Selected Letters of E. M. Forster Analysis

E. M. Forster

Selected Letters of E. M. Forster

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

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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Selected Letters of E. M. Forster

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

In 1955, E. M. Forster wrote to American literary critic Lionel Trilling to thank him for a book that contained references to the poet John Keats. “I have been reading in his letters ever since,” Forster says. “He is almost the only great man I have ever wanted to be with.” Half a century earlier, Forster had read the Keats letters and observed that the poet must have been nearly the best person in the world.

Such, apparently, is the power of letters. At least, such is the power they can command over sensitive men such as Forster, whose own letters are now available in part, edited by an American and an Englishman, the first a college professor, the other an author and lifelong friend of Forster himself.

This selection may not make one feel about Forster as he did about Keats. On the surface, this correspondence does not seem to emanate from an exciting man; much of it is the everyday exchange of a devoted son, a loyal friend, and a concerned liberal worried about government encroachment on individual liberty. There is, however, more to the collection than that.

Forster has always been something of an enigma for students of modern British literature, especially for those who know him only as a novelist. One familiar only with Forster’s fiction may indeed wonder why anyone would want to publish a volume of his letters that focuses primarily on the period after 1924, the year in which A Passage to India was published. Though he lived for almost five decades more, Forster published no long fiction during the remainder of his lifetime; the final addition to his canon, Maurice (1971), was published posthumously.

Skepticism over the value of this effort must be tempered, however, by the corresponding natural inquisitiveness that students of literature have shown over the question of Forster’s long silence. Why did he publish nothing else? No one reason may be forthcoming, but a perusal of these letters offers several intriguing possibilities and offers valuable insight into the life of a man who believed that one who devoted himself to a career of letters could in fact make a contribution to society as a whole.

Reading this selection of Forster’s letters can help readers interested in the novelist understand why Forster stopped publishing fiction after the publication of A Passage to India. The first reason is offered by Forster himself. Writing in 1966 to American professor Wilfred Stone, who had recently completed a book-length study of his works, Forster says that it seems that “the fictional part of me dried up.” As far as he could recall, Forster “did not think of writing either a novel or short stories” after 1924. Instead, he turned his talents to other forms of communication: pamphlets, essays, radio broadcasts, even an operatic adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd.

Beneath the surface answer lies another one, however, and careful readers can discover a more plausible explanation for Forster’s silence. Scattered references to short stories which Forster had written and was circulating among friends and repeated comments about the manuscript of the unpublished novel Maurice suggest that Forster had not abandoned interest in his own fiction. His problem was that the subject of his writings was not one which he wanted associated with his name in public: homosexuality. Long before he brought out A Passage to India, Forster had turned his considerable talents to a fictional exploration of the topic; in fact, Maurice was drafted before A Passage to India, as were several short stories that were never published and which are now lost. Homosexuality was a subject from which Forster could not divorce himself, because it was one that was a part of his own real life.

Forster was a homosexual from the time he was a young man, but he kept that fact from all but a few close friends. It is interesting to note that even in personal letters to those who may have known about his homosexuality Forster scarcely ever made overt reference to it. There are some cryptic allusions, but only rarely (in this collection, at least) does Forster write to or about another man in language that betrays his true feelings. “The happiest hours of my life will always be the short hours we can spend together in the flat,” he writes to Bob Buckingham in 1933, and in 1939 he complains to him, “If you call living a full life seeing me once a fortnight, I don’t.” Nevertheless, only from the notes provided by the editors does one learn the extent of the relationship between them, a relationship that lasted half a century. To protect his family and his lovers from embarrassment,...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

American Libraries. XVI, May, 1985, p. 282.

The Atlantic. CCLV, January, 1985, p. 94.

Choice. XXIII, November, 1985, p. 446.

The Economist. CCLXXXIX, November 19, 1983, p. 109.

Kirkus Reviews. LII, November 1, 1984, p. 1033.

Library Journal. CIX, January 24, 1984, p. 82.

Listener. CX, November 3, 1983, p. 25.

The London Review of Books. VII, June 20, 1985, p. 9.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. December 11, 1983, p. 1.

Nation. CCXXXVIII, March 3, 1984, p. 260.

New Statesman. CVI, November 4, 1983, p. 23.

The New York Review of Books. XXXII, August 15, 1985, p. 19.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, January 8, 1984, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, May 5, 1985, p. 12.

The New Yorker. LX, April 2, 1984, p. 130.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, December 14, 1984, p. 46.

Times Literary Supplement. May 24, 1985, p. 569.

Washington Post Book World. XV, May 26, 1985, p. 5.