Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 965
John Galsworthy was born August 14, 1867, at Kingston Hill, Surrey, to John Galsworthy, a kind, charming, and prosperous London lawyer and company director whom his son idolized, and Blanche Bartleet, an unimaginative, fussy, and religious woman to whom Galsworthy was never close. The Galsworthys were a newly rich, upper-middle-class family; their wealth came from house and shop rentals and from speculations and investments in real estate that were begun by Galsworthy’s grandfather, a merchant who came from Devon to settle in London.
Because of the family’s wealth, Galsworthy enjoyed a childhood of privilege and luxury; his family could afford the kind of education his father had not had, so Galsworthy was privately tutored before being sent at age nine to a preparatory school at Bournemouth. He went on to Harrow, where he distinguished himself as an athlete, and then entered New College, Oxford, where he seemed more interested in behaving like a gentleman of leisure, dressing well, and gambling on the horses than in studying. He was graduated in 1889 with a second-class degree in jurisprudence and continued to study law until 1894 at Lincoln’s Inn in London; apparently, he wanted to please his father by following in his footsteps. He found the study and work boring and completed only one law case; he preferred hunting, shooting, and the company of a young singing teacher. His father disapproved of the infatuation and sent Galsworthy on several trips abroad to cure him of it. Sailing home from the South Pacific islands and Australia in 1893, Galsworthy met Joseph Conrad , then second mate on the Torrens; Conrad afterward became Galsworthy’s lifelong friend. Galsworthy had undertaken the trip partly in the hope of meeting Robert Louis Stevenson, whose fiction he admired, but he showed no serious interest in becoming a writer himself for two more years.
In 1895, Galsworthy’s acquaintance with his cousin Arthur’s wife, Ada Nemesis Pearson Cooper Galsworthy, turned into an adulterous affair. Ada, the illegitimate daughter of Anna Pearson of Norwich, had been adopted by a Norwich physician, Emanuel Cooper, who provided for her and her brother in his will. Ada married unwisely; her escape from the unhappy marriage to Arthur had a profound emotional effect on her and on John Galsworthy, who transformed the episode into fiction several times, most notably into the marriage of Soames and Irene Forsyte in The Man of Property (1906). With Ada’s advice and encouragement, and with support from a private income provided by his father, Galsworthy abandoned his abortive career at law and began writing fiction; his first stories appeared pseudonymously in 1897. Between 1895 and 1905, Galsworthy and Ada continued their affair, living separately in London but traveling together on vacations abroad. Galsworthy published three novels and two books of stories before his marriage to Ada in 1905 and made friends with a group of writers that included Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Constance Garnett, and Edward Garnett, all of whom provided encouraging criticism of his work.
In 1906, Galsworthy scored a double success, publishing The Man of Property (the first and best novel of the Forsyte series) and producing The Silver Box, his first play. Staged at the Royal Court Theatre by the Barker-Vedrenne management, the play attracted favorable attention for its unsparing portrayal of one law for the rich and another for the poor. Its concern for issues of social importance set the tone for Galsworthy’s best plays, Strife, Justice, Loyalties, and Escape. Galsworthy was soon spoken of, together with George Bernard Shaw, Sir James Barrie, and Harley Granville-Barker, as part of a new renaissance in English drama.
Galsworthy’s new literary prominence coincided with the social respectability he enjoyed by being married, and he soon felt able to speak out and to write pamphlets, letters, and essays on a number of subjects, such as humane slaughtering of animals, prison reform, and censorship in the theater. He told Ada that after coming down from Oxford to London and being sent to collect rents on some of his family’s properties in poor neighborhoods, his social conscience had been awakened, and throughout the remainder of his life, he showed sympathy and concern for those less fortunate than he. He not only wrote on their behalf but also provided charitable assistance in the manner of his character Wellwyn in The Pigeon. Not a religious man, Galsworthy was disgusted with people who claimed to be Christians yet would not act charitably toward those in need. His novel The Island Pharisees (1904) portrays the rebellion of a young gentleman against upper-class social and religious hypocrisy. Particularly during his ten-year affair with Ada, during which he was ostracized from polite society, he seems to have felt strongly a sense of identity with social outsiders such as prisoners (he visited Dartmoor Prison to study conditions of servitude) and the poor.
After their marriage, the Galsworthys lived comfortably and pleasantly in London and in the countryside. Ada, plagued by illnesses during the English winters, liked to travel to warmer countries, and the Galsworthys made frequent and extensive trips abroad. Galsworthy seemed to be able to write copiously wherever they traveled. Yet success and comfort had their penalties: Though his books usually sold quite well, the quality of Galsworthy’s writing did not improve significantly, and the onset of World War I severely shook his optimistic belief in the possibility of humanity’s progress toward a better world.
After the war, Galsworthy’s reputation grew with the publication of The Forsyte Saga and with the popular success of three plays, The Skin Game, Loyalties, and Escape. Galsworthy refused a knighthood but accepted many honorary degrees, the Order of Merit (1929), and the 1932 Nobel Prize in Literature. He was an active member of PEN, the international writers’ association, from 1921 until his death, probably caused by a brain tumor, on January 31, 1933.
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