John Galsworthy

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There are six multivolume editions of John Galsworthy’s collected works; the most important and comprehensive is the thirty-volume Manaton edition (1922-1936). Galsworthy wrote prolifically, composing many novels, poems, stories, addresses, sketches, and essays.


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Galsworthy’s literary reputation rests soundly on his fiction, especially the novels and stories collected in The Forsyte Saga (1922). Adapted for television by the British Broadcasting Corporation, The Forsyte Saga appeared in Great Britain, Canada, the United States, and other countries during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, reviving interest in his fiction.

Several of Galsworthy’s plays gained critical and popular approval at the time of their first production or early revival in England, Europe, and the United States. They were translated into many languages, and their popularity in the 1920’s contributed to the recognition that culminated with the Nobel Prize in 1932. Galsworthy wrote realistic, often almost documentary problem plays , which focused on social problems far more impartially than was usual in contemporary social melodrama. Social issues such as labor unrest, prison reform, and anti-Semitism, all of which Galsworthy addressed dramatically, continue to be of great concern, but Galsworthy’s plays, however much they spurred reform in attitudes or legislation in their own day, are now out of date. Their topicality and their uneasy tension between didactic moralizing and melodramatic theatricality have ensured that there is little interest in reviving his plays.

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Short fiction was a minor vein for John Galsworthy, although he published many collections and is known for several fine stories. His contemporaries acclaimed his plays, whereas posterity knows him chiefly as the novelist who chronicled the family fortunes of the Forsytes in The Forsyte Saga (1922) and A Modern Comedy (1929).


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John Galsworthy refused a knighthood in 1917, but he did accept England’s highest literary honor, the Order of Merit. In 1921, Galsworthy became the first president of the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN). During his travels, he was awarded honorary degrees by seven leading universities in England, Scotland, and the United States. Shortly before his death, he became the fourth British writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. More important to Galsworthy than honors and prizes were the social reforms—in the penal system, the status of women, labor conditions, and the treatment of animals—that his essays and stories helped effectuate.

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John Galsworthy (GAWLZ-wur-thee) attempted and succeeded at writing in all major literary forms. His earlier short fiction is collected in Caravan: The Assembled Tales of John Galsworthy (1925); among the individual collections, some of the best known are A Man of Devon (1901), published under the pseudonym John Sinjohn, Five Tales (1918), Two Forsyte Interludes (1927), and On Forsyte ’Change (1930). His plays made him, along withGeorge Bernard Shaw,Sir James Barrie, andHarley Granville-Barker, a leading figure in British drama during the early decades of the twentieth century. Galsworthy’s most enduring plays include The Silver Box (pr. 1906), Justice (pr., pb. 1910), The Skin Game (pr., pb. 1920), and Loyalties (pr., pb. 1922). Collections of Galsworthy’s literary sketches and essays include A Motley (1910), The Inn of Tranquility (1912), and Tatterdemalion (1920). Galsworthy wrote poetry throughout his life, and The Collected Poems of John Galsworthy was published in 1934.


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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...

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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.


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Barker, Dudley. The Man of Principle. New York: Stein & Day, 1969. Combines elements of autobiography and criticism, giving an impressive picture of the Victorian age and its mores and morals. It also shows how much Galsworthy’s work was a reflection of his times, and it explores the relationship between him and his wife, Ada, as well as her influence on his work. Short bibliography and index.

Batchelor, John. The Edwardian Novelists. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982. Begins by defining “Edwardian” literature and discusses Galsworthy in terms of his surprising similarities to D. H. Lawrence. Contains an excellent bibliography of Edwardian fiction.

Dupre, Catherine. John Galsworthy: A Biography. New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1976. A well-researched and thoughtful biography that is less impressive in its critical evaluations of the writings. Judgments of merit and influence are not substantiated by current developments.

Frechet, Alec. John Galsworthy: A Reassessment. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble Books, 1982. A sound, balanced assessment of Galsworthy’s career. Provides a good analysis of the stylistic qualities of the literary artist.

Gindin, James. John Galsworthy’s Life and Art. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1987. Utilizing original sources, Gindin writes a masterful literary biography, particularly appropriate since Galsworthy’s fiction is itself so closely tied to his personal life, social criticism, and historic times.

Holloway, David. John Galsworthy. London: Morgan-Grampian, 1969. A concise but accurate and perceptive survey of the life and career of Galsworthy. Especially good in identifying ways that Galsworthy’s life is directly used in the fiction.

Marrot, H. V. The Life and Letters of John Galsworthy. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936. Both the strengths and weaknesses of an authorized biography are evident in this work commissioned by Galsworthy’s widow. A personal friend of the author, Marrot had access to information unavailable to others. Yet Galsworthy is idealized in order to present an official portrait sanctioned by his family.

Mottram, R. H. For Some We Loved: An Intimate Portrait of Ada and John Galsworthy. London: Hutchinson University Library, 1956. Though an uncritical, adoring portrait of Galsworthy, written by a disciple, this study is valuable for its glimpses of the author’s home life and his interactions with other persons of letters of his period. Highly readable. Admittedly “an intimate portrait of Ada and John Galsworthy.”

Mottram, R. H. John Galsworthy. London: Longmans, Green, 1956. A concise introduction of forty pages, including notes and bibliography. Although basic facts are efficiently presented, Mottram’s work is uncritical.

Rønning, Anne Holden. Hidden and Visible Suffrage: Emancipation and the Edwardian Woman in Galsworthy, Wells, and Forster. New York: Peter Lang, 1995. See chapter 1, “The Social Context of Edwardian Literature,” chapter 4, “Marriage in Galsworthy, Wells, and Forster,” and chapter 6, “Galsworthy’s View on Suffragism.” Includes notes and bibliography.

Ru, Yi-ling. The Family Novel: Toward a Generic Definition. New York: Peter Lang, 1992. Examines Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga as an example of the family novel. Other authors, including Roger Martin du Gard and Chin Pa, are examined as well.

Smit, J. Henry. The Short Stories of John Galsworthy. New York: Haskell House, 1966. An idiosyncratic little book, but with a number of brief comments on Galsworthy’s stories.

Sternlicht, Sanford. John Galsworthy. New York: Twayne, 1987. A well-written, complete, yet concise survey of Galsworthy’s life and achievement. The best single introduction to the subject.

Weiss, Rudolf. “John Galsworthy’s Strife: Striving for Balance or the Audience as Jury.” Theatre Research International 20 (Spring, 1995): 7-18. Discusses Galsworthy’s play from four different perspectives: theater history, textual history, dramatic analysis, and critical reception.


Critical Essays