Book review: Three trilogies by John Galsworthy

Among the books I recently inherited were three volumes by John Galsworthy, which had been passed down from a grandparent to my parents. These books are family sagas spanning the years from 1886 to the 1930s. John Galsworthy wrote them between 1904 and 1932. The language is somewhat different from modern UK English, especially where colloquialisms are used. Galsworthy lived from 1867 to 1933.

Three green volumes with gold lettering supported by bookends with globes depicting old maps of earth
Book covers have changed since the early 20th century

The Forsyte Saga is the first volume consisting of The Man of Property, In Chancery and To Let, with interludes between each novel.

A Modern Comedy includes The White Monkey, The Silver Spoon and Swan Song , also with interludes between each novel.

End of the Chapter comprises three novels: Maid in Waiting, Flowering Wilderness and Over the River.

I began reading the series on 11 March, interspersing it with other books, and finished it towards the end of June.

This was my second attempt at reading The Forsyte Saga. During my teenage years a TV serialisation was broadcast, but we did not have a TV set at that time. A well-meaning friend of the family sent the first two paperback books as presents for the youngsters in our family. They sat reproachfully on our bookshelf for many years having been opened, but not read beyond the first few pages. I now realise that there was little in the content of relevance to such young people. What readers gain from any book depends to a large extent on the knowledge they already have. Court cases, marital difficulties and having a house built are outside the experience of teenagers. Indeed for many adults these are vicarious experiences.

The Forsyte Saga begins on 15 June 1886 and Over the River ends in the early 1930s. The many changes in attitudes, dress, transport and government are the background to these serious novels with some gentle humour, notably in the choice of some names. There is a strong awareness of the social problems of the times. Although the books are set mainly in London and the Home Counties, there is some travel and descriptions of the wider world. In The Forsyte Saga there is an extensive family tree, which folds out. An extra generation has been added to a similar one in A Modern Comedy.

By the time End of the Chapter is reached the central characters are no longer Forsytes, although they do have some interaction with members of that family. Forsyte is the surname of a family, but Galsworthy also used ‘Forsytes’ to represent all middle class persons with capitalist tendencies. The inheritance of family wealth has a strong influence on characters and events.

The religious views and changes in attitudes during the time span of the series are occasionally touched upon. Apart from one or two clergymen, who seem to act more from a sense of duty, and perhaps compassion for the underprivileged people in their parishes, than from religious conviction, there is little faith among the characters. At the time Christianity was often seen as something to agree or disagree with intellectually. The theory of evolution was used as a major argument against Christianity, not that it should have been in my opinion. There are one or two glimpses of characters, whose appreciation of spiritual matters is a little deeper than that of the majority. Several of the characters display a background knowledge of Bible stories. Church-going and teaching of scripture in schools was usual at the time.

As in any saga there is joy and sorrow. The character and decisions of older generations affect the lives of younger ones.

I found the series fascinating and well worth the trouble of reading three tomes with thin paper and rather unfamiliar language. There are many sentences, which are quotable even without their original context.

These books are available from the usual places and also on Project Gutenberg and Kindle.

5 thoughts on “Book review: Three trilogies by John Galsworthy

  1. A most excellent review! I have the Forsyte Saga sitting on my shelves ready to read but is unlikely to be started until another 2-3 years have passed as I have other novels before it. I do recall the TV series from the early 2000s though which I absolutely adored. I am looking forward to the books and may well try the others you suggest here eventually.

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  2. I remember enjoying the series immensely as a teenager. Even when we went to Paris for eight days, we didn’t miss an episode as we watched the repeat. My mother had enjoyed the novel years earlier and borrowed it from the library after watching the series. But she found, even then, that the language was old and gave up on it.

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