My first read of 2015, was also the first book in one of my year-long reading challenges. The Man of Property is the first book in The Forsyte Saga. I have read the first volume of The Forsyte Saga before, a very long time ago, but so many years and so many books have flowed under the bridge since then, that I had little memory of it. I was quite glad to be coming to it almost fresh, and I am now firmly hooked, and eagerly anticipating the next instalment. As Liz and Karen are reading this too, either at the moment or soon, and others may want to join us I am going to try and not include spoilers.
“Those privileged to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes have seen that charming and instructive sight – an upper-middle class family in full plumage. But whosoever of these favoured persons has possessed the gift of psychological analysis (a talent without monetary value and properly ignored by the Forsytes), has witnessed a spectacle, not only delightful in itself, but illustrative of an obscure human problem. In plainer words, he has gleaned from a gathering of this family – no branch of which had a liking for the other, between no three members of whom existed anything worthy of the name of sympathy – evidence of that mysterious concrete tenacity which renders a family so formidable a unit of society, so clear a reproduction of a society in miniature.”
The Man of Property of the title is Soames Forstye, a member of an enormous family, Soames the son of one of the ten children of a self-made man, a builder, whose interest in property has transferred to his descendants. The Forsytes are the epitome of a type of upper-middle class family in the 1880’s when this novel is set, indeed Old Jolyon sees the Forsytes as being indicative of a particular section of society. Despite their present glitter the Forsytes are originally of yeoman stock, a fact many of the family choose to forget. Old Jolyon is one of those ten children, the older generation of Forsytes, he is in his eighties, his sister Aunt Ann is the eldest of these ageing siblings, his brother James one of a pair of twins the father of Soames. There is a particular philosophy, a mind-set perhaps that unites the Forsytes, they are men of business or law, they acquire property, they relish the money they have made and will leave to their children. Old Jolyon is a widower; he is regrettably estranged from his only son, following a scandal involving his married son and another woman. Old Jolyon had found himself obliged to follow society’s lead and cast his son out, and as this novel opens, he hasn’t seen Young Jolyon (Jo) in fifteen years, despite knowing Jo’s address and London club. Old Jolyon’s granddaughter June Forsyte (Jo’s daughter) lives with her grandfather is the apple of his eye and has become engaged as the novel opens to an almost penniless architect Philip Bosinney.
“She was ever silent, passive, gracefully averse; as though terrified lest by word, motion or sign she might lead him to believe that she was fond of him; and he asked himself: Must I always go on like this?”
Soames Forsyte is a man who wants desperately to possess things, he sets great store by such ownership. His wife Irene is a beautiful, enigmatic young woman, the two haven’t been married more than a few years, though they haven’t had children, and Irene is already aware that the marriage has not been a success. She remembers a time, before they were married when she had made Soames promise to give her, her freedom if the marriage didn’t succeed, a conversation he now denies. For, what Soames wishes to possess more than anything is his wife. He is jealous of her friendships, even her friendship with June, and wishing to remove her from the influence of her London friends and society, hits upon the idea of a house in the country.
Soames’ house at Robin Hill becomes another obsession, but really it is a means for Soames to have Irene all to himself. He employs June’s fiancé Philip Bosinney as architect and soon the project is underway. Bosinney has a creative flare, and delights in a chance to fully show off his talent. The Forsyte family gossip is already starting to wonder at Soames’ and Irene’s relationship, with news that Irene has been asking for her own room. However when Irene and Bosinney are seen to become particularly friendly the speculation is only added to. The fact of the matter of course is that Irene and Bosinney have fallen in love, and there are frequent house calls and rides in the park soon talked about. Poor little June only about seventeen, is gradually made aware of the situation, her hurt and humiliation is hard to bear.
Meanwhile, Old Jolyon (my most favourite Forsyte so far) decides to meet his son, tracking him down in a spontaneous moment at his club. Thereafter he goes to Jo’s house in St John’s Wood, meets his daughter – in law (the former other woman) his two young grandchildren Jolly and Holly and the family dog. Jo’s family gives Old Jolyon a new lease of life; they even have a day out at the zoo.
The Soames, Irene, Bosinney triangle descends into high drama – (I don’t want to spoil it for future readers) as the new house at Robin Hill is completed, vastly over budget.
Indian Summer of a Forsyte is the interlude, of around fifty pages, that comes after The Man of Property, and concerns Old Jolyon and his friendship with Irene. Old Jolyon is now living in the house at Robin Hill, delighting in his youngest granddaughter having even made friends with the dog. This is a beautifully, poignant section, Jolyon feels the years, wondering how much time he has left to enjoy Robin Hill and his family.
Such an endlessly readable novel, oh how I loved it! This first, brilliant instalment runs to about 360 pages, and although not an especially fast read, it is a book the reader wants always to read just one more chapter of. If all nine novels are as readable and unputdownable as The Man of Property and its associated Interlude then I have many hours of reading pleasure ahead of me.