E. M. Forster (2204 words)

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Forster was principally an Edwardian novelist concerned with the restrictions placed on personal freedom by English sensibilities, but his later work, especially his last novel, A Passage to India (1924), can be called Modernist in its use of symbolism and its style of repetition-with-variation (which Forster called “rhythm” in his 1927 book on fiction Aspects of the Novel). Forster, who lived most of his later life at King's College, Cambridge, was one of the less prominent figures in the Bloomsbury Group, a lifelong member of the Labour Party, and an agnostic. He was also an avowed liberal humanist who believed strongly in personal relationships: he famously wrote in “What I Believe” in 1939 that he would sooner betray his country than his friend. His early novels and stories use Italy, and to a lesser extent Greece, as a vibrant, life-affirming antithesis to the stultifying repression of England. His homosexual novel, Maurice, written in 1913-14, was only published posthumously.

Edward Morgan Forster was born in London on January 1st 1879, the year before his father's death, and educated at private schools in Eastbourne and Tonbridge Wells. In 1887 he inherited £8,000 from his great-aunt, Marianne Thornton, about whom he later wrote a “domestic biography”. From 1897, he attended King's College Cambridge where he read classics and history, partly under the supervision of Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, of whom he also wrote a biography. At Cambridge he came under the influence of the philosopher G. E. Moore and the aesthetic belief that the purpose of life is to contemplate beauty in art and to cultivate friendships in life. Forster was elected to the “Apostles” clique of Cambridge intellectuals and through them met members of the Bloomsbury Group After Cambridge, in 1901 he went on a one year's tour of Italy and Austria with his mother. Around this time he also began writing. The next year he taught at the Working Men's College and subsequently at the extra-mural department of the Cambridge Local Lectures Board, lecturing on Italian art and history. His first story “Albergo Empedocle” appeared in Temple Bar in December 1903 and in the following year he started contributing stories to the Cambridge-based journal Independent Review.

Forster's first published novel was Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), a story about Anglo-Italian contrasts that sets the passionate world of Italy Forster had seen on his travels against the cool, reserved values of suburban England. A social comedy for most of its length it ends as a tragedy with death and frustrated love as the English, briefly taken out of themselves, return to their narrow lives in the southern counties. In the year of its publication, Forster spent several months in Nassenhalde, Germany, as tutor to the Countess von Arnim: an experience that, like his friendship with Virginia and Vanessa Stephen, would inform his portrait of the Schlegel sisters in Howards End. In 1907 he worked as a private tutor for an Indian Muslim, Syed Ross Masood, with whom he developed a close friendship and love, and to whom A Passage to India is dedicated. Also in 1907, Forster saw published the novel of his Cambridge days, The Longest Journey, which remained his favorite novel despite its comparatively low critical standing. It tells the story of an orphaned undergraduate and then struggling writer, Rickie, who abandons his close friend Ansell for a loveless marriage but is partially enlightened by the free spirit of his wayward, pagan Wiltshire half-brother Stephen. At this time, Forster also associated more often with the Bloomsbury Group, becoming a close friend of the Woolfs, Lytton Strachey, and Roger Fry. The following year his second Anglo-Italian novel, A Room with a View, was published: a story of misunderstandings and English snobbery which this time ends happily as the heroine Lucy Honeychurch realises in time her love for the impulsive George Emerson over the effete intellectual Cecil Vyse. While mocking the romantic novel, Forster here adheres to its conventions.The story clearly centres on a young woman whose passions are aroused by a holiday abroad, where she meets the man she will eventually marry after certain hurdles, social and personal, have been overcome.The book therefore has its tongue in its cheek much of the time and it is the social comedy of the characters and situations that are of chief interest rather than the romance.Forster’s narrator sits above the characters and recounts events in a consistently ironical tone.The novel’s title plays with the sense of a "view" as an opinion or prejudice, which may be poor and partial or generous and open.English interiors are contrasted with Italian exteriors, just as in Lucy’s surname the sweet taste of honey is contrasted with the constraint and sobriety of the Church.Lucy’s surname is a portmanteau word and represents her choice between Cecil and George, England and Italy, convention and passion. The novel has been considered Forster’s finest, because it appears a perfectly drawn study of manners and morals, class and social comedy.It is just as arguably a slight work and its charms cannot perhaps compensate for its lack of ambition or its literary conservatism.

Howards End in 1910 was Forster's first considerable success and the book that secured his reputation. This is a condition-of-England novel about sections of the middle-classes which focuses on the question: who will inherit Howards End, Forster's metonym for England based on his childhood home of Rook's Nest. The story centres on the relationship between the intellectual German Schlegel sisters and the practical, male-dominated, business-oriented Wilcox family. In the novel, ambitiously if not wholly convincingly, Forster attempts to find a way for Wilcox money to become the support for Schlegel culture, and also for the future of rural England to be wrested from urban, commercial interests and placed once more in the hands of the yeomanry. Howards End has partly become famous for its epigraph, "Only connect", which stands as a call across Forster’s writing to seize the day and unite the spiritual and the material sides to life.A novel of the bourgeois and bohemian classes with little to say about the upper and lower sections of society, Howards End nevertheless remains an important study of the ‘death of Liberal England’ and of the twilight years before the Great War.It is a successful anatomy of the red rust and portable luggage of industrial England’s slide through change and transition, comparable to other contemporary works by Wells and Lawrence for example, but it is also a novel intimately and illuminatingly concerned with the connections between private and public worlds.

After Howards End, the hitherto prolific Forster retreated from long-form fiction and was to publish only one novel in the rest of his life. 1911 saw the release of a collection of his short stories as The Celestial Omnibus. In 1912-13 he made his first visit to India, with R. C. Trevelyan, Dickinson, and G. H. Luce, and soon after he began writing an early draft of A Passage to India. Forster also worked on the novel that was not published until after his death, Maurice: A Romance (1971). This novel, circulated privately at the time, is a story of cross-class love that for the only time in Forster's long fiction explicitly eschews the traditional orthodoxy of heterosexual romantic encounters for the homosexual love that Forster himself desired.

In 1915, after the war started, he began working for the International Red Cross in Alexandria and became a strong supporter of the poet C. P. Cavafy. He returned to England in 1919, after the war, but set off travelling again in 1921. On this trip to India he worked as the private secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas Senior, and his letters home from the two Indian trips were later published as The Hill of Devi (1953). In 1922 he published Alexandria: A History and a Guide, but copies were burned before distribution and the book was not republished until 1938. Pharos and Pharillon, Forster's essays on Alexandria, together with some translations of Cavafy's poems, was published in 1923.

Over this time, Forster had been reworking his Indian novel, which was finally published in 1924, fourteen years after his previous one. A Passage to India is the story of Adela Quested and Mrs Moore's journey to India to visit Ronny Heaslop, who is both Adela's fiancé and Mrs. Moore's son. There they meet a college teacher Cyril Fielding, to a degree Forster's surrogate in the novel, the Brahman Hindu Dr. Godbole, and the Muslim Dr. Aziz, whose alleged assault on Adela is the fulcrum of the narrative. It was widely acclaimed but Forster gave up novel writing because he felt he could not write openly and honestly about (homo)sexual relations. In 1927 he gave the Clark lectures at Cambridge University that were published as Aspects of the Novel the same year. He was also offered a fellowship at King's College, Cambridge on the strength of them. In 1928, his next volume of short stories, The Eternal Moment, was published: a second collection of six stories which turn away from realism towards the styles of fantasy and romance.

In 1934, the year he published his first biography, a life of his friend Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, Forster became the first president of the National Council for Civil Liberties, an unsurprising decision for an active member of PEN who had argued against the suppression of Radclyffe Hall's lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness in 1928 (he also spoke in defence of the overthrow of the ban on D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover in the 1960s). Two years later, in 1936, he published his first assembly of essays and occasional pieces, Abinger Harvest. His mother died in 1945 and in the same year he was elected an Honorary Fellow at King's, which entitled him to live at the College, as he did for the rest of his life. In 1947 he embarked on lecture tours in the United States, and two years later he refused a knighthood from the King. The same year he wrote the libretto for Benjamin Britten's opera Billy Budd, based on Hermann Melville's novel.

1951 saw the publication of Forster's second collection of essays and articles, Two Cheers for Democracy and 1954 the assembly of his two short-story volumes as Collected Short Stories. In between came the publication of The Hill of Devi in 1953. This is Forster’s account of the time he spent in the small Indian princely state of Dewas Senior in 1912-13 and, more importantly, 1921.It is composed primarily of letters sent home but is helpfully supplemented by later commentary.On his first visit out, Forster travelled as a guest but on his second he served as private secretary to the Maharajah, for which he was awarded the highest honour of the state: the reigning Prince’s Tukoji Rao III Gold Medal.The book is principally concerned with the day-to-day activities of the court: the way in which the state was ruled and administered. Never that sure what he was doing, Forster likened it to a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. Devi, Residence of the Goddess, is the sacred mountain that looms over the capital city of Dewas Senior.At its summit, inhabited by an ancient object of great significance if not power, like the Kawa Dol at the Marabar, is the cave of Chamunda.As this detail implies, the book is an intriguing exercise in cultural difference as well as travel writing but for many readers its foremost interest will reside in the light it sheds on Forster’s final novel.For example, the third section of A Passage to India, “Temple”, is greatly illuminated by reading Forster’s account in The Hill of Devi of the Gokul Ashtami festival that he attended in Dewas in August 1921 and used as a model for Godbole’s ceremony.

Forster’s final book published in his lifetime was Marianne Thornton (1956), a biography of the great-aunt whose gift of £8,000 had allowed Forster to afford to go to Cambridge and subsequently become a writer. In 1969 he was awarded the Order of Merit but died the following year in the home of friends on June 1st. 1971 saw the publication of Maurice and 1972 the release of his remaining, largely unpublished, short stories in The Life to Come.

Forster’s Edwardian novels forged his reputation as one of the most thoughtful and capable novelists of the time, and he continues to influence significant writers today from Damon Galgut to Zadie Smith. The reception of film adaptations of Howards End and A Room with a View have partly associated Forster’s writings with a country house, heritage vision of Englishness before the Great War, but it is his emphasis on the nuances, necessities and difficulties of human connection that has maintained interest in his writings, with texts from ‘The Machine Stops’ to A Passage to India to Maurice continuing to speak eloquently to themes of technology, Empire, and sexuality that still resonate loudly in the twenty-first century.

Citation: Childs, Peter. "E. M. Forster". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 08 January 2001; last revised 24 January 2018. [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=5178, accessed 09 December 2022.]

5178 E. M. Forster 1 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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