Tuesday, July 18, 2017

innumerable transactions concerned with property of all sorts - John Galsworthy's The Man of Property

For the purposes of these posts, I am going to pretend that there is no such thing as The Forsyte Saga.  No Nobel prize, no BBC series.  Just a single short novel, The Man of Property (1906), from an author not exactly young but early in his career.  It would be another twelve years before Galsworthy thought to write a short story about one of the characters, and two after that before the Saga was conceived.

So for a long time there is just this one novel.  It is in the “way we live now” genre, or I guess the “way we lived then,” since it is set in 1886.  Like Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale (1908, which begins in the 1860s) and Forster’s A Room with a View (1908, contemporary, in a sense), Galsworthy is laying into those stuffy, narrow, prudish, prejudiced Victorians, people not like him.

Like those books, The Man of Property is in the mode of Thackeray and Trollope, with a forceful, opinionated narrator, unafraid of saying something perhaps even a bit cruel about his characters.

Old Jolyon had remained standing while the strong, silent man was speaking.  The speech awoke an echo in all hearts, voicing, as it did, the worship of strong men, the movement against generosity, which had at that time commenced among the saner members of the community. (2.5, emphasis mine)

Although in this case Galsworthy is not exactly criticizing his character, though, but rather his extras (the scene is a stockholders' meeting).  Old Jolyon is, despite his emotional limits, some of them severe, a man of generosity, who loves children.  Even if specific Forsytes are all right, Forsyteism is satirized.  How much of this is too much?  I don’t know.  Francie Forsyte has made a name for herself as a songwriter – examples are given, including music, which is impressive – but in a weak moment she wrote a “sincere work,” a violin sonata.  “They felt at once that it would not sell.”

It was rubbish, but – annoying! the sort of rubbish that wouldn’t sell.  As every Forsyte knows, rubbish that sells is not rubbish at all – far from it.  (2.7)

Forsyteism is commercial, practical, and tenacious.  It is not, in an interesting twist, exactly Philistine.  It has an aesthetic.  Maybe I will push that idea to another post.

The title is employed ironically in a number of ways, falling most heavily on Soames Forsyte, a lawyer with a beautiful wife who does not love him.  He is the main “man of property” in the book.

And those countless Forsytes, who, in the course of innumerable transactions concerned with property of all sorts (from wives to water rights), had occasion for the services of a safe man, found it both reposeful and profitable to confide in Soames.  (2.5)

The Man of Property is a comedy that turns serious, that darkens, much like Howards End (1910) or Vanity Fair (1848), or for that matter The Way We Live Now (1875).  The tragedy of the novel lies in the presence of the word “wives” between those parentheses.  I do not suppose the novel has many readers now who would argue the point, but it is useful – chilling – to see Galsworthy work through a case in such sad detail.


  1. I set out to read the whole series a while back and didn't get much further than this. Don't know why, because I loved it very much. His characterisation and writing really appealed and I did love the irony in there.


  2. If it took Galsworthy 14 years to write the next book, I say there is no hurry for us.

    I, too, find the whole mode quite appealing. The characters are so well-made.

  3. I'll have to give Galsworthy a try one of these days.

    but in a weak moment she wrote a “sincere work,” a violin sonata. “They felt at once that it would not sell.”

    Ford Madox Ford is very funny about this kind of thing in his wonderful memoirs.

  4. I believe there is a bit of autobiography for Galsworthy, too, in that anecdote.