PBS has aired two different versions of this novel, the first produced in 1967, and the second, aired from December 2002 to February 2003. The first I
did not see, but the second I did, and it left an indelible impression on my mind and a deep hatred toward Soames Forsyte. Reading the book has strengthened
It isn't often that PBS airs two miniseries of the same novel made nearly forty years apart, so that should give you an idea of the excellence of this book. Reading it is even better than watching it, as is usually the case. The 700 pages of the Dover edition flew by—time well spent. I recommend becoming familiar with this tale through both mediums. The 2002 version at least, as far as I can remember, follows the book quite closely, although of course, it has been a long time since I've seen it. The Dover edition book is now out of print. (DO NOT buy the Dover eBook!!) You can get it for free at Project Gutenberg.
In general, the story is about upper middle-class Victorian England and its obsession with pretentiousness and materialism, but moves into the '20s, as we follow the rise and fall of four generations of the Forsytes, who epitomize all that is loathsome yet pathetically humorous about London's well-to-do at the turn-of-the-century. This edition, (and I hope all editions) have a Forsyte family tree printed in the front. I kept a bookmark there and referred to it constantly. It is essential.
The characteristics of the members of this old and large family range from pathetic to disgusting to the total opposite, that of love, kindness, gentleness, and selflessness, descended through the line of Old Jolyon, second of the ten elderly siblings. Second-generation Soames, of the James branch is one of the most despicable, who exudes the warmth of a dead fish. Though he assess his qualities as not bad looking, doesn't drink or smoke, etc. and the fact that he has money to buy his wife everything she could want, he doesn't understand why the beautiful, sensual and sensitive Irene despises him. She is, after all, his property, and to be a Forsyte is to be a "Man of Property." What's not to love? Even after he rapes her, he still doesn't get it.
The family tree begins in 1714 with the first Jolyon Forsyte, the second having been born in 1770. The third was born in 1806, and it is at his home that the story begins. He is second of ten children, the first being the unmarried "Aunt Ann" who dies in this year of 1886. The others are Swithin, unmarried; James, father of Soames; Roger; "Aunt Juley," widowed shortly after marriage; "Aunt Hester," unmarried; Nicholas; Timothy, and Susan. The three "aunts" live with the unmarried Timothy. The story revolves mostly around Jolyon and James, and their offspring.
It is today that June, only child of Jolyon's son, also a Jolyon, has become engaged. She is the love of her grandfather's life, since his son ran away with that French woman 15 years ago. June's mother has died, so she and her grandfather are all each other has. Her engagement is to Philip Bosinney, an unestablished architect, who is snubbed by the other Forsytes. June's best friend is Soames's wife, Irene, who is the epitome of beauty, but there are rumblings among the Forsytes that all is not paradise in the marriage.
Now that the young June is to be married, Old Jolyon finds himself lonely and bored without her companionship. He decides it is time to end the estrangement between himself and his only child, and they renew their relationship. Jolyon has married the French woman, and they have two children, Jolly (Jolyon) and Holly. Since Old Jolyon is a kindly and loving man, it doesn't take long for him to adore his grandchildren. He soon spends a great deal of time with his "new" family.
Meanwhile, Bosinney and Irene have become attracted to each other. June notices he spends less time with her, but chalks it up to business. Eventually, however, she can no longer deny that their engagement is probably off. All the nosy Forsytes notice, but are afraid to mention it. And to make matters worse, Soames is now employing Bosinney to design and build him a house at Robin Hill.
Tensions mount, and money conflicts increase as the cost of the building continues to exceed the quote. Soames is now painfully aware that his wife is in love with Bosinney, although no one, including the readers, know to what level it has been taken.
The house is finally finished, and Bosinney inquires as to whether Soames expects him to also do the interior, saying he would just as well be done, because he is weary of the hassles. Soames, however insists, compromising on the cost, now well above his expectations. When it is finally complete, the cost does exceed what Soames is willing to pay, even though he is wealthy, and Bosinney is barely surviving. Soames, being an attorney, decides to sue. Of course, Bosinney loses, being forced to pay an amount which is pocket change to Soames, but it is a sum out of range for Bosinney. It is also at this point that Soames decides to assert his conjugal rights upon Irene. He comes home the next day to find her gone.
It is also the night when cousin George sees a man in the thick London fog wandering about in a state of delirium as if drunk. But he is not drunk. It is Bosinney, and he has just found out about the rape, because in his state of confusion, he is talking aloud to himself—and George hears. Bosinney walks out in front of a bus and is killed.
Irene returns to Soames, and Old Jolyon send his son, Jolyon to check on her. Soames slams the door in his face. Irene then leaves for good. The expensive house at Robin Hill now sits empty. June convinces her grandfather to buy it. He does and he and June, along with Jolyon and his family now move in together. They are out in the country, away from the miserable society of London, and live quite in peace, harmony and affection. Jolyon—the whole line of Jolyons in fact—are the one redeeming grace of the Forsyte family throughout the entire book.
The novel is divided into three books with an interlude between each. It is here that Book I ends. In the interlude, "Indian Summer of a Forsyte" Old Jolyon is at Robin Hill with little Holly as the others are away. It is the picture of love and contentment. Holly and her grandfather adore each other, and the dog Balthasar. One day Old Jolyon discovers a lady sitting on a log-seat beyond the house. It is the beautiful Irene. She has lived alone all these years, giving piano lessons to support herself, and using what is left to help fallen women. Old Jolyon becomes enraptured by her and they soon begin dining together and attending events. She also gives little Holly piano lessons. Meanwhile, Jolyon's heart pains begin to trouble him more, as he is in his eighties, and even more troubling is the fact that his family is soon to return. Irene believes she must disappear from the picture, as she doubts that June will forgive her for her affair with Bosinney. She is to come one last time, but writes to say she must stay away. Jolyon is heartbroken, and sends her a message saying thus. At the last minute, she changes her mind. In joyful anticipation, Jolyon sits in his special place under the oak tree with his beloved Balthasar. He dozes, but when Balthasar nudges his foot, it doesn't move. He jumps onto the lifeless lap and begins to howl, just as Irene walks up the hill.
In Book II, twelve years have passed since Irene left Soames, though they are still married. There are no grounds for divorce. Irene has been alone all these years, but Soames doesn't believe she has not had lovers. Meanwhile, he is getting older and is determined to have a son. He has met a young French woman of whom he is fond, but when he seeks Irene and finds her, he discovers that he hasn't even begun to get over her and proceeds to almost demand that she come back and behave as a wife and bear him a son. He offers to "forgive her" for all her misbehavior. Obviously he still doesn't get it. She expresses her hatred toward him and says she'd rather be dead. Jolyon is her trustee, since his father has included her in his will. (Jolyon's wife has died.) Irene goes to Paris. Soames has her followed, then goes himself. Finally in fear and exasperation with Soames's threats, she moves in with Jolyon—to Robin Hill which was built for her in the first place. Ironic, isn't it? Soames "catches" them (doing nothing), but Irene lies and says they are guilty, just so the divorce can go through. Soames marries Annette. Irene marries Jolyon, and three months later, they have Jon. Eight months later, Annette almost dies in childbirth, having, not a son, but a daughter, Fleur. She can have no more children. Soames quickly gets over his devastation at not having a son, and falls in love with his baby girl, the only other female besides Irene he has ever loved in his life, such as he is capable of loving.
The next interlude, "Awakening" describes little Jon, then Book III jumps ahead to 1920, where we pick up the lives of the Forsytes in the younger generation, most notably Jon and Fleur and the ongoing family feud.
This is a book that simply must be read. Don't let its length deter you; the pages will fly by, as you become emotionally involved in this tragic, yet at times darkly humorous saga of the Forsyte family—the epitome of wealthy Victorian England—its peak and fall.
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