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by Bamber Gascoigne

E(dward) M(organ) Forster (1879-1970)


English author and critic, member of Bloomsbury group and friend of Virginia Woolf. After gaining fame as a novelist, E.M. Forster spent his 46 remaining years publishing mainly short stories and non-fiction. Of his five important novels four appeared before World War I. Forster's major concern was that individuals should "connect the prose with the passion" within themselves, and that one of the most exacting aspect of the novel is prophecy.

"If human nature does alter it will be because individuals manage to look at themselves in a new way. Here and there people - a very few people, but a few novelists are among them - are trying to do this. Every institution and vested interest in against such a search: organized religion, the State, the family in its economic aspect, have nothing to gain, and it is only when outward prohibitions weaken that it can proceed: history conditions it to that extent." (in Aspects of the Novel, 1927)

Edward Morgan Forster was born in London as the son of an architect, who died before his only child was two years old. Forster's childhood and much of his adult life was dominated by his mother and his aunts. The legacy of her paternal great-aunt Marianne Thornton, descendant of the Clapham Sect of evangelists and reformers, gave later Forster the freedom to travel and to write. Forster's years at Tonbridge School as a teenager were difficult – he suffered from the cruelty of his classmates.

Forster attended King's College, Cambridge (1897-1901), where he met members of the future Bloomsbury group. In the atmosphere of skepticism, he became under the influence of Sir Jamer Frazer, Nathaniel Wedd, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, and G.E. Moore, and shed his not very deep Christian faith. After graduating he travelled in Italy and Greece with his mother, and on his return began to write essays and short stories for the liberal Independent Review. "Nothing more great will come of me," he stated in his diary. In 1905 Foster spent several month in German as tutor to the children of the Countess von Armin.

In the same year appeared his first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread. In the following year he lectured on Italian art and history for the Cambridge Local Lectures Board.  The Longest Journey, then A Room with a View (1908) was partly based on the material from extended holidays in Italy with his mother. The first part of the novel is set in Florence, where the young Lucy Honeychurch is visitng with her older cousin Charlotte Bartless. Lucy witnesses a murder and becomes caught between two man, shallow, conventional Cecil Vyse and George Emerson, who kisses Lucy during a picnic. The second half of the novel takes place at Windy Corner, Lucy's home on Summer Street. She accepts a marriage proposal from Cecil. The Emerson become friends of the Honeychurches after George, Mr. Beebe, who is a clergyman, and Freddie, Lucy's brother, are discovered bathing nude in the woods. Finally Lucy overcomes prejudices and marries George. Forster also wrote during the pre-war years a number of short stories, which were collected in The Celestial Omnibus (1914). Most of them were symbolic fantasies or fables.

Howards End (1910) was a story that centered on an English country house and dealt with the clash between two families, one interested in art and literature, the other only in business. The book brought together the themes of money, business and culture. "To trust people is a luxury in which only the wealthy can indulge; the poor cannot afford it." (in Howards End) This work established Forster's reputation, and he embarked upon a new novel with a homosexual theme, Maurice. The picture of British attitudes not long after Wilde was revised several times during his life, and finally published posthumously in 1971. His personal life Forster hid from public discussion. Self-doubts plagued him the most in his life. "I shall grow queer and unpopular if I go on as I am now," he said in his diary. In 1930 he had a relationship with a London policeman. This important contact continued after the marriage of his London friend.

Between the years 1912 and 1913 Forster travelled in India. From 1914 to 1915 he worked for the National Gallery in London. Following the outbreak of World War I, Forster joined the Red Cross and served in Alexandria, Egypt. There he met the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy, and published a selection of his poems in Pharaos and Pharillon (1923). His conversations with  wounded soldiers he recorded in his diary.

In 1921 Forster returned to India, working as a private secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas. The land was the scene of his masterwork A Passage to India (1924), an account of India under British rule. The two last chapters were written under the influence of Lawrence's The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It was Forster's last novel – and for the remaining 46 years of his life he devoted himself to other activities. In the novel he said: "Most of life is so dull that there is nothing to be said about it and the books and talk that would describe it as interesting are obliged to exaggerate, in the hope of justifying their own existence. Inside its cocoon of work or social obligation, the human spirit slumbers for the most part, registering the distinction between pleasure and pain, but not nearly as alert as we pretend." Moreover, writing about  "the love of men for women & vice versa" was not the most important element in Forster's life; already in 1910 he stated in his notebook, known as "the Locked Diary," that he was wary of the subject.

Passage to India. Adela Quested visits Chandrapore with Mrs Moore in order to make up her mind whether to marry the latter's son. Mrs Moore meets his friend Dr Azis, assistant to the British Civil Surgeon. She and Adela accept Azis's invitation to visit the mysterious Marabar Caves. In this trip Mrs Moore nearly faints in the cave and goes mad for an instant. Adela asks Azis, "Have you one wife or more than one?" and he is shocked. "But to ask an educated Indian Moslem how many wive he has – appalling, hideous!" She believes herself to have been the victim of a sexual assault by Azis, who is arrested. Adela is pushed forward by his frieds and family but she admits that she was mistaken. "Something that she did not understand took hold of the girl and pulled her through. Though the vision was over, and she had returned to the insipidity of the world, she remembered what she had learnt. Atonement and confession – they could wait. It was in hard prosaic tones that she sais: 'I withdraw everything.'" Mrs Moore dies on the voyage home at sea. "The heat, I suppose," Mr Hamidullah says. Azis has changed his liberal views. "We may hate one another, but we hate you most. If I don't make you go, Ahmed will, Karim will, if it's fifty-hundred years we shall get rid of you; yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then'  he rode against him furiously – 'and then,' he concluded, half kissing him, 'you and I shall be friends.'"  The novel's title derives from Walt Whitman, but the American poet's celebration of the opening of the Suez Canal as bringing together East and West is qualified by Kipling's assertion that 'ne'er the twain shall meet.' The Nobel writer V.S. Naipaul has claimed that Forster knew hardly anything about India: "He just knew a few middle-class Indians and the garden boys whom he wished to seduce."

After Forster's death his literary executors turned down approaches from Joseph Losey, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, and Waris Hussein, to make a feature film adaptation of A Passage to India. Eventually David Lean was approved as director. At that time, Lean was in self-imposed retirement, following the critical failure of Ryan's Daughter. The score was composed by Maurice Jarre. Not to upset the distributors "with too much weird music," Lean insisted that the score was written with a minimum of ethnic instrumentation.

Like T.E. Lawrence, Forster had a dislike of the cinema and refused to sell film rights to his books, fearing that the meaning of a novel could be destroyed by changing the story for the masses. (Ironically, today he would not be as widely known as he is without film adaptations of his books.)  Lean was criticized that he produced his own vision of India, not Forster's. He also changed the ending of the story, defending himself: "Look, this novel was written hot on the movement for Indian independence. I think the end is a lot of hogwash so far as a movie is concerned." (in David Lean: A Biography by Kevin Brownlow, 1996) Miss Quested was made more sympathetic than she originally was. "Forster wasn't always very good with women," Lean explained. (Guardian, January 23, 1984)

Forster's antipathy toward film industry began to change when he visited Hollywood on the invitation of Christopher Isherwood. He went to a studio, where Little Friend (1934), adapted for the screen by Isherwood and Margaret Kennedy, was under work, and later had to admit: "I have often thought about it and described it to other people without interesting them. It is a milieu  – so energetic, friendly and horrible. . . . Every film I ever see will now appear incredibly good."  (Filming Forster: The Challenges in Adapting E.M. Forster's Novels for the Screen by Earl G. Ingersoll, 2012, pp. 14-15) However, after an unfortunate experience with the war documentary A Diary for Timothy (1945), directed by Humphrey Jennings, his view turned sour again. Forster wrote the script for this meditation on Britain's future. The film conveys his liberal humanism, but when it was released he was disappointed to discover that the changes he had suggested had been ignored. 

Throughout his life, Forster wrote literary criticism. He contributed reviews and essays to numerous journals, most notably the Listener. He was an active member of PEN, in 1934 he became the first president of the National Council for Civil Liberties. Music was always an important part of Foster's life. He played piano, went to concerts, wrote constantly about music, and collaborated with musicians. Peter Burra, the writer of The Novels of E. M. Forster (1934), called Foster "a musician who chose the novel because he had ideas to utter which needed a more distinct articulation than music could make." (E. M Forster and Music by Tsung-Han Tsai, 2021, p. 6)

Since 1924, Forster lived in the house which his father had designed at Abinger Hammer, but after his mother's death in 1945, he was elected an honorary fellow of King's College, Cambridge, and spent there for the remainder of his life. In 1949 Forster refused a knighthood. Forster was made a Companion of Honour in 1953 and in 1969 he accepted an Order of Merit.

Growing deafness robbed Foster the pleasure of enjoying music the way he used to, but in 1951 he collaborated with Eric Crozier on the libretto of Benjamin Britten's opera Billy Budd, based on Herman Melville's novel. Its film version from 1962 was directed Peter Ustinov. Forster died on June 7, 1970.

"So Two cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism."

Forster often criticized in his books Victorian middle class attitudes and British colonialism through strong woman characters, but they were not one-dimensional moutpieces for his thought. Except his devotion to such values as tolerance and sense of comedy, Forster was uncommitted. "For we must admit that flat people are not in themselves as big achievement as round ones, and also that they are best when they are comic. A serious or tragic flat character is apt to be a bore. Each time he enters crying 'Revenge!' or 'My heart bleeds for humanity!' or whatever his formula is, out hearts sink." (in Aspects of the Novel) The epithet 'Fosterian' – liberal, unconventional, sceptical, moral – had started to circulate since the publication of Howards End.

Forster's much quoted essay 'Two Cheers for Democracy,' originally printed in 1938 in the New York Nation  and entitled also 'What I Believe,' reflected his concern for individual liberty. He assumed liberal humanism not dogmatically but ironically, writing in unpompous style and taking the stand of a mild dissident. He famously stated, just a year before the outbreak of WWII, "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."

For further reading: E.M. Forster by Lionel Trilling (1943); The Novels of .M. Forster by J. McConley (1957); Down There on a Visit by Christopher Isherwood (1962); The Achievement of E.M. Foerster by J. Beer (1962); The Cave and the Mountain by Wilfred Stone (1966); E.M. Forster: A Life by B.N. Furbank (2 vols., 1977-78); An E.M. Forster Dictinary by Alfredo Borello (1971); An E.M. Forster Glossary by Alfredo Borello (1972); The Bloomsbury Group by S.P. Rosenbaum (1975); A Bibliography of E.M. Forster by Brownlee Jean Kirkpatrick (1986); E.M. Forster, ed.  Harold Bloom (1987); A Passage to India by Judith Scherer Herz (1993); A Passage to India, ed.  Tony Davies and Nigel Wood (1994); The Prose and the Passion by Nigel Rapport (1994); Morgan: A Biography of E.M. Forster by Nicola Beauman (1994); E.M. Forster: Contemporary Critical Essays, ed.  Jeremy Tambling (1995); The Modernist as Pragmatist by Brian May (1997); Queer Forster, ed.  Robert K. Martin and George Piggford (1997); Howards End, ed. Paul B. Armstrong (1998); E.M. Forster: A New Life by Wendy Moffat (2010); Filming Forster: The Challenges in Adapting E.M. Forster's Novels for the Screen by Earl G. Ingersoll (2012); Compromise and Resistance in Postcolonial Writing: E. M. Forster's Legacy by Alberto Fernández Carbajal (2014); Only Connect: E. M. Forster's Legacies in British Fiction, edited by Elsa Cavalié & Laurent Mellet (2017); E. M Forster and Music by Tsung-Han Tsai (2021)

Selected bibliography:

  • Where Angels Fear to Tread, 1905
    - Italialainen avioliitto (suom. Pirkko Talvio-Jaatinen, 1991)
    - Film 1991, screenplay Tim Sullivan, Derek Granger, Charles Sturridge, dir.  Charles Sturridge, starring Helena Bonham Carter, Judy Davis, Rupert Graves, Barbara Jefford, Thomas Whewatley, Giovanni Guidelli
  • The Aeneid of Virgil, 1906 (introduction and notes)
  • The Longest Journey, 1907
  • A Room with a View, 1908
    - Hotelli Firenzessä (suom. Hanna-Liisa Timonen, 1986)
    - Film 1985, script Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, directed by James Ivor, starring Helena Bonham-Carter, Judi Dench, Denholm Elliot, Julian Sands, Simon Callow.  "A Room With a View is one of those rare films that is equal to its literary counterpart and in some places exceeds it. The film and its director were both nominated for Academy Awards, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala won for best adapted screenplay. Incidentally, the bathing scene involving George, Freddie (Rupert Graves), and Mr. Beebe (Simon Callow) is one of the funniest in the motion pictures and would have been reason enough to give Jhabvala the award." (in Novels into Film by John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh, 1999)
  • Howards End, 1910
    - Talo jalavan varjossa (suom. Eila Pennanen, 1953)
    - Film 1991, dir.  James Ivory, screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, starring Helena Bonham-Carter, Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave
  • The Celestial Omnibus, 1914
  • The Story of the Siren, 1920
  • Alexandria, 1922
  • Pharaos and Pharillon, 1923
  • A Passage to India, 1924
    - Matka Intiaan (suom. Väinö Nyman, 1928)
    - Film 1984, play by Santha Rama Rau, screenplay David Lean, directed by David Lean, starring Judy Davis, Alec Guinness, Victor Banerjee, Peggy Ashcroft, James Fox. "The key location, however, was the Marabar Caves. While the interiors of the caves were to be shot on sets back in England, David [Lean] needed to find exteriors which provided all the elements called for by the script. Although Forster had actually described, in exact detail, the caves near patma, his location was not big enough for what David had in mind." (in David Lean: A Biography by Kevin Brownlow, 1996)
  • Original Letters from India / Mrs Eliza Fay, 1925 (introduction and notes)
  • Anonymity, an Enquiry, 1925
  • Aspects of the Novel, 1927
  • Flowers and Elephants / Constance Sitwell, 1927 (introduction) 
  • The Eternal Moment and Other Stories, 1928
  • The Lide of Crabbe, 1932 (introduction)
  • Twenty Years A-Growing / Maurice O'Sullivan, 1933 (introduction) 
  • Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, 1934
  • Abinger Harvest, 1936
  • The Untouchable / Mulk Raj Anand, 1936  (introduction)
  • The Banned Books of England / Alec Graig, 1937 (introduction) 
  • What I Believe, 1939
  • Reading as Usual, 1939
  • England's Pleasant Land, 1940
  • Nordic Twilight, 1940
  • Virginia Wollf, 1942 (the Rede Lecture)
  • Development of English Prose Between 1918 and 1939, 1945
  • Collected Short Stories, 1948
  • Two Cheers for Democracy, 1951
  • The Hill of Devi, 1953
  • Marianne Thornton, 1956
  • Maurice, 1970
    - Maurice (suom. Pirkko Talvio-Jaatinen, 1967)
    - Film 1987, dir. James Ivory, starring James Wilby, Hugh Grant, Rupert Graves  (see also: Billie Whitelaw/Samuel Beckett)
  • The Life to Come and Other Stories, 1972
  • Commonplace Book, 1979 (ed. Philip Gardner)
  • The New Collected Short Stories, 1985 (enlarged edition)
  • The Selected Letters of E.M. Forster, 1983-1985 (2 vols., ed. Mary Lago and P. N. Furbank)
  • The Uncollected Egyptian Essays, 1988 (edited by Hilda D. Spear and Abdel-Moneim Aly)
  • The Creator as Critic and Other Writing, 2008 (edited by Jeffrey Heath Dundurn) 
  • The Journals and Diaries of E.M. Forster, 2011 (3 volume set, ed. Philip Gardner)
  • A Passage to India: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism, 2021 (edited by Paul B. Armstrong)
    The Eternal Moment: And Other Stories, 2023 (Dover Publications)

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