E. M. Forster Biography

E. M. Forster Biography

E. M. Forster had class—though perhaps he would have liked a little less of it. One major theme throughout his body of work, which includes the novels Howards End and Maurice, is an examination of the English class system and its impact on his characters’ personal lives—usually not for the better. Also of particular interest to Forster was the explosive intersection of class and race, which his most acclaimed novel, A Passage to India, examines in the context of England’s decline as a colonial power. A secular humanist throughout his life, Forster was gravely concerned about social, political, and spiritual divisions in the world. In his essay “What I Believe,” he mentions the foundations of how we can all get along a little better: “tolerance, good temper, and sympathy.”

Facts and Trivia

  • Despite living to the ripe old age of 91, Forster published his last (and some would argue greatest) novel, A Passage to India, when he was just 45.
  • While studying at Cambridge, Forster became a member of the Apostles, a secret intellectual society that has been around for nearly two hundred years.
  • Although he didn’t live to see it, Forster played a key role in the reputation of the filmmaking team of Ismael Merchant and James Ivory. Two of their best-known and highest-regarded films are adaptations of Forster’s work: A Room With a View (1986) and Howards End (1992).
  • Forster was a gay man who remained closeted throughout his long life. A novel detailing a gay love affair in the midst of the strict English class system, Maurice, was published a year after his death.
  • Following the publication of A Passage to India, Forster shifted his focus and embarked on a very successful career as a broadcaster for the BBC.

Biography

E. M. Forster E. M. Forster Image via writersmug.com

Article abstract: A liberal and a humanist, Forster was more centrist than extreme, and as such, he was an almost perfect embodiment of an early twentieth century realist who accepted the primacy of facts but insisted on balancing them with intuition or spirit.

Early Life

Edward Morgan Forster was born in London on January 1, 1879, to an upper-middle-class British family. His father, Edward Morgan Llewellyn Forster, an architect, died a year after the birth of his son, and Morgan, as the child was called, was brought up by a devoted mother, Lily (born Whichelo), whose own family had a history of artistic pursuits. Forster was an only child, and his relationship with his mother was very intense; he maintained a home with her until her death in 1945, when he was sixty-six. His mother was not his only female relation during his childhood. Rather, he had the loving attention, also, of his father’s sister, Laura, his grandmother Whichelo, and, perhaps more important, his great-aunt on his father’s side, Marianne Thornton, about whom he later wrote a biography (Marianne Thornton: A Domestic Biography, 1955) and from whom he inherited eight thousand pounds, money that later enabled him to attend Cambridge and to begin his writing career. Reared in such loving and protected surroundings, he was spoiled, self-centered, and also precocious, reading without specific instruction at the age of four and assimilating factual knowledge with astonishing speed.

Given such a background, it is not surprising that Forster had trouble when he entered a preparatory boarding school at Eastbourne. Indeed, his unhappiness caused his mother to move to Tonbridge so that her son could attend day school there and live at home. There, life was better but not without considerable strain, for Forster was not the epitome of what the all-male school was trying to produce—boys with well-developed bodies who would fit into a mold defined by a middle-class patriarchy. Forster was a small and thin child, delicately built, interested in the realm of the imagination rather than in physical activities, and tending more toward an interest in artistic creation than in making money. Though he would grow taller, he remained all of his life, until very old age, notably thin; with his large and hooked nose, and habit of standing with one leg wound around the other, he seemed almost birdlike in demeanor.

It was not until he entered King’s College, Cambridge, at the age of eighteen, that he finally found a male support system whose values and interests were, in the main, similar to his own. At Cambridge, Forster studied classics for three years and history for his fourth year, and it was during his fourth year that he was elected to the Apostles, an exclusive and long-established society whose goal was the pursuit of truth by a group of friends by means of serious dialogue. Other members of the Apostles included men who were, with Forster and others, to establish the so-called Bloomsbury Group (John Maynard Keynes, Roger Fry, Leonard Woolf, and Virginia Woolf’s brother Thoby Stephen).

The Bloomsbury Group, however, was not exclusively male; it included such forceful females as Virginia Woolf and her sister, Vanessa Bell, and one of its goals was freedom for discussion of topics previously taboo, including the equality of women and various modes of sexuality. Predictably, Forster maintained a close relationship with Leonard Woolf but apparently had occasional difficulty in relating to Virginia Woolf, who would, along with Forster, become one of the greatest novelists of the time.

After Cambridge and because of his inheritance from his great-aunt, Forster was able to undertake a variety of activities while he was beginning to pursue seriously his writing career. In October of 1901, he went on a one-year tour of Italy and Austria with his mother. During this time, he began the short story, “The Story of a Panic.” Returning from London, Forster began teaching Latin at a weekly session in the Working Men’s College, and during the next several years, while also lecturing on Italian art and history, he began to contribute essays and stories to Independent Review, a journal founded by several of his friends and mentors from Cambridge.

Around this time, he also began A Room with a View (1908). In 1905, while in Germany, he began to tutor the children of an aristocratic family. A year later, back in England, he began to teach Latin to Syed Ross Maswood, a Muslim from India with whom Forster began a long friendship and whom he visited in India in 1910. War service in the Red Cross from 1915 to 1919 brought Forster to Egypt, and after the war, in 1921, Forster went to India as secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas State Senior. During this stay, Forster attempted to learn about the Hindus as he had previously learned about the Muslims.

Life’s Work

During all these travels, Forster completed and published the novels and short stories that would establish his reputation as a British novelist of the first rank. The travels and the fiction exist in symbiotic relationship, his travels often corresponding to the settings and themes of his published works insofar as settings shape characters at deep levels of the subconscious. Regardless of the specific settings or thematic contents present in each of the novels or stories, Forster’s overall point of view seems to be that of a classic humanist, as he himself pointed out in reply to a friend who challenged the usefulness of his philosophy. At that time, Forster indicated that he had been and would continue to be a gentle man as well as a kind and tolerant one, and he would continue to be, in his words, “demure.” Moreover, he said that his attitude could best be defined as both semi-idealistic and semicynical. In short, Forster concluded, he was a liberal and a humanist.

For most critics, Forster’s short stories are important not for their aesthetic value but for their adumbrations and variations of themes and techniques employed in the novels—Where...

(The entire section is 2506 words.)