the societal changes that are occurring around them.
Though the novels were immensely popular when they were first published, Galsworthy, along with his contemporaries Arnold Bennett and H. G. Wells, came under attack in the 1920’s by Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, James Joyce, and other more characteristically modern writers who disdained the heavy and predictable realism of the older authors’ work. But a whole new generation discovered the Forsyte novels when they were adapted for television by the BBC in the late 1960’s.
Gindin, James. “Ethical Structures in John Galsworthy, Elizabeth Bowen, and Iris Murdoch.” In Forms of Modern British Fiction, edited by Alan Warren Friedman. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1975. Concludes that the central concern of the Galsworthy trilogy is ethical and explores what it is that people do to themselves and others. The main struggle is often between property and beauty.
Johnson, Pamela Hansford. “Speaking of Books: The Forsyte Saga.” The New York Times Sunday Review of Books, March 12, 1967, pp. 2, 36. Discusses the reception of Galsworthy’s trilogy and the fact that the writer’s reputation had fallen but was on the rise because of the television production of The Forsyte Saga.
Sternlicht, Sanford. John Galsworthy. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. Chapter 3 describes The Forsyte Saga as Galsworthy’s crowning achievement, an ironic account without heroes or epic battles and a fine portrait of the passing from power of England’s upper middle class.
Stevens, Earl. “John Galsworthy.” In British Winners of the Nobel Literary Prize, edited by Walter Kidd. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973. Concludes that The Forsyte Saga alternates between satiric novel and lyric interlude and that Galsworthy seeks to teach readers to see the world more completely.
Stevens, Ray. “Mrs. Woolf and Mr. Galsworthy, and the Queer Case of Beyond.” English Liter-ature in Transition (1985): 65-87. Reexamines Virginia Woolf’s criticism of Galswor-thy and shows the nuances in the relationship between them, as well as their relationships with Arnold Bennett and H. G. Wells.