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Literature / The Forsyte Saga

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The 1967 series.

The Forsyte Saga is a series by English novelist John Galsworthy, detailing three (arguably four) generations of an upper-middle-class Victorian family from the 1880s through to the mid-1920s.

The nouveau riche Forsytes are chiefly concerned with property, wealth and the family, though it is their obsession with property that is the underlying theme of the saga. Property comes in many forms, and the character of Soames Forsyte loses almost every form of property that his kind values — first his beautiful wife Irene abandons him (with good reason), then he is forced to sell the house he commissioned as a way of isolating her; finally, his chance of having a son is extinguished forever when his second wife, Annette, gives birth to a daughter after a difficult labour and can no longer bear children — thus even his name is taken out of his hands, as no one will bear it once he dies.

Soames is contrasted by his unconventional first cousin, Young Jolyon. He has left his wife to live in poverty with another woman, and the feelings between him and Soames can only be described as mutual hatred. And it only becomes even worse when Irene starts an affair with Jolyon (they get married after her divorce from Soames is finally settled).

The saga is an example of the decrease of moral lessons being pressed onto the reader, as all characters have shades of grey and can be assigned motivations for even the most selfish of their actions. Soames, for example, commits the most despicable act in the book, and yet the reader can still sympathise with his character.

The original trilogy, dealing mainly with Soames's and Jolyon's generation, consists of The Man of Property, In Chancery and To Let. A second trilogy, dealing with Soames's daughter Fleur, Irene's and Jolyon's son Jon and their contemporaries, includes The White Monkey, The Silver Spoon and Swan Song. Galsworthy later completed the saga with a trio of novels about the Cherrells (Charwells), who are related to the Forsytes by marriage - Maid In Waiting, Flowering Wilderness and Over the River.

The books spawned two British television serials. The first version starred Eric Porter, Nyree Dawn Porter, and Kenneth More. It was broadcast on The BBC in 1967 to great acclaim, and drew in 18 million viewers every Sunday when it was repeated a year later. (The US broadcast on NET provided the initiative for Masterpiece.) The second adaptation starred Damian Lewis as Soames and first aired on ITV in 2002. There is also a 1949 film, That Forsyte Woman, starring Errol Flynn, Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon and Janet Leigh. And in case anyone's interested, there was also a 1990 BBC Radio dramatisation.

The Forsyte Saga contains examples of:

  • Aerith and Bob: The Forsytes are fond of giving weird names to their children. The founder of the family was named Jolyon, and in every next generation the eldest son of a Jolyon is also named Jolyon. Other members of the family have names like Soames or Swithin, while others have more common names like James or Ann.
  • Alliterative Name:
    • Soames's daughter Fleur Forsyte.
    • Fleur's suitor and husband Michael Mont.
  • Author Avatar: The author of the saga, Galsworthy, fell in love with his cousin's wife, had an affair, and then married her on her divorce ten years later. Irene is largely based on this woman - Ada Pearson. In turn, this means that Young Jolyon is essentially a representation of Galsworthy.
  • Babies Make Everything Better: Pops up at two crucial points in the plot. In The White Monkey, when Fleur and Michael's marriage is floundering, things get better after Fleur finds out she's pregnant, and gives birth to the grandson that Soames always wanted. In Swan Song, Jon - torn between Fleur and his wife Anne - finally chooses the latter when she tells him she's pregnant.
  • Betty and Veronica: In Swan Song, Jon must choose between his glamorous, exciting First Love, Fleur Forsyte, and his gentle Southern belle of a wife, Anne. His solution? Have a brief fling with Fleur, and then return to Anne when he learns she's pregnant. What the Hell, Hero?, indeed.
  • Bourgeois Bohemian: Young Jolyon is very much a political liberal by the standards of the time. He left his first wife and eldest daughter to live with another woman, start a family with her and become an artist. And even after he inherits his father's fortune, which makes it possible for him to raise also his youngest three kids in an upper middle class lifestyle, he sticks by his ideals and remains the antipole to his conservative cousin Soames.
  • Byronic Hero: Wilfred Desert, a friend of Michael's who first falls in love with Fleur, then leaves for Arabia, and returns to break Dinny Cherrell's heart in the final trilogy. He's handsome, writes controversial poetry, and flies in the face of moral and religious conventions.
  • Clashing Cousins: Young Jolyon is a rebellious artist with a liberal political mindset, who loves to defy the rules of high society and the traditions of their family. Soames by contrast is an uptight solicitor with a conservative political mindset, who believes that being rich and respectable is the key to success and happiness. Of course, things become even worse between them after Irene starts her affair with Jolyon. But they didn't like each other before that happened either.
  • Couple Theme Naming: One of Fleyr Forsyte's suitor is called Michael Mont. He loves that their names are both alliterative. Michael loves Fleur and she enjoys his attentions, but she is in love with her second cousin Jon Forsyte.
Michael Mont: Do you mind calling me M.M. and letting me call you F.F.?
  • Daddy's Girl: Fleur is much beloved by her father Soames, who spoils her rotten and won't deny her anything. In return, she developes a very close relationship to him.
  • Dances and Balls: A couple, as you would expect for a costume drama. There's a particularly important one in the first part of the saga, when Bosinney and Irene pretty much display their attraction for all to see - much to the heartbreak of June and jealous fury of Soames.
  • Deadpan Snarker:
    • George Forsyte, who according to his family is 'very droll' (even on his deathbed, when asked by his butler if he would like the Vicar to come in and see him, he replies: "No. Give him my regards and tell him I'll see him at the funeral.").
    • Phillip Bosinney, who often pokes fun at the stuffy Forsytes (though whether they all realise they're being made fun of is another matter).
  • Death by Falling Over: Montague Dartie, who fell down the stairs of a disreputable house in Paris.
  • Domestic Abuse: Soames — and it changes the course of events forever. This offers a case of Values Dissonance caused by the passage of time. Soames's actions would have been seen as legitimate at the time, although some of the characters disapprove.
  • Driven to Suicide: Irene is about to drown herself after she's raped by Soames and Philip Bosinney is killed in a terrible accident. She is saved at the last moment.
  • Due to the Dead:
    • June arranges Philip's burial following his hit-and-run death.
    • In To Let, Jolyon's ashes are scattered over his father's grave, per his wishes.
  • Embarrassing First Name: Publius Valerius Dartie, son of Winifred Forsyte and Montague Dartie. He is constantly teased and called "Pubby" at school, and goes by "Val" in adult life.
  • Feuding Families: The backbone of the saga is the feud between two branches of the Forsyte clan.
  • Gold Digger: Montague Dartie marries Winifred for her money, and Annette marries Soames for his.
    • A problematic example is Irene: her material conditions do improve rapidly upon her marriage to Soames and she does grow to enjoy the accompanying upper-middle-class lifestyle. However, she had never been interested in Soames' wealth (no more than in him as a person), but rather was unscrupulously bullied into marrying him by her widowed stepmother who wanted to be free to acquire a new husband herself. Irene could therefore be considered something of a pawn in a proxy gold-digging scheme.
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery:
    • Young Jolyon had an affair with her daughter's governess and ran away with her, and he can't get married to her until his first wife (Frances) suddenly is killed in a horse riding accident. Mostly leaning to Good Adultery, since Jolyon is the hero of the story. Apaptions of the story have also portrayed Frances as a snobbish shrew, who refused to have sex with her husband. But alas, Jolyon won't be happy with his second wife Heléne either, because she developes some mental illness, to the point that she shows a pathological jealousy towards her daughter Holly.
    • Irene has an affair with Philip Bosinney. It is her only way to escape her awful marriage, and she is described as a good woman otherwise. But the story also shows how this affects her husband Soames and Bosinney's fiancée June (who used to be Irene's best friend, no less). To be fair though, Soames acts in a very abusive manner towards Irene (he even rapes her instead of just letting her go). So it can be hard to feel any sympathy for him after all. And as for June, she decides to forgive Irene after some time has passed.
    • Monty's infidelity to Winifred is never seen as sympathetic though, because he turns out to be a huge Jerkass. And it's made clear that Winifred is a much better wife to him than what he deserves.
  • Gossipy Hens: The old Aunts - Hester, Juley and Ann. Their house is known within the family as 'Forsyte 'Change', and it is commonly acknowledged as the best place to hear family gossip.
  • Heir Club for Men: Most of "In Chancery" is concerned with Soames's desire for a son.
  • Ice Queen: Subverted, in that Irene only appeared to be cold and unfeeling while unhappily married to Soames.
  • Informed Attractiveness: Due to the fact that Galsworthy praises Irene's beauty to improbable levels, even comparing her to Venus on more than one occasion, any actress taking on the role of Irene runs the risk of encountering this trope. The criticism was especially levelled at Gina McKee when she was cast in the 2002 adaptation.
  • I Want Grandkids: Both James and his son Soames. James, unfortunately, dies before he can see his grandchild Fleur, but Soames lives long enough to see his grandson.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Michael Mont, who is content to play second fiddle in Fleur's affections as long as he can be there for her. He knows very well that she's married him on the rebound, but treats her with kindness throughout, even after he learns that she's been unfaithful to him with Jon.
  • Kissing Cousins: And more than once! Val and Holly, Jon and Fleur, and perhaps even Irene and Young Jolyon, who were cousins by marriage.
  • Kudzu Plot: Well, the actual plot may be quite simple when you strip away all the non-essential details. But it still can be very hard to keep track of among all the long descriptions of the Forsytes' daily lives and their thoughts. The fact that there are numerous characters doesn't help either.
  • Love Hurts: The entire Forsyte Saga is filled with this trope:
    • George Forsyte comes upon his lover embracing another man, and remains a cynical bachelor till the day he dies.
    • Young Jolyon marries his first wife on the rebound from an unhappy affair, then leaves her for his daughter's governess.
    • Soames is madly in love with Irene, but even after they marry, she is not in love with him, and finally finds it impossible to stay. His second wife, Annette, also marries him for his money and position.
    • June Forsyte's fiance, Philip Bosinney, leaves her for Soames's wife Irene, and eventually dies, either accidentally or as a suicide.
    • Winifred Forsyte marries Montague Dartie for love - and Montague is a compulsive gambler who sponges off her for money, is often drunk and abusive, and finally leaves her for an "exotic dancer".
    • Jon and Fleur are in love, but are separated because of the feud between their parents.
    • Michael Mont loves Fleur, and marries her, but knows that Fleur's heart still belongs to Jon.
    • Bicket, a packer in Michael's publishing company, steals to save his wife who is ill with pneumonia, and ends up getting caught and losing his job.
    • Jon's wife, Anne Wilmot, suffers in silence as she watches him rekindle his relationship with Fleur.
    • Dinny Cherrell and Wilfred Desert have to separate, because some of Wilfred's actions, such as converting to Islam, make him a social outcast.
  • Love Martyr: Winifred still loves husband Monty even after he runs up countless debts, cheats on her and steals her pearls to give to a Spanish dancer. He runs off with the dancer to Buenos Aires, comes back in disgrace, and Winifred allows him to remain with her if he promises to behave. Judging by his suspicious death in a 'disreputable house' in Paris, and Fleur's memory of him having once pinched her 'in a curving place' while she was still quite young, he clearly made little effort to change his ways. Still, Winifred speaks fondly of him even after his death.
  • Love Redeems:
    • Soames dies thwarting Fleur's suicide attempt. Although Young Jolyon, Irene and June say he is incapable of selfless love, he proves them wrong in the end.
    • A less dramatic but more heartwarming example is Val Dartie, son of Montague Dartie. He seems to be following in his father's footsteps - gambling and getting in with a "fast" crowd - but when he falls in love with his cousin Holly, she acts as a steadying influence, and they remain Happily Married, while Val takes up horse breeding as a career.
  • Make Up or Break Up: The whole of In Chancery is about this: should Soames move on with life, marry the younger Annette and have an heir, or try to win back the woman he's never ceased to love?
  • Momma's Boy: Jon is accused of being one of these by Fleur because he chooses his mother over his love for her. In fact, Jon is rather naive and somewhat deferential to both of his parents, especially in contrast to the wayward and headstrong Fleur - another example of the times changing.
  • Moral Event Horizon: The moment Soames starts to lose everything, his moment of what the Greek dramatists called "hubris", is his rape of Irene. For Soames, it's all downhill from there.invoked
  • Parental Marriage Veto: Somewhat subverted, in that Young Jolyon and Irene never outright tell Jon that he can't marry Fleur; they just relentlessly apply emotional blackmail.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: In the 1967 version, Anne and Francis Wilmot have the least convincing 'southern' accents ever heard.
  • Ominous Fog: The day after Soames and Irene's marriage has definitively broken down, there is an thick fog. This same thick fog leads to Bosinney's (Irene's lover) death, as he runs out in front of a carriage, blinded by the fog.
  • Plucky Girl: Plenty of them. June Forsyte and Holly Dartie from the original trilogy; Victorine Bicket and arguably Fleur from the second; Elizabeth "Dinny" Cherrell in the third.
  • The Pollyanna: June Forsyte, who loses her father at a young age because he runs off with her governess; then, a few years later, her mother dies; later, at only seventeen her fiancé has an affair with her best friend and is then killed horribly; and finally, her beloved grandfather dies while she is abroad. Through all this she manages to retain a desire to help people who need her, particularly starving artistsnote .
  • Rape Discretion Shot:
    • In the 1967 version, just as Soames is about to claim his "marital rights" from his reluctant wife Irene, the scene shifts to a barrel-organ playing beneath their window.
    • The Man of Property similarly only alludes to the rape at the start of one chapter.
      The morning after a certain night on which Soames at last asserted his rights and acted like a man, he breakfasted alone.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Soames. For all his disgraceful conduct in the first trilogy, the fact that he literally gives his life to save his daughter Fleur more than makes up for it in the end.
  • The Roaring '20s: Although not in the sense usually depicted in television and literature. Fleur enjoys a lively social life, but women of the upper middle classes such as herself were not 'flappers', who were derided at the time for being both immoral and unintelligent. Therefore, there is little in the way of tasselled frocks and Charlestons on show. But even so, the divide between the older and younger generations is shown most clearly during this time. Soames finds the new age bewildering and Fleur's more modern sensibilities unfathomable and troublesome. Even Michael, who is only in his 30s, can only see the Charleston as 'a lot of knee-wiggling'.
  • Sex Is Evil: Young Jolyon tells Irene in the 1967 adaptation that his first wife Frances thought that the act of love was 'degrading', explaining his subsequent affair with the unstable Hélène.
  • Sexless Marriage:
    • The rumour that Irene and Soames no longer share a bed lets the rest of the family know that the marriage is on the rocks.
    • According to the 1967 adaptation this is also the main reason Young Jolyon left his first wife Frances for his mistress Hélène.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Wilfred Desert, who is a completely changed man after his experiences in World War I.
  • Snobby Hobbies: Soames Forsyte eventually becomes a serious collector of art by the time the story has entered the 1920s.
  • Take Back Your Gift: Soames only realises how much Irene really hated him when he sees that she has left him, taken none of the jewellery he ever gave her, and left him a note saying "I have taken nothing either you or your people have given me."
  • Theme Naming: Young Jolyon's two children by his second wife are named Jolly (short for Jolyon) and Holly.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Soames and Irene, Soames and Annette, and Michael and Fleur (although neither man is described as ugly, it is noted more than once that the women are far more attractive than they are).