On E M Forster

A little while ago I wrote that there were a number of authors I realized I wanted to spend more time with, and E. M. Forster was one of them. When I was in my early twenties and not at all keen on British classics, which seemed fusty and long-winded to me then, Forster was the only author who saved the day. I read A Room with a View and loved its sunny charm and sense of humour. Later on, I read Howards End and admired its portrait of class and misguided philanthropy. A week or so ago, I finished his first novel, Where Angels Fear To Tread, and found again, much to admire. But there were also certain elements of Forster’s literary imagination that struck me as curious.

First of all, a brief summary of Where Angels Fear To Tread. This is the story of the Herriton family who live most respectably in a village called Sawston: the formidable mother, Mrs Herriton, the rather supercilious and pompous son, Philip, and the narrow-minded, convention-bound daughter, Harriet. The three of them begin the novel typical products of their class, as Forster would see it: strict in the observance of propriety and therefore somewhat cavalier with people’s inconvenient feelings. The black sheep of the family is Lilia, the cheerfully vulgar daughter-in-law, once married to son Charles who died (not nearly mindful enough of his duty), leaving her a widow with a small daughter, Irma. Desirous of keeping her clan intact and on-message, Mrs Herriton has worked hard to absorb them into her ideology, but Lilia is thoughtlessly intent on spoiling the family image. As Forster wittily puts it:

‘[Lilia] was a bad housekeeper, always in the throes of some domestic crisis, which Mrs Herriton, who kept her servants for years, had to step across and adjust. She let Irma stop away from school for insufficient reasons, and she allowed her to wear rings. She learned to bicycle for the purpose of waking the place up, and coasted down the High Street one Sunday evening, falling off at the turn by the church. If she had not been a relative, it would have been entertaining.’

And then Philip has the bright idea of sending her away to Italy for a year. Lilia heads off, chaperoned by one suitable young woman from the village, Caroline Abbot, and the family considers it has won itself a year of peace. Alas, this is not the case. Before many months have passed, it transpires that Lilia has made herself a most unfortunate alliance with a very ordinary Italian man. Philip is dispatched to prevent the relationship going any further, but by the time they arrive, Lilia is married. Philip, who has been a rather smug Italophile up until now returns home defeated and dazzled by cultural difference. But before long, tragedy strikes, and he is summoned to Italy once again, with the impossible Harriet in tow, and this time all their lives are changed by what takes place.

Forster is quite brilliant when it comes to family relationships. The best scenes in this novel are the ones centred in domesticity, in which Forster lays bare the prejudice, hypocrisy, snobbery and bickering hostility that underpins the average upper-middle class British family in the early 1900s, but does so with such kindness and delighted amusement that the reader cannot help but wince at the point and yet still laugh with indulgence. His second best scenes are ones of emotional epiphany, and here Italy is wheeled in for the purpose of providing it. The little Tuscan town of Monteriano might be lax in its morals, indifferent to class distinctions and very, very, hot, but there is more poetry, beauty and genuine feeling in it than the whole of uptight Edwardian England. The Italian heat melts hearts, principles and conventions, but be warned, this is not a book with a happy ending. Possible paradises are glimpsed in Forster’s work, only to be taken away.

‘Only connect…’ is the famous epigraph to Howards End that flies like a banner across all of Foster’s writing. In this novel, we see his characters enlightened and rejuvenated by connecting across the boundaries of class and culture; we see them realizing the transformation possible in profound attachment to one another, and to the world around them, but the ellipses at the end of the quotation hold good. If only we could connect, Forster seems to be saying, but we can’t. The old boundaries are too deeply entrenched, but there is more to it than that, an almost supernatural insistence that they shall not be breached. I noticed, in this novel particularly, the highly dramatic finale that Forster often gave to his novels. It seems that catastrophe is inevitable for those who attempt the impossible and try to bring both passion and compassion into their lives.

Forster’s writing life was rather intriguing. He received a legacy from an aunt when he was just a boy that meant he never had to earn a wage, and could afford to dabble in art all he liked. He was a precociously talented child, writing stories at the age of 6, enjoying a distinguished career in Cambridge and publishing his first novel at the age of 26. He had a successful career as a novelist, but it seemed to end abruptly, after only five published novels (Maurice appeared posthumously), the last, A Passage to India, coming out to great acclaim in 1924. Forster lived until 1970 and he wrote other things, essays, biographies, memoirs, but no more fiction. He looked after his mother, and he spent a long time at King’s College in Cambridge doing very little of anything at all. What happened? Well, many think that Forster’s homosexuality was the problem; he wanted to write about it, but he knew he couldn’t. The imperative to only connect was a non-starter as far as he was concerned, living at a time when Oscar Wilde found himself in jail on account of the love that dared not speak its name. You do have to wonder what he would have produced, had he been free to write exactly as he pleased. Still, he left us with some delightful novels and remains in my mind quite the kindest, most humane of authors.

Just a mini-announcement to end this post and say that, as term is starting soon and this time of year is rather packed for me, I’ll be posting just twice a week for the next couple of months. Still here, though, still reading!

25 thoughts on “On E M Forster

  1. I didn’t know much about Forster at all, although I liked what I read of his in college and keep meaning to return to hin. Oh, wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have been left a legacy that allowed one to do nothing but write? However, how sad that his homosexuality might have interfered with his writing. Every time I think we haven’t come too far in our acceptance and tolerance of things, I am reminded that by the end of the 20th-century, we had writers like Armistead Maupin, openly writing about homosexuality, and letting the world know that he’s gay.

  2. That is so sad that he couldn’t write anymore fiction because of the lack of congruity in his own life. And I can completely understand that. There have been silences in my own life when there were times of incongruence, most extended during my 20’s. But even later, each of my books has entailed a process of stops and starts while I balked and then accepted a greater level of honesty with myself and my life. It seems that the fictional endings reflected the limitations of his own life and finally ended fictional possibilities altogether. What an interesting review. I haven’t read his work but will put him on my list now.

  3. I love E.M. Forster. Howard’s End is one of my all-time favorites. I haven’t read this one, but I will one of these days. I’m spreading out the Forsters because there are so few of them!

  4. I spent a happy summer immersing myself in Forster, though I’ve yet to read Maurice. His essays are wonderful. He is one of the writer-critics I most admire (Leavis could have learned a lot from him, if he had allowed himelf, as you pointed out several posts ago. I am slow.). Sad, isn’t it, that within the comforting circle of Bloomsbury he was able to be himself, but after it collapsed…
    Will look eagerly for you twice a week. Good luck with the new term!

  5. I am not ashamed to admit that my introduction to EM Forster was the 1985 Merchant Ivory film of A Room with a View. And thank goodness for Merchant Ivory for getting me started. I love Forster’s novels. Being gay in high school in the 1980s, Maurice was a revelation. Once I had it home from the library I read it cover to cover, staying up until about 3:00 am on a school night. At university Where Angels Fear to Tread was like sunshine between bookcovers. I was studying Italian at the time, so the setting of the book hit the spot, the weather was beautiful, and I laid in the grass swept up in the book, skipping classes in favor of Forster. Howards End I read while working as a parking garage attendent. What could be further from the world of Forster. And then of course there was the stellar MI adaptation of Howards End in 1992. And after years of watching A Room with a View, seeing it perhaps 25 times, I finally got around to reading it. And altough I knew the story better than my own, Forster’s words made it all seem brand new. Sigh.

    Good luck this term. Don’t work too hard.

  6. Emily – things have changed so much in some ways, and definitely for the better. And you remind me that I must read Armistead Maupin (I’ve been meaning to for years and years). If anyone would like to leave me a legacy, I’d be delighted! 😉 But I don’t think it’s going to happen. It had been a long time for me since I’d read any Forster, but it all came rushing back when I did. He has such a particular voice, and it is so charming. And correcting one’s own comments is the mark of a true editor, Emily! I’m proud of you.

    Lilian – I know just what you mean here. I’m not a fiction writer, but writing well depends on the state of mind for me, and incongruence really messes with the kind of free flowing playfulness, or sense of open- heartedness that fuels the creative spirit. I’m most interested to hear you say that you had to reach new levels of honesty. Yes, I feel that must be a very astute comment to make. If you try Forster, try A Room with A View, and particularly on a day when life seems a bit flat and dreary. It is a very warm-hearted novel.

    Teresa – I don’t blame you! They need a bit of spacing out. Although I haven’t read his essays or other non-fiction work, and ds’s comment is making me think I should branch out. I must come and dig out your post on Howards End.

    ds – you are making me keen to read Forster’s criticism! I’ve only read the bit he wrote about plot – you know, the king dying is not a story, but to say the king died and then the queen died of grief IS a story. I hadn’t thought of the Bloomsbury connection, but you are quite right. That must have shielded and supported him in many ways. Very insightful comment from you as always!

    Thomas – I love what you have to say here about your relationship to Forster’s works. I’m so glad you mentioned the films. I was going to say (and forgot) that they are the few movies that manage to really do their source books justice. I love the film of Howards End particularly. Have you seen the film version of Maurice? I did back in college (so the memory is rather hazy now) and remember it as good. I think your description of Where Angels Fear To Tread is spot on – it most certainly was sunshine between the covers!

  7. I love EM Forster and read several of his novels one after the other back when I was working in a bookstore (which has been a good eight years or so ago). What do you think it is about Italy for him? He set at least two of his novels (partially at least) there–to help show class differences even more? I can still hear Lucy Honeychurch talking about the Italians and how passionate and perhaps primal (can’t remember exact words). You’re right it does make the Edwardians sound so completely stuffy. This makes me want to go off and read or reread all his books now. And the Merchant Ivory films of Howards End (my favorite of the novels I’ve read) and A Room with a View are excellent. I even have the soundtrack for Howards End loaded on my MP3 player! Lovely post–I’m printing this one off and hanging it on my bulletin board as a reminder for when I do read him again. Good luck with the new term. It’s always kind of exciting when students come back to school, though it does make me feel old as some of them look so young!!

  8. No worries on the two or three times a week posting only. Fits perfectly for my reading about in blogworld, too, though i wish there were more time. But I always love stopping here. It’s your “voice” and book review combo that’s so grand. And then I think I’ll respond (and I tend to write long comments) and something pops up and I have to dash away from PC.

    Embrace that academic setting! It’s a fine thing to be a professor.

    TTFN (yes a lighthearted closing – you can tell it’s been a lovely weekend here at Lochcrest!),

  9. Big Forster fan here … read all his novels in my early teens, and was struck, as you have said, by his kindness, which existed side by side with a powerful talent for observation of the humiliations of family life.

    Lucy Honeychurch remains enshrined in my mind as one of the great heroines of all time … such a marvelous character, and so profoundly real.

  10. It is really upsetting to think just what history’s various intolerant societies have deprived us of (boo hiss!), especially when you consider just who has been silenced… and the fact that such muzzling is still rampant in parts of the world today… well. It’s appalling. I somehow hit a glut of classics reading without ever getting to a single one of his – but the omission is duly noted and shall be rectified post haste!

  11. I like EMF’s stories, but I have always had trouble warming to his characters. I’ve read and enjoyed A Passage to India, A Room with a View and Howards End without ever completely loving any of his characters. For lack of a better description, they always seemed to tread too lightly on his fictional landscape, making sure that they didn’t cause a lot of disturbance. That said, Foster seems to have both an electric wit and a gentleness that never fails to incite a grateful smile when I am reading him.

    I remember thinking that I loved Henry James’s Isabel more than any of Foster’s heroines. But, perhaps because I now feel older, less exuberant and less rational than I used to, I have to admit that Margaret Wilcox did not deserve the insensitivity with which I regarded her when I first read Howard’s End. Maybe, it is a good time to start reading Where Angels Fear to Tread.

  12. If you ever read Maurice, I’d love to know what you think. I’ve read three Forster novels now (M. plus Passage to India and Howards End) and really liked them all. Maurice had an entirely different feel to it, though — more dreamy and inward. He deals with prejudice, hypocrisy, and snobbery very well there too. I’m on to his novel The Longest Journey next. What a satisfying writer he is!

  13. Forster turned up on my undergraduate first year list and I was a fan from day one. I read everything I could lay my hands on including ‘Maurice’ which had just become easily available. Then he started turning up in my reading about other writers from that period and the striking thing was how loved he was as a friend. Definitely someone I would have liked to spend long afternoons with (possibly in Granchester?) drinking tea and just talking.

  14. I had no idea he lived until 1970! So sad that he only wrote five novels. And very interesting that he may not have written any other because of his homosexulality because, from things I have read about him, his friends all knew. Virginia Woolf refers to his homosexuality several times in her diaries. But I suppose it is one thing for your friends to know and another thing entirely to make it public in a novel and risk censure or even jail. I hope term gets off to a good start!

  15. You have convinced me to try Howards End and at least one of the others. My Forster knowledge is limited to watching A Passage to India and A Room with a View (both of which were fantastic).

  16. I’m so glad you posted this! I have five or so Forster novels in my library and haven’t read any of them yet, though (of course) I bought them with that end in mind. Your post reminds me to start one.

  17. Danielle – so glad that you love his work too – and those films are some of the best adaptations I can think of. I think you are exactly right when you say that Italy provided notable contrast to the stuffiness of the English and their class-bound mentality. He was very good at pointing out that Italians weren’t perfect either, but that we could learn a lot from their willingness to let emotion flow. And thank you for your kind wishes for term. I’m stockpiling them at the moment as I always find the beginning scary!

    Charlotte – I’m delighted to hear that as I have it still to read. Isn’t it sad? I could have stood another four or five novels, that’s for sure.

    Oh – it always feels odd to be away from the blog more than usual, so I’m always pleased and relieved if my blog friends find it fits with their internet habits! And thank you for your kind words. I’m glad to know you had a lovely weekend!

    David – she’s a delight. I always enjoy the sibling relationships in Forster, so niggardly and entangled, and he writes a pretty fine mother, too.

    Doctordi – I’m bad when it comes to classics, having a taste for… well, for about ten years behind the present moment, if it comes to that. But I also like the brand new, too. I am particularly bad at nineteenth century British greats but I never seem to find the time to catch up! And it is a shame that ideology acts as a great big invisible censor. We may never know what our generation feels it cannot say, but you can bet that something is suppressed and unexpressed.

    Polaris – what an interesting response. I wish I’d read more Henry James now, in particular Portrait of a Lady (it is that novel you’re thinking of, yes?) so I could see where the difference lies for you. I’m intrigued by the notion of light-stepping characters. Margaret Wilcox is feistier, and more determined than most, so perhaps that’s what appeals to you – vigour, taste, clarity, vitality? Where Angels Fear To Tread probably won’t alter your opinion on character. Perhaps Maurice would be interesting?

    Dorothy – you are so right, I should certainly get to Maurice. And I’m very keen to know what you think of The Longest Journey – I have that on my shelves!

    Ann – isn’t it touching how good a friend he was? To be a brilliant writer and a loving, engaged, generous human being is a fine combination indeed. If you get him to come to Grantchester, let me know and I’ll meet you there. 😉

    Stefanie – I was very interested by ds’s comment about the fact that the breakdown of Bloomsbury must have left Forster high and dry. It may well be that outside that charmed circle, he felt isolated and unnatural, and this contributed to his writer’s block. And I know, I somehow think it strange he lived until 1970! He is so much older than that in my mind.

    Pete – for once, the films are a really good place to start. It would be very interesting to have a therapist’s view on his novels!

    Eve – how lovely to have you visit. I would warmly recommend Forster, and if you ever feel life is dreary and dull and somehow dissatisfying, pick up A Room With A View. I think it’s one of the sunniest novels that exists.

  18. I love Forster’s novels and have great affection for him. If you have the time, you might like to read Zadie Smith’s wonderful NYRB review of his BBC talks– to whet you appetite it opens:

    “In the taxonomy of English writing, E.M. Forster is not an exotic creature. We file him under Notable English Novelist, common or garden variety. Still, there is a sense in which Forster was something of a rare bird. He was free of many vices commonly found in novelists of his generation—what’s unusual about Forster is what he didn’t do. He didn’t lean rightward with the years, or allow nostalgia to morph into misanthropy; he never knelt for the Pope or the Queen, nor did he flirt (ideologically speaking) with Hitler, Stalin, or Mao; he never believed the novel was dead or the hills alive, continued to read contemporary fiction after the age of fifty, harbored no special hatred for the generation below or above him, did not come to feel that England had gone to hell in a hand-basket, that its language was doomed, that lunatics were running the asylum, or foreigners swamping the cities.”

  19. Devoted reader – what a fabulous start to that review by Zadie Smith! I am going to certainly give some time and attention to that link – thank you so much for sharing!

    Jackie – He is worth your time. I do recommend A Room With A View. It is the sunniest of novels, and just charming.

  20. Pingback: Elsewhere on the interwebs… » Other Stories

  21. As always, I’m a little late, but this is to say that I’ll read whatever you have to say — twice a day, twice a week, twice a month (but, please, not twice a year — that would be bad.) xo (And I love what you have to say about Forster. I haven’t read him in a long time, but I do agree with you about the kindness.)

  22. Isn’t his work smashing? Read Angels last year and India this year, very little hope of saving up any of his work for later life like I’m doing with Austen as I want to read them all now and there are so few.

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