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E. M. Forster (1879 - 1970)

Forster, E. M.

Edward Morgan Forster was born in London as the only child of an architect, who died before Edward was two years old. Forster's childhood and much of his adult life was dominated by his mother and his aunts. The legacy of his paternal great-aunt Marianne Thornton, descendant of the Clapham Sect of evangelists and reformers, gave later Forster the freedom to travel and to write. Forster's years at Tonbridge School as a teenager were difficult - he suffered from the cruelty of his classmates.

Forster attended King's College, Cambridge (1897-1901), where he met members of the later-formed Bloomsbury group. In the atmosphere of skepticism, he became under the influence of Sir James Frazer, Nathaniel Wedd, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, and G.E. Moore, and shed his not-very-deep Christian faith. After graduating, Forster traveled in Italy and Greece with his mother and on his return began to write essays and short stories for the liberal Independent Review. In 1905 Foster spent several months in German as tutor to the children of the Countess von Armin.

In the same year appeared his first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread. In the following year he lectured on Italian art and history for the Cambridge Local Lectures Board. In 1907 appeared The Longest Journey, then A Room with a View (1908), based partly on the material from extended holidays in Italy with his mother. The first part of the novel is set in Florence, where the young Lucy Honeychurch is visiting her older cousin, Charlotte Bartless. Lucy witnesses a murder and becomes caught between two men: shallow, conventional Cecil Vyse and George Emerson, who kisses Lucy during a picnic. The second half of the novel takes place at Windy Corner, Lucy's home on Summer Street. She accepts a marriage proposal from Cecil. The Emersons become friends of the Honeychurches after George, Mr. Beebe (who is a clergyman), and Freddie (Lucy's brother) are discovered bathing nude in the woods. Finally, Lucy overcomes prejudices and marries George.

Forster also wrote during the pre-war years a number of short stories, which were collected in The Celestial Omnibus (1914). Most of them were symbolic fantasies or fables.

Howards End (1910) was a story that centered on an English country house and dealt with the clash between two families, one interested in art and literature, the other only in business. The book brought together the themes of money, business and culture. "To trust people is a luxury in which only the wealthy can indulge; the poor cannot afford it." (from Howards End)

The novel established Forster's reputation, and he embarked upon a new novel with a homosexual theme, Maurice. The picture of British attitudes not long after Wilde was revised several times during his life and finally published posthumously in 1971. Forster hid his personal life from public discussion. In 1930 he had a relationship with a London policeman. This important contact continued after the marriage of his London friend.

Between the years 1912 and 1913 Forster traveled in India. From 1914 to 1915 he worked for the National Gallery in London. Following the outbreak of World War I, Forster joined the Red Cross and served in Alexandria, Egypt. There he met the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy and published a selection of his poems in Pharos and Pharillon (1923). In 1921 Forster returned to India, working as a private secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas. The land was the scene of his masterwork, A Passage to India (1924), an account of India under British rule. It was Forster's last novel.

For the remaining forty-six years of his life, Forster devoted himself to other activities. Writing novels was not the most important element in his life. In the book he wrote: "Most of life is so dull that there is nothing to be said about it and the books and talk that would describe it as interesting are obliged to exaggerate, in the hope of justifying their own existence. Inside its cocoon of work or social obligation, the human spirit slumbers for the most part, registering the distinction between pleasure and pain, but not nearly as alert as we pretend."

After Forster's death his literary executors turned down approaches from Joseph Losey, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, and Waris Hussein, to make a feature film version of the book, A Passage to India, but eventually David Lean was approved as director. Forster had shared with T.E. Lawrence both a dislike and distrust of the cinema. Forster had written the two last chapters of A Passage to India under the influence of Lawrence's The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Later, Lean was criticized that he produced his own vision of India, not Forster's. He also changed the ending of the story, defending himself: "Look, this novel was written hot on the movement for Indian independence. I think the end is a lot of hogwash so far as a movie is concerned." (from David Lean: A Biography by Kevin Brownlow, 1996)

Passage to India (1924) synopsis: Adela Quested visits Chandrapore with Mrs. Moore in order to make up her mind whether to marry the latter's son. Mrs. Moore meets his friend, Dr. Azis, assistant to the British Civil Surgeon. She and Adela accept Azis's invitation to visit the mysterious Marabar Caves. In this trip, Mrs. Moore nearly faints in the cave and goes mad for an instant. Adela asks Azis, "Have you one wife or more than one?" and he is shocked. "But to ask an educated Indian Moslem how many wives he has - appalling, hideous!" She believes herself to have been the victim of a sexual assault by Azis, who is arrested. Adela is pushed forward by his friends and family, but she admits that she was mistaken. "Something that she did not understand took hold of the girl and pulled her through. Though the vision was over, and she had returned to the insipidity of the world, she remembered what she had learnt. Atonement and confession - they could wait. It was in hard prosaic tones that she said: 'I withdraw everything.'" Mrs. Moore dies on the voyage home at sea. "The heat, I suppose," Mr. Hamidullah says. Azis has changed his liberal views. "We may hate one another, but we hate you most. If I don't make you go, Ahmed will, Karim will, if it's fifty-hundred years we shall get rid of you; yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then' - he rode against him furiously - 'and then,' he concluded, half kissing him, 'you and I shall be friends.'" - The novel's title derives from Walt Whitman, but the American poet's celebration of the opening of the Suez Canal as bringing together East and West is qualified by Kipling's assertion that "ne'er the twain shall meet". The Nobel writer V.S. Naipaul claimed once that Forster knew hardly anything about India: "He just knew a few middle-class Indians and the garden boys whom he wished to seduce."

Forster contributed reviews and essays to numerous journals, most notably the Listener. He was an active member of PEN and in 1934 became the first president of the National Council for Civil Liberties. After his mother's death in 1945, he was elected an honorary fellow of King's and lived there for the remainder of his life. In 1949 Forster refused a knighthood and in 1951 he collaborated with Eric Crozier on the libretto of Benjamin Britten's opera Billy Budd, which was based on Herman Melville's novel (film 1962, directed by Peter Ustinov). Forster was made a Companion of Honour in 1953 and in 1969 he accepted an Order of Merit. Forster died on June 7, 1970.

"So Two cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism."

Forster often criticized in his books Victorian middle class attitudes and British colonialism through strong woman characters. However, Forster's characters were not one-dimensional heroes and villains, and except for his devotion to such values as tolerance and sense of comedy, he was uncommitted. "For we must admit that flat people are not in themselves as big achievement as round ones, and also that they are best when they are comic. A serious or tragic flat character is apt to be a bore. Each time he enters crying 'Revenge!' or 'My heart bleeds for humanity!' or whatever his formula is, out hearts sink." (from Aspects of the Novel)

The epithet "Fosterian" - liberal, unconventional, skeptical, moral - had started to circulate since the publication of Howard's End. Forster's famous essay Two Cheers for Democracy (also: What I Believe), which was originally printed in 1938 in the New York Nation reflected his concern for individual liberty. He assumed liberal humanism not dogmatically but ironically, writing in unceremonious sentences and making gentle stabs at pomposity and hypocrisy: "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." (from Two cheers for Democracy)

The British Humanist Association has reissued this classical work and similar essays.

Famous quotations by E. M. Forster:

  • Works of art, in my opinion, are the only objects in the material universe to possess internal order, and that is why, though I don't believe that only art matters, I do belive in Art for Art's sake.

  • I would rather be a coward than brave because people hurt you when you are brave.

  • If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.

  • I suggest that the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little farther down our own particular path than we have yet got ourselves.

  • The crime of suicide lies in its disregard for the feelings of those whom we leave behind.

  • We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.

  • Suggested sites for E. M. Forster:

    Encyclopedia article about E. M. Forster
    Texts by Forster
    Howards End
    Two free-thinking sisters, Helen and Margaret, lose their house and are bequeathed Howard's End by Ruth Wilcox, who has befriended Margaret. Ruth's family, however, has other plans, and destroys the will without telling the sisters. Mr. Wilcox, now a widow, marries Margaret. When Helen becomes pregnant and refuses to name the father, Mr. Wilcox and Margaret differ in their opinion on how to help her.
    A Room With A View
    A comedy of manners about a group of English upper-class on holiday in Italy, detailing their response to Italy and to one another.

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