John Galsworthy was born at Kingston Hill in Surrey, England into an established wealthy family, the son of John and Blanche Bailey (née Bartleet) Galsworthy. His large Kingston upon Thames estate is now the site of three schools: Marymount International School, Rokeby Preparatory School and Holy Cross. He attended Harrow and New College, Oxford, training as a barrister, and was called to the bar in 1890. However, he was not keen to begin practising law and instead travelled abroad to look after the family’s shipping business. During these travels he met Joseph Conrad, then the first mate of a sailing-ship moored in the harbour of Adelaide, Australia, and the two future novelists became close friends. In 1895 Galsworthy began an affair with Ada Nemesis Pearson Cooper (1864–1956), the wife of his cousin Major Arthur Galsworthy. After her divorce ten years later, they married 23 September 1905 and stayed together until his death in 1933. Prior to their marriage, they would stay clandestinely in a farmhouse called Wingstone in the village of Manaton on Dartmoor, Devon. From 1908 he took out a long lease on part of the building and made it their regular second home until 1923.
From the Four Winds, a collection of short stories, was Galsworthy’s first published work in 1897. These and several subsequent works were published under the pen name John Sinjohn, and it would not be until The Island Pharisees (1904) that he would begin publishing under his own name, probably owing to the death of his father. His first full length novel, Jocelyn was published in an edition of 750 under the name of John Sinjohn - he later refused to have it republished. His first play, The Silver Box (1906), - in which the theft of a prostitute’s purse by a rich ‘young man of good family’ is placed beside the theft of a silver cigarette case from the rich man’s father’s house by ‘a poor devil’, with very different repercussions - became a success, and he followed it up with The Man of Property (1906), the first in the Forsyte trilogy. Although he continued writing both plays and novels, it was as a playwright that he was mainly appreciated at the time. Along with those of other writers of the time, such as George Bernard Shaw, his plays addressed the class system and social issues, two of the best known being Strife (1909) and The Skin Game (1920).
He is now far better known for his novels, particularly The Forsyte Saga, his trilogy about the eponymous family and connected lives. These books, as with many of his other works, deal with social class, upper-middle class lives in particular. Although sympathetic to his characters, he highlights their insular, snobbish, and acquisitive attitudes and their suffocating moral codes. He is viewed as one of the first writers of the Edwardian era who challenged some of the ideals of society depicted in the preceding literature of Victorian England. The depiction of a woman in an unhappy marriage furnishes another recurring theme in his work. The character of Irene in The Forsyte Saga is drawn from Ada Pearson, though her previous marriage was not as miserable as that of the character.
His work is often less convincing when it deals with the changing face of wider British society and how it affected the lower social classes. Through his writings he campaigned for a variety of causes, including prison reform, women’s rights, animal welfare, and the opposition of censorship. During World War I he worked in a hospital in France as an orderly after being passed over for military service. He was elected as the first president of the International PEN literary club in 1921, was appointed to the Order of Merit in 1929—after earlier turning down a knighthood—and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1932. He was too ill to attend the Nobel awards ceremony, and died six weeks later of a stroke.
John Galsworthy lived for the final seven years of his life at Bury in West Sussex. He died from a brain tumour at his London home, Grove Lodge, Hampstead. In accordance with his will he was cremated at Woking with his ashes then being scattered over the South Downs from an aeroplane, but there are also memorials in Highgate ‘New’ Cemetery and in the cloisters of New College, Oxford (the latter cut and placed in the cloisters by Eric Gill). The popularity of his fiction waned quickly after his death but the hugely successful adaptation of The Forsyte Saga in 1967 renewed interest in his work.
A number of John Galsworthy’s letters and papers are held at the University of Birmingham Special Collections.
In 2007, Kingston University, London opened a new building named in recognition of his local birth.
Edited by genghis_average on 25 Feb 2012, 22:32
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