'Quality' an Essay by John Galsworthy

Portrait of a shoemaker as an artist

John Galsworthy writing with pen and paper at a desk


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Best known today as the author of "The Forsyte Saga," John Galsworthy (1867-1933) was a popular and prolific English novelist and playwright in the early decades of the 20th century. Educated at New College, Oxford, where he specialized in marine law, Galsworthy had a lifelong interest in social and moral issues, in particular, the dire effects of poverty. He eventually chose to write instead of pursuing law and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1932.

In the narrative essay "Quality," published in 1912, Galsworthy depicts a German craftsman's efforts to survive in an era where success is determined "by adverdisement, nod by work." Galsworthy depicts shoemakers attempting to stay true to their crafts in the face of a world driven by money and immediate gratification — not by quality and certainly not by true art or craftsmanship.

"Quality" first appeared in "The Inn of Tranquility: Studies and Essays" (Heinemann, 1912). A portion of the essay appears below.


by John Galsworthy

1 I knew him from the days of my extreme youth because he made my father's boots; inhabiting with his elder brother two little shops let into one, in a small by-street — now no more, but then most fashionably placed in the West End.

2 That tenement had a certain quiet distinction; there was no sign upon its face that he made for any of the Royal Famil — merely his own German name of Gessler Brothers; and in the window a few pairs of boots. I remember that it always troubled me to account for those unvarying boots in the window, for he made only what was ordered, reaching nothing down, and it seemed so inconceivable that what he made could ever have failed to fit. Had he bought them to put there? That, too, seemed inconceivable. He would never have tolerated in his house leather on which he had not worked himself. Besides, they were too beautiful — the pair of pumps, so inexpressibly slim, the patent leathers with cloth tops, making water come into one's mouth, the tall brown riding boots with marvelous sooty glow, as if, though new, they had been worn a hundred years. Those pairs could only have been made by one who saw before him the Soul of Boot — so truly were they prototypes incarnating the very spirit of all foot-gear. These thoughts, of course, came to me later, though even when I was promoted to him, at the age of perhaps fourteen, some inkling haunted me of the dignity of himself and brother. For to make boots — such boots as he made — seemed to me then, and still seems to me, mysterious and wonderful.

3 I remember well my shy remark, one day while stretching out to him my youthful foot:

4 "Isn't it awfully hard to do, Mr. Gessler?"

5 And his answer, given with a sudden smile from out of the sardonic redness of his beard: "Id is an Ardt!"

6 Himself, he was a little as if made from leather, with his yellow crinkly face, and crinkly reddish hair and beard; and neat folds slanting down his cheeks to the corners of his mouth, and his guttural and one-toned voice; for leather is a sardonic substance, and stiff and slow of purpose. And that was the character of his face, save that his eyes, which were gray-blue, had in them the simple gravity of one secretly possessed by the Ideal. His elder brother was so very like him — though watery, paler in every way, with a great industry — that sometimes in early days I was not quite sure of him until the interview was over. Then I knew that it was he, if the words, "I will ask my brudder," had not been spoken; and, that, if they had, it was his elder brother.

7 When one grew old and wild and ran up bills, one somehow never ran them up with Gessler Brothers. It would not have seemed becoming to go in there and stretch out one's foot to that blue iron-spectacled glance, owing him for more than — say — two pairs, just the comfortable reassurance that one was still his client.

8 For it was not possible to go to him very often — his boots lasted terribly, having something beyond the temporary — some, as it were, essence of boot stitched into them.

9 One went in, not as into most shops, in the mood of: "Please serve me, and let me go!" but restfully, as one enters a church; and, sitting on the single wooden chair, waited — for there was never anybody there. Soon, over the top edge of that sort of well — rather dark, and smelling soothingly of leather — which formed the shop, there would be seen his face, or that of his elder brother, peering down. A guttural sound, and the tip-tap of bast slippers beating the narrow wooden stairs, and he would stand before one without coat, a little bent, in leather apron, with sleeves turned back, blinking — as if awakened from some dream of boots, or like an owl surprised in daylight and annoyed at this interruption.

10 And I would say: "How do you do, Mr. Gessler? Could you make me a pair of Russia leather boots?"

11 Without a word he would leave me, retiring whence he came, or into the other portion of the shop, and I would continue to rest in the wooden chair, inhaling the incense of his trade. Soon he would come back, holding in his thin, veined hand a piece of gold-brown leather. With eyes fixed on it, he would remark: "What a beaudiful biece!" When I, too, had admired it, he would speak again. "When do you wand dem?" And I would answer: "Oh! As soon as you conveniently can." And he would say: "To-morrow ford-nighd?" Or if he were his elder brother: "I will ask my brudder!"

12 Then I would murmur: "Thank you! Good-morning, Mr. Gessler." "Goot-morning!" he would reply, still looking at the leather in his hand. And as I moved to the door, I would hear the tip-tap of his bast slippers restoring him, up the stairs, to his dream of boots. But if it were some new kind of foot-gear that he had not yet made me, then indeed he would observe ceremony — divesting me of my boot and holding it long in his hand, looking at it with eyes at once critical and loving, as if recalling the glow with which he had created it, and rebuking the way in which one had disorganized this masterpiece. Then, placing my foot on a piece of paper, he would two or three times tickle the outer edges with a pencil and pass his nervous fingers over my toes, feeling himself into the heart of my requirements.

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Nordquist, Richard. "'Quality' an Essay by John Galsworthy." ThoughtCo, Sep. 1, 2021, thoughtco.com/quality-by-john-galsworthy-1690111. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, September 1). 'Quality' an Essay by John Galsworthy. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/quality-by-john-galsworthy-1690111 Nordquist, Richard. "'Quality' an Essay by John Galsworthy." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/quality-by-john-galsworthy-1690111 (accessed March 28, 2023).