BORN: 1867, Kingston Hill, Surrey, England
DIED: 1933, London, England
GENRE: Fiction, drama
The Country House (1907)
The Dark Flower (1913)
The Skin Game (1920)
The Forsyte Saga (1906-1921)
John Galsworthy. Time Life Pictures / Getty Images
English novelist and Nobel Prize winner John Galsworthy is best known for his literary series The Forsyte Saga, his portrayal of the British upper classes, and his treatments of social values. Also a dramatist, his reputation in his lifetime was second only to that of George Bernard Shaw. Through his plays, Galsworthy was a compassionate reformer who campaigned against long prison terms, harsh treatment of prisoners, class discrimination at the bar of justice, anti-Semitism, the intransigence of capitalists and labor union leaders, and other evils of society.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Life at Coombe. Galsworthy was born on August 14, 1867, at Parkfield, Kingston Hill, Surrey, England, the second child and first son of John Galsworthy and Blanche Bartleet Galsworthy. His father was a successful solicitor (attorney), company director, and property owner. When Galsworthy was still a child, his father moved the family to a huge home he had built on a large acreage called Coombe, near the village of Maldon. He called his house Coombe Warren, an estate that was to become a model for Galsworthy's novels' settings.
From Preparatory School to Oxford Law. At the age of nine, Galsworthy was sent to the Saugeen Preparatory School, a boarding school in Bournemouth. Five years later, he entered the prestigious Harrow School in London, where he excelled in athletics. In 1886, he went to Oxford University to study law, graduating with second-degree honors in 1889. The following year, he was called to the bar and began writing legal briefs for his father’s firm. Galsworthy, however, had little interest in a legal career.
Meeting Ada Galsworthy and Joseph Conrad. In 1891, at a family celebration of the marriage of Galsworthy’s cousin Arthur Galsworthy, the author met the woman who came to dominate his entire life. That woman was his cousin’s bride, Ada Nemesis Pearson Cooper Galsworthy. The marriage was a disaster for Ada, who later claimed that she endured marital rape and beatings. Although Ada became the model for Irene, Galsworthy’s greatest heroine in The Forsyte Saga, her relationship with the author did not materialize until much later.
In 1891, Galsworthy’s father sent him on an extended inspection tour of his mining interests in Canada, and during the next few years, he traveled widely. During a two-month voyage aboard the Torrens in 1893, he formed a close friendship with the first mate of the ship, Joseph Conrad, who was then at work on his first novel. Conrad later encouraged and guided Galsworthy .in his literary efforts. Between 1897 and 1901, Galsworthy published two novels and two volumes of short stories under the pseudonym John Sinjohn. The last of these works, A Man of Devon (1901), contains his first short story dealing with the Forsytes.
Ada next met Galsworthy in 1893, at the annual Eton-Harrow cricket match. Galsworthy was smitten. She told him about her miserable marriage, and, full of sympathy for her, he began to share her torment. They started to meet often, usually in the company of a female relative. Without her, Galsworthy might never have become a great writer. After she finally got a divorce and she and Galsworthy were married, in 1905, she aided him by typing manuscripts, listening to his work, shielding him from unwanted visitors, and lavishing affection on him. She managed their household and handled correspondence and appointments, thus helping Galsworthy to be a prolific writer. Most important of all, Ada was Galsworthy’s muse.
Critical Acclaim. After his father’s death in 1904, Galsworthy began publishing under his own name and regularly produced novels for the next three decades. In 1906, the first Forsyte novel, The Man of Property, appeared, followed by what many critics consider his best non-Forsyte story, The Country House (1907). Also in 1906, his play The Silver Box was produced, and it met with favorable criticism.
Beginning in 1901, he wrote thesis plays (dramas that address and debate a social problem) for the next twenty-three years. Such plays as Justice (1910) effected real change. By revealing how harsh prison punishment destroys individuals, Sir Winston Churchill, then the home secretary in the cabinet, introduced sweeping prison reforms. Other important thesis plays included The Fugitive (1913), which focused on married women in extramarital affairs, and The Mob (1914), about morality and war. Such works were representative of the Edwardian age, named for the ruler of Great Britain, King Edward VII. Unlike the Victorian era that preceded it, the Edwardians critically questioned established mores.
During the First World War, Galsworthy donated the income from his writings to the war effort—including the profits from his last social satire, The Freelands (1915), and the dramatic Beyond (1917)—and volunteered as a masseur in a Red Cross hospital in France. World War I began when Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Bosnian terrorist in Serbia in June 1914. Because of diplomatic breakdowns and entangling alliances, what could have been a local skirmish in the Balkans between Austria-Hungary and Serbia soon engulfed nearly the whole of Europe and many other countries. Great Britain was a major player in the conflict, allying with France and Russia to form the Triple Entente against Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey. Much of the fighting on the Western Front took place in France, where trench warfare was common. After the United States joined the war on the side of the Triple Entente in 1917, the fighting ended in 1918, and the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919.
Postwar Literary Success. As the war ended, Galsworthy’s output of novels and short stories continued unabated. Outside of the World War I-influenced Saint’s Progress (1919), The Forsyte Saga became his fictional focus. In July 1918, he conceived of, and began to implement, the idea of making The Man of Property the first volume of a trilogy that became The Forsyte Saga. The books that followed included the novels In Chancery (1920) and To Let (1921). When the whole of the saga was published in one volume, The Forsyte Saga in 1922, public reaction was immense: it sold more than a million copies in one year in both Great Britain and the United States. Following the success of the volume, Galsworthy wrote another Forsyte trilogy—The White Monkey (1924), The Silver Spoon (1926), and Swan Song (1928)—which did not prove as popular, though this did not deter him from starting a third trilogy that he did not complete.
The 1932 Nobel Prize. In 1932, shortly before his death, Galsworthy was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. When he died on January 31, 1933, of what was believed to be a brain tumor, he was at the height of his popularity. Few other British writers—certainly not any of the modernists—had the power, prestige, or the vast reading public he had.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Galsworthy's famous contemporaries include:
Joseph Conrad (1857-1924): Conrad was a Polish novelist. He is best known for his novels Heart of Darkness (1899) and Lord Jim (1900).
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944): Kandinsky was a Russian printmaker, painter, and art theorist. He is considered the founder of the abstract painting movement.
H. G. Wells (1866-1946): Wells was an English novelist and nonfiction writer. He was one of the foremost science fiction writers in history and one of the first to write about time travel. One of his most famous novels is The War of the Worlds (1899).
Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957): Ingalls Wilder was an American author. She was a popular writer of children's books with her early pioneer series, including the best- known Little House on the Prairie (1935).
Florenz "Flo" Ziegfield (1867-1932): Ziegfield was an American Broadway impresario. He is best known for his elaborate and expensive productions, such as the Ziegfield Follies series of shows that ran from 1907 to 1931.
Works in Literary Context
Influences. Galsworthy’s writing was summarily influenced by his surroundings and the people who inhabited them. His childhood memories of Coombe Warren and the beautiful surrounding countryside influenced his portrayal of Robin Hill in the Forsyte books. There were a great many relatives in his life, and it is apparent that the extended Galsworthy clan influenced the author’s character constructs in The Forsyte Saga and several other novels.
His meeting Joseph Conrad gave Galsworthy the idea of becoming a writer, but the motivating force behind his writing was his wife, Ada. Her beauty and allure, Galsworthy’s smitten state, and her suggestion that he write propelled Galsworthy from bored lawyer to energized writer. Moreover, her marital status in the Victorian era when marriage was truly for life, her undeniable love for Galsworthy, her beauty, and her courage in entering into an illicit relationship condemned by the society of which they were so much a part proved subject and theme for much of Galsworthy’s literary output over his lifetime.
Social Criticism. Galsworthy first achieved prominence as a dramatist. His most esteemed plays are noted for their realistic technique and insightful social criticism. While working for his father, Galsworthy collected rents from the tenants of London slum properties, and several of his plays examine the contrast between the rights of the privileged upper classes and the poor. In The Silver Box, for example, the son of a wealthy member of Parliament steals a purse from a prostitute. Later, the husband of one of the family’s servants steals a cigarette box from the purse. While the wealthy young man is released, the servant’s husband is convicted and sent to prison.
English Values. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Galsworthy portrayed traditional English values, such as love of the countryside, fair play, integrity in business and other worldly affairs, devotion to justice, respect for women, harmony between the sexes, honorable behavior, support for the underdog, and the Victorian/Edwardian code of the gentleman and lady. Many of the books and stories included in the Forsyte Saga reflect these values as do such books as The Country House.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Here are a few works by writers who have also written on family and social class values:
An American Tragedy (1925), a novel by Theodore Dreiser. This book explores the troubles of young Clyde Griffiths, who is challenged by his rich-girl/poor-girl relationships.
Leave it to Psmith (1923), a comic novel by P. G. Wode- house. In this work, the author makes fun of the British upper class.
SubUrbia (1994), a play by Eric Bogosian. In this play, slackers meander about as one of their friends flees suburban life and makes it big in Hollywood.
The Virgin Suicides (1993), a novel by Jeffrey Eugenides. In this quirky story, the narrator is a neighborhood boy who relates the sequential suicides of five sisters, the daughters of overprotective parents.
Ordinary People (1976), a novel by Judith Guest. In this book the affluent Jarrett family struggles to cope after a fatal sailing accident takes the life of the eldest son.
Works in Critical Context
Though the reading public disagreed, modernist writers such as D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce scoffed at the traditional English values depicted in Galsworthy’s works. The modernists considered Galsworthy and other Victorian/Edwardian novelists, such as H. G. Wells and Arnold Bennett, mere sociologists whose literary depictions were unrealistic.
There was more respect among modernists for Galsworthy when it came to his vigorous satirizing of the upper middle class, with its snobbery, overpossessiveness, and indifference to the working class and the poor of the land. Demonstration of this effective mocking can be found in the Forsyte Saga.
Although Galsworthy’s dramas and novels were highly regarded during his lifetime, critical and popular interest in his works declined shortly after his death. In 1967 the British Broadcasting Corporation aired a twenty-six-hour serial adaptation of The Forsyte Saga for television. Repeated the following year and syndicated in more than forty countries around the world, this adaptation is credited with renewing interest in Galsworthy’s novels. Today, Galsworthy is recognized as an important chronicler of English life, with Sanford Sternlicht praising his works as ‘‘the finest written portrait of the passing from power of England’s upper middle class.’’
The Forsyte Saga. The major literary achievement of John Galsworthy’s life was The Forsyte Saga, a family epic that includes two trilogies of novels as well as several short stories. The saga satirizes upper-middle-class and upper-class British society in the Edwardian age and the immediate post-World War I period. With the saga, it was thought that something essentially English had been created. Critics bestowed great praise upon the author. According to one Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography writer, critics lauded the trilogy for its ‘‘sweep and control’’ and proclaimed Galsworthy ‘‘a modern Thackeray.’’ Still praising the series as well as Galsworthy’s continued popularity in 2007, Allan Massie of the Spectator believed that the Forsytes remained popular ‘‘because one can argue about his characters as we do about our friends and acquaintances in ‘real life.’’’
Responses to Literature
1. Galsworthy was immersed in themes of Victorian values. Go online to literary sites and databases and find one aspect of Victorian literature to investigate, such as Victorian literary style, Victorian writers, or the events and concerns that influenced Victorian themes. When you have printed out examples, return to share your new area of expertise with a group, so you can discuss how Galsworthy’s works fit the genre.
2. Social class distinctions are an important part of Galsworthy’s history and a major feature in his works. Research a particular incident where two classes are in opposition. What are the characteristics of each class? What is the core argument? Which ‘‘side’’ do you see more clearly represented in Galsworthy’s writing? What characteristics of the class are evident in his satire?
3. Can you think of other family sagas that have been represented in popular literature or film? Come up with a list and compare your findings with The Forsyte Saga. What do your examples have in common with the saga? How are they different? Write a paper with your findings.
Fisher, John. The World of the Forsytes. New York: Universe, 1976.
Frechet, Alan. John Galsworthy: A Reassessment. Trans. Denis Mahaffey. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1982.
Holloway, David. John Galsworthy. London: Morgan-Grampian, 1968.
Kaye-Smith, Sheila. John Galsworthy. New York: Haskell House, 1972.
Osterling, Anders. Nobel Prize in Literature Presentation Speech. Stockholm: The Nobel Foundation, 1963.
Ould, Herman. John Galsworthy. London: Chapman & Hall, 1934.
Schalit, Leon. John Galsworthy: A Survey. New York: Scribners, 1928.
Smit, J. Henry. The Short Stories of John Galsworthy. New York: Haskell House, 1966.
Sternlicht, Sanford. John Galsworthy. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
Massie, Allan. ‘‘Interest Still Accruing.’’ Spectator, July 7, 2007.
‘‘John Galsworthy.’’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved March 25, 2008, from http://www.oxforddnb.com/public/dnb/33314.html.
Librivox. Audiobook: The Man of Property Vol. 1 of The Forsyte Saga. Retrieved March 25, 2008, from http://librivox.org/man-of-property-by-john-galsworthy. Catalogued on June 22, 2007.
Nobel Prize Foundation. Nobel Prize Presentation Speech by Anders Osterling. Retrieved March 25,2008, from http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1932/press.html.