Aspects of the Novel

by E. M. Forster

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Historical Context

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English History and Literature
Forster’s discussion covers three centuries of the novel; his own life and work spanned the late nineteenth through the late twentieth centuries. His life was affected by such major events as World War I, in which he participated, and his novels bridge the historical transition from Victorian to Edwardian England, as well as the literary transition from romanticism to modernism.

Victorian and Edwardian England
The Victorian era is the name given to the period of English history during the long reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837 to 1901. While commonly associated with a culture of conventionality and prudishness, Victorian England witnessed ma jor upheavals in economic, political, and technological structure. In the nineteenth century, England lead the way in the Industrial Revolution, ultimately followed by other European and non-European nations. Significant advances in wages and a signifi- cant population expansion were integral to a series of political reforms that gradually increased the rights of average citizens and decreased the power of the regency in the political realm. The Reform Act of 1832 began a trend that lead to the Reform Bill of 1867 and a series of economic and social reforms introduced in the 1870s. The requirements for voting rights were altered to vastly increase the proportion of the male population eligible to participate in elections to Parliament and local government offices. While the era of Queen Victoria was in part characterized by the conservative values associated with traditional family structure and social propriety, a strong strain of liberal thought characterized significant elements of nineteenthcentury intellectual life. A major and controversial landmark was the biological theory of evolution put forth in Charles Darwin’s 1859 Origin of the Species. The Victorian era ended upon the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, when her son ascended the throne as King Edward VII, thus initiating the much shorter era of Edwardian England. King Edward, unlike his mother, brought with him a freer, looser atmosphere that had its effect on the mood of the nation. Edward, who was already fifty-nine years of age when he became king, died in 1910 and was succeeded by King George V, whose reign lasted until his death in 1936.

World War I and the Post-War Era
The period of World War I, from 1914 to 1918, had a profound effect on Forster, who served as a Red Cross volunteer throughout the War, and many of the writers of his generation. A landmark in British politics of the post-War era was the People Act of 1918, which extended the right to vote to women over the age of thirty and to all men over the age of twenty-one, regardless of property holdings. In 1928, the right to vote was extended to women ages twenty-one to thirty. Forster was an active supporter of the Labour Party, which won its first major victory in 1924 when James Ramsay MacDonald was the first Labour Party leader elected to the position of prime minister of England. MacDonald, however, held this office only nine months before he was replaced by Stanley Baldwin, who remained prime minister until 1929, taking the office again in 1935, where he remained until 1937. The 1920s and 1930s in England came to be known as the Baldwin Era, which encompassed the period in which Forster first wrote Aspects of the Novel in 1927. Although Forster was politically engaged, his lectures make little reference to political or historical events. His only direct reference to British politics is the mention of Prime Minister Asquith, who remained in power from 1908 until 1916.

English Literature
Though Forster...

(This entire section contains 1099 words.)

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explicitly avoids any discussion of historical development in the novel, it is helpful to have a basic understanding of the standard chronological periodization of English literature during the time periods in which the works discussed by Forster were produced.

In the course of his discussion, Forster mentions the four great novelists of the eighteenth century: Daniel Defoe, whose major works appeared in the 1720s; Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding, both of whose major works appeared in the 1740s and 1750s; and Laurence Sterne, whose major works were published in the 1750s and 1760s. Major poets of the eighteenth century include Alexander Pope, Robert Burns, Oliver Goldsmith, and Samuel Johnson.

The literary era known as the romantic period spanned the 1780s to 1820s. Focusing on the imagination of the individual, the early romantic poets include William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth; the late romantic poets include Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and Lord Byron. The major English novels of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries include the popular Gothic works of Ann Radcliffe and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (author of Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818), the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott, and the masterpieces of Jane Austen.

The end of the romantic era in literature and the beginning of the Victorian era is generally dated around the mid-1840s, from which point numerous masterpieces of the English novel were produced. Charles Dickens, publishing from the 1830s through 1860s, was an early master of the Victorian age novel, contemporary with William Makepeace Thackeray whose masterpiece, Vanity Fair, was published in the 1840s, and Elizabeth Gaskell, publishing in the 1840s and 1950s. Among the greatest novelists of the age were the Brontë sisters, Emily and Charlotte, whose works, combining elements of Gothicism and realism, were published in the 1840s and 1950s. Later Victorian novelists working in the 1850s through 1890s include George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, George Meredith, and Thomas Hardy.

The literary period of the first decade of the twentieth century, associated with Edwardian England, was characterized by the novels of H. G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, Galsworthy, and Forster. The modernist movement in literature, with which Forster is also associated, began in the pre-World War I era and continued into the 1930s. Early modernism included the poets of the Georgian movement, who represented a transition from Victorian to modern literature, as well as the more forward-looking poetry of the imagist movement, made prominent by Anglo-American poet and critic Ezra Pound. The great modernist novelists wrote during and after World War I and included D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and Ford Madox Ford, as well as Forster. Modernist poets include T. S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats. Forster was a member of the informal group of modernist writers and intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group, which met regularly between 1907 and 1930 in private homes located in the Bloomsbury district of London to discuss literature and ideas and included such great modernist writers as Virginia Woolf. Most of the men belonging to the Bloomsbury Group, such as Forster himself, were graduates of King’s College or Trinity College of Cambridge.

Literary Style

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Tone and Structure
The narrative tone, or voice, of Aspects of the Novel is first and foremost determined by the fact that it is a printed version of a series of lectures, originally written and presented in verbal form by the author before an audience of college and university students and professors in the halls of Trinity College, Cambridge, Forster’s alma mater, in the name of the distinguished Clark lecture series. An editor’s note that opens the reprinted lectures observes that their tone is ‘‘informal, indeed talkative.’’ Because of this informal, chatty tone, Forster’s voice throughout this collection of lectures is relatively intimate and, on a surface level, appears to make unexpected digressions or include various asides, which one might not find in a work originally intended solely for the printed page. The overall structure of Forster’s discussion, however, is not the least haphazard or off-the-cuff. Each chapter/lecture progresses through a clearly planned series of points to present a specific position on each of the seven aspects of the novel with which Forster is concerned. Thus, though informal in narrative tone, the underlying structure of Aspects of the Novel progresses through a well-developed argument, illustrated by carefully chosen examples.

An analogy is a use of figurative language in which the writer draws a parallel between a concrete, familiar, or easily understandable object or concept and a more abstract, original, and complex idea for purposes of explanation and clarity. The central analogy with which Forster opens and concludes Aspects of the Novel is an image of all of the novelists from world literature throughout history writing simultaneously, side by side, in a great circular room, such as that of the library of the British Museum. Forster utilizes this analogy in order to make the point that the novel and the novelist are oblivious to variation in culture and history and that all novelists write in accordance with the same basic principals of creativity.

Forster employs this overarching analogy in order to make clear that, in his discussion of the novel, he is not interested in historical development or regional difference but in the universal qualities. The analogy of writers working side-by-side allows Forster to discuss the work of novelists who lived and worked in disparate centuries and continents, in order to demonstrate their commonalties as well as differences. He thus devotes a significant portion of the introduction to placing side-by-side passages from such far-flung origins as Samuel Richardson of the eighteenth century and Henry James of the early twentieth century or a Dickens novel from 1860 with an H. G. Wells novel from 1920. Forster thus utilizes the analogy of novelists writing sideby- side in order to illustrate his premise that ‘‘history develops, art stands still.’’ In his concluding chapter, Forster comes back to this analogy in order to speculate about the direction of the novel in the future. He proposes that ‘‘we must visualize the novelists of the next two hundred years as also writing in the same room,’’ asserting that the ‘‘mechanism of the human mind’’ remains essentially the same throughout history.

Compare and Contrast

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1837–1901: The reign of Queen Victoria lends its name to the Victorian era, a term that first comes into use in the 1850s.

1901–1910: The reign of King Edward VII, referred to as the Edwardian age, marks a contrast with the national atmosphere of his austere mother.

1914–1918: The horror and disillusionment experienced by the World War I era has a profound effect on English literature and the modernist movement.

1924–1937: James Ramsay MacDonald is the first candidate of the Labour Party, with which Forster sympathized, to be elected prime minister. MacDonald, however, holds office for only nine months. MacDonald again holds the office from 1929–1935. However, during the 1920s and 1930s, English politics are dominated by Prime Minister Baldwin, who holds office from 1924 to 1929 and from 1935 to 1937, as a result of which the 1920s and 1930s come to be known as the Baldwin Era.

1979–1997: British politics are dominated by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose term of office is followed by that of the Conservative John Major.

1997: The Labour Party, with which Forster had been associated during his lifetime, wins a landslide victory in the election of Tony Blair as prime minister.

1780s–1840s: Romanticism, focusing on the imagination of the individual, is the predominant literary movement in England.

1840s–1890s: Romanticism gives way to the Gothicism and realism of the Victorian era novelists.

1901–1910: Novelists of the Edwardian era express a critical perspective on British society.

1910s–1930s: The modernist movement in literature expresses a desire for doing away with older literary forms in extending the boundaries of the novel.

1939–1945: During the World War II era, various factors cause poetry and the short story to gain prominence over the novel in English literature. A brief movement in poetry known as the New Apocalypse develops during the war years.

1940s: The New Apocalypse gives way to a development known simply as the Movement in poetry.

1950s: A group of novelists known as the Angry Young Men are known for their realistic, autobiographical works.

Today: New developments in the novel are characterized by what is known as post-colonial and post-modern fiction, alongside the enduring form of the realist novel.

Media Adaptations

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Forster’s best known novels were adapted to film during the 1980s and 1990s. A Passage to India (1984), directed by David Lean, stars Judy Davis, Victor Bannerjee, and Alec Guinness. Merchant- Ivory productions adapted several of his novels, under the direction of James Ivory: A Room With a View (1986) stars Helena Bonham Carter, Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench, Julian Sands, and Maggie Smith; Maurice (1987) stars James Wilby and Hugh Grant; Howard’s End (1992) stars Helena Bonham Carter, Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, and Emma Thompson. Where Angels Fear to Tread (1991), directed by Charles Sturridge, stars Helena Bonham Carter, Judy Davis, and Rupert Graves.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Gardner, Philip, ‘‘E. M. Forster,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 98: Modern British Essayists, First Series, edited by Robert Beum, Gale Research, 1990, pp. 123–39.

Moore, Harry T., E. M. Forster, Columbia University Press, 1965, p. 14.

———, Preface to E. M. Forster, by Norman Kelvin, Southern Illinois University Press, 1967, p. 155.

Page, Norman, E. M. Forster, St. Martin’s Press, 1987, pp. 1, 11.

Stone, Wilfred, The Cave and the Mountain, Stanford University Press, 1966, p. 110.

Summers, Claude J., E. M. Forster, Ungar, 1983, pp. 1, 295, 305–306, 311, 355.

Trilling, Lionel, E. M. Forster, New Directions, 1943, pp. 166, 168, 172, 181.

Further Reading
Bakshi, Parminder Kaur, Distant Desire: Homoerotic Codes and the Subversion of the English Novel in E. M. Forster’s Fiction, P. Lang, 1995. This is a critical discussion of the homoerotic elements of Forster’s novels.

Clarke, Peter, Hope and Glory: Britain, 1900–1990, Penguin, 1996. Clarke’s book is a history of England in the twentieth century.

Ferguson, Niall, The Pity of War: Explaining World War I, Basic Books, 1999. This social-historical history of World War I, in which Forster served, had a profound affect on the post-War literature of his generation.

Lago, Mary, E. M. Forster: A Literary Life, St. Martin’s Press, 1995. This biography of Forster focuses on the development of his literary career.

Lago, Mary, and P. N. Furbank, eds., Selected Letters of E. M. Forster, 2 Vols., Harvard University Press, 1983, 1985. This two-volume selection of Forster’s correspondence includes the years 1879–1920 in Volume 1, and the years 1921 to the time of his death in 1970 in Volume 2.

Moynahan, Brian, Annabel Merullo, and Sarah Jackson, The British Century: A Photographic History of the Last Hundred Years, Random House, 1997. This work presents a history of Forster’s native Britain in the twentieth century through documentary photographs and text.

Naylor, Gillian, ed., Bloomsbury: Its Artists, Authors, and Designers, Little Brown, 1990. This history of the Bloomsbury literary and intellectual salon in London, in which Forster was a participant, discusses key figures in the Bloomsbury Group.

Paterson, John, Edwardians: London Life and Letters, 1901–1914, I. R. Dee, 1996. This is a history of life, society, and culture during the reign of King Edward, during which era Forster was an active participant in the literary culture of London and in which many of his novels take place.

Pugh, Martin, Britain Since 1789: A Concise History, St. Martin’s Press, 1999. This work is a broad-view history of Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, during which Forster lived and wrote.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide