As a writer, the origin of words has always fascinated me. In particular I enjoy finding out how words that today appear seemingly unrelated, not only have the same origins, but have similar meanings as well. It was while watching the newly released DVD set of the 2002-2003 remake of The Forsyte Saga: The Complete Collection from Acorn Media that I began to wonder about a possible connection between the words property, proper and propriety. Set in the years spanning the last decade of the 19th Century through to the mid 1920s among the British upper middle class, to whom property was king and the appearance of propriety and doing what was proper more important than anything else, the series made a connection seem likely. It turns out the three words share the same Latin root, proprietas, meaning one’s own, or particular.
In many ways the entire series is built around characters’ conflicting attitudes to the meanings implied by those words. While most people might have lived in a sort of grey area which allowed them some room to manoeuvre, there were those who either took them as gospel or rejected them completely. The Forsyte Saga is all about the repercussions when people from either end of the spectrum are brought into close contact and the damage they do to all parties involved. The Forsyte family are everything one would expect from the upper middle class during the reign of Queen Victoria. While they may not be titled, they are wealthy in both cash and property. They are also firm believers in class and people acting in accordance with their station and standing. Any deviation from the norm is dismissed with the ultimate rejection of the era – “It’s just not done”.
When Jolyon Forsyte (Rupert Graves) makes the mistake of falling in love with his child’s governess and leaving his wife for her, not only is he is cut off and disowned by the entire family, everyone from his father to his cousins act like he never even existed. As the eldest male child in the family he was to have taken over the family’s affairs and inherited the bulk of the money when his uncle died. However, with his banishment, role of heir passes to his cousin Soames Forsyte (Damian Lewis). While Soames is everything the family could wish for – a successful solicitor who would never behave in a manner that would bring discredit to the family – he’s not married. It’s no good him being the heir if there isn’t anyone to follow in his footsteps.
Thankfully Soames soon meets the woman he wants to be his bride, Irene Forsyte (Gina McKee), and begins to relentlessly pursue her. Irene is almost everything Soames isn’t and has no real interest in him. However her father has recently died and left her and her step-mother with very little money. When her stepmother threatens to throw her out she’s left with no option but to marry Soames or to face a life of desperate poverty. Even then, before she accepts his proposal she elicits the promise from him that if she’s ever unhappy he will release her from the marriage. He of course readily agrees to this, saying he will make her happy. Unfortunately his proposal and her response foreshadow trouble in the future. He asks her, “Will you be mine?” and she replies “I will marry you”.
Under British law at the time a wife was considered the husband’s property much like a house or any other possession. While Soames does love Irene, he also treats her like a possession instead of a human being. While she might be surrounded by wealth and all the trappings that accompany it, her marriage rapidly turns into a gilded cage. When she approaches Soames to honour the promise he made her before their marriage, he refuses, claiming that he has done everything in his power to make her happy and that divorce is just not done. So it comes as little surprise that she eventually turns to another man, Phillip Bosinney (Ioa Gruffudd) to make her happy. Unfortunately he is just happens to be the fiancee of Soames’ niece, the daughter of the man who left his wife for the governess.