“The Forsyte Saga”: What a Terrible Plan

Jun 20th, 2004 | By | Category: Columns

Recently I had the pleasure of renting The Forsyte Saga, a British miniseries that got rave reviews from all quarters. This pleasure lasted until I went to the checkout counter and realized I had just spent $25 on a miniseries with a family named for a personality trait. Why now, I wondered, when I had so successfully passed up The Tale of the Prudence Family and An Evening at Home with John Repressed? The answer should probably be: I had long ago read the series of novels upon which the story was based, and wanted to enjoy a chance to catch up with a deft adaptation of a classic.

The answer is actually: Damian Lewis was in it, and Damian Lewis is a fox.

In this, he is hard to love. As oldest son Soames Forsyte, he must fall desperately in love with a woman who doesn’t love him back, which drives the whole narrative for eight hours.

This first critical mistake leads to a scene in which Irene, the object of his obsessive affection, agrees to marry him even though she does not care for him at all. The observer will cry, “What a terrible plan!”

The observer should keep this phrase handy, as it will be repeated, according to my tally, 43,291 times throughout the course of the series.

The Forsyte Saga has been described as “a soap opera.” I would more accurately dub it “a train wreck.” The first really horrible idea seems to have a hypnotic effect on all the characters, who are drawn to worse and worse instances of critical thinking. There are the refrains, such as, “The best way to get out of my debt is to gamble!” and the ever-popular “You are my wife, and therefore bullying you is not only legal, but encouraged. Now, go downstairs and talk with that really handsome young architect.”

But does the fun stop there? Oh, no. The audience gets far more exotic opportunities to shout, “What a terrible plan!”

“Now that I’ve run away from my husband Soames only to have my lover get run over my a carriage the night before we run away to Paris (and no, I’m not joking, this is a real plot), I must go into hiding until Soames’s uncle rescues me from poverty with his fondly lascivious intentions!”

What a terrible plan!

“Ah, the old man kicked the bucket. But say, his son is certainly looking at me intensely!”

What a terrible plan!

“I think I’ll follow my estranged wife to her apartment and beg to have her back so she can bear me a son!”

“That didn’t work. I suppose I’ll follow her on the city streets at night and try my luck again!”

“Well, third time’s the charm. I’m bringing in a stalking service! THAT should win her back!”

I would marvel at the idiocy of this, but given that this was Victorian England and Soames Forsyte is so repressed that he always seems one insult away from imploding, I’m not that surprised.

And now a pause while I write a love letter to Damian Lewis.

Dear Damian,

You foxy fox. I adore Soames Forsyte, I really do. You took what could have been a monstrously evil character and given him a deep sense of family honour and personal dignity that were both a tenet of Victorian society and a deep personal engine, driving Soames to manage the affairs of his family. His own affairs, however, are entirely his fault, which you make clear with his unhealthy obsession with Irene.

I did find it interesting that some of the most emotionally fraught scenes you had were not with Irene, but with June. The tension was palpable, and the scenes with her are some of your finest. Excellent work.

Also, if you are actually reading this, I will be very surprised.

If any of you are reading this, well, that’s a little weird, isn’t it, reading someone’s correspondence?



P.S. How is it that the story starts in in the 1890s and ends in the 1930s and yet you never age? Please let me know.

Do I recommend The Forsyte Saga? Yes. The acting is superb and the dialogue is excellent, even when the plot veers off into the ‘Let’s see what they do when I tie you to the railroad tracks!’ realm of narration. It also seems designed with the viewer in min. I can’t remember the last time I could sit through eight hours of filmmaking and only have to yell one thing over and over, and have it be not only relevant, but correct, every single time.

No one ages, and if this bothers you then there’s no hope.

Another, final note: This series has the most hilarious establishing subtitles I’ve possibly ever seen. A couple will walk into a house in midafternoon. It will cut to another house, at night, and give you a brief glimpse of a title such as, “Bournemouth, twelve years later.” Twelve years have gone by wherein apparently nothing noteworthy happened. Also, no one aged.

I did mention Damian Lewis, didn’t I?

I should write him a letter. And then deliver it via giving it to his forgetful great-aunt for a fantastic and dramatic reveal moments before he’s set to marry!

What a fantastic plan.


Genevieve is a prolific writer of speculative fiction living in New York, but you’ll never find her there because millions of people live there and Genevieve likes her privacy. Examples of her fiction can be found in Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, Federations, and numerous other magazines and anthologies. Her first novel is forthcoming in 2011. Also? She has terrible taste in movies.

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