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!