Forster, E. M.
E. M. Forster
BORN: 1879, London, England
DIED: 1970, Coventry, England
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction
A Room with a View (1908)
Howards End (1910)
A Passage to India (1924)
One of the most influential and highly regarded authors in the British canon, E. M. Forster published only five novels during his lifetime—the first four of those between 1905 and 1910. He built a reputation as a novelist of distinction and as a persuasive man of letters. He attained the greatest recognition and authority, however, after World War II, long after publishing A Passage to India—his most significant novel by far—in 1924. In fact, by the time he had reached the height of his public renown as a novelist, he had nearly stopped writing fiction altogether. Though his reputation and influence have suffered since his death in 1970, he still commands the respect and enthusiasm of critics and general readers alike for his many virtues as a fiction writer and essayist.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Love of the Countryside and Unhappy School Years Edward Morgan Forster was born in London on January 1, 1879. His father died a year and a half later. His great-aunt left him a legacy of eight thousand pounds when she died in 1887, making it possible for him to receive without strain a university education and to devote himself to a career as a writer without worrying about other employment.
Possibly the most important aspect of Forster's early life was his residence with his mother at Rooksnest, a house in Hertfordshire near Stevenage. Here Forster developed his love for the English countryside, and Rooksnest became the model for Howards End house and farm in Howards End (1910). He attended a preparatory school at East-bourne and then became a day student at Tonbridge School. The family, meanwhile, had to leave Rooksnest to reside in Tonbridge. These years at school were unhappy for Forster, and he later reflected on this disaffection in his depiction of Sawston School in The Longest Journey (1907).
Inspiration at Cambridge The Tonbridge years gave way to the excitement of university life and an accompanying broadening of horizons. Forster's closest friend in his undergraduate years was H. O. Meredith, who helped make him conscious of his homosexual inclinations and who became the prototype for Clive Durham in Forster's novel Maurice (published posthumously in 1971, but written largely in 1914).
The Apostles and the Bloomsbury Group What Cambridge meant for Forster, he revealed directly and by implication in the early chapters of The Longest Journey and in Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson (1934), a biography of his Cambridge friend and mentor. In Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, Forster asserted that it was possible in the relaxed but stimulating ambiance at Cambridge for a young man to unite into a meaningful whole the various and different powers of his nature. Through H. O. Meredith's influence Forster became a member of the Cambridge Conversazione Society, otherwise known as the Apostles, a group of young men who passionately discussed moral, intellectual, and aesthetic issues and who were to form the nucleus of the later cluster of intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group (named after the neighborhood in London where many of its members lived). The Apostles during Forster's time at the university and immediately thereafter included Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, Leonard Woolf, Desmond Mac-Carthy, and Saxon Sydney-Turner; Roger Fry was a member from an earlier time.
Forster felt a strong affinity to many of the “Blooms-bury” values, which included friendship, speculative discussion, a persistent questioning of tradition and convention, agnosticism, advocacy of social change, an appreciation of innovation in the arts, and a testing of moral values. He dramatized vividly the quintessential Bloomsbury values in the Schlegel sisters in Howards End, in Fielding and Adela Quested in A Passage to India (1924), and in his own eloquent credo, written later in his career, What I Believe (1939; reprinted in Two Cheers for Democracy, 1951).
A Teacher and a Writer In 1902, Forster became an instructor at the Working Men's College in London, an affiliation that lasted for twenty years. At the suggestion of Nathaniel Wedd, Forster's tutor and friend at Cambridge, he also decided to become a writer. The years from 1903 to 1910 were years of extraordinary creative release for Forster. He wrote four novels of surpassing force and insight, all of them now recognized as Edwardian classics: Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), The Longest Journey (1907), A Room with a View (1908), and Howards End (1910).
A Conscientious Objector to World War I After his time at Cambridge, Forster traveled extensively with his mother, writing travel essays and histories that set the stage for the novel most frequently recognized as his greatest, A Passage to India (1924). Following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the
Austro-Hungarian throne, World War I broke out in 1914. Forster did not serve in a military capacity because he objected to the war, however, he did work at a hospital for the Red Cross in Egypt from 1916 until 1917.
Achieving Literary Fame and Deteriorating Health When Forster published A Passage to India in 1924, he was in his mid-forties and was already a respected and relatively successful novelist. This novel, however, catapulted him to literary fame and popular acclaim. He had struggled in writing it, though, and thereafter he turned away from fiction, concentrating his creative energies on essay writing and political engagement. In the 1930s and 1940s, Forster gained public prominence in part because his essays kept bringing him before the public. In his public utterances he revealed a deep commitment to values that first the Depression and then the Nazi rise to power and World War II placed under threat; and, in the years after 1945, he enjoyed international prestige. He also suffered his first stroke in 1964, though, and a more serious one the next year; his health deteriorated gradually thereafter. He had to give up what had been an active life of traveling and speaking engagements, though he remained intellectually acute until his death. He suffered a massive stroke on May 22, 1970, and died on June 7, 1970.
Works in Literary Context
E. M. Forster's novels are often witty, filled with sharp observations, and deeply realist in their descriptions of the world. When he stopped writing novels and turned his attention primarily to essays, these same qualities contributed to his great popularity as an essayist and public speaker. Similar in style to the novels of Jane Austen, Forster's fiction works focus on three major themes: salvation through love, the deficiency of traditional Christianity, and the repressive nature of English culture. These themes are underscored by numerous allusions to paganism and mythology and are infused with Forster's liberal humanism and subtle wit. Most readers and critics would align him in the quality of his work—though not in breadth and comprehensiveness—with such modern writers as Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, and D. H. Lawrence. As noted, his work was influenced by members of the Bloomsbury Group, including Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, Leonard Woolf, Desmond MacCarthy, and Saxon Sydney-Turner, and Roger Fry.
The Edwardian Novels Forster's first four novels (as well as a fifth, written at the same time, but not published until after his death) are generally considered Edwardian in style and theme. These novels—Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), The Longest Journey (1907), A Room with a View (1908), and Howards End (1910)—are rooted in his depiction of the life and manners of the upper-middle class that he knew from the inside. He had the insider's love of this society despite its shortcomings, but he also knew its shortcomings as only an insider could. Accordingly, he appreciated its amenities and its graciousness, but also critiqued strongly its frivolousness and materialistic obsessions. He had the insight, however, to see that people could themselves change, even when living in a society that was essentially static. And the finer spirits in this milieu, he saw, were enabled by their wealth to appreciate, without undue stress, the resources of culture, the renovating influence of nature, and the potential fullness of the inner life of the spirit and mind.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Forster's famous contemporaries include:
D. H. Lawrence (1885–1930): English writer best known for his novels Sons and Lovers and Lady Chatterly's Lover, and described by Forster in an obituary notice as “the greatest imaginative novelist of our generation.”
Virginia Woolf (1882–1945): A prominent author and feminist philosopher, Woolf was another member of the Bloomsbury Group. Her best-known novels include Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, while A Room of One's Own, in which she argues that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” is probably her most highly regarded nonfiction piece.
Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970): French general Charles de Gaulle was a leader of the resistance to the Nazi regime in France during World War II; he later founded France's Fifth Republic in 1958 and was the most influential political leader in modern French history.
The Supernatural In Forster's early short stories he is most clearly a fantasy writer by any definition, wide or narrow. These stories have generally been admired for their originality and lucid style, but they have seldom been granted the same attention as his novels. “The Story of a Panic” (1904), the first story he wrote, and “Albergo Empedocle,” the first of his stories that achieved publication (in the magazine Temple Bar, December 1903), were both products of the revelatory experience his travels in Italy had been to him. They both deal with British middle-class tourists in Italy faced with phenomena that defy their understanding. In both, an apparently dimwitted youth undergoes a transformation that is alarming and incomprehensible to his travel companions. The
theme uniting these and most stories by Forster is that of another life not ruled by conventions that cripple natural impulses and the potential for self-realization.
In his two major novels, Howards End and A Passage to India, the supernatural is ostensibly absent, but the author obviously endeavors to invest his plot and characters with a degree of universal significance. In Howards End a visualization of Ludwig van Beethoven's Fifth Symphony as a battle between good and evil forces develops into a symbolic pattern underlying the novel, and in A Passage to India the echo in the Marabar Caves, where a young Englishwoman imagines she has been sexually assaulted by an Indian, becomes a recurrent theme integrated into the novel as a whole, suggestive of both the immensity and the emptiness of the universe.
An Essayist and Humanist Perhaps Forster's most notable development as a writer in the late 1920s and afterwards was as an essayist. As such, Forster wrote commentaries on outstanding individuals of the past and present, on social problems, on political questions, on aesthetics and the arts, on the spell of the past, on the fascination of distant places (including the Orient), on the threat of war, and on the actual cataclysm of the war itself. Forster's point of view was that of the engaged humanist; his stance varied from an objective analysis of a situation, personality, or book to familiar utterances in which his own temperament and preferences predominated.
Influence Forster continues to be one of the most widely studied novelists in world literature, but though his novels were established early as classics, Forster never enjoyed tremendous popular success. Morton Dauwen Zabel writes that Forster had “no stylistic followers and perhaps few disciples in thought, yet if one were fixing the provenance of [W. H.] Auden's generation, Forster's name—whatever the claim of [Henry] James, Lawrence, or Eliot—would suggest the most accurate combination of critical and temperamental forces, the only one stamped by the peculiarly English skeptical sensibility that survived the war with sanity.”
Works in Critical Context
Forster's works are admired for their believable characterizations that simultaneously serve as representations of abstract ideas. Frederick P. W. McDowell observes,
A fascination exerted by characters who grip our minds; a wit and beauty present in an always limpid style; a passionate involvement with life in all its variety; a view of existence alive to its comic incongruities and to its tragic implications; and a steady adherence to humanistic values which compel admiration … such are the leading aspects of Forster's work that continually lure us to it.
A Passage to India A Passage to India, which is widely regarded as Forster's masterpiece, draws on his own experiences in India during visits there in 1912 and 1921. This novel's acclaim derives from its portrayal of diverse cultures—Muslim, Hindu, and Christian—and the difficulties inherent in their coexistence. Forster explores in A Passage to India the Hindu principle of total acceptance, employing this philosophy to suggest an integrating force for which, as events in the novel suggest, the world is unprepared. The unpreparedness of the world outside India for this principle is exemplified by an episode in the Marabar Caves, where Mrs. Moore, an elderly British matron, presumably experiences nihilistic despair upon hearing an echo suggesting to her that “nothing has value.” Mrs. Moore, unlike the Hindus, is unable to assimilate this despair into the totality of her religious sensibility, and she succumbs to spiritual passivity. This crucial scene represents, according to Philip Gardner, “The enigmatic and frightening side of spiritual experience, the sense of chaos and nothingness whose effects spill over and make the conclusion of the novel equivocal.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The tendency for writers of fiction, poetry, and drama to dabble in essay writing is well known, but few have been as committed to the latter genre as Forster. As a political essayist, Forster is, among modern writers, second in importance perhaps only to George Orwell. Below are some other examples of modern political essays by writers of fiction and drama:
“Shooting an Elephant” (1936), an essay by George Orwell. A classic anti-imperialist piece in which Orwell examines the way the enforcers of imperial authority become trapped in positions of stupid cruelty.
Brave New World Revisited (1958), a nonfiction book by Aldous Huxley. Here, Huxley considers whether the world has become more or less politically destitute in the nearly thirty years that have passed since he wrote the dystopic novel Brave New World (1932), about an increasingly totalitarian society.
“Socialism and Liberty” (1928), an essay by George Bernard Shaw. In this work Shaw offers an explanation of the ways in which personal liberty need not be constrained by a socialist system, as it had been in the Soviet Union. The essay appeared in a larger volume entitled The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism.
Responses to Literature
- In Howards End, Margaret's philosophy of “Only connect” and Henry's adage, “Concentrate,” seem contradictory in important ways. What contradictions and conflicts between the two ideas do you see? Which idea would you say wins out in the novel, and why?
- Compare and contrast two of Forster's novels in terms of their dependence on fate or coincidence. What does Forster seem to be communicating about our role in the universe, and about a human capacity for change—or lack thereof?
- What role does negation play in A Passage to India? Look for places where the word “nothing” appears, descriptions of things in terms of what they are not, and moments in the plot where it appears that “nothing” is happening, or where characters think something is happening but it is not. What is the importance of negation with regard to the larger themes of the novel? With regard to Forster's critique of British colonialism in India?
- When you think about Forster's interest in the supernatural and in experiences beyond what is commonly considered rationality, what feelings or responses does that provoke in you? In what ways does your response reflect the prejudices of your own culture? In what ways is it a rejection of those prejudices? Research other writers in the tradition of literary realism, and consider their attachments to the paranormal or supernatural. Why might a genre dedicated to a realistic portrayal of the world as it is produce so many texts that include irrational, mystical, or metaphysical elements?
Bradshaw, David, ed. The Cambridge Companion to E. M. Forster. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Das, G. K. Forster's India. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1978.
Eldridge, C. C. The Imperial Experience: From Carlyle to Forster. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.
Furbank, P. N. E. M. Forster: A Life. London: Faber Finds, 2008.
Gardner, Philip. E. M. Forster. London: Longman, 1977.
Lavin, Audrey A. P. Aspects of the Novelist: E. M. Forster's Pattern and Rhythm. New York: P. Lang, 1995.
Martin, Robert K., and George Piggford, eds. Queer Forster. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
May, Brian. The Modernist as Pragmatist: E. M. Forster and the Fate of Liberalism. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997.
McDowell, Frederick P. W. E. M. Forster. Chicago: Twayne, 1982.
Zabel, Morton Dauwen. Craft and Character. New York: Viking, 1957.
Forster, E. M.
FORSTER, E. M.
FORSTER, E. M. (1879–1970), English novelist, biographer, and critic.
E. M. Forster was one of the most influential European writers of the twentieth century, and a tireless defender of humane values. Although he lived until 1970, in some ways he always remained an Edwardian liberal.
Forster was born in London on New Year's Day 1879. His father, Edward Morgan, a promising architect, died less than a year later. He was raised by his mother, Alice Whichelo Forster, and his aunt, Marianne Thornton, who would leave him a legacy that enabled him to attend King's College, Cambridge.
After a period of unhappiness at Tonbridge School, he flourished at Cambridge, where he became a member of the Apostles, the university's most prestigious discussion group. Forster's membership in the Apostles not only helped shape his philosophical and aesthetic points of view, but it also led to close ties with friends such as Lytton Strachey (1880–1932), John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946), and Roger Fry (1866–1934). These men were later to be associated with the Bloomsbury Group, which was a kind of London extension of the Apostles, with the addition of the talented Stephen sisters, Vanessa Bell (1879–1961) and Virginia Woolf (1882–1941).
At Cambridge, Forster acknowledged his agnosticism and his homosexuality. The latter is a crucial aspect of his personality and art, as is his antipathy for Christianity. In terms of his early work, perhaps even more significant than Forster's sexual orientation was his sexual frustration, which manifested itself in the emphasis in the Edwardian novels on the need for sexual fulfillment.
After graduating from King's College in 1901, Forster traveled in Italy and Greece and then began drafting two novels. In the early years of the new century, Forster's distinctive voice suddenly matured: confidential, relaxed, gentle, and nearly always tinged with sadness, even when lyrical or ironic.
Forster's first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread, appeared in 1905, followed by The Longest Journey in 1907, and A Room with a View in 1908. These novels are passionate protests against sexual repression and English hypocrisy. While Where Angels Fear to Tread is a strangely sad ironic comedy, The Longest Journey a fierce tragedy, and A Room with a View a fascinating composite of social comedy and prophetic utterance, these early works gain unity by virtue of their celebration of the natural and the instinctual.
Forster's first three novels made him a minor literary celebrity; with the publication of his fourth, Howards End, in 1910, he became a major one. Ranking among the most important English novels produced in the period between the death of Queen Victoria and World War I, Howards End concretely embodies the tensions and conflicts of that superficially placid age. Characteristically, the liberal humanism espoused by the novel has metaphysical as well as political dimensions.
A social comedy and an unusual love story, Howards End also articulates a comprehensive social vision, focused particularly on the role of the individual in a rapidly changing society. While the novel vindicates Forster's liberalism, it nevertheless acknowledges its inner weaknesses and contradictions. The author's awareness of the vulnerability of his most cherished values contributes to the book's urgency and integrity.
Although Forster published a collection of short stories in 1911, the success of Howards End induced a painful writer's block. After beginning and abandoning several projects, in 1913 he finally undertook a novel of homosexual love that he knew was not publishable at the time. Maurice, which would not be issued until the year after Forster's death, has been derided as thin and sentimental, but it is actually a significant achievement, a political novel that is also a book of haunting beauty.
While serving in Alexandria with the Red Cross during World War I, Forster fell in love with an Egyptian tram conductor Mohammed el Adl, with whom he enjoyed his first fully satisfying sexual affair. His experiences in Alexandria, coupled with his service as secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas Senior in India in 1921 and 1922, brought Forster face to face with the East, and helped shape his masterpiece, A Passage to India.
Although the novel did not appear until 1924, A Passage to India reflects the spiritual and political crises inspired by World War I. The novel established Forster as a major voice in English fiction and as a discerning critic of imperialism. But while it is rooted in the complex realities of India at a particular moment, the novel also transcends the specifics of time and place to question the nature of meaning itself. A profoundly spiritual novel, A Passage to India explores the limitations of human consciousness and the loneliness of the human condition. It is a brooding and unflinching exploration of the twentieth-century spiritual wasteland.
For the last forty-six years of Forster's long life, he published no more novels. He did continue to write short stories and he produced a distinguished body of nonfiction, including criticism, essays, and biographies. During this period he attempted to adapt the best tenets of Edwardian liberalism to the various heartening or frightening challenges posed by the twentieth-century cultural and political revolutions. In the process, he became England's foremost exponent of liberal humanism in a world increasingly threatened by the clash of totalitarian ideologies.
Forster died in Coventry, England, on 7 June 1970. His suppressed novel Maurice was published in 1971 and The Life to Come and Other Stories in 1972.
Forster's reputation declined severely after his death and the revelation of his homosexuality, but it stabilized in the last decades of the twentieth century. The question of his relationship to modernism, the tenability and coherence of his liberalism (including his anti-imperialism), and his sexuality have been the dominant issues in latetwentieth- and early twenty-first-century criticism.
Forster, E. M. The Abinger Edition of E. M. Forster. Edited by Oliver Stallybrass. London, 1972–1998.
Martin, Robert K., and George Piggford, eds. Queer Forster. Chicago, 1997.
Summers, Claude J. E. M. Forster. New York, 1983.
Tambling, Jeremy, ed. E. M. Forster: Contemporary Critical Essays. New York, 1995.
Wilde, Alan, ed. Critical Essays on E. M. Forster. Boston, 1985.
Claude J. Summers
Forster, E. M.
FORSTER, E. M.
FORSTER, E. M. (1879–1970), author of A Passage to India Edward Morgan (E. M.) Forster was a Cambridge don, and author of the renowned Anglo-Indian novel, A Passage to India, published in 1924. Forster's passionate affair with India started in 1906, when he tutored Syed Ross Masood at Oxford. He fell in love with the handsome aristocratic Indian Muslim, and at his invitation left England on his first sea voyage to India in 1912. Forster briefly stayed with Masood and his family in Bankipore, a town he found "horrible beyond words." He also spent time on that first passage with his British Civil Service friend, Rupert Smith, in Allahabad. Smith took Forster to Buddhist Bodh Gayā and the Barabar ("marabar") Caves, which they visited by elephant, as would his fictional protagonist, Dr. Aziz. On his way out of India, Forster stopped in the central Indian state of Chhatarpur, where he met the maharaja of Dewas, who invited him to serve as his private secretary. After World War I, Forster returned to Dewas for six months in 1921, his diary account of which was later published, in 1953, as Forster's only other book about India, The Hill of Devi. Forster began writing his Passage to India in 1913, after returning home from his first trip. He borrowed the title from Walt Whitman's poem of the same name:
Not you alone proud truths of the world,
Nor you alone ye facts of modern science,
But myths and fables of old, Asia's, Africa's..
Passage to India!
The races, neighbors, to marry . . .
The oceans to be cross'd, the distant brought near.
"When I began the book," Forster wrote his friend Masood, "I thought of it as a little bridge of sympathy between East and West." By the time he finished, however, he realized how "unexplainable" a "muddle" British India was, how impossible it seemed for even the most passionately empathetic men of England and India to live in harmony as loving friends. In the novel, British magistrate Ronny Heaslop's mother, Mrs. Moore, is probably the character whose liberal, loving philosophy of life most closely reflected that of Forster, though Schoolmaster Fielding also reflected at least part of the author's brilliant mind. Fielding's unorthodox ecumenical preference for the friendship of "natives" like Dr. Aziz to the company of stuffy and pompous British officers like Ronny or Collector Turton at the British Club branded him an "outcaste" if not a "traitor" to his "own" race. Yet even Fielding fails at the end of this remarkable book to convince Aziz that they at least can truly be friends, though "It's what I want. It's what you want."
But in 1924, India was still locked under the steel-frame imperial grip of the British Raj, so their "horses didn't want it—they swerved apart; the earth didn't want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view . . . didn't want it, they said in their hundred voices, 'No, not yet,' and the sky said, 'No, not there.'" Twenty-three years later, when India emerged independent of British rule, men like Forster and Masood, or Fielding and Aziz, were free to pursue their relationships as equals, no longer fearing or resenting each other as masters and servants.
Forster, E. M. A Passage to India. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1924.
——. The Hill of Devi. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1953.
Furbank, P. N. E. M. Forster: A Life. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1978.
King, Francis. E. M. Forster and His World. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978.
Forster, E. M.