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I N T R O D U C T I O N
By Ann Pasternak Slater
Cover-ups and the Unspoken
It is 1901.
E. M. Forster, a young man of twenty-two, has just arrived in Florence, and is deeply shocked. ‘How flagrantly indecent,’ he writes to a friend, ‘are the statues in the Uffizi with their little brown paper bathing drawers.’ Even Catholic fig-leaves are preferable. Rubens is unacceptable ‘because he paints undressed people instead of naked ones’. Forster, wayward maiden aunt of the Modernists, is affronted by the cover-ups of conventional propriety.
The excessive decorum dominating the turn of the last century is barely conceivable today. It’s hard to imagine Michelangelo’s David politely wrapped in paper pants. In A Room with a View Forster signals his amused dissent, when Lucy escapes from the Pension Bertolini ‘to do something of which her well-wishers disapproved’, and buys an armful of art reproductions. An innocent rebellion? No. They are all nudes: Georgione’s ‘Tempesta’, the ‘Idolino’, Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’. At which point Forster’s narrative blandly slips into the voice of his times:
Venus, being a pity, spoiled the picture, otherwise so charming, and Miss Bartlett had persuaded her to do without it. (A pity in art of course signified the nude.)
That shift in voice is one tiny example of Forster’s delicate ironies. Often his delivery is so successfully deadpan, it’s hard to tell where he stands. The difficulty is compounded by his own inarticulable uncertainties.
Where Angels Fear to Tread and A Room with a View fall neatly within the Edwardian era (1901–10). This was the period when audiences rioted nightly against the word ‘shift’ in The Playboy of the Western World; when gentlemen’s trousers were euphemized as ‘ineffables’ or ‘unmentionables’; when one of Forster’s Cambridge friends congratulated him on flouting linguistic decorum by calling Gino’s newborn son a ‘baby’ rather than a ‘child’. It is the time when Forster’s fictional alter ego, Maurice, seeks the help of a doctor, shamefacedly introducing himself as ‘an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort’. Forster was sixteen years old when Wilde was condemned to two years’ hard labour on a charge of gross indecency. Wilde died in 1900, just before the Edwardian decade began, and Forster was coming to a slow understanding of his own homosexuality.
Unspeakable, unmentionable, ineffable: social taboos impose and are created by linguistic blackout; they are mutually reinforcing. The unspoken doesn’t cease to exist. But it becomes unrecognizable, unknown, dimly sensed, feared, reviled. In Forster’s case, initial innocence was compounded by his unusually protected and protracted upbringing by a myriad maiden aunts and a young mother who was widowed at twenty-five, when he was a year old. On his own admission, he only ‘understood how copulation took place’ when he was thirty. This bred fruitful ambiguities. In his early work, his inherent sexual ignorance, and an ingrained disinclination to offend, combine with deliberate literary occlusion, and a mocking adoption of Edwardian euphemism – as in Venus being ‘a pity’. Consequently, in his work it’s often difficult to distinguish the consciously ironic from the unconsciously acquiescent. The English muddle, which Forster’s novels combat so energetically, often reflects his own half-articulated and imperfectly recognized confusion.
Take Forster’s first piece of fiction. In ‘The Story of a Panic’, a group of English tourists are terrified by a visitation from Pan whom they sense but cannot see. Eustace, a boy in their company, is liberated and transformed. His instinctive perception of nature disturbs the rest of the group who try to imprison him; his kindred spirit, a low-bred Italian waiter, helps him escape into the woods. Charles Sayle, a Cambridge fellow-student, deliberately misread the story in the basest sexual terms, wryly recounted by Forster many years after the event.
B— by a waiter in the hotel, Eustace commits bestiality with a goat on that valley where I had sat. In the subsequent chapters, he tells the waiter how nice it has been and they try to b— each other again. [To others, the travestied story] seemed great fun, to me disgusting. I was horrified and did not want to meet Charles Sayle. In after years I realized that in a stupid and unprofitable way he was right and this was the cause of my indignation. I knew, as their creator, that Eustace and the [goat’s] footmarks and the waiter, had none of the conjunctions he visualized, I had no thought of sex for them, no thought of sex was in my mind. All the same I had been excited as I wrote and the passages where Sayle thought something was up had excited me most.
With age, Forster admitted, such ambiguous passages grew rare in his work, as he left behind him ‘that enchanted valley where beauty is lust, lust beauty, and neither has nor needs a name’. Forster’s adaptation of Keats’s insoluble aphorism (‘Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty’) is at once straightforward and ironic. The relationship between beauty and lust isn’t a conundrum, but an unspoken truth. Wilde’s love that dare not speak its name is Forster’s lust that neither has nor needs a name.
The unsaid and the unspeakable throw their shadow over Edwardian married life too. Forster’s friend, J. R. Ackerley, was brought up in a seemingly normal well-to-do London household. Ackerley only discovered after his father’s death that he had also raised an alternative family nearby, visiting them regularly while walking the dog. To take another example, Forster wrote a tart memoir of his aptly named Uncle Willie, a member of the Northumberland landed gentry, whose house Forster frequently visited. Uncle Willie married a woman eight years his senior, the unfortunate Aunt Emily, while maintaining in his household sparkling Leontine Chipman, thirteen years his junior. So much Forster tells us directly: the unspoken inference is that Leontine was Uncle Willie’s live-in mistress. However, ‘the proprieties were strictly observed’, Forster observes sardonically. Uncle Willie forbad his unloved wife to take trips away from home unless young women could be found ‘to keep dear Leontine company . . . during the hours when copulation is possible in Northumberland’. Such plans invariably fell through, and drove Uncle Willie ‘half out of his mind’. He sounds very like Edward Ashburnham in Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier.
In spite of Uncle Willie’s insistence on public form, sex played a large part in his life. There was ‘the youthful feminine trash that thronged the house as years went on . . . Little girls he took an interest in too, and would pay for their school: indeed in the end he was interested in nothing but little girls . . .’ His well-trained wife and aging mistress made no objection. Forster himself, and his secret desires, were something quite other. Note the hiatus in Forster’s manuscript. ‘I [one-word blank] was outside his vision, and though he once referred to ‘‘the worst thing in creation’’ he was not illuminating about it. It never struck him as it did me that the groom was alone during hours that are possible in Northumberland’. Like the brown paper shorts on Florentine statues, Forster’s shorthand draws attention to what it hides. These are the great unanswered questions: what is the worst thing in creation? When is copulation possible in Northumberland?
Forster’s reminiscences of Uncle Willie, as well as his account of ‘The Story of a Panic’, were written in the 1920s. It was easier to recognize the hypocrisy of the Edwardian era after it ended. J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls (1945) is an attack on Edwardian double standards. In it the members of a rich mill-owning family discover that each of them has, secretly and independently, taken advantage of the same working girl. Their carefully sustained veneer is gradually scraped away as revelation follows revelation. The father dismissed the girl from one of his mills for involvement in a strike. The daughter got her sacked from her next job on a false charge. The daughter’s fiance´ set her up as his kept woman, and then abandoned her. The son (whose alcoholism is another unspoken family secret) raped her and then stole from his father’s business to pay her off. The mother convinced her women’s charity not to support her in pregnancy and destitution. All the social and sexual cover-ups of underhand Edwardian respectability packed into one facile play.
Forster cleared the way for Priestley. Howards End (1910) urges its characters to ‘only connect’ – the prose with the passion, of course, but also the double standards endemic in such a secretive period. Margaret Schlegel forces Henry Wilcox to recognize the connection between his affair with Jacky Bast, and Helen Schlegel’s one-night stand with Jacky’s husband, Leonard. If Helen’s unmarried pregnancy is to be condemned by Henry, his own adultery is equally culpable. Or both must be forgiven. By Howards End Forster had the strength to extend his social range and intensify the sharpness of his attack. In Where Angels Fear to Tread and A Room with a View he was still feeling his way. Like Philip Herriton, Caroline Abbot, and Lucy Honeychurch, he was a confused but obedient participant in a society whose values he found increasingly suspect.
In 1901 Forster left Cambridge with a mediocre degree and set out for Italy with his mother. For a year they drifted from pension to pension on the Baedeker trail, following the leisured, genteel life of the well-heeled Edwardian tourist. We may be surprised to find the middle-class and not obviously rich Caroline Abbott, in Where Angels Fear to Tread, also coolly embarking on a year’s Italian travels in the company of the irresponsible Lilia Herriton. Who could contemplate such an extensive holiday now? A century ago, apparently, it was nothing special. Forster’s early fictions are peppered with English tourists enjoying the middle-class equivalent of the aristocratic grand tours of the nineteenth century. He and his mother returned to England late in 1902, only to set out again on another continental trip in the new year.
Two instalments of his first novel, tentatively identified as Old Lucy and New Lucy, were begun during his travels abroad. They predate Forster’s first published novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread, which came out in 1905. The Longest Journey followed in 1907. In 1908 the two halves of Old and New Lucy finally coalesced in the polished text of A Room with a View.
Though this chronology is convoluted, both novels benefited from it. Where Angels Fear to Tread is spontaneous and energetic, profiting from Forster’s literary apprenticeship in the drafts of Lucy, and the short stories he was accumulating in this early period. The best of them, ‘The Story of a Panic’, epitomizes most memorably the emergent dualities that were to dominate all Forster’s subsequent work. They can be summarized very simply as a neat alignment of conflicting values: suburbia versus nature; Sawston versus Italy; propriety versus passion. Dryads, fauns, Pan and the ancient gods battle with Miss Bartlett, Mr Beebe, Mrs Herriton and the ‘vast armies of the benighted’. It is one of Forster’s great weaknesses that this recurrent template is too easily identifiable for the reader’s sustained suspension of disbelief, and encourages an over-schematized reading of the novels.
Where Angels Fear to Tread
Two gossipy English ladies overheard in an Italian hotel were the trigger to Where Angels Fear to Tread. They were picking over the marriage of another Englishwoman to a young Italian who was both her junior and her social inferior. ‘This sorry bit of twaddle stuck in my mind,’ Forster says. ‘I worked on it until it became alive and grew into a novel of contrasts.’ On one hand were ‘the English suburbs with the grey inhibited life that I knew only too well’. On the other was the fictional Monteriano, based on San Gimignano, a recent stop on Forster’s tourist trek. However, the novel is more subtle than Forster’s impatiently schematic summary.
The novel is subtler, because Forster takes care to turn the contrasts typical of his recurring template into living particularities. Take the first chapter, which draws to an easy close as Mrs Herriton and her spinster daughter Harriet are planting vegetables.
They sowed the duller vegetables first, and a pleasant feeling of righteous fatigue stole over them as they addressed themselves to the peas. Harriet attached a string to guide the row straight, and Mrs Herriton scratched a furrow with a pointed stick . . .
All Sawston is implicit in this memorably dull scene. Its punitive self-imposed morality over trivia. Its scratchy, straitjacketed values. Its futile attempts to tether liberal nature to the straight and narrow. They are interrupted by the midday post with unwelcome news. Mrs Herriton’s widowed daughter-in-law, Lilia, has kicked loose and got herself engaged in Italy. The letter is irritably ripped up and the uncovered peas are forgotten. Later Mrs Herriton remembers them and goes out in the dark, to find the sparrows have eaten them all. Only the letter’s litter remains, ‘disfiguring the tidy ground’. Sawston can’t control libertine instinct. Lilia will find another mate; sparrows will peck up peas; even Harriet and Mrs Herriton will lose control in their passion for propriety.
Forster’s problem is that from our present, seemingly liberated perspective, the impulses driving Harriet and her mother are altogether too extreme to be convincing. In England, they successfully interrupt Lilia’s burgeoning flirtation with Mr Kingcroft. Then they attempt to stop her Italian marriage, and fail. Yet Beatrix Potter provides an illuminating parallel to such selfish restraint. Between 1902 and 1905, when she was in her late thirties, her parents obstructed her wish to marry the youngest of the Warne brothers, her publishers. Invitations to visit the Warne family in Surbiton were refused because, as Beatrix tactfully put it, her mother was ‘exacting’. So much is left unsaid. Suburban Surbiton was beneath Mrs Potter. Warne was notionally in trade, while the Potters’ wealth came from cotton mills. Beatrix’s unspeakable heresy, ‘Publishing books is as clean a trade as spinning cotton,’ was uttered to a cousin ‘in confidence, scarcely above a whisper’. Sadly, Warne died before the couple had been disobediently engaged more than a few months. The Potter parents continued intransigent till Beatrix, at forty-seven, rebelled and married a Westmorland solicitor well beneath her parents, but not her.
So is the Herritons’ interference that improbable? Once Lilia has conveniently died in childbirth, they pointlessly prevent her daughter, Irma, finding out about her half-brother, and fail. Then they switch to the contrary scheme of rescuing the baby from his socially undesirable father – and fail. They are incapable of conceiving that Gino might love his baby. Their obsessive attempts at control are self-deceptive and self-defeating. Unremittingly unsympathetic and unimaginative, they self-righteously misread their low urge to have their own way as high morality. For Forster, it is a typical English muddle with tragic consequences. However, their confused machinations also serve a fictional imperative. The conflict central to the novel’s climactic finale depends on Forster’s getting Philip Herriton and Caroline Abbott to Italy. Philip and Caroline vacillate near the fulcrum of a seesaw with repressive Sawston weighing down one end, and flighty Italy up at the other. Harriet and Mrs Herriton’s malign meddling is the necessary mechanism to catapult Philip and Caroline over the Alps to Monteriano, and into the arms of Gino.