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)
E. M. Forster. Forster, E.M., photograph. Edward Gooch /Hulton Archive / Getty Images.
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 Eastbourne 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 MacCarthy, and Saxon Sydney-Turner; Roger Fry was a member from an earlier time.
Forster felt a strong affinity to many of the ‘‘Bloomsbury’’ 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.
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.
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973): Spanish visual artist Pablo Picasso was a cofounder of the Cubist movement, and one of the most influential painters of the modern era.
Albert Einstein (1879-1955): German-born theoretical physicist Albert Einstein is perhaps the most famous scientist of all time, and the mind behind the theory of relativity.
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.
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.
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 dimwit- ted 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.’’
Responses to Literature
1. 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?
2. 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?
3. 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?
4. 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.