John Galsworthy Biography

John Galsworthy, an English novelist and playwright, was a prominent figure in the literary world. In 1932, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his exceptional contributions. Coming from a newly affluent upper middle class family, Galsworthy’s upbringing greatly influenced his works, which primarily focused on the social class system of the time. With a keen eye for detail, he portrayed his characters with sympathy, while also shedding light on their narrow-minded snobbishness and suffocating moral values. Galsworthy’s writings not only criticized the acquisitive tendencies of the upper middle class, but also advocated for various causes such as women’s rights and animal protection. His play ‘Justice’ even led to significant prison reforms. Despite his reserved nature, Galsworthy maintained a close circle of friends within the literary community. While he declined knighthood, he eventually accepted the Order of Merit and the Nobel Prize, recognizing the true reward of being an author.

Quick Facts

  • British Celebrities Born In August
  • Also Known As: John Sinjohn
  • Died At Age: 65
  • Family: Spouse/Ex-: Ada Pearson
  • Born Country: England
  • Nobel Laureates In Literature
  • Novelists
  • Died on: January 31, 1933
  • Place of death: Hampstead, London, England
  • Notable Alumni: New College, Oxford
  • Cause of Death: Brain Tumor
  • Founder/Co-Founder: PEN American Center, PEN International
  • Education: New College, Oxford
  • Awards: Nobel Prize in Literature

Childhood & Early Life

John Galsworthy was born on August 14, 1867, in Kingston Hill in a wealthy family. His ancestors came from Devonshire farming stock; but at the time of his birth, they had accumulated considerable property and also owned a shipping business.

His father, also named John Galsworthy, was an established solicitor and company director in London. He was quite charming and young Galsworthy used to idolize him. His mother, Blanche Bailey Galsworthy, was very religious and at the same time very fussy.

Junior John Galsworthy was the eldest son of his parents. He started his education under the tutors at home and later was admitted to a preparatory school at Bournemouth at the age of nine. From there he went to Harrow, where he distinguished as an athlete.

After passing out from Harrow, young John Galsworthy was admitted to New College, Oxford. In 1889, he passed out from there with a degree in jurisprudence.

In 1890, he was called to the bar; but as he wanted to specialize in marine law, he joined his family’s shipping business and spent time traveling around the world.

In the course of these voyages, Galsworthy met Joseph Cornard, who later became a celebrated writer. The two would-be authors became close friends. Sometime now, Galsworthy also started penning short stories for his own pleasure.

From 1897 to 1901, Galsworthy published four works under the pseudonym John Sinjohn at his own cost. His first book, published in 1897, was a collection of short stories titled ‘From the Four Winds’. ‘Jocelyn’, published in 1888, was his first full novel. He then published ‘Villa Rubein’ in 1900 and ‘A Man of Devon’ in 1901.

Galsworthy’s father passed away in 1904. He now inherited his father’s estate and became financially independent. By now, he had also realized that he was not fit for making a living out of law. He therefore gave up his legal career and decided to devote all his time to writing.


In 1904, Galsworthy published his first novel under his own name. Titled ‘The Island Pharisees’, the story is about an unusual young man called Richard Shelton. Galsworthy considered this book to be one of his most important works.

Two years later in 1906, Galsworthy published his first play, ‘Silver Box’. It depicts how different standards of justice are applied to people belonging to different classes and how theft by a rich and a poor man attract different repercussions. It was much appreciated by the critics.

In 1906, he also published ‘Man of Property’, which was later included in his famous trilogy ‘The Forsyte Saga’. Through this work, Galsworthy launched a scathing attack on upper middle-class families, to which he himself belonged.

He then continued writing a number of novels, short stories, and plays. Although he is now more famous as a novelist, initially he was better known as a playwright. ‘Strife’, written in 1907, is one of his most successful plays. It portrays the confrontation of labor and capital.

Interestingly, ‘Strife’ was initially refused by several theater managers. Ultimately, it opened on March 9, 1909, at Duke of York’s Theatre and received good reviews. By and by, it opened in other theaters and became very popular. The play has also been adapted for several television productions.

Through his dramas, Galsworthy tried to project different social grievances. His next play, ‘Justice’, enacted in 1910, was part of a campaign to reform prisons. It portrayed life inside the prison very realistically. The feeling it roused ultimately led to prison reforms.

When World War I set in, Galsworthy tried to join military service but was refused. So he joined a hospital in France as an orderly and continued writing.

In 1917, he was offered knighthood by Prime Minister David Lloyd George. However, he believed that a writer’s reward should come from writing and so he refused it. His plays continued to address social issues like women’s rights, the class system, and censorship.

In 1921, Galsworthy co-founded PEN International, an international club for authors, and became its first president. He served in that capacity until 1932, after which the responsibility was taken over by H. G. Wells.

Major Works

John Galsworthy is best remembered for his trilogy ‘The Forsyte Saga’. First published under that name in 1922, it is actually a series of three novels and two interludes written between 1906 and 1921. These books chronicle the life of three generations in an upper middle-class extended family, almost similar to his own.

‘The Skin Game’ (1920) and ‘Loyalties (1922) are two of his best-known plays. Among them, the former had been made into films twice in a decade. However, Galsworthy considered ‘Loyalties’ to be his best. In an interview, he had said that it was his only play, which he knew, no theater manager would refuse.

Awards & Achievements

In 1919, John Galsworthy received the Belgian Palmes d’Or.

On June 3, 1929, he was awarded the Order of Merit by King George V of the United Kingdom. He was earlier offered knighthood but refused.

In 1932, John Galsworthy received the Nobel Prize in Literature. However, at that time he was too ill to receive the award in person and died within six weeks of it.

Personal Life & Legacy

A love affair between John Galsworthy and Ada Nemesis Pearson Cooper began in 1985. This was in spite of the fact that she was the wife of his first cousin Major Arthur Galsworthy. For ten years they met clandestinely in a farmhouse in Devon. It is said that Irene in ‘The Forsyte Saga’ was modeled after Ada.

The couple got married on September 23, 1905, after Ada’s divorce came through. They did not have any children and remained together until his death in 1933.

Towards the end of his life, Galsworthy developed a brain tumor and died on January 31, 1933, in his London home. His body was cremated and the ashes were scattered over the chalk hills of South Downs. A memorial was erected in his honor at the Highgate New Cemetery in North London.

Another memorial was sculpted by well-known artist Eric Gill and placed in the cloisters of his alma mater New College, Oxford. In Kingston, a road and a hospital have been named after Galsworthy. The Kingston University has also dedicated a new building to his name.


After Galsworthy’s death, the popularity of his works began to decline. Interest in his literary works renewed once more when in 1967, the television adaptation of his ‘The Forsyte Saga’ by BBC became highly successful.

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