We’re (re)watching the 2002 PBS/ITV/Granada production of The Forsyte Saga chez nous, and it’s almost Thanksgiving.
Thus: 10 reasons to be grateful for The Forsyte Saga. (Mild spoilers.)
10. The costumes. From the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth, from the Victorian era to early modernism, they’re fantastic. Static, staid characters don’t update their dress much; freewheeling, open-to-the-world characters change a lot over the years. What you see on an artsy, foppish man turns into regular wear for all men within a few years. You can read temperament, station in life, and a hundred other things in how people dress. So subtle, and so great–and the actors do a wonderful job of appearing to age over the years of the story.
9. The passage of time. It’s called a saga for a reason. We see characters change over the course of their lives–some of them ossifying, some learning lessons, some treading the same ground over and over. Children bear the burden of their parents’ mistakes, or emerge from them. Meanwhile, the world continues to turn. If you like a long arc, you’ll love the Forsytes.
8. The little moments. The private investigator chuckling at the marble nude, Monty Darty standing up in his car singing opera as he drives, old Jolyon’s golden labrador nuzzling his hand as he sits on the garden patio. Soames biting the necklace. It’s a rich, rich story–and the writers, director, and actors do an incredible job of bringing it to life.
7. The focus on the family. In a good way, for once. The death of Queen Victoria, the Boer War, the internal combustion engine–they all glide by without really drawing our attention away from the family talking about itself, fighting with itself, wooing itself, being itself. Nothing takes focus from the Forsytes. Nothing, I tell you.
6. Soames. Never a more complicated, layered, real, and at the same time clearly symbolic character. Despicable, spiteful, miserable, and pitiable.
5. The Jolyons. Everyone should have a grandfather like old Jolyon. (And every grandfather should have a Turkish fez for smoking after dinner.) Almost everyone should have a husband or father like young Jolyon. Young Jolyon is the anti-Soames, the positive charge to his negative one. Young Jolyon believes in love, art, freedom, and kindness. Basically, young Jolyon has got it all figured out. (Soames has not.)
4. Irene. Gina McKee is incredible as Irene Heron/Forsyte. She has an inimitable poise, as well as depths of emotion. She can show compassion, regret, revulsion, or delight with the slightest expression. She’s absolutely amazing. And Irene herself…never a more wonderful, resilient, principled, surprising character.
3. Robin Hill. The house is practically a member of the family. It’s the catalyst for violence and disruption, the site for reunion and forgiveness, the backdrop for a hundred dramas. It’s also classic arts & crafts–and it’s great to see the Victorian establishment respond to its brave new ideas (open space! windows! pocket doors!) with fear and derision. Of course, within a generation it’s the very thing.
2. The feminism. Or at least, the sympathetically realistic portrayal of women’s lives when they were considered the property of their husbands. From callous comments to violence and abuse, we see what women have to bear–and what little recourse they have for it. Even the wealthiest women have a crappy lot, if they don’t happen to marry a noble and enlightened man.
1. The messages. They’re not hard to find: Love is more important than property. If you love someone, you must respect them. Marrying for money, title, or prestige isn’t worth it. People cannot belong to other people–unless they choose to. Considering the books were written by a man in the early twentieth century, they’re pretty good messages.
The books were published between 1906 and 1921, and are available from your local library or bookstore–as well as on Amazon for Kindle (where
they’re free.) The 10 episodes filmed by PBS for Masterpiece Theater are at your local library too–or your favorite indie video store. Probably not at your nearest Red Box. But they’re worth getting, and diving into over the holidays.
With many thanks to my friend Laura, who introduced me to the story in the first place.