E. M. Forster

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2050

Among American readers, the name of E. M. Forster does not loom large. Because A Passage to India has sometimes been taught in high school and college curricula as a representative of the modern British novel, some readers will remember Forster’s name; but the majority will have forgotten him. An...

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Among American readers, the name of E. M. Forster does not loom large. Because A Passage to India has sometimes been taught in high school and college curricula as a representative of the modern British novel, some readers will remember Forster’s name; but the majority will have forgotten him. An unassuming character himself, Forster wrote unassuming novels. He dealt with central human concerns in his books, but he was never the flashy kind of writer who starts trends. His characters were types he was familiar with in Edwardian England, holdovers from the Victorian period. In a sense his life was also a kind of holdover, with a cognizant refrain from sexual liberation and inherent frustrations but with a deep-felt affection for associates.

Forster was a fine man and a fine writer, and P. N. Furbank has written a fine biography to present his life. E. M. Forster: A Life follows a prescription Forster himself uttered forty-five years ago. In a letter to Joe Ackerley in which he commented on the necessity of omissions from Lowes Dickinson’s biography, Forster asserted that he should want “every thing told, everything” when his own biography was to be written. As a result of following such a direction, Furbank has written not only a sensitive biography but also a sensible one that answers those questions we are likely to ask about Forster’s life, with its richly diverse mixture of experiences, acquaintances, and frustrations.

A certain attitude prevails throughout Forster’s works, and in the present biography, passages from the author’s letters and other writings continually affirm that attitude. Forster asserted the necessity for connections between human beings, sensible relationships that showed warmth and compassion. In his own life, he was studiously attentive to relationships, working at them, analyzing them, fretting about them. Upon the base of friendship he anchored most of his beliefs. Forster’s friendships were myriad. Homosexual or non-sexual, they filled his attention. Attachments to all types of people, so long as they were sensitive to others, kept him young and intellectually energetic. He spread his good fortunes with others and himself required very little, except in the form of attention from those he held dear.

At bottom, Forster’s most formative friendship was his enduring love relationship with his widowed mother. He barely knew his father and grew up in a household dominated by Lily Forster and the women with whom she socialized. The family was middle-class, adequately provided for, and able to pamper the boy. Lily devoted herself to her dear Morgan. He attended a series of day schools and boarding prep schools but was seldom happy in these situations because of his frail constitution and old-maidish ways. Recollections by schoolmates in later years emphasized the latter trait above all others, save for his clumsiness.

Not until Forster entered Cambridge did he feel at ease with his peers. At Kings College his intellectual and social life blossomed, whereas he had suffered in the public schools. At Kings he encountered kindred spirits and began to fashion the network of close personal relationships that would fill his lifetime. Furbank, in presenting these early details, provides clear images of Forster’s developing sensibilities, and we clearly anticipate later characteristics of the writer. Especially important are the details of the Cambridge years because of their later effect on his novels and the shaping of his vision.

Through these details we gain valuable insight concerning what relationship Forster’s childhood and development had to later attitudes and behaviors he was to espouse through a long public career. Furthermore, we see how these early years shaped his private life and attitudes.

To a degree, we must examine his private life to understand Forster’s literary contribution. Because Forster enjoyed associations with such a widespread circle of prominent figures (notably, members of the Bloomsbury group), his observations are valuable to our assessment of his era. Because in his novels he deftly probed the social milieu of middle-class England, we are richer for his letters to friends, which often show the basis for his fiction. Forster was a copious letter writer, and his dispatches during travels provide sometimes hilarious, always illuminating commentary. We can see developing images and attitudes that later emerge in his wonderfully entertaining novels and in his penetrating essays.

Perhaps more important literarily, however, Furbank enlightens us concerning key questions about Forster’s difficulties with writing. Obvious reasons for suppression of certain homosexual short stories and the homosexual novel Maurice are made more understandable in the context of Forster’s life. His misgivings about the stories, their effect upon and reception by friends, are clearly revealed. Through the biography we see that Forster’s firm sense of propriety and discretion was a direct product of his upbringing. Moreover, we clearly see that he was conscious of protecting his reputation in the public eye, no matter how he conducted his private affairs, no matter how fine the questionable works were artistically.

Why Forster never wrote another novel after A Passage to India, however, has been the most debated question concerning his literary career. Here Furbank provides valuable insight that should help resolve the question; three chief reasons are given. First, Furbank calls to mind that Forster was superstitious despite his rationalist frame of mind. In a sense, success created sterility in him, an almost irrational fear that things were going too well to continue.

Second, Furbank cites Forster’s central problem as an early twentieth century novelist. Being a homosexual, he was bored at having to deal with the relationships of men and women, the problems of marriage, and matters of bisexual love. This, Furbank indicates, was Forster’s practical explanation. Furbank also cites Forster’s frustration at having written Maurice and recognizing the impossibility of its publication; his feeling that Maurice would have been a better novel if written for publication was frustrating. But ultimately the most damaging thought was that writing Maurice had been a substitute for having a homosexual affair.

Furbank’s third explanation perhaps has the most merit. He suggests that Forster’s novels all follow similar lines of development and include the same character types and plot materials. Furbank does not mean that Forster repeated himself, but rather that one central vision informed all Forster’s novels, and that “the social types and manners which ruled his imagination were those of his Edwardian youth.” Therefore, Forster, as a realistic novelist, was in a difficult position in the modern age, fashioning contemporary themes from somewhat outdated materials.

To whatever degree these reasons were mixed, the fact is that A Passage to India, published in 1924, was the last novel Forster wrote. While he started to sketch out several more novels at later points in his career, none ever developed. He did write a number of fine stories, but the bulk of his work took the essay form, where without a doubt he also excelled.

In his long life Forster covered diverse subjects in his essays. He spent considerable effort on book reviews and felt them to be rather important. He championed other writers and was ever on the lookout for ways to help the less favored. Moreover, he was not afraid to step boldly into areas of controversy, as in cases involving civil liberties and obscenity rulings. One such case, involving Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness, prompted Forster to organize a host of writers to testify on behalf of the book. Later, as a member of the International P. E. N. Club and the National Council for Civil Liberties, he lent his voice to various writers’ causes. After his sojourns in India and Alexandria, he gained something of a reputation for speaking lucidly and forcefully on Indian politics and British colonial policy, of which he was usually critical. He spoke out fervently against war and attended numerous conferences throughout Europe for the purpose of advancing peace among nations.

Altogether, Forster’s life was full with travel, friendship, literary fame, and sexual frustration, the latter being an undeniable part of Forster’s existence. He was relatively mature before he had any significant sexual encounters, and these were not wholly satisfactory. Several of the men he most loved in his young manhood either were not in love with him or expressed their love in ways different from Forster.

Throughout Forster’s adult life, sexual questions continued to dominate his relationships. Relationships that turned into affairs and the affairs of fellow homosexuals are reported faithfully by Furbank. Yet Forster’s desire to leave behind an accurate record has created the one significant drawback of the biography: Furbank tells us so much about the fears, foibles, and frustrations of Forster’s circle of homosexual friends that at times the biography becomes tedious with detail, the pace slows, and the reader tires of the account.

On the whole, however, the generous inclusion of details through most of the book supplies interesting footnotes to our knowledge of modern literary history. Forster’s encounter with D. H. Lawrence, for example, juxtaposed two of the early twentieth century’s major British authors. Their relationship, touchy from the outset, never developed, but it had important repercussions, such as convincing Forster to show Maurice to his friends—major steps in his development. Forster recognized a homosexual side to Lawrence, particularly through his reading of The White Peacock, and thought him to be purposely self-blinding. Lawrence, however, trusted Forster as a critic, at one point saying “I can trust you to take me seriously, and really to read. Because whatever I may be, you do listen.”

Another relationship of Forster’s, with C. P. Cavafy, brought to light the realm of modern Greek poetry. Forster felt Cavafy was the greatest discovery among the modern Greeks and championed his work. For Forster, Cavafy epitomized Alexandria, and Furbank cites a passage from Pharos and Pharillon in which Forster speaks of the “Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe.” The details of their encounters, as with so many other encounters in Forster’s life, reveal a sensitive man seeking meaningful, thoroughly human connections with other people.

Forster was an intellectual in the most positive sense of that label. He was naïve about some subjects and approached politics with certain blind spots. He could be indolent, and he often lacked specific direction in his writing. For the most part, however, he maintained a tolerant and humanistic objectivity toward the world, and he took an active part in the shaping of it. His long association with the East, his deep love for India and high regard for her people, his love of the Mediterranean—all blended in a moderating influence upon his English middle-class stance.

Explaining that stance is Furbank’s central concern. Forster wanted such a book because he knew there were things in his life that would interest us and things that were necessary for us to understand more than the public roles of his long career could ever reveal. The Forster who emerges from these pages presents the ideal humanistic model, a man deeply in touch with his culture and the humanity that creates that culture. Furbank’s image of Forster’s personal side reinforces the public image we have so long had of Forster and does nothing to change our perception except to enrich it.

Furbank is an engaging writer who has captured the flavor of Forster’s literary style in the biography; readers will find themselves remarking time and again, “how like Forster this sounds.” The careful excerpting from Forster’s writings does much to create this effect, but Furbank’s skill goes beyond the excerpts, and he is always sensitive to his effect. Thus, he fashions a cohesive document that is thoroughly illuminating. This is not a critical biography, but the wealth of information it provides makes possible a greater degree of understanding of Forster’s works. It is not a sentimental biography, but its revelations expose the sentiments fundamental in Forster’s canon. It is a highly readable literary biography, important for its subject but also important because of the lucid style and comprehensive treatment. Forster devotees will find here a book to cherish for its sensitive and sensible handling of E. M. Forster’s life.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 25

Books and Bookmen. XXIII, May, 1978, p. 25.

Library Journal. CIII, September 15, 1978, p. 1748.

Newsweek. XCII, October 30, 1978, p. 96.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCXIV, July 31, 1978, p. 87.

Time. CXII, November 6, 1978, p. 113.

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