John Galsworthy and the Forsyte Saga keep turning up in other people’s novels…

Mr John Galsworthy (1867-1933) has a terrible habit of turning up in other people’s novels in the inter-war period. In a sense it isn’t very surprising – he was such popular and influential novelist that he was a household name to most people. What is interesting is the way that he and his novels are used within other novels to draw characters and demonstrate cultural status.

For example, in Margery Sharp’s The Nutmeg Tree (1937) there are recurring references to Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga. Julia, a middle-aged woman who has enjoyed a wild and impecunious life on the stage, is trying to rebuild her relationship with her estranged daughter, Susan. This daughter is respectable and serious, so when she goes to visit Julia chooses her reading material with care: ‘It was the Forsyte Saga, and Julia chose it partly because it seemed such a lot for the money, and partly because she had often heard Galsworthy spoken of as a Good Author. She fancied it was the sort of book Susan would like to see her mother reading’. (Pp. 26-28. See also p. 109, 182.)

Immediately we can see Julia’s intention; Galsworthy is respectable, the kind of author a proper middle-aged mother should be reading. Julia also mistakenly believes that Galsworthy infers ‘class’. However, to Susan, who is clearly a self-professed highbrow, the choice of Galsworthy instead demonstrates Julia’s cultural unsophistication.

By having Julia read Galsworthy Margery Sharp is taking part in the lively debate on literary hierarchies in the inter-war period. The most famous statement of these hierarchies is Q. D. Leavis’s book Fiction and the Reading Public (1932). Leavis is very worried indeed about what people are reading. She writes: ‘for the first time in the history of our literature the living forms of the novel have been side-tracked in favour of the faux-bon.’ P. 39 This faux-bon – that which pretends to be good literature, but isn’t – is exemplified by Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga. In 1929 the Book Society, a club that recommended to its members a ‘book of the month’, chose Galworthy’s A Modern Comedy (sequel to the Forsyte Saga), causing Leavis to conclude that the club conferred ‘authority on a taste for the second-rate’ (p. 23). Oh dear.

One of the best expressions of the literary hierarchies of the time, and the Forsyte Saga’s place within them, is in George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). (Not a book we hold in the collection – Orwell doesn’t need our help to be preserved!)

Gordon Comstock, ‘aged twenty-nine and rather moth-eaten already’, works in a book shop:

Mrs Penn laid The Forsyte Saga on the table and turned her sparrow-bosom upon Gordon.  She was always very affable to Gordon.  She addressed him as Mister Comstock, shopwalker though he was, and held literary conversations with him.  There was the free-masonryof highbrows between them.

‘I hope you enjoyed The Forsyte Saga, Mrs Penn?’

‘What a perfectly MARVELLOUS achievement that book is, Mr Comstock! Do you know that that makes the fourth time I’ve read it?  An epic, a real epic!’ […] ‘What I feel, Mr Comstock, is that there’s something so BIG about Galsworthy.  He’s so broad, so universal, and yet at the same time so thoroughly English in spirit, so HUMAN.  His books are real HUMAN documents.’

‘And Priestley, too,’ said Gordon.  ‘I think Priestley’s such an awfully fine writer, don’t you?’

‘Oh, he is!  So big, so broad, so human!  And so essentially English!’

Gordon (and I think it is fair to say, Orwell) are having a lot of fun at the expense of Mrs Penn. What a fool she is, to think that the Forsyte Saga is highbrow literature! What could be more middlebrow? And don’t even get started on Priestley… Of course it is implied that we, the sophisticated reader, can join with Gordon in knowing better and enjoy Orwell’s satire.

You can find references to other novels and novelists in the books we hold in the collection by searching the catalogue for “literary and cultural references” and [your search term]. So to find the above reference to Galsworthy I entered ‘“literary and cultural references” and Galsworthy’.  Telling references to Priestley and particularly H G Wells are also starting to come up in these searches. This search is becoming possible as our readers fill in detailed cataloguing forms that note these references to books, newspapers, film and art.

Search the catalogue here http://catalogue.shu.ac.uk/search~S17/
Quotations from the novel, with pages numbers, are held in a Word document attached to the catalogue record. You can watch a video showing you how to do the search here. (Essentially it is a video of me searching, with my voice explaining!)

If you are reading the same novels as we hold in the collection and would like to contribute to this cataloguing please see the instructions. We’d love to have your contribution.

This idea of following the references and links withing books is also the aim of a website called Small Demons. It is slightly different from what we are trying to do in that you can search for people, places and things within books, but not other novels. So you can search for mentions of Galsworthy, but not specifically for the Forsyte Saga. Small Demons also works from books that exist in digital form, where they have secured an agreement with the publisher, so this tends to be modern books.

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3 thoughts on “John Galsworthy and the Forsyte Saga keep turning up in other people’s novels…

  1. Intriguing, because I have been wondering whether I should approach The Forsyte Saga (and my son did study some of it as part of his English degree). Maybe what was considered lowbrow in the past is now rather more highbrow compared with modern books………!

  2. Pingback: Happy George Orwell Day! « Reading 1900-1950

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