John Galsworthy’s authorship seems to develop unusually smoothly, pushed on by a conscientious and indefatigable creative impulse. Yet he is not one of those who have turned to the literary career rapidly and without resistance. Born, as the English put it, with a silver spoon in his mouth, that is, economically independent, he studied at Harrow and Oxford, chose the law without practicing it, and traveled all over the world. When, at the age of twenty-eight, he began writing for the first time, the immediate reason was the exhortation of a woman friend, and it was to Galsworthy a mere recreation, evidently not without the inherent prejudices of the gentleman, against the vocation of writing. His first two collections of tales were published under the pen name of John Sin john, and the editions were soon withdrawn by the self-critical beginner. Not until he was thirty-seven did he begin his real authorship by publishing the novel The Island Pharisees (1904), and two years later appeared The Man of Property, the origin of his fame and at the same time of his monumental chief work, The Forsyte Saga.
So went the citation for Galsworthy on the occasion of his receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in abstentia
Galsworthy was born at Kingston Hill in Surrey, England into an established upper-middle-class and wealthy family, his father, John Galsworthy, a lawyer and director of several companies and his mother, nee Blanche Bartleet, the daughter of a Midlands manufacturer. Galsworthy attended Harrow and New College, Oxford, training as a barrister and was called to the bar in 1890. Not keen to begin practicing law, he traveled abroad to look after the family’s shipping business interests whilst pursuing an unlucky love affair. During the period of his studies, he gained fame as a cricket and football player, but not with his writings. Only that once he planned to write a study of warm-blooded horses.
During his travels he met Joseph Conrad, then the first mate of a sailing-ship moored in the harbor of Adelaide Australia, and the two became close friends. In a letter he noted: “The first mate is a Pole called Conrad, and is a capital chap though queer to look at; he is a man of travel and experience in many parts of the world, and has a fund of yarns on which I draw freely.” This meeting convinced Galsworthy to give up law and devote himself entirely to writing.
In 1895 Galsworthy began an affair with Ada Nemesis Pearson, the wife of one of his cousins. with whom he lived in secret for ten years, because he did not want to cause distress to his father, who would not approve of the relationship. With his father’s death in 1904, Galsworthy became financially independent and in 1905 married Ada. They stayed together until his death in 1933. She even inspired many of Galsworthy’s female characters. Her previous unhappy marriage with Galsworthy’s cousin formed the basis for the novel The Man of Property (1906), which began the The Forsyte Saga novel sequence which established Galsworthy’s reputation as a major British writer.
From the Four Winds a collection of short stories was Galsworthy’s first published work in 1897, which with several subsequent works, were published under the pen name John Sinjohn. It would not be until The Island Pharisees (1904) that he would begin publishing under his own name, after the death of his father. His first play, The Silver Box (1906) became a success, and he followed it up with The Man of Property (1906), the first in the Forsyte trilogy.
Although he continued writing both plays and novels it was as a playwright he was mainly appreciated at the time. Along with other writers of the time such as Shaw his plays addressed the class system and social issues. Two of his best known plays were Strife (1909) and The Skin Game (1920).
He is now far better known for his novels and particularly The Forsyte Saga, the first of three trilogies of novels about the eponymous family and connected lives. These, as with many of his other works, dealt with class, and in particular upper-middle class lives. Although sympathetic to his characters he highlights their insular, snobbish and acquisitive attitudes and their suffocating moral codes. The first appearance of the Forsyte family was in one of the stories in Man of Devon (1901). The saga follows the lives of three generations of the British middle-class before 1914. Soames Forsyte, married to beautiful and rebellious Irene, was modeled after Arthur Galsworthy, the writer’s cousin. Soames rapes his wife, which was the fate Ada Galsworthy suffered at the hands of her former husband Arthur. In the second volume, In Changery (1920), Irene and Soames divorce. She marries Jolyon Forsyte, Soames’s cousin, and bears a son, Jon. Soames and his second wife, Annette Lamotte, have a daughter, Fleur. In the third volume, To Let (1921), Fleur and Jon fall in love, but Jon refuses to marry her. The second part of Forsyte chronicles, containing The White Monkey (1924), The Silver Spoon (1926), Swan Song (1928), starts on an October afternoon of 1922 and closes in 1926. ‘A Silent Wooing’ and ‘Passers By’, the two interludes, came out in 1927.
Galsworthy returned again to the world of the Forsyte books in 1931 with a further collection of stories, On Forsyte Change. Romain Rolland, the writer of Jean-Christophe (1904-1912), coined a special term, the roman-fleuve, to descibe this kind of series of novels, which can be read separately, but which form a coherent narrative.
Although Galsworthy chronicled changes in the middle-class family in England, he said in the preface of The White Monkey, that the English character had changed very little since the Victorianism of Soames and his generation. “He emerged still thinking about the English. Well! They were now one of the plainest and most distorted races of the world; and yet was there any race to compare with them for good temper and for ‘guts’? And they needed those in their smoky towns, and their climate a remarkable instance of adaptation to environment, the modern English character! ‘I could pick out an Englishman anywhere,’ he thought, ‘ and yet, physically, there’s no general type now!’ Astounding people!”
Galsworthy is viewed as one of the first writers of the Edwardian era; who challenges in his works some of the ideals of society depicted in the literature of Victorian England. The depiction of a woman in an unhappy marriage is a recurring theme in his work. Through his writings he campaigned for a variety of causes including prison reform, women’s rights, animal welfare and censorship, most of which have limited appeal outside the era in which they were written.
Galsworthy’s first four books were published at his own expense under the pseudonym John Sinjohn. After reading Maupassant and Turgenev, Galsworthy published Villa Rubein (1900), in which he started to find his own voice. These early efforts, written under the influence of Kipling and Russian novelists, he later labeled as heavy and exaggerated. The Island Pharisees (1904) the first book which came out under his own name. Galsworthy wrote originally in the first person, then in the third, and revised it again. Its final version was not finished until 1908.
In Galsworthy’s satire against the Island Pharisees, the fundamental feature that was to mark all his subsequent works was already apparent. The book deals with an English gentleman’s having stayed abroad long enough to forget his conventional sphere of thoughts and feelings. He criticizes the national surroundings severely, and in doing so he is assisted by a Belgian vagabond, who casually makes his acquaintance in an English railway compartment and who becomes his fate. At that time Galsworthy was himself a cosmopolite returned home, prepared to fight against the old capitalistic aristocratic society with about the same program as George Bernard Shaw, although the Englishman, contrary to the Irishman who fought with intellectual arms, above all aimed at capturing feeling and imagination. The pharisaical egoism of England’s ruling classes, the subject of Galsworthy’s debut, remained his program for the future, only specialized in his particular works. He never tired of fighting against all that seemed narrow and harsh in the national character, and the persistence of his attacks on social evil indicates his strong impressions and deeply wounded feeling of justice.
With the Forsyte type he now aimed at the upper middle class, the rich businessmen, a group not yet having reached real gentility, but striving with its sympathies and instincts toward the well-known ideal of the gentleman of rigid, imperturbable, and imposing correctness. These people are particularly on their guard against dangerous feelings, a fact which, however, does not exclude accidental lapses, when passion intrudes upon their life, and liberty claims its rights in a world of property instincts. Beauty, here represented by Irene, does not like to live with The Man of Property; in his bitter indignation at this, Soames Forsyte becomes almost a tragic figure. Fifteen years later that he again took up his Forsytes, the effects of the World War had radically changed the perspective. But now this work expanded; In Chancery (1920) and To Let (1921) and two short story interludes were added, and thus The Forsyte Saga proper was completed. Not finished with the younger members of the family, Galsworthy wrote A Modern Comedy, a new trilogy whose structure is exactly like that of its predecessor and consists of the three novels, The White Monkey (1924), The Silver Spoon (1926), and Swan Song (1928), united by two short story interludes. These two trilogies together form an unusual literary accomplishment. The novelist has carried the history of his time through three generations, and his success in mastering so excellently his enormously difficult material, both in its scope and in its depth, remains an extremely memorable feat in English literature.
In the foreground of this chronicle is everyday reality, as experienced by the Forsytes, all personal fortunes, conflicts, and tragicomedies. But in the background is visible the dark fabric of historical events. See, for instance, the chapter describing how Soames with his second wife witnesses the funeral of Queen Victoria in grey weather at the Hyde Park fence, and the rapid survey of the age from her accession to the throne: «Morals had changed, manners had changed, men had become monkeys twice removed, God had become Mammon – Mammon so respectable as to deceive himself.» In the Forsyte novels we observe the transformation and the dissolution of the Victorian age up to the onset of the modern age.. In the first trilogy comes to life the period that in England effected the fusion of nobility and plutocracy with the accompanying change of the notion of a «gentleman», a kind of Indian summer of wealth before the days of the storm. The second trilogy, no longer called «saga» but «comedy», describes the profound crisis of the new England whose task is to change the ruins of the past and the improvised barracks of wartime into its future home. The gallery of types is admirably complete. Robust businessmen, spoiled society ladies, aunts touching in an old-fashioned way, rebellious young girls, gentlemen of the clubs, politicians, artists, children, and even dogs – these last-mentioned especially favored by Galsworthy – emerge in the London panorama in a concrete form, alive before our eyes and ears.
The situations recur as a curious documentation of the oscillation and the undulation in a family of given hereditary dispositions. The individual portraits are distinguished, and the law of social life is at work.
One could observe in these novels how Galsworthy’s view gradually changes. The radical critic of culture rises by degrees to a greater objectivity in his appreciation and to a more liberal view of the purely human. There is his treatment of Soames, at first satirized, but then described with a respect that, reluctantly growing, finally changes into a genuine sympathy. Galsworthy has seized upon this sympathy; his characterization of Soames’s personality thoroughly worked out becomes the most memorable feature of the Forsyte saga and the comedy of the descendants. One of those masterly final episodes of Swan Song, in which Old Soames, having driven to his ancestors’ village on the west coast, finds with the help of an old census map the place where the Forsytes’ farm had been situated, where only a single stone marks the site; lingers in the reader’s mind. Something like the ghost of a path leads him down into a valley of grass and furze. He breathes in the fresh, rough sea air which goes a little to his head; he puts on his overcoat and sits musing, his back against the stone. Had his ancestors built the house themselves at this lonely place, had they been the first to settle down here? he wonders. Their England rises before him, an England «of pack horses and very little smoke, of peat and wood fires, and wives who never left you, because they couldn’t probably». He sits there a long time, absorbed in his feeling for the birthplace.
«And something moved in him, as if the salty independence of that lonely spot were still in his bones. Old Jolyon and his own father and the rest of his uncles – no wonder they’d been independent, with this air and loneliness in their blood; and crabbed with the pickling of it – unable to give up, to let go, to die. For a moment he seemed to understand even himself.»
To Galsworthy Soames thus becomes one of the last representatives of static old England. There was no humbug in him, we are told; he had his trying ways, but he was genuine. The sober prosaic respectability is in this manner duly honored in Galsworthy’s realism. As time passed, and the weary, cynical laxity grew more and more visibly modern, the chronicler found that several traits which under other circumstances had been little appreciated, perhaps really constituted the secret of the British power of resistance. On the whole, Galsworthy’s later novels are permeated with a patriotic feeling of self-defense that appears also in his descriptions of the home and studies of nature. Even these last-mentioned are rendered with a more tender and more anxious poetry, with the feeling of protecting something precious yet already shadowed by certain loss. It may be old chambers where people have established themselves as if to remain there forever. Or it may be an English garden park, where the September sun is shining beautifully on bronze-colored beech leaves and centenary hedges of yew.
It is above all in The Country House (1907), in Fraternity (1901), and in The Dark Flower (1913) that his mature essential character is seen. In the novel of the manor he created perhaps his most exquisite female portrait, Mrs. Pendyce, the type of the perfect, unaffected lady with all the modest tragedy which surrounds a truly noble nature, condemned to be restrained if not destroyed by the fetters of tradition. In Fraternity he represented, with a discreet mixture of pity and irony, the unfulfilled martyr of social conscience, the aesthete who is tortured by the shadows of the proletarian masses in London, but is not able to take the decisive step and carry out his altruistic impulse of action. There we also meet the old original Mr. Stone, the utopian dreamer with his eternal monologues beneath the night sky, indeed one of Galsworthy’s most memorable types. The Dark Flower, may be called a psychological sonata, played with a masterly hand and based on the variations of passion and resignation in the ages of man. Even in the form of the short story Galsworthy has often been able to evoke an emotional response through contrasts of shadow and light which work rather graphically. He can do this in only a few pages which become animated by his personal style, for example, when he tells about such a simple case as that of the German shoemaker in «Quality», the story of the hopeless struggle of good craftsmanship against low-price industry.
By appealing to education and the sense of justice, his narrative art has always gently influenced contemporary notions of life and habits of thought. The same is true of his dramatic works, which were often direct contributions to social discussion and led to definite reforms at least in one area, the administration of public prisons in England as through Justice (1910), a realistic portrayal of prison life that roused so much feeling that it led to prison reform.
His dramas show an unusual richness of ideas combined with great ingenuity and technical skill in the working out of scenic effect. When certain inclinations are found, they are always just and humane. Galsworthy’s plays, written in a naturalistic style, usually examines some controversial ethical or social problem. In The Forest (1924), for example, he brands the inconsiderate spirit of greed that, for crass purposes, exploits the heroism of the British world-conquering mind. The Show (1925) represents the defenselessness of the individual against the press in a family tragedy where brutal newspaper curiosity functions like a deaf and unchecked machine, removing the possibility of any one being held responsible for the resultant evil.
Loyalties (1922), dealing with the theme of anti-Semitism and which was also the best of his later plays depicts a matter of honor in which loyalty is tested and impartially examined in the different circles where it is at work, that is, the family, the corporation, the profession, and the nation. The force of these and other plays is in their logical structure and their concentrated action; sometimes possessing an atmosphere of poetic feeling that is far from trivial. especially in A Pigeon (1912) and A Bit o’ Love (1915) which, however, did not meet with such brilliant success on the stage. The Silver Box (1906), like many of his other works, has a legal theme giving a bitter contrast of the law’s treatment of the rich and the poor thus showing that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. Later plays include The Skin Game (1920), filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1931, and Escape (1926), filmed for a second time in 1948 by 20th. Century-Fox, starring Rex Harrison. In the story a law-abiding man meets a prostitute and accidentally kills a police in defending her. He escapes from prison, and meets different people before giving himself up.
Although on the whole Galsworthy’s plays cannot be rated artistically with his novels, they confirm quite as plainly how strongly he sticks to his early ideal of liberty. Even in his rather cool dramatic works we meet a steady enemy of all oppression, spiritual as well as material, a sensitive man who with all his heart reacts against lack of consideration and never gives way in his demand for fair play.
We find in Galsworthy a definite musical charm catching and keeping the hidden feelings. His intuition is so infallible that he can content himself with a slight allusion and a broken hint. Galsworthy’s irony is such a singular instrument that even the tone separates him from any other writer. There are many different kinds of irony. One principal kind is negative and can be compared to the hoar-frost of the windows in a house where there is no fire, where the hearth has grown cold long ago. But there is also an irony friendly to life, springing from warmth, interest, and humanity; such is Galsworthy’s. His is an irony that, in the presence of tragicomic evil, seems to question why it must be so, why it is necessary, and whether there is nothing to remedy it. Sometimes Galsworthy makes nature herself take part in that ironic play about human beings, to underline the bitterness or sweetness of the incidents with the help of winds, clouds, fragrances, and bird cries. Assisted by this irony he successfully appeals to the psychological imagination, always the best ally of understanding and sympathy.
As we have alreagy seen , Galsworth had a quest for adventure, altruism and social commitment. This continues throughout the rest of his life. During World War I, for instance, he tried to enlist in the army, but was rejected due to his shortsightedness. He instead worked in a hospital in France as an orderly. He worked for the Red Cross in France, and helped refugees in Belgium. Galsworthy refused knighthood in 1917 in the belief that writers should not accept titles. He also gave away at least half of his income to humanitarian causes.
In 1924 Galsworthy founded PEN, the international organization of writers, with Catherine Dawson Scott and was elected as its first president. Galsworthy and Dawson Scott after contacting American writers had a center started in New York. At its inaugural meeting, April 19, 1922, at a dinner in the Coffee House Club, where about forty people gathered to which he sent a message of good will; read by Alexander Black, Chairman of the Executive Committee. Galsworthy sent warmest greetings to the new American Center and set down the central idea and hope upon which P.E.N. was founded:
We writers are in some sort trustees for human nature; if
we are narrow and prejudiced we harm the human race. And
the better we know each other….the greater the chance
for human happiness in a world not, as yet, too happy.
One of Galsworthy’s ideas from the beginning that there should be an International Congress each year, to which all the Centers would send their delegates was first held in London in 1923 with an impressive number of centers, and representatives from Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Italy, Norway, Rumania, Spain, Sweden, and the United States. The following year the American Center hosted an International Congress, in May 1924, consisting of three days of festivities and discussions, the highlight being a gala banquet at which a letter from John Galsworthy was also read by Mrs. Dawson Scott, which emphasized the reason behind P.E.N. hospitality:
I beg you earnestly to believe that our meetings are not
just festivity, but gestures of friendliness which have
a deep and wide-reaching significance….Friends, the
P.E.N. Club was a great dream….I believe I speak from
your hearts, as well as from my own, when I say: “With
this dream we will go forward till we have made of it a
great reality.” Good fortune to you all and may you serve
In January of 1933, a year after the Budapest Congress, John Galsworthy died from a brain tumor at his London home, Grove Lodge, Hampstead , leaving his Nobel Prize money in a trust fund for P.E.N., the last gift and contribution to an organization he loved and nurtured, watching it grow and take shape. In accordance with his will he was cremated at Woking and his ashes scattered over the South Downs from an aeroplane, but there is also a memorial in Highgate ‘New’ Cemetery.
The popularity of his fiction waned quickly after his death but the hugely successful adaptation of The Forsyte Saga in 1967 renewed interest in the writer. A number of John Galsworthy’s letters and papers are held at the University of Birmingham Special Collections. He produced 20 novels, 27 plays, 3 collections of poetry, 173 short stories, 5 collections of essays, 700 letters, and many sketches and miscellaneous works. Galsworthy’s socially committed work was attacked by D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf who said in her essay ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’, that the Edwardian writers “developed a technique of novel-writing which suits their purpose. . . But those tools are not our tools, and that business is not our business.” The younger generation of writers accused Galsworthy of being thoroughly embodied of the values he was supposed to be criticizing. On the other hand, his influence is seen in the works of Thomas Mann, and he was widely read in France and in Russia. The Forsyte Saga gained a huge popular success as a BBC television series in 1967.
Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969