Group Read for August 2013: The Forsyte Saga

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Group Read for August 2013: The Forsyte Saga

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Aug. 3, 2013, 7:00pm

I've read almost 100 pages already and so far the most striking thing about it is the similarity -- in tone, mannerisms, subject -- to Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence which I read quite recently. At first I was often confused, thinking that we ought to be in New York and not London. Now I'm trying to get more sense of what separates the two authors and the cultures they are writing about. It makes me think I should do this more often -- find books that are from the same time, or with the same sort of subject, to read together.

Anyway, I am enjoying this book very much. Although it's nearly three times as long as Baltasar and Blimunda, the writing flows and it's just a good read.

Aug. 4, 2013, 6:41am

I am a 100 pages into Book 2 - I have found it really interesting and full of information about the time in which it's set. The edition I have of book 1 comes with a family tree, but unfortunately had a couple of spoilers on it, but helped me to work out who was who.

Your comment about comparing books has struck a chord. I am also reading A Dance to the Music of Time and have found myself thinking about the two books, the differences in social levels, style and times. Now you mention Age of Innocence (which I read in 2011), there are a lot of similarities. Both books looking at status and morals in the Upper Class.

Aug. 4, 2013, 2:22pm

Yeah, I also saw a couple of spoilers in the family tree.... but overall found it pretty helpful for keeping track of all those Jolyons.

I'm about 100 pages into the book so far, and am really enjoying it.

Aug. 5, 2013, 7:02am

I think I've caught up with you all now. I found the first chapter a bit intimidating with all those Forsyte siblings, but now that they are being dealt with individually they are being fleshed out a bit more.

Like #2 I was thinking of Dance to the Music of Time. The latter deals with the same social stratum a few decades on from where we are at the start of this novel. Powells' style is very different being a view of events from one narrator's perspective rather than the more traditional "he said, she said" multiple-views style of The Forsyte Saga.

One thing I was keen to explore was why Galsworthy was the inspiration for St John Clarke in "The Dance". Apparently Powell did not like Galsworthy or his novels (and in "The Dance" St John Clarke is presented as very much yesterday's novelist, respected but largely irrelevant). I found the following quotes on one website; Powell apparently described Galsworthy as having "boundless vanity" and said that his novels "through lack of any real understanding of human behaviour, deal...with English upper-middle class life".

We shall see - at this stage I prefer "The Dance" to "The Saga" but it is very early days.....

Bearbeitet: Aug. 5, 2013, 10:31am

I am also about 100 or so pages in and loving this book. However I just found out that my copy only has The Man of Property, In Chancery and To Let. So I need to go out and seek the rest of the book. Sighhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

Aug. 5, 2013, 10:58am

#5, Those are the 3 books that make up the "Forsyte Saga" (as opposed to the "Forsyte Chronicles") so that's all the 1001 expects us to read. As a person who loves a good spoiler, I've read about the rest of the Chronicle and the general feeling is that the next 3 books are good and should be read but the last 3 are something of a disappointment.

As to Powell's attitude about Galsworthy, #4, my impression is that Galsworthy really came at the end of a literary era. By the time he was finishing the "Chronicles" in the 1930s, modernism was in full swing and the dominant voices in British literature were people like Lawrence and Joyce and Woolf. I suppose that Powell wanted to do a Galsworthian chronicle but in a more modernist voice? It's been a long time since I read (and loved) Dance to the Music of Time and it was certainly more readable than Joyce or Woolf... but this would explain why he treats the Galsworthy figure as a relic even while being inspired by him.

Aug. 5, 2013, 11:00am

okay because my book is only around 700 pages or so not the 1000 so I was thinking that the other 3 books where to be included.

Aug. 5, 2013, 11:52am

I'm really looking forward to starting this in a couple of days. It's waiting on my Kindle, I "only" have to finish another 1000pager (non-listed) first. This might be a 2 book month...

I didn't know Galsworthy was Powell's inspiration for St. John Clarke. I love the "Dance to the Music of Time" series so far, so it will be interesting to compare.

Aug. 5, 2013, 5:52pm

Not been on line for a while and I popped in and saw the book I nominated won to become this month's challenge. I'll pick it up and start reading tomorrow :)

Aug. 6, 2013, 9:56am

Thanks for the information on the Galsworthy - Powell link, I'll definitely be more aware when I go back to the Powell books.

Having now finished Book 2, I have grown rather fond of Jolyon, but am disliking, nay hating, Soames more with each page. There's so much here - 2 sides to a big family - human vs property, name and rank as well as the Boer War touching their lives.

Aug. 9, 2013, 4:19am

Little spoilers for book 1:
I started a couple of days ago, and while it is written in a style that is easy to read, I am making only slow progress. I hope to finish book 1 today, though. It's the story that doesn't get to me although I enjoyed the first couple of chapters and the humor and the side remarks. But I can't help myself, I don't like the main characters, none of them. I don't feel any sympathy for the two I guess I am meant to like. Not because of what they are doing, but because it seems they never even cared a straw for those around them. Most of all I hate Bosinney, also the way he handled his job. What I enjoy are the parts about the older Forsytes and the Jolyon storyline.

Aug. 9, 2013, 11:12am

If you think you are supposed to like Irene and Bosinney, I think you're wrong. Irene just is a cipher, to an annoying degree. I don't think Galsworthy likes her but worse, I don't think he understands her. She's just this figure of mystery to all the men who do all the acting in this book. I know that she continues to be a really central character and wonder how that will work.
To my mind, Soames is the most interesting character. He's stuck in a situation that's beyond the limited scope of his own emotional development. On the one hand you think he's awful and yet, he's not really a bad man. Jolyon is the most sympathetic guy and yet - he hasn't talked to his own son for 15 years! We catch him at the tail end of this so he seems so nice, but what about that 15 years?

Aug. 10, 2013, 6:56pm

I've just finished the first book and some interesting thoughts already!

What I like so far is that nothing is really clear with any of the characters. I'm confused about how I feel about all of them, which lets face it is more like real life! Young Jolyon (Jo) is a case in point, I have no idea whether I like him or not. The obvious thing would have been for him to be the 'good guy' who got out of the family and then refused their money etc. But he's already admitting to himself the lure of the Forsyte in him. Then again Irene did the noble thing and refused to take anything given to her by the family....but who could possibly think of Irene as noble?

Fascinating stuff. Really nicely written as well!

Bearbeitet: Aug. 12, 2013, 11:04am

I finished book 2 over the weekend (+ the 2nd interlude) and started into book 3 now.
So... is it possible that Irene is beautiful? Really? I start feeling sorry for her, always only being wanted, noted, mentioned for her beauty.

There were many years between the publishing of books 1 and 2, and Galsworthy made some changes to Young Jolyon which I don't understand and don't like.

Again the best bits for me were those involving the older Forsytes. Sadly there weren't many left. I miss Swithin. It seems Galsworthy spent some time observing older people, those parts all feel so true. There's a heart-wrenching chapter in book 3 about Timothy which also shows that Soames is not a bad guy. Who from the middle Generation except for Soames ever felt some warmth and responsibility for all the uncles and aunts?

Bearbeitet: Aug. 12, 2013, 6:24pm

I just listened to the first Interlude on Audiobooks and the number of times Irene's beauty was mentioned was just overwhelming. Female beauty in general also got some praise. I some ways I liked this section a lot, and as Deern says the sensitivity to the old man is wonderful; but the fixation on Irene, and the lack of sense of her own inner self, is a little excessive.

Bearbeitet: Aug. 14, 2013, 6:53am

Just finished part 3, and I am glad I'm done with it although I quite enjoyed the writing. Those last 10% were torture for me and I admit I only glanced over some paragraphs because I was so angry. My sympathies here were all wrong it seems.

The Soames side of the family with all their faults always seemed much more human and therefore normal to me than what became of the Jolyon side in books 2 and 3. I have many not-nice words in my head for them all, scheming and self-righteous lot, looking nice on the outside. I'd rather be friends with Soames and Fleur than with Irene's beauty and Jon. In the end at least I quite liked June again.

Glad for the GR, without the pressure of finishing it this month I might have put it on hold, maybe forever.

On to the next book, another Coetzee, yay... :-(

Bearbeitet: Aug. 14, 2013, 7:09am

Finished this evening.

Firstly concluding my thoughts in comparison with Dance to the Music of Time, I preferred the gentle narrative style of the latter compared with this dense tome, but Galsworthy's characters are much more interesting and "real", so overall a draw.


The two characters I was intrigued by were Soames and Irene. Soames is quickly painted as the "bad guy" of the piece, obsessed with possessions over others' feelings. However as the book progresses you realise he's not being "bad" in the sense of getting pleasure from doing wrong to others; he is just someone who has traditional/Victorian attitudes to marriage, property and self-respect. In the final showdown at Robin Hill I sympathised more with him than Irene as he tried to do the right thing by his daughter despite his better judgement but was repelled by Irene's obstinacy. Irene is certainly enigmatic. She arouses obsessive devotion from the four men who love her, yet apart from her physical attraction there doesn't seem to be much to inspire that devotion and she remains as elusive to the reader as she does to the men in the story.

Another quick observation. The scope of the book includes the years 1914-18, yet the "Great War" barely rates a mention. Seems a little odd as this no doubt could have brought in more drama (sons lost in the war, daughters discovering relatives in the hospital tents etc), and Galsworthy doesn't seem shy of a bit of soap opera.

Overall I enjoyed this book very much. A solid 4/5

Bearbeitet: Aug. 16, 2013, 11:05am

Okay Im about 300 pages in middle of the interlude right after Uncle Jolyon died and I have to say I almost shed a tear at his death for some reason I just really liked the old man. My thoughts so far is that its not so much that anybody is "bad" but they are just part of the upper class of society and they were raised to think that they are better then common folks. The main problem with Soames and Irene is that they were just not a good match. In the movie (BBC mini series 2007) her step mother pretty much pushed her into the marriage but the book really didnt go into that part at all. And Soames though that he could make her love him with possessions. But the main idea that keeps hitting me is you can have all of this money surrounded by nice things in big houses but possessions will never make someone else love you anymore or will they make you happy. Main question that I have is how did young Jolyon 2nd wife die??? Did I miss something??

Aug. 16, 2013, 9:57pm

She died of something mysterious and lengthy. It's mentioned in Book II. It sounded like maybe cancer, but the author is too delicate to inform us.
I cannot stand the treatment of Irene! Does she ever develop a personality? Just being beautiful, beautiful, beautiful is NOT enough.

Aug. 17, 2013, 2:30am

Spoiler for part 3:
Well, additionally to being beautiful she also becomes awfully selfish and manipulating.
For me, in book 3 she finally clearly loses against Soames, although he is as possessive as ever.

I'm glad I'm not the only one who had an issue with the overpowering beauty. No matter what she says or does (which isn't much in the first 2 books and interludes), her beauty justifies her. Almost Shakespearean: truth and beauty are automatically linked.

About Jolyon's second wife: after having called the "one real thing" in book 1, she was quite unceremoniously and conveniently got rid off to make room for the reality of beauty.
Maybe Galsworthy wanted to tell me something important with the over-empasize on beauty, but I'm afraid I don't get it.

Bearbeitet: Aug. 19, 2013, 11:39am

Maybe I was reading more into it then I should have, but I thought the overemphasis on Irene's beauty was because we were mostly viewing her through a Forsyte mindset. Her only value, particularly for Soames, as that she was something beautiful to possess. I thought her inner mind remained somewhat of an enigma for that very reasons -- the Forsytes didn't really know anything about her other than she was beautiful.

Aug. 19, 2013, 9:38am

Well from what I can gather she was very much into the Arts and that is one of the reason Soames started to collecting art and plus she was studing piano and I believe when Irene and Soames were seperated that is how she supported herself for the most part.

Bearbeitet: Aug. 22, 2013, 2:41pm

I just finished In Chancery on audiobooks.


Poor Soames! Honestly, he is the only interesting or complex character in this book but he makes up for a lot. The last pages of this book are just devastating for him, and when he goes to his old bedroom and smothers his sobs, you realize how incredibly and completely alone he is and always has been. He has no ability to form human connections and yet he needs... something. I also cannot stand Irene, so there. Ugh.


The debate over whether to kill Annette or the baby is fascinating, coming as it does in an age before "pro-life" agitation had shifted the grounds of how we think about these things. It is so clear to the doctor that he should kill this perfectly viable baby in order to save the life of the mother; Soames's decision to risk the mother's life to save the child is seen as tortured, unfeeling, and selfish. He knows he would have killed an unborn child to save Irene! That would have shown true love! A good, sensitive, loving person prioritizes the woman over the unborn child. Wow.

Aug. 23, 2013, 4:30am

Probably some spoilers ahead!

Well, I've finally finished it and I've got to admit that I loved it. I was impressed by the subtlety of the whole thing, and really enjoyed battling with my sympathy/empathy and never quite settling on how I felt about particular characters and situations. It felt very much like real life, despite some of the more obvious soap opera moments!

With regard to Beauty, this is a rare book where the entry in the Boxhall book I found very informative and interesting. I haven't got the copy with me and read it last night, but it talks about a major theme of the book being the fundamental conflict between love/beauty and property/possessions. So many characters are affected by this conflict. Even June when pushed to the limit by one of her 'lame ducks' breaks and shows that her devotion to the beauty of artistic genius has it's limit and is fighting with a deep feeling of possession and identity. I think perhaps Galsworthy overstated the beauty of Irene to emphasise how such a simple thing has the power to rip a family apart.

Another thing that I was struck by throughout the book was how how masterfully he described the reality of death. The death of Old Jolyon, Timothy, James, Jolly and Young Jolyon all stick with me very vividly.

Aug. 23, 2013, 10:12am

Im in the middle of In Chancery and I have to say I dont dislike Soames but to me he just seems so impersonal and standoffish and frankly a snob. Irene I feel for her when she was actually living with Soames she just didnt like him as a person and felt she had to remain cold to him so that he wouldnt get to close to her. I have been in that position before myself so I guess that is why I say that. But loving this book so much.

Aug. 28, 2013, 3:36pm

I am nearly done with this book and have a question for discussion:

--Does Galsworthy mean us to like Irene? Are we supposed to actually believe that the letter that Jolyon finally writes to his son (and that she approves) is a good and even revealing account of the truth of things? Is Jon's final decision supposed to be seen as the right one? Is this the way it HAD to be in a society like this one, in Galsworthy's opinion?
Because sometimes I am genuinely confused about how I am supposed to understand these characters and their actions.

Also: OMG, Freud was RIGHT about the Victorian (and Edwardian) family!!

Aug. 29, 2013, 11:19am

But I see the same attitudes in families today.... And how the actions and feelings of one generation will go on to the next and on to the next to the point of nobody can even remember what the real issue was in the first place but they are not to like that part of the family.

Irene I just really feel for her maybe cause I can relate being stuck in a relationship/marriage that the other person looks at you as a possession or its a one sided love. You try so hard to make yourself feel but it only backfires and you end up almost hating that person. It doesnt mean that they are a bad or evil person. You have to admit Soames even when he met and married Annette he even saw her as possession of his and her only purpose was to give him an hire. And when he find out that she may have a lover he was not upset that she had a lover but what and how it make The Forsyte family look.

Aug. 29, 2013, 12:25pm

fat spoilers for part III
#26: thanks for asking those questions which are also mine...
I have by now half accepted what others said - that there was also back then no "good guys"/ "bad guys" separation in the book, that the Forsytes were meant to be seen as a group of people with many issues and problems. Still, in my opinion this letter was absolutely impossible and the low point in the saga.
First not tell anything and then confront Jon with details which even nowadays would be far too much information about one's mother's love life. I wasn't a friend of Soames, but only thinking about the scheming and manipulating ways of Jolyon and Irene makes me aggressive. And I believe in the end it was the best for Fleur this way... imagine her having to live with Jon and Irene. It would never have worked.

"We don't want you to think bad of your mother", "please think of your mother", "if you do it you'll break your mother's heart" - hopefully Jon found some not too pretty and smart girl who was able to show the appropriate reverence to Irene.

Bearbeitet: Aug. 29, 2013, 1:50pm

I agree that Irene was stuck in a bad place. Nevertheless, this does not excuse her carrying out what is basically a vendetta against her husband for the rest of her life. She is ridiculously cruel, not to mention manipulative. Of course, Fleur is also tremendously manipulative and you wonder if this is just the way Galsworthy sees women. Does Fleur really love, or is she just a "taker" as those who are against her keep saying? What is the borderline here? I mean, is she any more possessive than Irene? In the end, Soames is willing to let go of Fleur while Irene refuses to do the same for Jon: which of them is really the better person?

And does Soames really not love Irene? I'm not sure; I think Galsworthy means us to ponder the actual distinction between love and possessiveness here. When you "want" somebody, who gets to judge the nature of those feelings? When Annette is in danger of dying in childbirth, he knows that he doesn't love her enough to sacrifice the child for her -- but he also knows that he would have done it in a heartbeat for Irene. So is that not love?


I was so worried about poor Soames that I read Book Six of the Chronicles online (very fast skim). So in case you are wondering but don't want to read the next 900 pages:

*Soames totally redeems himself by sacrificing his life in order to save both beautiful objects and a human being whom he truly, really loves. It's a wonderful scene.
*Fleur is a manipulative piece of work who would be more at home (and more sympathetic) in a contemporary novel than in the 1920s. You feel for her passion but you also know she's over the top. However, in the end we feel that Soames's sacrifice may have ended up redeeming her, too.
*Her marriage with Michael Mont, a nice guy, continues. They have a son. Mont understands Fleur.
*Jon marries an American woman who also seems like a good sort, more sensible than melodramatic. She is expecting a child at the end of Book 6.
*Irene seems not to be around in Book 6. Maybe she is dead, or has married some Hollywood mogul since she went to Canada/America with Jon.

It was a good ending. Maybe some day I'll actually read through all 900 pages of volume 2 at the slow pace it deserves.

Aug. 29, 2013, 3:26pm

More spoilers:
#29: I never doubted Soames loved Irene, although it was a very possessive kind of love. And conservative - he just didn't understand why she didn't "function" the way a Victorian wife was supposed to function. He really believes his actions might bring them back together, even in book 2 after 12 years.
I am a little sad about Fleur's development in the later books. In book III she seemed very modern and realistic (the way she accepted how her parents went separate ways), though spoiled. She's very young, in love and used to get what she wants, and I can understand that those "reasons" are no reasons for her and that she believes Jon must come to see it in the same light. Even her rebound marriage is an understandable reaction and throughout the book I liked Michael Mont a lot more than Jon and hoped he'd win Fleur's heart. So at least he got her hand..

Thanks for posting those spoilers for the remaining books, I am in no hurry to read them. So it seems that Galsworthy really didn't despise Soames as much as it often seems, mainly in book 2.

Aug. 30, 2013, 9:19am

I have to say Im going to miss this family.............. Is anyone planning on trying to get ahold of the BBC mini series?????

Aug. 30, 2013, 11:29am

I've been so interested in this discussion - I think it's one of the better ones we've had for whatever reason! I read this book back in February, and I have to say I have a different view than a lot of you. I absolutely detested Soames. His treatment of all women as property, Irene in particular but Annette and Fleur as well, was despicable to me. In Irene's case, his view of her as property even allows him to rape her with a relatively clean conscience! Of course she doesn't want to see him, speak to him, or have her son in a relationship with the daughter of her rapist! He never seems to learn his lesson.

I do agree that Irene herself was an uninspiring character. I guess Galsworthy was using her more as a metaphor than anything, but I wished that she had some personality the whole time I was reading it. I never really got into Jon and Fleur's story, but I did like Jolyon and June.

I watched the BBC miniseries after finishing the book (it's available on netflix streaming for free) and I liked it despite the fact that it did change some key aspects of the book.

Great discussion!