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E. M. Forster (Edward Morgan Forster) Biography

(1879–1970), (Edward Morgan Forster), Abinger Harvest, Independent Review, Where Angels Fear To Tread, The Longest Journey

British novelist, critic, and essayist. He was the only child of Edward Forster, an architect, who died nine months after the birth of his son, and Alice ‘Lily’ Whichelo. Forster's happiest childhood years were spent in Rooksnest, a house near Stevenage, where he was cared for by servants and a loving mother until they moved to Tonbridge in 1893, in order that Forster might attend Tonbridge School as a day boy. His education and post-University travels were financed by his great-aunt, Marianne Thornton, the other major influence on his childhood, who died in 1887, leaving £8,000 in trust for him. Marianne Thornton's father had been a member of the Clapham Sect, an organization whose philanthropic convictions formed part of Forster's liberal heritage. Forster hated Tonbridge School (which reappears as Sawston in his first two novels, and whose cultivation of the ‘undeveloped heart’ he later satirized in Abinger Harvest). At King's College, Cambridge, where he studied classics then history, he formed some of the friendships that were to sustain him personally and intellectually for most of his life. In 1901 he was elected to the Apostles, an élite group of young men dedicated to the primacy of art, the intellect, and friendship. They included Bertrand Russell, Lytton Strachey, A. N. Whitehead, Leonard Woolf, and Desmond MacCarthy, all of whom were influential in the Bloomsbury Group, and Hugh Meredith, with whom Forster made his second great discovery: that of homosexual love (the first had been emancipation from the Christianity that had dominated his childhood).

On going down from Cambridge, Forster accompanied his mother on a year-long tour of Italy, taught briefly at the Working Men's College, Bloomsbury, then went on a tour of Greece, all of which provided him with material for his early novels, which satirize the pusillanimity of the English tourist abroad. His literary career began in 1903 with contributions to the Independent Review, launched by Cambridge friends including G. M. Trevelyan, and in which his first short story, ‘The Story of a Panic’, was published in 1904. In 1905 he tutored the children of the Countess von Arnim at Nassenheide before returning to England for the publication of his first novel, Where Angels Fear To Tread. In 1906 he and his mother established their home in Weybridge, where they spent the next twenty years. At this time he became tutor to Syed Ross Masood, a Muslim patriot with whom he developed an intense and passionate friendship. Forster's second novel, The Longest Journey (1907), was followed by A Room with a View (1908) and the novel that was to establish him as a leading literary figure, Howards End (1910). Deploying the strengths of realist forms, these novels examine the collision between philistine complacency and unguarded honesty and speak to the desire to ‘only connect’ rather than to live among fragments. The publication of a collection of short stories, The Celestial Omnibus (1911), brought this period of intense literary activity to a close. Forster was not to publish another book for more than ten years. The intervention of the First World War, two separate visits to India, and an influential meeting with Edward Carpenter produced a troubled period in Forster's career as a novelist. In 1912 he went to India with R. C. Trevelyan, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, and G. H. Luce, but once there he travelled north to Aligarh, where Masood became his companion. During this journey he became friendly with the Maharajah of Dewas Senior and began his fictional critique of British colonial behaviour. This was unfinished on his return to England in 1913, when a visit to Edward Carpenter inspired him to write Maurice, his novel of homosexual love which, although circulated privately, was never published in his lifetime. In 1914, when was broke out, Forster spent some time as a fire-watcher and cataloguer in the National Gallery before removing himself from the mainstream of English culture by working for the International Red Cross in Alexandria. There he became close friends with the Greek homosexual poet Constantin Cavafy, whose work he introduced to the English-speaking world. Forster remained in Alexandria until 1919, when he returned to become literary editor of the left-wing paper the Daily Herald, and to contribute essays and reviews to various periodicals. In 1921 he returned to India as secretary and companion to the Maharajah of Dewas Senior. Alexandria: A History and Guide was published in 1922, although most of the stock was destroyed in a fire before circulation; the book was not republished (in revised form) until 1938.

In 1924 his last novel, A Passage to India, was published and dedicated to Masood. ‘What will he write next?’ wrote Virginia Woolf. That he published nothing more in novel form has been a persistent subject of enquiry. Of his friends who were also his literary contemporaries, Woolf thought he compromised himself as an artist: ‘the poet is twitched away by the satirist; the comedian is tapped on the shoulder by the moralist.’, D. H. Lawrence, on the other hand, was teased by a sense of unrealized potential: ‘There is so much more in him than ever comes out.’ Katherine Mansfield's verdict was less forgiving: ‘[he]never gets any further than warming the teapot.’ Whether his reasons for abandoning the novel concerned form (realist or modernist: his main influences were Jane Austen, Samuel Butler, and Marcel Proust) or sexuality (the difficulty in rendering the truths of the relationships most personally important to him in publishable fictional form), Forster thereafter turned to journalism and criticism. In 1927 the Clark Lectures, delivered at Cambridge, were published as Aspects of the Novel. In this highly equivocal commentary on realist techniques he issues the famous comment: ‘Yes—oh dear, yes—the novel tells a story.’ He outlines his description of ‘flat’ and ‘round’ characters, delineates features such as ‘story’ (dominated by the clock ticking in the background), ‘plot’ (in which the emphasis falls on causality rather than chronology), yet, on the other hand, identifies ‘pattern’ and ‘rhythm’, which draw attention to the underlying pulse of the novel rather than its narrative sequences. The Eternal Moment, a volume of short stories, was published in 1928, his biography of Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson in 1934, and Abinger Harvest, a collection of essays, in 1936. Forster was offered an honorary Fellowship and a permanent home at King's in 1946, a year after his mother's death. In 1949 he worked with Eric Crozier on the libretto for Benjamin Britten's opera Billy Budd, and refused a knighthood. Two Cheers for Democracy (‘there is no occasion to give three’) was published in 1951 and The Hill of Devi, a portrait of India through letters and commentary, in 1953. His last book to be published in his lifetime was Marianne Thornton (1956), a biography of his great-aunt. Forster became a Companion of Honour in 1953; he received the Order of Merit in 1969. Maurice was finally published in 1971, a year after his death, and The Life to Come, a collection of short stories, also dealing with homosexuality, in 1972.

Forster has been championed as a kind of liberal saint. His treatment of East—West relationships helped to establish this, but it was confirmed by his activities for PEN, his firm stand against censorship, his campaign against the suppression of Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928), and his becoming the first president of the National Council for Civil Liberties in 1934. Late in his career, in 1960, he appeared as a defence witness in the trial against Lady Chatterley's Lover. Both F. R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling, although their terms are very different, admired him for his liberalism. Much of the earlier criticism of Forster is dominated by respect for his humanitarianism and his desire to transcend politics through love. Critics in the 1960s, such as Frank Kermode, began to attend less to his humanism and more to the autonomy of his art, seeking out the formal unity in his texts, privileging their symbolism over their realism. The 1970s saw a new critical emphasis concerned more to unpick the apparent seamless unities, to disconnect. This was possibly informed by the appearance of P. N. Furbank's two-volume biography, E. M. Forster: A Life (19778), which openly explores his homosexuality. Later work has drawn considerably on the manuscripts held by the University of Texas and which arguably demonstrate the gaps and discontinuities that are part of the creative process. Later criticism has brought into play the perspectives of feminist and subaltern studies in an attempt to tease out the unacknowledged as well as the acknowledged sources of confusion in Forster's texts. Nicola Beauman's biography, Morgan (1993), draws on the textual work in the editions published by the Abinger Press, based on the Texas archive.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Samuel Foote Biography to Furioso