E. M. Forster  (1879 - 1970)

Introduction to the life and work of the author of A Room With a View, Howard's End, and A Passage to India


By Stephen Colbourn and Ian Mackean
 

Clear out, you fellows, double quick, I say. We may hate one another, but we hate you most . . . we shall get rid of you, yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then . . . you and I shall be friends. [A Passage to India]

 

E. M. Forster wrote the majority of his well-known books before the First World War, and although he became a member of the Bloomsbury Group, gave up writing novels altogether after the publication of A Passage to India in 1924, confining his literary output to critical works, travel writing, biography and short stories.  The novel Maurice appeared posthumously in 1971, having been published under the supervision of Christopher Isherwood.  It was begun after Forster completed Howard’s End in 1910 and went through several drafts.  It was influenced by the writer Edward Carpenter, a socialist and open homosexual, and had a homosexual theme, but Forster considered its subject matter too indelicate for publication in his own lifetime.

Forster’s literary career began in Edwardian times.  He was writing at the same time as John Galsworthy, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy and Henry James: though Hardy had turned from prose to poetry at the close of the previous century and James was near the end of his productive life, publishing The Ambassadors in 1903 and The Golden Bowl in 1904.  Overshadowing all of them in popular fame at that time was Rudyard Kipling, whose novel Kim (1902) earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Kim is considered to be Kipling’s best book, while A Passage to India is often considered to be Forster’s best.  Both novels are set in India and mark the shift in attitude between Victorianism and what we perceive as Modernity.  Kipling was in the rear guard defending Empire, while Forster was in the vanguard of anti-imperialism.  Forster’s friend Lytton Strachey (1880-1932) mocked the great and the good of the late nineteenth century in Eminent Victorians (1918), and Forster supported the Indian independence movement.

Edward Morgan Forster – who preferred his friends to call him Morgan – was the son of an architect.  His father died in 1881 when Forster was less than two years old; after which he was brought up by his mother and her sisters.  A legacy from a great-aunt made him financially independent at the age of twenty-one and allowed him to travel and write.

After attending King’s College, Cambridge, 1897-1901, where he was elected to the intellectual society known as The Apostles, he visited Italy and Greece.  Then, for a short time, he worked as a private tutor in Germany.

The period 1905-1910 saw the appearance of four novels: Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), The Longest Journey (1907), A Room With a View (1908) and Howard’s End (1910).  In these novels he developed the theme of what might nowadays be called cross-cultural communication.  Forster’s characters are restless and unfulfilled because they are trapped by their mode of life or shackled by an insular conservatism.  He made a distinction between tourists and travellers in that a traveller is prepared to come into close contact with other cultures, linguistically and emotionally, while a tourist merely observes.

Forster visited India for the first time in 1912-13 together with Syed Ross Masood who employed him as a tutor.  During the First World War he served in the Red Cross and was stationed in Alexandria, Egypt, from 1915.  Here he met the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy and had a homosexual affair with an Egyptian tram driver.  In 1921-22 Forster returned to India where he acted as private secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas, this period giving him the material for A Passage to India.

The title of the novel is taken from Walt Whitman who wrote on the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 that it heralded the meeting of East and West.  The story concerns the visit of Adela Quested to Chandrapore in the company of Mrs Moore.  They accept an invitation from Dr Aziz, the local British Surgeon’s assistant, to visit the mysterious Marabar Caves.  During this visit Adela undergoes something akin to a mystical experience while listening to the echo of the caves.  Mrs Moore almost faints and believes she has gone mad for a moment.  Adela feels she has been sexually assaulted and Aziz is consequently arrested for rape; yet, at the trial, Adela withdraws all charges and Aziz is freed.  Exactly what happened in the Marabar Caves remains a mystery.

The philosopher G. E. Moore (1852-1933), a leading figure in the Bloomsbury group, influenced Forster’s view on the importance of personal relationships to the extent that Forster later claimed that, should he be faced with the choice between betraying his country and betraying his friend, he hoped he would have the guts to betray his country (Two Cheers for Democracy, 1951).  Perhaps the well-known quote from Howard’s End, ‘only connect’, is also intended to stress the importance of personal relationships, as well as the importance of making a genuine connection with the culture in which one lives – something which Adela in A Passage to India is unable to do.

Forster was concerned to address issues such as oppression, prejudice, intolerance and misunderstanding wherever he found them, including in the culture of India under British rule.  But V. S. Naipaul, the Nobel Prize-winner of Indian descent born in Trinidad, claimed that Forster knew little of India beyond a few middle-class Indians and the garden boys whom he wished to seduce.

Although he gave up writing novels after A Passage to India Forster continued to produce essays and stories and was involved in PEN – the international association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists and Novelists – over which John Galsworthy presided.  He also served as the first chairman of the National Council for Civil Liberties and campaigned against the suppression of Radclyff Hall’s novel of Lesbian love The Well of Loneliness in 1928.  Over thirty years later he appeared for the defence in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial of 1960. [1]

In the early 1930s The Bloomsbury Group came under attack from the critic F. R. Leavis writing in the Cambridge literary magazine Scrutiny.  Leavis accused the Bloomsbury set of being dilettante and ivory tower artists; after which they lost fashionable appeal, though interest in them re-emerged in the 1960s.  Forster indeed belonged to a rarefied group of intellectuals whose pursuits and lifestyles were made possible by private incomes: and this was at a time of economic Depression when the spectres of Communism and Fascism were stalking Europe and unemployment provoked hunger marches.

In 1946 King’s College offered Forster an honorary fellowship and residence in hall.  He lived in his Cambridge rooms for the rest of his life, dying at the age of 91.

Notes:

1. Lady Chatterley’s Lover: A novel written by D. H. Lawrence in 1926 and privately published in 1928 which caused a sensational trial for obscenity because of its explicit sexual context.

Selected Works: Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905); The Longest Journey (1907); A Room with a View (1908); Howard’s End (1910); The Celestial Omnibus (1914); The Story of the Siren (1920); Alexandria (1922); Pharaos and Pharillon (1923); A Passage to India (1924); Anonymity, an Enquiry (1925); Aspects of the Novel (1927); The Eternal Moment and Other Stories (1928); Abinger Harvest (1936); What I Believe (1939); Reading as Usual (1939); England's Pleasant Land (1940); Nordic Twilight (1940); Collected Short Stories (1948); Two Cheers for Democracy (1951); The Hill of Devi (1953); Marianne Thornton (1956); Maurice (1970); The Life to Come (1972); Commonplace Book (1979); Selected Letters (1983-1985) in 2 volumes; The Uncollected Egyptian Essays (1988).

Further Reading:

Furbank, P. N.  E. M. Forster: a Life. (The authorised biography). Abacus. 1988.

© Stephen Colbourn and Ian Mackean 2005

See also: British and Irish Books on Film >

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