Reviewed by: David Pickup
Author: John Galsworthy
Amazingly, it is 45 years since the BBC series of the Forsyte Saga and 10 years since the second one on ITV. The BBC version was extremely successful and commanded huge audiences. Many babies were named Fleur or Jolyon in tribute to this family drama. One of the main characters in the books is Soames Forsyte, a solicitor, art collector and the conservative antithesis to the free-spirited Jolyon. Soames is unlucky in love and lucky in his profession. He makes a fortune, sells his firm and retires to a large mansion by the river to build up his art collection.
Most lawyers in literature are two dimensional, stuffy men with no life outside the law. Think of Jaggars in Dickens or the lawyers in Willkie Collins’ books. Soames is different; the tragic hero we admire. He is the man of business, the trusted adviser, discreet and dependable. A period when solicitors were gentlemen and lawyers had managing clerks to do the grubby work such as litigation. Property work meant deeds of settlement to keep capital in the family. A simpler age when clients paid bills in guineas, there was little regulation and the clerks turned away the prospective clients they did not like the look of.
Soames is tragic because he can give excellent advice but cannot run his own personal life. He was aware that his young bride was trying to escape an unhappy life. When she is suspected of being unfaithful he does what any solicitor would do and sues the scoundrel. He later advises his sister on a separation case which goes disastrously wrong because to obtain a legal separation she must first pretend she wants him back. She gets her order for him to come back to her which is what no one expects him to do. The blighter does exactly that and goes home There are more legal thrills later in the series, with a clerk in the insurance company Soames is a director of, who goes to him to report a manager who is taking bribes. John Grisham eat your heart out. Some of the legal plots have attracted academic legal comment discussing whether Galsworthy’s artistic licence interfered with his accuracy of the law.
Soames and the other characters develop through the books. He changes from a rather pathetic man who does everything and fails to get his wife to love him, into a man desperate to have a son to leave his fortune to. Galsworthy was pleased that readers were sympathetic to Soames. In the 1960s there were television debates about whether Soames or his estranged wife were to blame.
John Galsworthy was the son of a successful solicitor. His father, also called John, wanted his son to be a barrister. John junior practised at the bar but gave up for a literary career. Galsworthy’s family was similar to the Forsytes as they had moved from obscurity to riches in a few generations. Galsworthy led an unconventional personal life and championed unpopular social causes. Galsworthy won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1932. Although a prolific writer of drama, short stories and novels, his reputation now depends solely on his Forsyte novels which form three trilogies. The best are the first two books as the series rather runs out of steam through the generations. They are fascinating stories of the decline of a middle class family and how a family feud affects the following generations. The books are often referred to as satires on Victorian and Edwardian life, but in reality they are simply excellent stories of family life.
The law has moved on. The way Soames treats his wife as his property would now attract the attention of the police. The main business of solicitors is no longer family settlements and divorce is now much simpler. However the idea of a professional man who can cure everyone else’s problems but not their own may still ring true. The solicitor as the trusted advisor who can give non-judgmental, accurate and practical advice is something we can still admire and aspire to.
"The law was very much like the Forsyte saddle of mutton. There is something in its succulent solidity which makes it suitable to people of a certain position. It is nourishing and tasty the sort of thing a man remembers eating. It has a past and a future, like a deposit paid into a bank and it has something that can be argued about."
David Pickup is a partner in Aylesbury-based Pickup & Scott