Galsworthy and the Sense of Property

John Galsworthy was born on this day in 1867, into the sort of wealthy, upper middle-class family that he chronicled and criticized in his nine-book Forsyte Saga. In a preface written for a 1922 reissue of the first three books, Galsworthy invites the reader to view his class “pickled in these pages … preserved in its own juice: The Sense of Property.” The opening paragraph of the opening chapter of the first volume, The Man of Property, imagines a reader who has already accepted such an invitation, and seen this particular social specimen in its habitat:

Those privileged to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes have seen that charming and instructive sight—an upper middle-class family in full plumage. …In plainer words, he has gleaned from a gathering of this family—no branch of which had a liking for the other, between no three members of whom existed anything worthy of the name of sympathy—evidence of that mysterious concrete tenacity which renders a family so formidable a unit of society, so clear a reproduction of society in miniature. He has been admitted to a vision of the dim roads of social progress, has understood something of patriarchal life, of the swarmings of savage hordes, of the rise and fall of nations. He is like one who, having watched a tree grow from its planting—a paragon of tenacity, insulation, and success, amidst the deaths of a hundred other plants less fibrous, sappy, and persistent—one day will see it flourishing with bland, full foliage, in an almost repugnant prosperity, at the summit of its efflorescence.

*** Russell Baker was born on this day in 1925. As host of Masterpiece Theater, Baker introduced Galsworthy’s saga to a new generation, but as told in his Pulitzer-winner Growing Up (1982), his own upbringing was a long way from the Forsytes — no property, and enduring familial love. The book opens and closes with the grown-up Baker visiting his mother, now eighty and lapsed into senility. She had been a strong, plain-spoken woman, a single parent who “had hurled herself at life with chin thrust forward, eyes blazing, and an energy that made her seem always on the run.” When Baker was only five, his father died, leaving the family with next to nothing — “a few dollars of insurance money, a worthless Model T, several chairs, a table to eat from, a couple of mail-order beds, a crib, three small children, no way to earn a living, and no prospects for the future.” His mother felt forced to give her youngest, ten months old, to her in-laws, a decision that she regretted forever and immediately, though it stopped the running only for the briefest pause:

When their car was out of sight I went back into the house. My mother was sitting in the straight-backed oak rocker, the fanciest piece of furniture we owned, staring at the stove.
“When’s Audrey coming back, Mama?”
She didn’t answer. Just sat staring at the stove and rocking for the longest while. I went back out into the road, but she came out right behind me and touched my shoulder.
“Do you want me to fix you a piece of jelly bread?” she asked.