The English novelist and playwright John Galsworthy (1867-1933) was one of the most popular writers of the early 20th century. His work explores the transitions and contrasts between pre-and post-World War I England.
Born on Aug. 14, 1867, in Coombe, Surrey, at the height of the Victorian era, John Galsworthy was educated at Harrow and New College, Oxford. He was admitted to the bar in 1890, and 8 years later, after his first novel Jocelyn appeared, he left law to continue writing. The Island Pharisees (1904) and The Man of Property (1906), which became the first novel in The Forsyte Saga, expanded his audience and his reputation.
As his popularity increased, Galsworthy published other novels of the Forsyte series: Indian Summer of a Forsyte (1918), In Chancery (1920), Awakening (1920), and To Let (1921). In The Forsyte Saga late Victorian and Edwardian England's upper-middle-class society is portrayed, dissected, and criticized. Although The Man of Property and To Let are widely separated in time, the Saga's theme and structure form a unit wherein three generations of the large, clannish Forsyte family rise and decay on realistic and symbolic levels.
The Country House (1907), Fraternity (1909), The Patrician (1911), and The Dark Flower (1913) are not novels in the sequence, but they are related to it in place and time. Galsworthy wove social history into his novels: he reproduced the values, classes, hierarchy, stability, and smugness of the Edwardian era.
After World War I Galsworthy produced another, less successful, cycle of novels about the Forsyte family in post-war England. The White Monkey (1924), The Silver Spoon (1926), and Swan Song (1928) were collectively published in 1929 as A Modern Comedy. This series is less firm than The Forsyte Saga, its characterizations are weaker, and its architectural quality is disjunctive. It reflects Galsworthy's own uncertainty about the years after the war, which were marked by a revolution in values whose outcome was uncertain. After the second cycle was completed, Galsworthy published two more novels, Maid in Waiting (1931) and Flowering Wilderness (1932).
Although Galsworthy is best known for his novels, he was also a successful playwright. He constructed his drama on a legalistic basis, and the plays typically start from a social or ethical impulse and reach a resolution after different viewpoints have been expressed. Like The Silver Box (1906) and Strife (1909), Justice (1910) is realistic, particularly in the use of dialogue that is direct and uninflated. Part of the realism is an awareness of detail and the minute symbol. That awareness is clear in the intricate symbols of The Forsyte Saga; it is less successful in the drama and his later novels because it tends to be overstated.
In Justice Galsworthy revealed himself as something of a propagandist or, according to Joseph Conrad, "a moralist." Galsworthy selected detail and character to isolate a belief or a judgment; he said, "Selection, conscious or unconscious, is the secret of art." The protagonists in his drama and his prose fiction generally typify particular viewpoints or beliefs. Explaining his method of characterization, he wrote, "In the greatest fiction the characters, or some of them, should sum up and symbolize whole streaks of human nature in a way that our friends, however well known to us, do not…. Within their belts are cinctured not only individuals but sections of mankind." He also stated that his aim was to create a fictional world that was richer than life itself.
John Galsworthy was awarded the Order of Merit in 1929 and the Nobel Prize for literature in 1932. He died at Hampstead on Jan. 31, 1933.
Further Reading on John Galsworthy
H.V. Marrot, The Life and Letters of John Galsworthy (1935), is valuable as a biographical source. Dudley Barker, The Man of Principle (1963), is the most comprehensive biography of Galsworthy. Ford Maddox Ford discusses him in Portraits from Life (1937). Other biographies are Sheila Kaye-Smith, John Galsworthy (1916); Leon Schalit, John Galsworthy: A Survey (1929); Hermon Ould, John Galsworthy (1934); and R. H. Mottram, For Some We Loved: An Intimate Portrait of Ada and John Galsworthy (1956).
Additional Biography Sources
Dupre, Catherine, John Galsworthy: a biography, New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1976; London: Collins, 1976.
Fabes, Gilbert Henry, John Galsworthy: his first editions, points and values, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1976.
Frechet, Alec, John Galsworthy: a reassessment, Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1982.
Gindin, James Jack, The English climate: an excursion into a biography of John Galsworthy, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1979.
Gindin, James Jack, John Galsworthy's life and art: an alien's fortress, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1987.
Ould, Hermon, John Galsworthy: an appreciation together with a bibliography, Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1976.