The Cambridge Companion to E. M. Forster

The Cambridge Companion to E. M. Forster

by David Bradshaw (Editor)


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ISBN-13: 9780521542524
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Publication date: 04/12/2007
Series: Cambridge Companions to Literature
Edition description: ANN
Pages: 310
Product dimensions: 6.06(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.71(d)

About the Author

David Bradshaw is Reader in English Literature at the University of Oxford, and Hawthornden Fellow and Tutor in English at Worcester College, Oxford.

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Cambridge University Press
978-0-521-83475-9 - The Cambridge Companion to - E. M. Forster Edited - by David Bradshaw



E. M. Forster’s career as a novelist was spectacularly lopsided. Born in 1879, he published his first four novels in quick succession (Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), The Longest Journey (1907), A Room with a View (1908) and Howards End (1910)), had largely finished what would eventually appear as Maurice by 1914, and published his most famous and ambitious novel, A Passage to India, ten years later (though it is worth mentioning that he started writing it in the wake of his 1912–13 visit to India and struggled to bring it to completion). Then, in the mid-1920s, with the plaudits of both reviewers and the wider reading public ringing in his ears, buoyant sales in both the United Kingdom and the United States, and two prestigious prizes for Passage on his mantelshelf, Forster the novelist shut up shop. His last is the only one of his six novels to be entirely set abroad and at the time it seemed to signal Forster’s departure for new fictional horizons, yet in reality it marked his journey’s end. He was only halfway through his life (he died in 1970) but he would never again be tempted to repeat Passage’s extravagant success. ‘I cant [sic] believe there will be anoth[er] novel’, he told acorrespondent around this time. ‘The legs of my camera could not stand the strain.’1

   However, while Forster the novelist retired prematurely, the professional man of letters remained as busy as ever, and in the long, anxious build-up to the Second World War (and the decades that followed it), he established an international reputation, through his essays, reviews, lectures, and broadcasts, as one of the most prominent, authoritative, and engaging public intellectuals of his day, an aspect of his career examined in depth by David Medalie in Chapter 2 of this volume. By the late 1920s, Forster had also become well known as a literary critic and, in Aspects of the Novel (1927), he produced what Nicholas Royle has called ‘a very powerful book whose originality tends to be overlooked at the present time . . . arguably the most important twentieth-century critical study of English fiction: no book has been more widely read or more influential in itsaccount of “writers and their work”’.2 The position of in Forster’s oeuvre is one of the foci of Gary Day’s essay (Chapter).

   Forster continued to write literary criticism throughout his life, but in the 1930s and 1940s (as well as broadcasting regularly for the BBC) he became increasingly active in the National Council for Civil Liberties, forerunner of the modern day Liberty organisation, ending up as the NCCL’s first president. At the same time, in books such as (1934) and Marianne Thornton (1956), he turned his hand to biography. Over the years, there has been a tendency to either downplay or ignore the later Forster and to dismiss the post-1924 period as a kind of threadbare coda to his brief but glittering career as a novelist. But, as the essays by Max Saunders, David Medalie, and Gary Day all argue in their different ways, the writings of the post-Passage Forster have much to offer and should not be set aside or disregarded so readily. As Saunders puts it, ‘while it is true that [Forster] was never to recapture the incandescence of his Edwardian novels, his biographical writing is extraordinarily good; and his shift towards life-writing has its own significances, not least for the understanding of his own biography’.

   The reasons why Forster dried up as a novelist are touched on by a number of contributors to this book, but there can be little doubt that being homosexual at a time when homosexuality was not just a crime, but, in the precarious aftermath of the Oscar Wilde trials of 1895, an offence that brought with it a disproportionate level of opprobrium, was undoubtedly a factor: the law, in effect, discouraged Forster from writing about the desires and experiences that were closest to his heart. Of course, we now know that he continued to write short stories after the publication of A Passage to India, often explicitly homosexual in content, but he neither wished to publish them nor deceived himself that their publication would have gone unnoticed by the authorities. (Some of these posthumously published stories are discussed by Dominic Head and Christopher Lane in their essays.) The publication of The Life to Come and Other Stories in 1972 marked a key moment in the gradual emergence of ‘queer Forster’ in the years immediately following his death, primarily through the publication of Maurice in 1971, but also by way of the many volumes of the Abinger Edition of his works, which has placed a wide range of his previously unpublished writings in the public domain. Finally, towards the end of the 1970s, P. N. Furbank’s magisterial authorised biography, E. M. Forster: A Life (1977–8), enabled us to approach and appreciate the man behind the novelist for the first time and, inturn, this greater intimacy with Forster helped to further stimulate the posthumous revival of interest in his work which was then in full swing. The subsequent appearance of Forster’s Selected Letters (1983, 1985) and his Commonplace Book (1985) provided yet further insights into both Forster the man and Forster the writer.

   Once Forster’s life-long need to veil his sexuality had become a matter of public record, it was too tempting for some commentators to resist locating the source of his alleged narrowness and tepidity as a novelist, and his running out of steam in that role, in his matriarchal upbringing. Many other critics, however, have set out to scotch the kind of simplistic reading of Forster’s work that posits a straightforward and inevitable link between his aborted career as a novelist and his covert inner being. For it is now abundantly clear to most open-minded readers that Forster the writer exceeds and transcends the sum of his parts and his comparatively elevated place in the annals of twentieth-century literature is increasingly assured. Indeed, with each new addition to the critical idiom – Englishness, queer studies, postcolonialism, for example – Forster’s relevance is reconsidered and enhanced. The essays by Paul Peppis, Christopher Lane, and Peter Morey all engage with recent appropriations of Forster, and, like every other contributor to the collection, they seek to promote a more rounded and sophisticated appreciation of Forster’s fictional and non-fictional prose and to see him neither as icon nor stooge, but a writer with whom it is well worth spending time.

   Having stressed the importance of looking beyond Forster’s private life as well as bearing it in mind, Forster’s sexuality plainly helped determine the shape of his career, and perhaps another reason he gave up writing novels is that he felt not just that his realist ‘camera’ had already taken more than enough images of a (heterosexual) world from which he felt excluded, but also that it had tended to take the same or a similar photograph time and again. It is noticeable, for instance, that his novels tend not only to recycle characters – Harriet Herriton and Charlotte Bartlett, for example, or Cecil Vyse and Tibby Schlegel, or the first Mrs Wilcox and Mrs Moore – but that characters from one novel have a knack of popping up in another, reinforcing the criticism that is sometimes levelled at Forster that his fictional world is overly restricted. Is the ‘Miss Herriton’ mentioned in the ‘Sawston’ section of The Longest Journey (Chapter 16), for example, none other than Miss Harriet Herriton of Sawston (Where Angels Fear to Tread)? Is the ‘Miss Quested’ who plays the piano at the Schlegels’ lunch party in Chapter 9 of Howards End the same person as A Passage to India’s Hampstead-based Adela Quested? And is the ‘wretched, weedy’ Mr Vyse, whom Tibby and Margaret Schlegel discuss in Chapter 13 of Howards End, the non-tennis playing and fervently aesthetic Cecil Vyse of A Room with a View?

   All of Forster’s novels are structured around contrasts, and when Caroline Abbott and Lilia Herriton set off for Italy from a fog-bound Charing Cross at the beginning of Where Angels Fear to Tread, they also entrain for his idiosyncratic sphere of antitheses: North versus South; suburbia versus the country; the country versus the city; the medieval versus the modern; prohibition versus liberation; propriety versus mischief; emotions versus conventions; the orthodox versus the pagan; the everyday versus the exceptional; the real versus the fantastic; pretence versus honesty; prose versus passion, common sense versus imagination; death versus life. Yet although they depend on these contraries, his fiction is not restricted by them. And while it may suit some readers to continue pigeonholing Forster as an old-maidish chronicler of Edwardian England’s endless summer, a kind of tame and trousered Jane Austen, the Edwardian period was far from tranquil and neither are Forster’s novels. The more we read them, the more we feel their fissures and fractures and sense all manner of ideological and sexual pressures at work between their covers. In the deftly chosen words of one recent critic, Forster’s novels are ‘not only . . . queer . . . but also . . . in certain respects, queerer than queer’, texts that emphasise ‘the cryptic, furtive and singular’ and that accommodate ‘subterranean feelings and strange subtexts . . . the discontinuous and the unpredictable’.3 So although he is always compared with her, and she was clearly his greatest influence, Forster’s novels differ markedly from Austen’s in a number of ways and not least in their tendency to admit sudden violence and death, such as the death of Lilia Herriton and the subsequent killing of her baby in Where Angels Fear to Tread; the unexpected death of Gerald Dawes in a sporting accident and the almost ritualistic killing of Rickie Elliot by a train in The Longest Journey; the stabbing of a Florentine man in A Room with a View; the deaths of Mrs Wilcox and Leonard Bast in Howards End; the abrupt murders that irrupt into stories such as ‘The Life to Come’ and ‘The Other Boat’ and whatever it is that happens, if anything happens at all, in the Marabar Caves. An early (1903) draft of A Room with a View indicates that Forster even thought of concluding that novel not with George Emerson and Lucy Honeychurch embracing in Italy but with George ‘killed . . . at once’ by a falling tree while out cycling near Summer Street.4 Forster called A Room with a View his ‘nicest’ novel, but there is a lot more to it than niceness, as Judith Scherer Herz discovers in her essay in this volume. Three other contributions (by Howard Booth, Peter Childs, and me) are devoted to arguably his other best-known and/or most important texts, Maurice, , and Howards End, while Ann Ardis situates Where Angels Fear to Tread and Room in the important contexts of Edwardian Hellenism and the appeal of Italy as a long-standing cultural mecca.

   Although Forster tends to be celebrated for his emphasis on the need for connection between different races, classes, sexes, and sides of the individual self, and although all of his novels are delivered by reassuringly wise-sounding narrators with a seemingly sage and solid grasp of human nature, a number of the contributors to this collection see his work as marked by ambivalence and uncertainty; even, in the case of my own essay, by prejudice. All those participating in the volume were invited to contribute to it on the strength of their reputations as scholars and critics, not for their willingness or ability to sing from the same song-sheet. Paul Peppis’s account of Forster and Englishness, for instance, draws conclusions that are difficult to square with my own reading of Howards End but which, of course, are all the more welcome because they are different. The only judge of these essays that counts will be the reader, not the editor. No attempt has been made to massage away conflicts of opinion, and the fact that Forster may be read divergently is taken as a sign, critically speaking, of his finally coming of age. I conclude my reading of Howards End, for example, with the proposal that Forster’s fourth novel ‘spotlights not the sturdiness of [his] liberal values, but their relative frailty. Patently a novel of contrasts, Howards End is no less fundamentally a novel of contradictions.’ But whether I’m correct or not is not for me to say. And far from indicating any dissatisfaction with the novel or hostility towards Forster on my part, my angle on is, I hope, symptomatic of a new recognition that his novels, though clearly not complex in the manner, say, of Joyce’s, are more than sufficiently complicated and substantial enough to encompass a wide range of interpretation. In A Passage to India, for example, it could be that Forster’s unease with the place is far more intriguing and obtrusive than the sympathy we know he had for the sub-continent and its peoples.

   In contrast with later appraisals of Forster’s novels, Virginia Woolf thought she knew exactly where to position him. ‘But, to make a clearance before I begin,’ she wrote in ‘Character in Fiction’ (1924), ‘I will suggest that we range Edwardians and Georgians into two camps; Mr Wells, Mr Bennett, and Mr Galsworthy I will call the Edwardians; Mr Forster, Mr Lawrence, Mr Strachey, Mr Joyce, and Mr Eliot I will call the Georgians.’ Woolf, in other words, saw Forster as part of the post-Edwardian avant-garde, and while shoehorning him into the canon of high modernism alongside Eliot and Joyce now seems more than a touch audacious, his various affinities with the writings of Lawrence, Strachey, and Woolf are obvious enough. Elizabeth Langland looks at Forster’s relationship with his novelist contemporaries in depth, while Randall Stevenson and David Medalie analyse Forster’s problematic relationship with modernist writing. Of course in recent years a great many people have come to know Forster’s novels through film adaptations and this phenomenon is the subject of Marcia Landy’s essay. Indeed, with so much of Forster on film, his novels are almost certainly more widely known than those of his more distinguished modernist contemporaries, such as Joyce. Ironically, Forster prohibited the filming of his work during his lifetime and, as Gary Day reminds us, he regarded ‘the movie-public’ of the 1920s as ‘the modern descendants of cave men’.

   Despite his comment on cinema fans, Forster remains synonymous with certain values and virtues: tolerance, compassion, freedom, liberal humanism. Yet the writer who emerges from these freshly commissioned essays is also prone to straying away from the qualities he is meant to exemplify. Just as he is more of a modernist, perhaps, than we have been inclined to acknowledge, he is less enlightened about race and class than he might seem on first acquaintance. But these observations are not intended to be pejorative: as Max Saunders says, Forster was in many ways ‘the chronicler of precisely the things he felt most ambivalent about: suburbia; intellectualism; modernism; liberalism; sexuality; imperialism; Englishness’. And women. For as Jane Goldman explains at the beginning of her innovative essay, ‘the status and relevance of the word “woman” in Forster’s writing’ is puzzlingly elusive, and that is why her essay sets out to consider ‘Forster’s representations of women and, more broadly, the changing understanding of what such representation might involve’.

   Forster has always had legions of admirers, but he has also tended to attract the odd high-profile detractor. ‘[He] never gets any further than warming the teapot’, a disgruntled Katherine Mansfield noted on browsing through Howards End some time after first reading it. ‘He’s a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain’t going to be no tea.’ More recently, the novelist Julian Barnes told readers of the Sunday Times (30 August 1998) that reading ‘[m]ost of E. M. Forster’ was ‘like drinking skimmed milk’, while V. S. Naipaul has been notoriously contemptuous of both Forster’s sexuality and A Passage to India, which, in 2001, he dismissed as ‘utter rubbish’. True, none of Forster’s novels carries the epic clout of Ulysses (1922) or To the Lighthouse (1927), but Barnes’ comment suggests he has sipped Forster through lips too pursed to appreciate him and Naipaul’s curt assessment only defines itself.

   Forster was no Woolf, no Joyce, but his novels will keep critics, academics, and general readers contentedly occupied, if not for hundreds of years, as Joyce once quipped of Ulysses, then certainly for the foreseeable future. But the Forster that will be read and is addressed in this volume is both a more interesting and a more conflicted writer than of old. As David Medalie puts it at the conclusion of his contribution: ‘Perhaps there has been too much of the comforting Forster a nd too little of the discomforting one. Veneration has made him too tame and the time is now ripe to revere him less but to listen to him all the more intently.’

David Bradshaw

Forster’s life and life-writing

When A Passage to India was published in 1924, Forster feared – rightly – that it would be his last novel. He was only forty-five, in good health, and, as it turned out, still had half his life ahead of him, during most of which he remained an active man of letters. The central question for his literary biography, then, is why he stopped writing novels so early in his career. He didn’t stop writing. But his subsequent work takes other forms: stories, essays, reviews, broadcasts, lectures. The only works of length, apart from essay collections, that he published after the 1920s were his three biographical books, yet he thought all this writing less significant than his novels, and continually worried that his creativity had dried up. But while it is true that he was never to recapture the incandescence of his Edwardian novels, his biographical writing is extraordinarily good; and his shift towards life-writing has its own significances, not least for the understanding of his own biography.

   After he had finished his last book, in 1955, Forster asked Leonard Woolf what he might write next. Woolf, whose thoughts were perhaps already turning toward the five-volume autobiography that would prove his magnum opus, advised Forster to write his autobiography. But, as P. N. Furbank explains, it was advice Forster felt he couldn’t take: ‘He thought he might be able to handle isolated incidents but he did not understand his own life sufficiently to describe it as a whole.’1 This striking – and entirely characteristic – self-deprecation was perhaps a smokescreen, obscuring what Forster understood perfectly: that a homosexual life could not be described fully in print in the 1950s; perhaps even that the criminalisation of homosexuality had necessitated his living his life in a fragmentary way. It was only after Forster’s death in 1970 that this aspect of his life could be addressed openly and comprehensively in Furbank’s excellent two-part biography of 1977–8. Like anyone writing about Forster’s life, I am greatly indebted to Furbank.

   Forster had given the famous epigraph ‘Only connect’ to his last published novel before the First World War, Howards End (1910), and in 1915 he had told his friend Forrest Reid in a letter: ‘My defence at any Last Judgement would be “I was trying to connect up and use all the fragments I was born with”’ (quoted Furbank II, p. 14). This might suggest he should have taken Leonard Woolf’s advice. Yet from another point of view, handling isolated incidents from his life is exactly what his writing had always done. And if Forster didn’t write his own life story, his novels, like all novels, certainly have an autobiographical dimension. Furbank describes the plots of his novels, where they involve children, as like ‘miraculous “nativity-stories” about himself’ (Furbank II, p. 131). This is especially striking in his second, and favourite, novel, The Longest Journey, which draws on both his unhappiness at Tonbridge School, and his sense of the potential for happiness offered by aesthetic Cambridge.2 Furbank, as critical biographers must, argues for deeper correspondences between the life and work, especially between The Longest Journey and Forster’s meeting of a young lame shepherd at Figsbury Rings. They conversed, the boy offered Forster a smoke of his pipe, and he impressed Forster as one of the most remarkable people he had ever met. Furbank calls the meeting a ‘momentous encounter with the spirit of place’ (Furbank I, p. 116). Certainly, that movement from a charged human encounter to a visionary experience of landscape – whether Italy (in A Room with a View), England again (in Howards End), or India – was to prove a key motif in his novels. But it is, of course, an encounter with more than the spirit of place. Freud said a cigar was sometimes only a cigar, but the pipe in this episode is more like Magritte’s, which is not a pipe, or not only one. It is a token of an intense intimacy which sparks across several abysses: across the taboo on homosexuality; the gulf between classes; and the gap between adequacy and inadequacy. Furbank shrewdly connects the shepherd’s physical handicap with Forster’s homosexuality, suggesting that part of the effect of the meeting was to show Forster how what made him feel inadequate might be ‘courageously overcome’.3 He gave Rickie Elliot (his alter ego in The Longest Journey) the shepherd’s limp, thus presenting himself as a modern Oedipus confronting the riddle of his own life.

   In the 1920s Forster joined the Bloomsbury ‘Memoir Club’, in which members read candid autobiographical papers (Furbank II, p. 66). One of Forster’s contemplates how such moments can provide the inspiration for a novel:

The original experience – of the kind called human, but really fatuous and shallow – is of no importance and may take any form. Soon it goes, and the continual births and deaths of such are part of the disillusionment and livingness of this our mortal state. We do constantly invest strangers and strange objects with a glamour they cannot return. But now and then, before the experience dies it turns a key and bequeaths us with something which philosophically may be also a glamour but which actually is tough. From this a book may spring. From the book, with the violence and persistency that only art possesses, a stream of emotion may beat back against and into the world.

   (quoted Furbank I, p. 119)

Before the First World War, Forster invested two other glamorous young men with a love they could not return: his two closest friends at Cambridge, H. O. Meredith – to whom he dedicated A Room with a View – and Syed Ross Masood – to whom he dedicated A Passage to India. It was not until he went to Alexandria, where he spent the war working for the Red Cross, that he had his first consummated sexual experiences; first with a soldier on a beach, fleetingly, then a sustained relationship with a tram conductor, Mohammed el Adl. (His attraction to people in uniform was to continue after the war, in his longest but more ambiguous intimacy with the policeman Bob Buckingham, and his wife May, a nurse. See Furbank II, pp. 35, 166–8.)

   The genesis of something as complex as a novel is bound to be intricately over-determined, and Forster’s biographers can be no surer than Forster of why he was no longer inspired to write them after A Passage to India (which was anyway begun before the war, after his first visit there in 1912–13, then abandoned till he returned from his second visit in 1921). However, when one considers the autobiographical dimensions of his other novels possible interpretations arise.

   In A Room with a View (1908: his third published novel, but probably conceived first, and drafted from 1903), there is perhaps a touch of self-mockery in the portrayal of Cecil Vyse, the aesthete who thinks he should marry Lucy Honeychurch, and doesn’t yet realise he is more strongly attracted to men. In his essay ‘Notes on the English Character’ (1926), Forster diagnosed ‘the difficulties of Englishmen abroad’ as stemming from the curious institution of the public school, which sends forth its products ‘with well-developed bodies, fairly developed minds, and undeveloped hearts’ (AH, pp. 4–5). The difficulties caused by an undeveloped heart when confronted by otherness, and the need for a sentimental education, is the subject of all his novels, and their chief claim to liberalism. Cecil and Lucy are both examples. But Lucy is something of a divided character. Her social self has all the limitations of the middle classes that middle-class Forster found both fascinating and repellent. (‘Middle class people smell’, he wrote in a letter of 1917, quoted in Furbank II, p. 41.) But she is also (like Forster) a gifted pianist who seems when playing to touch another stratum of existence. In this respect she has more in common with passionate, depressive, George Emerson. And Forster’s deepest identification in the novel seems itself divided, between Lucy and George. Forster’s extensive travels in Italy with his mother during 1901–2 figure both as George’s with his father, and Lucy’s with her older cousin Charlotte.

© Cambridge University Press

Table of Contents

Chronology; Introduction David Bradshaw; 1. Forster's life and life-writing Max Saunders; 2. Bloomsbury and other values David Medalie; 3. Forster and England Paul Peppis; 4. Hellenism and the lure of Italy Ann Ardis; 5. Forster and the short story Dominic Head; 6. Forster and the novel Elizabeth Langland; 7. Forsterian sexuality Christopher Lane; 8. Forster and women Jane Goldman; 9. A Room with a View Judith Herz; 10. Howards End David Bradshaw; 11. Maurice Howard Booth; 12. A Passage to India Peter Childs; 13. Forster and modernism Randall Stevenson; 14. Forster as literary critic Gary Day; 15. Filmed Forster Marcia Landy; 16. Postcolonial Forster Peter Morey.

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