Selected Letters of E. M. Forster
E. M. Forster is unique among important English novelists in having published only one novel in the last sixty years of his life, none at all in the last forty-five. Encompassing the first forty of his ninety-one years, the initial volume of the projected two-volume Selected Letters of E. M. Forster includes the period in which he completed all but one of his novels and began work on A Passage to India (1924).
The 207 letters, only a tiny fraction of the fifteen thousand Forster is known to have written, are grouped chronologically in five sections representing his boyhood, his years at the University of Cambridge, the time of his early novels, his first visit to India from 1912 to 1913, and his Red Cross service in Egypt in World War I. The common thread of the editors’ seven specific criteria for selection was a desire to represent fairly Forster’s interests, style, convictions, and friends. In this aim they have succeeded; neither have they succumbed to the older temptation to varnish, nor the newer to tarnish, their subject. The Forster who emerges may surprise readers who have reckoned the novelist a drab, mousy sort of man, but it will surprise no Forsterians.
The editors have labored conscientiously to identify names and allusions in the text. Although the many notes that divert the eye to the confession “unidentified” could safely have been omitted, and one that refers a quotation from Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” to Psalm 137 is an embarrassment, most of the documentation is unobtrusive and intelligent. One footnote was left incomplete. The index follows the common practice of italicizing “letters to” page references, but the typeface used makes the discrimination of such references difficult. Fortunately, the editors have included a handy alphabetical list of correspondents with page references under “Forster, Edward Morgan.” Along with his American coeditor Mary Lago, P. N. Furbank, the author of a lucid and informative biography, continues to serve Forster and his readers well.
While Forster knew most of his eminent literary contemporaries, relatively few of the letters in this volume are addressed to them. There are, for example, only two to Virginia Woolf, one short one to D. H. Lawrence, none to George Bernard Shaw. Some of the most illuminating letters are to writers now little-read, such as novelist Forrest Reid and poet Siegfried Sassoon, and to non-literary people. In Florence Barger, wife of a college friend, Forster reposed enough trust to confide secrets of the heart withheld from everyone else. Throughout the first part of his life, the most frequent recipient appears to have been his mother, to whom he was very close—sometimes uncomfortably so for today’s reader, sometimes for the novelist himself. (It should be recalled that his father, also Edward Morgan Forster, died before young Morgan turned two, and the latter grew up the darling of his mother and a contingent of female relatives.) Alice Clara Forster (called Lily) was clearly an intelligent woman, and never in the published letters does he condescend to her.
Something of a chameleon as a correspondent, Forster adjusted style and subject to reader out of consideration. Letters were for him a personal relationship, and he strove for the matter and manner agreeable to his correspondent. His discrimination begins with the greeting: his mother, Florence Barger, and, latterly, his friend Malcolm Darling are “Dearest”; Syed Ross Masood, for whom he developed a romantic attachment, is “Dearest Boy”; others are for the most part merely “Dear.” Forster’s humor, which also can erupt early in his letters, was calculated to tickle the reader at hand. When his mother inadvertently signed her full name to him, he responded “Dearest Lily Forster” and solemnly concluded “E. M. Forster.” When a friend asked him to write out his distinction between William and Henry James (of the former, “you can understand what he writes but not what he means,” whereas with Henry, “you could understand what he meant if you understood what he wrote”), he dutifully obliged, observing to his mother, however, that it was “rather a cooling process.” To G. H. Ludolf, a postal official in Alexandria, Egypt, and a man of German descent, he noted that he had declined an offer to serve on the postwar Inter-Allied Commission and expressed sorrow for the Germans: “I should have governed them very well.”
At the root of Forster’s epistolary style was an appreciation for the other person that he seemed to convey more successfully in writing than in face-to-face relationships. Virginia Woolf claimed that getting to know him was a lengthy process and that he hated to appear to dominate a conversation.
Nevertheless, he pursued friendships enthusiastically. The letters exemplify his insistence on the primacy of personal relationships and his relative indifference to abstractions. Even when discussing such a concept as mankind, he is likely to think of the personal encounter: “We shall never meet with anyone nicer.” He always hoped and expected to meet “nice” people; getting to know them was one of the indisputably worthwhile activities of life.
Forster’s letters from India and Egypt, well represented in this volume, not only indicate his openness and initiative in making new acquaintances and seeking new friends but also provide his...
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