The Man of Property by John Galsworthy

June 15, 2010

Plot summary (with spoilers): The Man of Property and the subsequent interlude, Indian Summer with a Forstye, are the first two installments of The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy. As the entire collection would be far too difficult to sum up in a single blog post, I thought it would be best to tackle them one or two at a time.

The Man of Property introduces us to the numerous members of the Forsyte clan, a very wealthy British family at its prime during the 1880s. After a bit of rambling in the beginning, the main plot eventually settles on Soames, a second-generation Forsyte, and his beautiful wife Irene. Soames is the “man of property” of the title, though we soon see that his sense of property extends beyond real estate to include his wife. In fact, Soames is so jealous of her and wants to “own” her so completely that he decides to build a country house so they can essentially live in seclusion.

June, Young Jolyon’s daughter, is a good friend of Irene’s, and convinces Soames to give the contracting job to her fiance Philip Bossinay. Though Soames would rather have a “first-rate man” do the job, he can’t pass up the low price Bossinay will give him, so he agrees. This turns out to be a fateful decision, as Philip and Irene end up having an affair, which destroys her marriage with Soames, Philip’s engagement to June, and, ultimately, Philip’s life.

Indian Summer with a Forsyte focuses entirely on Old Jolyon and his growing attachment to Irene. Following the action of the first book, Old Jolyon bought the country house from Soames and moved there with some other members of the family, including June. But during the Indian Summer of the title, the other family members are traveling abroad, leaving Old Jolyon alone with granddaughter Holly and some servants. While walking in the woods one day, Old Jolyon comes across a sobbing Irene — who is visiting a spot where she and Philip shared a romantic moment.

Old Jolyon is moved by Irene’s beauty and by the fact that she has “fallen” in the eyes of society. He enjoys having her around, and starts to invite her to see him more often. Despite his abhorrence at the idea of Irene now working to help similarly fallen women, Old Jolyon can’t help but admire her pluck and determination. He donates money to her cause, hires her to give Holly piano lessons, and adds a codicil to his will leaving 15,000 pounds to Irene upon his death — which peacefully occurs at the end of the interlude.

Liked:

  • Once I got a grasp on the names and personalities of the main characters, I was able to get quite involved in their story. Nothing really “happens” by today’s standards, especially since Galsworthy doesn’t go into details about the Bossinay-Irene affair. But still, the author managed to make the characters and their plights rather interesting.
  • I loved how Irene left Soames after Philip died. Back in 1886, the normal course of action would have been to come crawling back to Soames, particularly since he still wanted her and would have accepted her. It took a lot of courage to leave the Forsyte family without taking a penny of their money.
  • I was surprised that Galsworthy included a rape scene in the novel. It wasn’t graphic or anything, but it was still very clear that Soames forced Irene to act like a wife one night when she forgot to lock her door. I have no doubt that such things like this did occur back then, but I’m kind of shocked that it would be in a book.

Disliked:

  • Just the sheer number of characters that I had to try to keep track of, particularly since only a handful of them ended up playing significant roles in this first book. Some versions of the book have a family tree in front, but I was reading on my Kindle, so no dice.

Rating:

The Man of Property and Indian Summer with a Forsyte by John Galsworthy provide a very solid start to The Forsyte Saga. I’m already invested in this family and want to keep reading about their lives. I give the first two installments 4 stars out of 5.

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