Born at Kingston Hill in Surrey to a wealthy solicitor and a Midlands manufacturer's daughter, John Galsworthy spent his childhood in the very sort of upper-middle-class family he would one day skewer in his novels. In the British tradition of using the novel for social propaganda, Galsworthy believed it was the duty of an artist to bring a problem to light but up to society to find a solution.
Educated at Harrow and New College, Oxford, Galsworthy studied law but found his true interest in literature, reading Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert, Rudyard Kipling, Herman Melville, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Emile Zola. Instead of settling into practice as a barrister, he chose to travel, in part to forget an unrequited love for his country neighbor Sybil Carlisle. On a South Sea voyage in 1893, a chance meeting with Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness) convinced Galsworthy to give up law for good and become a writer instead. At the age of 28, he began writing stories under the pseudonym John Sinjohn, publishing his first collection, From the Four Winds, in 1897 at his own expense.
In 1904, he published the novel The Island Pharisees under his own name. That same year, his father passed away and Galsworthy became financially independent. He immediately married Ada Person Cooper, with whom he had lived in secret for nearly 10 years to escape his father's disapproval. Her previous, unhappy marriage to Galsworthy's cousin, Arthur, formed the basis for The Man of Property (1906), the novel that was to become the first installment of The Forsyte Saga, his epic chronicle of three generations of the British middle-class. The Times Literary Supplement hailed The Man of Property as "a new type of novel," one unafraid to take satiric swipes at social privilege.
The year 1906 also marked Galsworthy's first real success as a dramatist with The Silver Box (1906). While his fiction focused on the society of the drawing room, his plays focused on the man in the street, often dealing with the themes of poverty, class, and injustice. His most famous play, Justice (1910), led to English prison reform.
Too old to serve in the first world war, Galsworthy signed over his family house as a rest home for British Army wounded and went to work at a French hospital for disabled soldiers. Charles Masterman, head of the War Propaganda Bureau (WPB), recruited him to write pro-British articles that appeared in the New York Times, the New York Tribune, and Scribner's magazine. Unlike other writers, Galsworthy refused to incite public hatred of Germany, encouraging instead the support of disabled and wounded soldiers. His WPB articles were collected in A Sheaf (1916) and Another Sheaf (1917).
His opinions about the Great War were also aired on stage in The Mob (1914) and The Skin Game (1920), which was adapted into a 1931 film by Alfred Hitchcock. Two of his later plays were also filmed: Loyalties (1922), a study of anti-Semitism produced for television; and Escape (1926), first made into a movie in 1930 and again in 1948 by director Joseph L. Mankiewicz and starring Rex Harrison. In 1917, Prime Minister Lloyd George planned to confer knighthood on Galsworthy, but he refused the honor, believing that writing should be its own reward.
At war's end, 15 years after The Man of Property was published, Galsworthy resumed the Forsytes' story. After reading the short story "Indian Summer of a Forsyte," his goddaughter inquired, "Why not go on with them -- give us more Forsytes?" Inspired, Galsworthy planned a grand trilogy. In a letter to a friend he noted, "This idea, if I can ever bring it to fruition, will make The Forsyte Saga... the most sustained and considerable piece of fiction of our generation at least."
His idea did come to fruition: In Chancery (1920) was followed by To Let (1921). While Galsworthy had at first cast a jaundiced eye on the world of his novels, with age he came to identify with it, to the point that he began to sympathize with Soames Forsyte. In 1922, the three books of The Forsyte Saga were collected in a single edition that cemented Galwsworthy's literary fortunes. The story would eventually become the 1949 film That Forsyte Woman, starring Errol Flynn and Greer Garson, and the 1967 BBC miniseries that led to the launch of Masterpiece Theatre.
The White Monkey (1924), The Silver Spoon (1926), and two more trilogies, A Modern Comedy and End of the Chapter, gave Galsworthy a wide audience keen on remembering the Victorian era with both curiosity and nostalgia.
As his popularity rose, however, his literary fortunes fell. A younger generation of writers, including D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, attacked his work, accusing Galsworthy of embodying the values he supposedly criticized. In the 1919 article "Modern Fiction" in The Common Reader, Woolf proclaimed that the broad social novels of Edwardian writers such as Galsworthy, H.G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, and Arnold Bennett were no longer relevant.
In 1921, Galsworthy founded PEN (with Catherine Dawson Scott), an international organization of writers which would later be financed by his Nobel Prize money. He named the organization PEN after a colleague pointed out that the initial letters on "poet," "essayist," and "novelist" were the same in most European languages. The group aimed to promote intellectual cooperation and understanding among writers, create a world community of writers, and defend literature against threats to its survival.
In 1932, Galsworthy received the Nobel Prize for Literature for "his distinguished art of narration, which takes its highest form in The Forsyte Saga." His good luck, however, was short-lived: He died the following year from a brain tumor. During his career Galsworthy produced 20 novels, 27 plays, three collections of poetry, 173 short stories, five collections of essays, and 700 letters. Today he is remembered as a faithful documentarian who captured the spirit of an era.
From the Four Winds (1897) (as John Sinjohn)
The Island Pharisees (1904)
The Man of Property (1906)
The Country House (1907)
The Patrician (1911)
The Freelands (1915)
In Chancery (1920)
To Let (1921)
The Forsyte Saga (1922)
A Modern Comedy, 1924-1928
The White Monkey, 1924
The Silver Spoon, 1926
End of the Chapter, 1934
The Silver Box (1906)
The Mob (1914)
The Skin Game (1920)
Essays + Interviews:
John Galsworthy | Damian Lewis | The Forsyte Saga, circa 1967
Essays + Interviews | Production Notes
Family Tree/Cast + Credits | Novel to Film | Russell Baker
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