E. M. Forster

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

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...

(The entire section is 2050 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

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.