Galsworthy, John 1867-1933
(Also wrote under the pseudonym John Sinjohn) English short fiction writer, novelist, dramatist, poet, and essayist.
A prolific author who worked in many genres, Galsworthy is most widely recognized as a chronicler of English bourgeois society during the early twentieth century. His most acclaimed work, The Forsyte Saga, is a trilogy of novels and two short stories, featuring Soames Forsyte, a prosperous and materialistic solicitor. A passionate humanist, Galsworthy criticized social injustice in Victorian society and exalted nature, beauty, and love. His style was noted for its charm, delicacy, and descriptive detail.
Galsworthy was born on a family estate in Kingston Hill, Surrey, near London. His mother was a descendant of provincial squires, while his father was of Devonshire yeoman stock. His father was a successful solicitor who had financial interests in mining companies in Canada and Russia, and who later served as the model for Old Jolyon Forsyte in The Forsyte Saga. At the age of nine, Galsworthy was sent to a boarding school and later to the prestigious Harrow School in London, where he excelled in athletics. In 1886 he enrolled at Oxford to study law, graduating with second degree honors in 1889. The following year he was admitted to the bar. For a short while he worked at his father's legal firm but showed little interest in the law. He left for Canada in 1891 to inspect his family's mining interests and traveled extensively thereafter. In 1893, while aboard the Torrens, he befriended the first mate, Joseph Conrad, who was working on his first novel. Conrad would later become an important source of encouragement in Galsworthy's writing career. When Galsworthy returned to London in 1894, he had his own legal chambers but heard only one case. Within a short time, he gave up his chambers and spent the next few years reading and writing assiduously. Galsworthy was interested in writing about the plight of the working class, and he spent many hours roaming the impoverished neighborhoods of London. Ada Galsworthy, a married cousin with whom he became romantically involved, encouraged him to pursue a writing career, and her unhappiness with her failed marriage inspired many of his stories. In 1905 John and Ada Galsworthy were married. In 1897 he published his first collection of short stories, From the Four Winds, under the pseudonym John Sinjohn. Shortly thereafter he wrote two novels and another book of short stories called A Man of Devon. In 1917 Galsworthy was offered a knighthood, which he declined, arguing that it was not fitting for a writer; he later accepted the Order of Merit for his literary achievements. For twelve years he served as the first president of PEN, the international writers' organization. In December 1932, just a month before his death, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Galsworthy's short fiction exhibits similar themes to those of his novels, challenging upper-class Victorian standards. Though he himself was born to a wealthy family, Galsworthy espoused a liberal philosophy, opposing rigid doctrines of morality and religion. He believed that justice depended on the individual and on faith in humanity. He wrote about social justice, poverty, and old age, as well as love, beauty, and nature. Some of his stories are passionate tales of romance, such as "A Man of Devon" and "The Apple Tree," both of which take place in the Devonshire countryside. The former features the relationship between a young girl, Paisance, and the man she falls in love with, Zachary Pearse. Tragically, Paisance, as she watches her love sail away on a voyage that she was forbidden by her grandfather to join, trips and falls from the edge of a cliff to her death. In "The Apple Tree," a man returns after twenty-six years to Devon, where he had deserted a relationship with a farm girl in order to pursue a wife of greater social status. The story focuses on the remorse that he feels about his past choice as well as the guilt that he experiences upon discovering that the farm girl had committed suicide soon after he had left many years ago. Sanford Sternlicht called "The Apple Tree" Galsworthy's "most finely crafted, most symbolic, and most poetic tale." Other stories are character portraits or mood pieces such as "Spindleberries." He created his visions in minute detail, imbuing a strong sense of atmosphere and character. In general, Galsworthy's stories tend to center more on characters and their environment rather than plot. In many of his stories, Galsworthy empathizes with characters who are unappreciated by society for their kindness and humanity. Those who are depicted as most admirable are individuals who recognize goodness and beauty in others. For instance, in The Forsyte Saga, Irene leaves her husband, Soames, for Young Jolyon because Soames considers her his property and merely lusts for her, whereas Young Jolyon loves Irene and worships her beauty. In the idyllic "Indian Summer of Forsyte," first published in Five Tales, Old Jolyon, an epicurean, dies as he sips an exquisite wine, as if from excess of delight. A Modern Comedy, on the other hand, denounces the post-World War I generation for their aimlessness and restlessness. Commentators have noted that while Galsworthy satirized the wealthy in his early works, he presented a more sympathetic view of the Forsytes in his later works, especially those collected in A Modern Comedy. Collectively, On Forsyte 'Change, The Forsyte Saga, and A Modern Comedy have been referred to as "The Forsyte Chronicles."
Galsworthy's earliest work showed the influence of Conrad, though Galsworthy insisted he was influenced most by Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev and Guy de Maupassant. His writings have also been compared to those of Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, and Katherine Mansfield. Galsworthy's talents were first widely recognized in 1906 upon the publication of his novel The Man of Property and his first play, The Silver Box. The novel introduced his famous Forsyte family, through whom he satirized Victorian society. Galsworthy finally achieved international acclaim when The Man of Property was republished in 1922 as part of The Forsyte Saga, along with two of his most famous stories, "Indian Summer of a Forsyte" and Awakening. Galsworthy was widely regarded as a compassionate humanist whose work evinced sensitivity, sincerity, and charm. Many believe that he successfully captured the spirit of his age. Yet, while some consider him a critic of the upper class, others assert that he admired it, especially later in his life. Some of his contemporaries, especially experimental modernists, disdained his work. Virginia Woolf, for instance, considered him a "stuffed shirt" and found him guilty of the same behavior and attitudes to which he objected in his writing. His style was variously faulted as overly sentimental and melodramatic or too analytical and pessimistic. His plays in particular were often criticized as social propaganda lacking dramatic intensity. However, many critics agree that as his style evolved it became less rigid and more subtle. Galsworthy's earlier style showed similarities to French naturalism, shifting later to a more deliberate use of symbolism and mythology.