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.
As you can see the groundwork is being laid for what could turn into a very convoluted, multigenerational, and typical soap opera. However, this series has a number of redeeming features you don’t usually find in soap operas. While I’ve never read the John Galsworthy books the show was based upon so don’t know how the well they’ve adapted them, I do know this series does a fine job of bringing the era in question to life. Aside from British television’s usual talent for dressing a set and its characters accurately, their recreation of Victorian England goes much further than skin deep. It would have been easy to have made the character of Soames a one dimensional villain who we could blame everything on. Instead what the show’s creators have done is show how he is merely a product of his times, and that according to his lights and the standards of society at the time, his behaviour was always legally proper.
Right from the start of the series we see what happens to somebody who deviates from the norm in this repressive and judgemental society. There’s no way a person in Soame’s position could have a chance of knowing how to communicate with another person on an emotional level. At one point his mother says to him, “I’m sorry I didn’t teach you how to love”, but that’s the closest anyone comes to admitting there might be something amiss in their world. Even when the world is changing around them, after WWl and into the 1920s, the Forsytes are still clinging to their outdated code. We see it in Soames’ daughter by his second wife in the behaviour she exhibits when she starts to pursue the man she sets her sites on.
However, what really sets this series apart from your everyday soap opera, is the quality of the acting. In the role of Soames, Lewis, does an extraordinary job. This is a guy who it would be easy to hate, but somehow the actor manages to allow us to see beneath the surface, and in spite of his reprehensible behaviour, we actually end up feeling sympathy for him. McKee, as Irene, is equally brilliant. She’s one of these actors who appear strangely luminescent, so the screen literally lights up whenever she’s in the shot. Her character could have been played as a wounded bird victim type, but then we would have wondered what the hell anybody saw in her. As McKee plays her Irene is a beautiful, spirited and independent woman. Bright and vivacious she would have shone like a lighthouse in a storm in contrast to the repressed society around her.
Although Rupert Graves’ character is disowned near the beginning of the series, he ends up being central to the plot of the series. As the only Forsyte willing to ignore propriety in favour of following his heart, we already know Jolyon is different from the rest of them. Throughout the series, Graves does a wonderful job showing us the type of strength of character it takes to willing accept being an outcast and all that implies. While his father eventually comes around and accepts him again, and in fact ends up thinking he was right not to care what others thought of him, any chance there might have been for reconciliation with the rest of the family is permanently destroyed when he and Irene marry. It seems almost inevitable that Soames’ daughter, Fleur Forsyte, (Emma Griffiths Malin) and their son, Jon Forsyte, (Lee Williams) fall in love.
Yet, even here, the series manages to avoid being too cliched and does its best to steer away from the whole “star crossed lovers” theme. In fact, they use it to open the way to make Soames more human instead of having him just play the role of tyrannical father opposed to his daughter’s wishes. Even better is the fact the two young actors give very believable performances as the respective children of their parents. For it’s Fleur who actively pursues the relationship and manipulates events so she can get what she wants. Neither character is your typical ingenue, and the series is far better for it.
The Forsyte Saga: The Complete Collection contains both the first and second parts of the series on six DVDs. The special features included with the set include a biography of author Galsworthy (it’s interesting to note the similarities between his life and the Forsytes), and a short documentary on the making of the series. The short film includes interviews with both McKee and Lewis, who talk intelligently and extensively about their respective characters and the society they lived in, and the show’s creators, who outline what they were attempting to achieve and create with the series.
As is the case with other British produced dramas of this type, The Forsyte Saga not only does an immaculate job of recreating the time period the action takes place in physically but in all other ways as well. In particular we are left in no doubt as to the importance property, propriety and proper play in the lives of the Victorian upper middle class. While script, direction and design play a role in all of this, it’s the actors which bring it to life. From the leads to those who have minor roles as servants every single actor is not only believable in their role, but brings a depth to their characterization that is a joy to watch. A word of warning – once you start watching, its very hard to tear yourself away. Unless you’re prepared to have a very late night, start watching early in the day and unplug the phone. You’re not going to want to be interrupted by anything.