The eponymous Forsytes are a sprawling family who have attained solid upper-middle class status in late-Victorian England. The family fortune was originally founded on building, then trade and now is safely invested. Some of the Forsytes work; some spend their days in their club. So solid, respectable and typical of their ilk are the Forsytes that Galsworthy occasionally extends his use of the word so that it becomes a collective noun:
All Forsytes, as is generally admitted, have shells, like that extremely useful little animal which is made into Turkish Delight; in other words, they are never seen, or if seen would not be recognised, without habitats, composed of circumstances, property, acquaintances, and wives, which seem to move along with them in their passage through a world composed of thousands of other Forsytes with their habitats.The first trilogy concentrates largely on Soames Forsyte, a lawyer, a man of property (the first volume is titled The Man of Property) and a collector of paintings. He has the misfortune to be in the love to the point of obsession with his beautiful wife, Irene. The souring and disintegration of their relationship is the central theme that runs through the first two books of The Forsyte Saga; but, as he does throughout the Chronicles, Galsworthy uses the particular to explore the general. With reference to Soames and Irene, for example, Galsworthy raises questions about marital roles, women's rights within marriage, the concept of property and ownership, honour and duty, public life versus private life. Since Galsworthy himself was born in 1867 and died in 1933, his writing reflects contemporary issues with which he is likely to have been very familiar.
Soames Forsyte believes in property, and, in common with Victorian law, he believes his wife is his property, just as his paintings are his property. Yet for all that he is married to her, she remains elusive and intangible. As is well known to the family (all family gossip is mediated through Soames' father's house, known as the Family 'Change) Irene is deeply unhappy with Soames. In fact, she married him only on the understanding that if she couldn't love him, he would let her go. This he steadfastly refuses to do. In desperate unhappiness, Irene embarks on an affair with a young architect called Bosinney (who, at the time, is engaged to her niece, June) and Soames is driven to a form of madness. One night, when Irene has unfortunately forgotten to lock her bedroom door, Soames 'asserted his rights and acted like a man'. As a lawyer and a husband he knows that he is quite within his rights to do so. At the same time, as he also knows, such an act is unforgiveable:
Had he been right to yield to his overmastering hunger of the night before,and break down the resistance which he had suffered now too long from this woman who was his lawful and solemnly constituted helpmate?Beset with doubts over breakfast, by the time he gets to work Soames has reconciled himself to his actions:
He was strangely haunted by the recollection of her face, from before which, to soothe her, he had tried to pull her hands -- of her terrible smothered sobbing, the like of which he had never heard, and still seemed to hear; and he was still haunted by the odd, intolerable feeling of remorse and shame he had felt as he stood looking at her by the flame of the single candle, before silently slinking away...
...One thought comforted him. No one would know -- it was not the sort of thing she would speak about.
The incident was really not of great moment; women made a fuss about it in books; but in the cool judgement of right-thinking men, of men of the world, of such as he recollected often received praise in the Divorce Court, he had but done his best to sustain the sanctity of marriage, to prevent her from abandoning her duty, possibly, if she were still seeing Bosinney, from --. No, he did not regret it.Even Soames cannot bring himself to think that rape really will reunite him with Irene.
Now that the first step towards reconciliation had been taken, the rest would be comparatively -- comparatively--.
The immediate consequence is that Irene leaves him, although they are not divorced until some 10 years' later when Soames decides to remarry. Irene then marries Jolyon Forsyte, Soames' cousin, a kind, warm-hearted, generous man with whom she lives happily. Yet the ramifications of Soames' treatment of Irene continue to play out in the next generation, affecting Soames too.
Soames' daughter Fleur falls in love with Irene's son, Jon. Neither of the children knows of their parents' history, and neither can understand why their union is so vehemently opposed. In addition, Fleur is a chip off the old bloke. She is utterly beloved by Soames, who has spoiled her: 'Instinctively she conjugated the verb "to have" always with the pronoun "I"'. This characteristic of Fleur's will trip her up time and again as she grasps at what she cannot or should not have. In this case, she cannot have Jon, because Jolyon finally explains to him why the prospective match creates 'feelings of horror and aversion':
Your children, if you married her, would be the grandchildren of Soames, as much as your mother, of a man who once owned your mother as a man might own a slave. Think what that would mean. By such a marriage you enter the camp which held your mother prisoner and wherein she ate her heart out...'Jon promptly breaks off the relationship, Fleur is heartbroken and Soames must suffer to watch Fleur denied as a direct result of his own actions so many years ago.