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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2506

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.

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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 Angels Fear to Tread (1905), The Longest Journey (1907), A Room with a View, Howards End (1910), A Passage to India (1924), and Maurice (1971).

The fourteen-year hiatus between publication of his fourth and fifth novels was not spent unproductively by Forster. Indeed, a volume of short stories appeared in 1911; he began A Passage to India in 1912 and a year later, in 1913 (the date of publication of both D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and Marcel Proust’s first volume of Remembrance of Things Past), Forster began work on Maurice, a novel about homosexual love that was not published until 1971, a year after his death. These years also included Forster’s wartime service in Egypt and his second visit to India, a time when he published Alexandria: A History and a Guide (1922) and a collection of essays written during his wartime stay in Egypt, Pharos and Pharillon (1923).

A Passage to India illustrates human failure to connect. The idea of connection is a major Forsterian theme. Though in human life Forster was sure that genuine connections between individuals are rarely achieved, he nevertheless believed that human relations were the only stabilizing factor in a world characterized by social chaos. The novel recounts the failure of Anglo-Indians, Hindus, and Muslims under the British Raj to unite, to connect in any but superficial or violent ways. In the novel, Forster makes use of typical modernist techniques, including extensive patterning by means of recurring images, parallel settings and scenes, levels of meaning achieved by means of metaphoric complexities, and epiphanic revelations. Focusing on these techniques, critics have pointed to the three sections of the novel as corresponding to the three divisions of the Indian year: spring, summer, and monsoon. Each section is devoted mainly to one of the ethnic groups. Each of the prevalent religions—Hindu, Muslim, Christian—interacts with and comments upon the social and religious mores of the community. The dominant theme of the novel is the spiritual quest for meanings beyond the merely selfish; the dominant symbol is the Marabar caves, apparently an objective correlative for the mysteries of the human psyche as embodied in the cultural contrasts that defined the India of the time.

The publication of A Passage to India established Forster’s reputation as a dominant figure in British letters, a reputation that has not diminished in the decades since the novel’s publication. Yet the novel was the last one that Forster wrote. No one knows why Forster stopped writing novels, though scholars speculate. Perhaps Forster was subconsciously aware that he could not repeat the stellar performance of his last novel; perhaps he was tired of transposing his own sexuality into modes that were for him uneasy or unreal; perhaps he enjoyed the role of respected author and literary critic whose opinions were assiduously sought and had no desire to change the role he had established for himself.

In 1927, Forster was invited to give the Clark Lectures at Cambridge, which were then published as Aspects of the Novel (1927), one of the most distinguished books on the art of fiction to be published in England during the first half of the century. To Forster goes credit for the now widely held view that characters may be presented as either “flat” or “round.” In Aspects of the Novel is to be found the equally famous and still widely quoted statement: “ ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.”

Through the rest of his long life, Forster continued to speak out on the subject of art, to lecture, to publish essays, and to be active in liberal causes related to art. He testified at censorship trials, for example, opposing the repression of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). Forster presided at the World PEN (Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists) Conference in London in 1944. He visited the United States in 1947 and 1949 and lectured on criticism in the arts and on what was for him the real meaning of the phrase “art for art’s sake.”

In addition, Forster wrote social and political commentary, personal essays, and environmental and travel sketches, as well as biographies, many collected in such volumes as Abinger Harvest—A Miscellany (1936) and Two Cheers for Democracy (1951). He collaborated with the eminent composer Ralph Vaughan Williams for the pageant England’s Pleasant Land (1940) and provided the libretto for Benjamin Britten’s acclaimed opera Billy Budd (1951) based upon Herman Melville’s famous novella. Along the way, Forster picked up honor after honor, culminating in 1953 with the prestigious Order of Companions of Honor to the Queen and in 1969, when he was ninety years old, with the Order of Merit, presented to him by Queen Elizabeth II. A year later, Forster died in the home of two of his closest friends, Bob and May Buckingham.

Summary

During a lifetime of increasing mechanization and technological advances marked by two world wars and the immense growth in power of nation states, E. M. Forster remained one of the most influential spokesmen for the rights of individuals, the value of the inner being, and personal freedom. For Forster, individual tolerance, good temper, graciousness, sympathy, and reason were the only weapons that could finally have a lasting effect on the course of history. Forster defined reason, however, not solely in terms of facts or the surface content of the universe but also in terms of the balance between intellect and intuition. Beyond the world of facts lies an ineffable realm where humans can connect one with another and where opposites effect a magic fusion. Humans need to seek this balance continually, for only in it can the world be harmonized and order exist. Thus, in a time of radical change, Forster held firmly to a traditional humanist approach to life, and in a time of intense strife and violence, Forster came to symbolize for the British people as well as for the entire literate English-speaking world, the values of love, moderation, liberty, public activity, and private benevolence.

Despite the varied activities he pursued in a long and busy life, Forster remains best known for his literary achievements—the five novels he completed and published by 1924 and the aesthetic pronouncements and critical statements that appear in Aspects of the Novel. Nor is this surprising, since Forster’s humanistic thinking is perhaps best reflected in his fiction and his critical statements. Art became for Forster an embodiment of that order that humankind seeks because it is necessary for one’s sanity and unlikely to be obtained anywhere else in the chaotic world. This good art is what life could become. Forster most certainly agreed with the statement made by the famous British Romantic poet John Keats when he wrote in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” that “‘Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty,’ that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Bibliography

Beer, J. B. The Achievement of E. M. Forster. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1962. One of the better early studies completed before Forster’s death. Good explications of the novels and perceptive readings of overall themes and influences.

Das, G. K., and John Beer, eds. E. M. Forster: A Human Exploration. New York: New York University Press, 1979. Essays by some of the foremost Forster scholars written expressly to commemorate his centenary. A wide-ranging collection.

Furbank, P. N. E. M. Forster: A Life. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977. A full-length biography including complete notes, photographs, appendix, and index. Treats details of Forster’s life with exactitude, comments on his character and personality, and analyzes his works. Altogether an excellent study.

Gillie, Christopher. A Preface to Forster. Essex, England: Longman, 1975. Part of a series of books designed for the student and general reader. Includes illustrations and biographical sketches of people close to Forster. Perceptive and sensitive analysis of the novels and brief discussions of Forster’s other writings.

Herz, Judith Scherer, and Robert K. Martin, eds. E. M. Forster: Centenary Reevaluations. London: Macmillan, 1982. A selection of papers read at a centenary conference in Montreal. Especially interesting for inclusion of excerpts from a writer’s panel made up of novelists including Elizabeth Spencer and Eudora Welty.

Macaulay, Rose. The Writing of E. M. Forster. London: Hogarth Press, 1938. The first book-length study. A noteworthy novelist herself, and a contemporary of Forster, Macaulay approaches his works with great insight and empathy. Particularly good with regard to Forster’s fictional characters.

McDowell, Frederick P. W. E. M. Forster. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1969. Written at the height of the so-called Forster revival after dozens of book-length critical studies and articles had appeared establishing Forster as a major twentieth century man of letters. Excellent apparatus, including annotated bibliography. Altogether a lucid general discussion of Forster’s themes and techniques as well as a sensitive reading of his novels.

Trilling, Lionel. E. M. Forster. London: Hogarth Press, 1944. Trilling, a distinguished American critic, concentrates on Forster’s humanist values and on his aesthetics.

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Critical Essays