E. M. Forster’s (1 January 1879 – 7 June 1970) most systematic exposition of the novelist’s art, Aspects of the Novel, is no key to his own practice. Written three years after the publication of A Passage to India, the work surveys neither his achievement nor his intentions. While full of the insights, charm, and homely but colorful metaphors that also distinguish Virginia Woolf’s Common Reader volumes (1925, 1932), the book is an enthusiast’s, rather than a working writer’s, view of the novel, as if Forster were already distancing himself from the form that earned him his fame as a writer.
A lecture given twenty years later by Lionel Trilling, who had already published his book on Forster, gives a better sense of Forster’s achievement. In “Manners, Morals, and the Novel,” later published in The Liberal Imagination (1950), Trilling explains the novel as the writer’s response to the modern world’s besetting sin of snobbery, which he defines as “pride in status without pride in function.” Europeans, and perhaps especially the English, familiar with snobbery as a manifestation of class structure, require less explanation than do Americans of the novel’s relation to snobbery. The central tradition of the English novel from Henry Fielding through Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, and George Meredith— and indeed English comedy as far back as Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400)—stands as evidence.
In Forster’s time, however, that tradition was being modified. For one thing, the greatest English novelists at work during Forster’s formative years were a wealthy American expatriate and a retired Polish mariner. No one as sensitive as Forster could escape the influence of Henry James and Joseph Conrad, but these men made curious heirs to Dickens and Thackeray and George Eliot. James, while intensely interested in the textures of society, focused his attention on the relations between the English (and Continental) leisure class and those American travelers whom Mark Twain had christened “innocents abroad,” thus limiting his social scrutiny, in Forster’s opinion, to the narrow perceptions of a few wealthy idlers. Conrad diverged even more sharply from the path of previous English novelists, for he neither understood nor cared to understand any level of English society. A man of his temperament and interest might be imagined as a literary force in the midcentury United States of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), but not in the England of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847- 1848, serial; 1848, book) and Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-1853, serial; 1853, book). Nevertheless, Conrad was more in tune with his own literary milieu than was Meredith, who at the end of the century reigned as the grand old man of English letters, and Conrad’s work, like that of James, diverted the creative energy of many of the new century’s novelists into new channels.
Of native English novelists still regarded as substantial, the most active at the time of Forster’s entry into the field were Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells, and John Galsworthy—all men born in the 1860’s and all inheritors of the native tradition of the novel, albeit on a somewhat reduced scale. The next generation of novelists, born slightly after Forster in the 1880’s, included Woolf, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence, all of whom published their initial works after Forster had already written five of his six novels. This latter group obviously belongs to a new literary dispensation. Society and its network of snobbery, though still significant, have receded into the background, and the conflicts of the protagonists are waged at a more personal, intimate, sometimes semiconscious level. Clearly the work of psychologists such as Sigmund Freud and Henry James’s brother William James influenced these later writers and drove them to develop literary techniques adequate to the task of a more truly psychological novel.
Forster, as has been suggested, stands in the middle. Afriend of Virginia Woolf and in her mind, certainly, no part of the decaying tradition she trounced so severely in her essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Forster nevertheless anticipated few of the technical innovations of the novelists who reached their maturity after World War I. His last novel stands with the post-Freudian achievements. Howards End, his most ambitious novel, is in most respects a novel of the old school. It is denser, symbolically richer, than the characteristic work of Bennett, Wells, and Galsworthy, but the same might be said of Bleak House, written more than half a century earlier.
Only around the time of Forster’s birth did novelists begin to insist on the novel as an art form and write theoretical defenses of it. Meredith delivered a lecture on “The Idea of Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit” (1877), which, though mentioning Miguel de Cervantes and Fielding, has more to say of Aristophanes and Molière; Henry James’s essay “The Art of Fiction” appeared in 1884. By the century’s end, novelists had achieved respectability, and Conrad could soberly echo Longinus: “Art is long and life is short, and success is very far off.”
Such new expressions of the novelist’s kinship with poet and playwright did not end the nineteenth century habit of producing loose, baggy narratives in a diversity of modes, punctuated by their author’s abrupt changes of direction, interpolated moral essays, and episodes introduced for no better reason than a hunch that readers, who cared nothing for artistic integrity, would enjoy them. Stock literary devices that storytellers had accumulated over the centuries—bizarre coincidences, thoroughly improbable recognition scenes thrust into “realistic” contexts, the bundling forth of long-lost (often supposedly deceased) personages in the interests of a happy or surprising denouement, all devices that twentieth century novels would shun—still flourished in Forster’s youth, and he used many of them unashamedly.
If Forster’s moment in literary history partly explains his wavering between Victorian and modern canons, his skeptical, eclectic temperament must also be cited. His astute analyses of the morals and manners of society involved him in comedy, tragedy, romance, and fantasy— the sort of “God’s plenty” that the supposedly neoclassical John Dryden admired in Chaucer and Ben Jonson in William Shakespeare. Such men would write any sort of work and take up with any sort of character. Forster was similarly indiscriminate. His veneration for Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace though “such an untidy book,” betrays his Englishman’s weakness in believing that God’s plenty would overcome the artist’s scruples.
Of course, Forster’s novels are not as long as War and Peace or the Victorian ones that readers worked their way through in installments spread over many months. Compared to the seamless garments of Woolf or even the longer works of Joyce and William Faulkner (both of whom exhibit an un-English type of variety but also an astonishing coherence), Forster’s juxtapositions of sharply contrasting modes invite criticism by readers who take in his works in two or three successive evenings. Thus, while Forster does not belong with Wells and Galsworthy, neither does he quite keep company with the greatest of his slightly younger contemporaries, for he loved too much the variety and freedom that most earlier English novelists permitted themselves.
Nevertheless, his motto for Howards End—“Only connect”—applies to his work generally. If he does not always make the artistic connections, his consistent theme is the necessity of making moral connections with fellow humans, of struggling against the class divisions that so many Englishmen, including a number of his fellow novelists, took for granted. In his novels, prudence is invariably on the side of those who, like Henry Wilcox in Howards End and Ronnie Heaslop in A Passage to India, resist the breakdown of social barriers; but courage, generosity, friendship, and sympathy are found among Forster’s liberal opponents of snobbery. In the world of Forster’s novels, the closed class is always sterile and corrupt.
Forster’s eclecticism, his versatility, his refusal to ignore the claims either of heart or head make the reading of his novels an ambiguous but rich experience. Never does he seem like a mere exhibitionist, however. Rather, his openness to life’s variety amounts to a perpetual invitation to the participation of alert and open-minded readers. He is far less afraid of a gaucherie than of a missed opportunity to “connect.”
Where Angels Fear to Tread
Forster’s shortest and most tightly focused novel is Where Angels Fear to Tread. A young man named Philip Herriton is commissioned by his mother and sister Harriet to bring back from Italy the infant son of Lilia Carella, the widow of another of Mrs. Herriton’s sons. Within a year after marrying Gino Carella, the aimless son of a small-town dentist, Lilia died giving birth to a son. Aided by Harriet and by Caroline Abbott, who as Lilia’s traveling companion had been able to do nothing to ward off the offensive marriage, Philip finds Gino resistant to Mrs. Herriton’s pocketbook and ultimately becomes involved in a shabby kidnapping venture engineered by Harriet—a venture that ends with the accidental death of the child.Onthe way home, Philip finds himself drawn emotionally to Caroline, who reveals that she too has fallen in love with Gino. In the common effort to minister to the pitifully unregenerate Harriet, however, Philip and Caroline become friends.
Thus summarized, the novel bears some resemblance to one by Henry James. Forster enjoys contrasting Anglo- Saxon and Italian mores, and he shares James’s fascinated horror over the machinations and intrigues of sophisticated schemers.Hemay have owed the idea of centering the story on a somewhat detached emissary to James, whose novel The Ambassadors (1903) appeared shortly before Forster began work on his own book.
Forster’s handling of his material, however, differs substantially from James’s. He cannot resist scathing treatment of the characters whose company he expects his readers to keep and with whom they are to sympathize. Harriet, appalled by Italy’s uncleanliness, carries a bottle of ammonia in her trunk, but Forster has it “burst over her prayer-book, so that purple patches appeared on all her clothes.” Prayer brings out the worst in many of Forster’s characters, an exception being Caroline, who is able to pray in the church in Gino’s hometown, “where a prayer to God is thought none the worse of because it comes next to a pleasant word to a neighbor.” For Philip to develop neighborliness is a struggle. Not only is he much less experienced and resourceful than Strether or any other Jamesian ambassador, he is also decidedly unattractive: callow, priggish, and cowardly. Caroline’s assessment of him in the final chapter, though tardily arrived at, is accurate enough: “You’re without passion; you look on life as a spectacle, you don’t enter it; you only find it funny or beautiful.” By the time he hears this, however, Philip has learned what neither his mother nor his sister ever suspects: that the son of an Italian dentist can love his child more than wealth, that he is capable of trust and friendship, that he can be not merely angered but also hurt by a betrayal. Philip has also felt enough by this time to be hurt by Caroline’s words.
Though selfish and shortsighted, Gino is without the treachery of a Jamesian Italian such as Giovanelli in Daisy Miller (1878). Indeed, Forster makes him morally superior to the Herriton women. Fixing on a domestic vignette of a sort impossible in any well-appointed English household (or in a James novel, for that matter)—Gino bathing his infant son—Forster draws Caroline into helping him and lets Philip come upon them so engaged, “to all intents and purposes, the Virgin and Child, with Donor.” Forster’s heroes tend to idealize people who are only behaving a little better than expected, but the capacity to idealize is a symptom of their regeneration.
Harriet tricks Philip into the kidnapping; he discovers the ruse only after the baby has died and his own arm has been broken in a carriage accident. He returns to confess the transgression, only to have the grief-stricken Gino cruelly twist his broken arm and then nearly choke him to death before Caroline appears to stop him. In a typically Forsterian piece of symbolism, she persuades Gino and Philip together to drink the milk that had been poured for the child. In a pattern that Forster repeats in later novels, Philip, though excessive in his estimate of Caroline’s goodness, is nevertheless “saved” by it. Salvation is partly illusion, but such an illusion serves him better than the cynicism that Philip has spent his youth imbibing.
The Longest Journey
Like Philip, Rickie Elliot of The Longest Journey is frail and aesthetic. In addition, a deformed foot, a trait inherited from his father, marks him as different from his Cambridge classmates. At the beginning of the novel, both his father, whom he despised, and his beloved mother are dead; his father’s sister, Mrs. Failing, is his closest relative. On her Wiltshire estate lives a young man, Stephen Wonham, an illegitimate half brother to Rickie. Rude, truculent, undiscriminating in his choice of companions, and more or less a habitual drunkard, Stephen also proves loyal and almost pathetically trusting. The relationship between the two brothers forms the core of the novel.
The title of the book, from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Epipsychidion (1821), alludes to the folly of denying the rest of the world for the sake of “a mistress or a friend,” with whom, in consequence, one must “the dreariest and longest journey go.” In the midst of mulling over the poem, Rickie ironically decides to take his journey with Agnes Pembroke, a girl whose first lover, a strapping athlete, has died suddenly of a football injury. Death, it may be noted, always strikes with unexpected suddenness in Forster’s novels. The marriage disgusts Rickie’s closest friend, Stewart Ansell, and Rickie himself comes soon enough to regret it. Discouraged by Agnes and her elder brother Herbert from pursuing a career as a writer, Rickie takes a teaching post at Sawston School, where Herbert is a master. By a strange coincidence, a maladjusted boy at the school writes a letter to Stephen Wonham, among other total strangers, asking Stephen to “pray for him.” Agnes’s practical mind senses trouble if Stephen appears at the school, but mercifully the boy withdraws before Stephen can carry out an offer to come visit him. Rickie, while not fond of Stephen, is willing for him to receive his aunt’s property when she dies; not so Agnes. When Mrs. Failing sends the troublesome Stephen packing, he decides to visit Sawston and inform Rickie of their relationship—about which Rickie already knows.
Outside the school, Stephen meets Stewart Ansell, on hand to verify for himself the death of his friend’s spirit in his loveless union with the Pembrokes, and, after receiving an insult, knocks him down. Before Stephen can see Rickie, Agnes intercepts him and offers him the money she is sure he wants in return for leaving Sawston and sparing Rickie the embarrassment of acknowledging him. Stunned and stung, the utterly unmercenary Stephen leaves, but Ansell, won over not only by Stephen’s fist but also by his principles, breaks into the Sawston dining hall during Sunday dinner and, in front of masters, students, and all, rebukes Rickie for turning away his own brother in the latter’s deepest distress. As the assemblage gapes, Ansell reveals what he has correctly intuited: that Stephen is not the son of Rickie’s father, as Rickie had supposed, but of his beloved mother. At this news Rickie faints.
Although wildly improbable, the scene has an electric intensity about it. Ansell, with all the clumsy insistence of a true egalitarian and all the insight of a true friend, has, while mistakenly charging Rickie with complicity in Agnes’s treachery, stripped away the hypocrisy behind which the couple has hidden. There is about this revelation something of the quality of the recognition scene of a tragedy such as Sophocles’ Oidipous Tyrannos (c. 429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715), with Rickie the lame protagonist faced with the consequences of his disastrous marriage and of his unjust assumption about his father as well as of his denial of his brother.
From the time Rickie listened mutely to his classmates’ discussion of whether the cow in the field was “there” if no one was present to perceive her, he has searched unavailingly for reality. He has misinterpreted his love for Agnes as real, watched his son—inevitably deformed like his father and himself—die in infancy, and seen his attempt at a schoolmaster’s life tumble. Now he tries, none too successfully, to effect a reconciliation with his brother. He leaves Agnes and the school and tries to rekindle the flame of his short-story writing. When Stephen disappoints him on a visit to Mrs. Failing by breaking a promise not to drink, Rickie concludes that people are not “real.” Finding Stephen sprawled drunkenly across the tracks at a railroad crossing, Rickie finds the strength to move him from the path of an oncoming train—but not the strength to save himself.
Rickie’s aunt and brother-in-law, incapable of seeing his rescue of Stephen as worthwhile, see him as a failure whose life is mercifully over. Stephen, who is no thinker, is not so sure. In the final chapter, he feels himself to be in some sense the future of England, for he is now the father of a girl who bears the name of his and Rickie’s mother. Dimly, he acknowledges that his salvation is from Rickie.
Not only does The Longest Journey run to melodrama, but it also incorporates some rather tedious moralizing, both on the part of Mrs. Failing and in an interpolated essay by Forster that forms the whole twenty-eighth chapter (although the chapter is a short one). Probably the greatest burden, however, is the one Stephen Wonham is forced to carry. First of all, he is the disreputable relative who knocks people down and falls down drunk himself. He serves a contrasting and complementary purpose as a kind of spiritual extension of Rickie, particularly after Rickie, recognizing him as his mother’s son, begins to invest him with her excellencies, as recollected. In the final chapter, Stephen becomes the consciousness of the novel itself.
Without Stephen, however, Forster’s brilliant portrait of Rickie is not only incomplete but also depressing, for Rickie dies, sad to say, murmuring agreement with Mrs. Failing’s antihumanist convictions that “we do not live for anything great” and that “people are not important at all.” Stephen exists and procreates and retains the idea of greatness to prove Rickie wrong.
A Room with a View
Forster sends his principals off to Italy again in A Room with a View. The room in question is one that Lucy Honeychurch and her elder cousin Charlotte Bartlett do not enjoy at the beginning of their stay in a Florentine hotel but that two other travelers, the elderly Mr. Emerson and his son George, are more than willing to exchange for the one that furnishes the ladies with only a disappointing view of the courtyard. Characteristic of Forster’s well-bred characters, they lose sight of Emerson’s generosity in their horror at the directness and bluntness of his offer, for he has interrupted their conversation at dinner before other guests: “I have a view, I have a view.” Having defied the convention that forbids hasty and undue familiarity with a stranger, Mr. Emerson must be certified by an English clergyman, after which the ladies somewhat stiffly accept the view. Mr. Emerson, of course, has throughout the novel a “view” that the cousins, who hate the darkness but blanch at openness, achieve only with difficulty.
Soon an unexpected adventure literally throws Lucy and George Emerson more closely together. While enthusiastically and uncritically buying photographs of Italian masterpieces, Lucy witnesses a stabbing in a public square. She faints; George catches her and, after throwing her blood-spattered photographs into the River Arno, conducts her away gently. Later, Lucy puzzles over the affair and comes to the conclusion that, despite his kind intentions, George Emerson is devoid of “chivalry.”
When circumstances throw them together again, George impulsively kisses Lucy. Such behavior drives Lucy and Charlotte to Rome, where they meet Cecil Vyse. He is propriety itself, never once offering to kiss Lucy, and back in England Lucy and Vyse become engaged. By coincidence, Vyse has met the Emersons and introduces them to the neighborhood where Lucy and her mother live. Though well-intentioned, Vyse is one of Forster’s snobs. He is also a drab lover, and when Lucy finally tastes one of his unsatisfactory kisses, she is thrown into a panic by the prospect of another meeting with George. They meet again, and George kisses her again, with the result that Lucy deems George impossible and Vyse intolerable and breaks her engagement to the latter with the resolve never to marry anyone.
Clearly Forster is on a different, more wholeheartedly comic, course in this novel, and the denouement fulfills the tradition of romantic comedy, the inevitable marriage of Lucy and George being brought about through the ministrations of a lady who casts off her role as an apparently irredeemable snob—cousin Charlotte. What Forster says of the Honeychurch house, Windy Corner, might almost be said of the novel: “One might laugh at the house, but one never shuddered.” Despite the play of Forster’s wit throughout the novel and the sympathy he extends to a girl as silly as Lucy, the reader does shudder occasionally. Two murders, the real one Lucy sees and a supposed one, interrupt the proceedings. The latter is a rumor, bruited about by a clergyman named Eager, that Mr. Emerson has murdered his wife. The charge is baseless and seems to have been injected to deepen Emerson’s character as a man of sorrows. The real death is even more gratuitous—unless it is meant to validate George Emerson’s seriousness and dependability.
Events lead Lucy into a series of lies that she supposes to be little white ones but that threaten general unhappiness until Mr. Emerson, whom she has led to believe that she still intends to marry Vyse, induces heart’s truth and persuades her to marry George. The novel ends with the honeymooners back in Florence speculating on Charlotte’s motive in bringing about Lucy’s climactic meeting with Mr. Emerson. They conclude that “she fought us on the surface, and yet she hoped.”
Mr. Emerson, in two respects at least, echoes the writer of the same name. He is convinced of the importance of discovering Nature, and he is an apostle of selftrust. Agood man, he grows tedious after the initial chapter, functioning finally as his son’s advocate. George himself never quite comes into focus, and the reader is forced to accept on faith Charlotte’s change of heart. The lightest of Forster’s novels, A Room with a View—had it been lighter yet and avoided the rather heavy-handed symbolism of the “view” and the dark—might not have turned out the weakest of the five novels Forster published in his lifetime.
Howards End, Forster’s most ambitious novel, recounts the adventures of two sisters, Margaret and Helen Schlegel, after two encounters with people not of their quiet, cultivated London set. At the beginning, while a guest at the country home of the Wilcoxes (a family the Schlegels had met while traveling abroad), Helen has become engaged—at least in her own mind—to one of the Wilcox sons, Paul. Her visit and engagement end awkwardly when her aunt whisks her back to London. The second incident grows out of Helen’s inadvertently taking home from the theater the umbrella of a bank clerk named Leonard Bast. Standing “at the extreme verge of gentility,” Leonard wishes to approach closer. The idealistic Schlegels appreciate the impulse and strike up an acquaintance. Meanwhile, the Wilcox connection is reestablished when the Wilcoxes rent a flat across from the house where the Schlegels, including younger brother Tibby, live, and Margaret, the eldest Schlegel, comes to know Mrs. Wilcox.
A quiet, even dull woman, Ruth Wilcox is an utterly charitable person who conveys to Margaret “the idea of greatness.” Her husband Henry, a prosperous businessman, and the three Wilcox children—young adults like Helen and Tibby—radiate energy, good humor, and physical health but lack wit, grace, and any sense of beauty. Suddenly, a quarter of the way through the novel, Ruth Wilcox dies.
In marrying Henry Wilcox, Margaret proves very nearly as improvident as Lilia Herriton or Rickie Elliot. The two have little in common, and before long a series of fortuitous events shakes their precarious union. As a result of offhand bad advice from Henry, duly passed on by the Schlegel sisters, Leonard Bast loses his job. Leonard makes a pilgrimage to Oniton, one of several Wilcox estates on which Henry and Margaret are living. Unfortunately, Leonard chooses to bring along his unbecoming common-law wife, who turns out to be a former mistress of Henry Wilcox. When Henry angrily turns the Basts away, the conscience-stricken Helen insists on trying to compensate Bast. Like Stephen Wonham, he indignantly refuses her money. The impulsive and emotionally overwrought Helen refuses to abandon him. Later Helen disappears into Germany for a time; on her return Margaret discovers that she has conceived a son by Leonard.
When Margaret relays to her husband Helen’s request that she be permitted to stay at the unused Howards End for one night, he indignantly refuses, and Margaret realizes that Henry, the betrayer of his own first wife, is unrepentant in his maintenance of a moral double standard. One tragic scene remains. Leonard appears at Howards End to beg forgiveness for sinning with Helen; Charles Wilcox (Henry’s other son) totally misunderstands the intruder’s motive and strikes him down with the flat of a sword, and Leonard’s weak heart gives way. Charles is convicted of manslaughter, and at the end, Margaret, Helen and her child, and the broken-spirited Henry are living together at Howards End.
Although Howards End clearly bears similarities to Forster’s first two published novels—the melodrama, the improbable coincidences, the often awkward modulations between comic and tragic tone, and so on—the pattern of events in this work is both more richly and less intrusively symbolic. As many critics have observed, this is a novel about England, written in the uneasy pre- World War I years of growing antagonism between Germany and England. Forster permits himself a series of meditations on, paeans of praise to, his native isle in the manner of John of Gaunt’s “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” speech in Shakespeare’s Richard II (pr. c. 1595-1596). At the same time, Forster clearly intimates that England is also the Wilcoxes— insular in their outlook, stolid in their prejudices, merciless in their advocacy of the class structure. The Schlegel sisters spring from a German father and revere German Romantic culture. Chapter 5 of the novel celebrates their (and Forster’s) extraordinary sensitivity to Ludwig van Beethoven; it is after a performance of the Fifth Symphony that Helen takes Leonard’s umbrella.
Margaret also loves England, typified by Howards End, which is no ancient seat of the Wilcoxes but a property that had belonged to Mrs. Wilcox herself, even though she sometimes seems to be amid alien corn there. England, Forster seems to say, needs to unite the best in its Wilcoxes, its providers and healthy consumers of material goods, with the Schlegel principle, expressed in the love of art and civilized discussion. By themselves the Schlegels are ineffectual. They can only watch helplessly as commercial development dooms their London house. After Helen has been carried away by her feeling for Leonard’s plight, she flees to her father’s ancestral home but cannot live there. Only at Howards End can she live securely and watch her child grow up.
As a symbol for England and for the possibilities of a balanced life, Howards End might seem to have some deficiencies. It is lacking in beauty and tradition. It has become the seat of a philistine family, for even the saintly Ruth demonstrates no artistic interest more highly developed than a fondness for flowers and for a certain adjacent meadow in the early morning. On her first visit to Howards End, Helen Schlegel sees more of nature’s beauties than any of the Wilcoxes, who are preoccupied with croquet, tennis, and “calisthenic exercises on a machine that is tacked on to a greengage-tree,” ever perceive.
The agent who renders Howards End truly habitable is an uneducated farm woman who refuses to accept her “place.” When Margaret first visits Howards End, where, it is thought, they will not make their home, she finds Miss Avery there. The old woman, who for a second mistakes Margaret for the first Mrs. Wilcox, has taken it upon herself to guard the empty house. Her presumptuousness, which in the past has taken the form of wedding gifts to both Henry’s daughter and daughter-inlaw— gaucheries the Wilcoxes are quick to condemn— extends shortly thereafter to unpacking the Schlegel books and other personal belongings, which have been stored there following the expiration of the lease on the London house. After arranging the Schlegel library in bookcases and arranging the Schlegel furniture to suit herself, the woman declines to accept even polite criticism: “You think that you won’t come back to live here, Mrs. Wilcox, but you will.”
Thus it is an intuitive country person who joins the half-foreign Schlegel culture to the native Wilcox stock. Miss Avery also sends over a country boy, Tom, after Helen and Margaret, in defiance of Henry, spend a night together at Howards End. “Please, I am the milk,” says Tom, speaking more truth than he knows. As in Where Angels Fear to Tread, the milk is spiritual as well as physical nourishment. Peopled with such life-affirming folk, Howards End becomes a sustaining place, an embodiment of what English life might yet be if the deepening disorder of 1910 is somehow averted. Finally won over to permitting Helen to reside there—and thus at least tacitly acknowledging his own fornication—Henry decrees that at his death the property will pass to Margaret; Ruth Wilcox herself had wanted to give it to her.
The motto of Howards End is “Only connect.” In the house, “the prose and passion” of life, the Wilcox and Schlegel principles, are joined through the ministrations of another of Forster’s characters willing to defy the class system in the interests of a nobler order.
The central symbol of Howards End is hay. Ruth Wilcox is first observed “smelling hay,” a product that the naturally fertile estate produces in abundance. The rest of the Wilcoxes, Miss Avery at one point observes maliciously, all suffer from hay fever. Forster uses the hay very much as Walt Whitman, whom he occasionally quotes and from whom he appropriated the title of his final novel, uses the grass: to suggest life, sustenance, hope, democracy. At the end of the novel, the chastened Henry’s case of hay fever seems to have subsided when Helen, her baby, and Tom burst in from the meadow, with Helen exclaiming, “It’ll be such a crop of hay as never!”
Maurice Written a few years after Howards End, Maurice did not see print until the year following Forster’s death. In a later “terminal note” to this novel of a gay man, Forster observed a change in the public’s reaction to this subject from one of “ignorance and terror” at the time he wrote it to “familiarity and contempt” in his old age, so he continued to withhold the work. Maurice Hall also defies the class system, for his sexual partner is a gamekeeper on a college classmate’s estate. Given the rigid penal code of the time, the novel is also about criminality.
Aside from his sexual orientation, Maurice resembles his creator very little, being rather ordinary in intellect, little drawn to the arts, and rather robust physically. Whereas Rickie Elliot had been effeminate, his deformed foot a symbolic impediment to satisfactory heterosexuality, Maurice seems quite “normal” to his friends. His college friend Clive Durham, leaning somewhat to homosexuality in college, ironically changes after an illness and a trip to Greece, and marries. The Durhams are gentlefolk, though somewhat reduced, and Maurice has gotten on well with them, but Clive’s marriage drives a wedge between them. After indulging in, and apparently escaping from, a furtive but passionate affair with Alec Scudder, their gamekeeper, Maurice suffers a blackmail threat from his former lover, but in the end Alec proves true, and instead of emigrating with whatever conscience money he might have extracted, Alec returns to the Durham estate, where, in the boathouse, the two come together again. At the end, Maurice’s revelation to the conventionally horrified Clive leaves the latter trying “to devise some method of concealing the truth from Anne”—his wife.
Maurice demonstrates Forster’s conviction that the desire for loving human relations is proof against the snobbery of all social classes. Although it could not be printed when it was written, the novel now seems more dated than Forster’s other works, perhaps because its style is plain and drab. It obviously suffers from its lack of a contemporary audience, although Forster showed it to Lytton Strachey and received some constructive advice. Significantly, when Oliver Stallybrass, the editor of the Abinger Edition of Forster’s works, assembled his favorite quotations from Forster, he could find nothing in Maurice worth including.
A Passage to India
Although Forster committed himself wholeheartedly to friendship, it cannot be called the central theme of any of his novels until A Passage to India. The friendship of Rickie Elliot and Stewart Ansell, while vital to the former’s development and self-discovery, is subordinated to the theme of brotherhood, in its familial sense, and Rickie can find no basis for friendship with Stephen. The incipient friendship of Margaret Schlegel and Ruth Wilcox is aborted by the latter’s death. A Passage to India, while treating of brotherhood in its largest sense, is at heart a novel of friendship and its possibilities in the context of a racially and religiously fragmented society.
Beginning with the visit to India of the mother and fiancé of Ronnie Heaslop, the young colonial magistrate, and the complications of their encounters with a few educated natives, the narrative comes to focus on the friendship that as a consequence waxes and wanes between the English schoolmaster Cyril Fielding and the young Muslim Dr. Aziz. Forster dedicated the book to another Anglo-Indian friendship: his own with Syed Ross Masood, who first knew Forster as his tutor in Latin prior to Masood’s entrance to Oxford in 1906, and who provided the impetus for Forster’s own initial passage to India a few years later. Since Anglo-Indian prejudice was one of the loquacious Masood’s favorite subjects, Forster understood it well by the time he came to write the novel. Indeed, his friendship with Masood demonstrated the possibility of such a relationship surviving the strains imposed on it by one partner’s determination to pull no punches in discussing it.
Aziz, accused by Ronnie’s fiancé, Adela Quested, of assaulting or at least offending her (for she remains vague about the matter throughout) in a cave they were exploring, is a less masterful and self-confident figure than Masood, and the reader knows all along that there must be some mistake. Adela has seen how Ronnie’s Indian service has exacerbated the weaker aspects of his character, and she has broken off their engagement, but she is not, as Aziz affects to believe, a love-starved female— at least not in the crude sense Aziz intends.
Forster draws an unforgettable picture of the tensions between the colonial rulers and the Indian professional class. The most idealistic Englishmen, it seems, succumb to the prevailing intolerance. It is an effort to consider the natives as human, as when Ronnie, told by his mother, Mrs. Moore, of her meeting with a young doctor, replies: “I know of no young doctor in Chandrapore,” though once he learns that his mother has actually been consorting with a Muslim, he identifies him readily enough.
An exception to the rule is Fielding, already over forty when he came to India and a continuing believer in “a globe of men who are trying to reach one another.” When Aziz’ trial divides the community more openly and dangerously than usual, Fielding supports the young doctor—a move that assures the enmity of the English without guaranteeing the affection of the skeptical Indians. After Adela withdraws her charges against Aziz, the intimacy between the two men reaches its height; almost immediately, however, they quarrel over Aziz’ determination to make his tormentor pay damages.
Fielding cannot persuade Aziz to show mercy, but Mrs. Moore can, even though she has left the country before the trial and in fact has died on her return passage. For the sake of the mother of the detested man whom Aziz still believes Adela will marry, he spares the young woman, knowing that the English will interpret this decision as an indication of guilt. With Adela finally gone, Aziz mistakenly assumes that Fielding, now contemplating a visit to England, intends to marry her himself. When the friends meet again two years later, the old frankness and intimacy has been shattered. Although Fielding has married, his bride is the daughter of Mrs. Moore.
The final chapter is a particularly excellent one. As Aziz and Fielding ride horses together, the former vowing that they can be friends but only after the Indians “drive every blasted Englishman into the sea,” the horses swerve apart, as if to counter Fielding’s objection. Not religion, land, people, even animals want the friendship now. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that under imperial conditions no rapprochement is possible.
Much of the interest in this novel has centered on Mrs. Moore, a rather querulous old woman with a role not much larger than Mrs. Wilcox’s in Howards End. Although she joins the roster of Forster’s admirable characters who defy the taboos that divide people, she refuses to involve herself in the Aziz trial. Nevertheless, the Indians make a legend out of her and invest her with numinous powers. Critics have tended to regard her as a more successful character than Mrs. Wilcox. Part of the explanation may lie in Forster’s decision to allow the reader to see her not only at first hand but also through the eyes of the Indians. If their view of Mrs. Moore is partly illusion, the illusion itself—like the more familiar illusions of the English—becomes itself a part of the truth of the situation. It is one of Forster’s virtues that he knows and communicates the often conflicting values and attitudes of native Indians.
Nor is the Indian version of Mrs. Moore completely illusory, for in addition to her openness and candor, Mrs. Moore in one respect surpasses all the Europeans, even the gentle Fielding. She loves and respects life, especially unfamiliar life. It is illuminating to contrast her attitude with that of two incidental characters—missionaries who live among the people and never come to the whites’ club. They measure up to their calling very well for Forster clergymen, allowing that God has room in his mansions for all people. On the subject of animals they are not so sure; Mr. Sorley, the more liberal of the two, opts for monkeys but stumbles over wasps. Mrs. Moore, more alert to the native birds and animals than she is to many people, is even sympathetic to a wasp (“Pretty dear”) that has flown into the house. It is doubtless significant that the wasp is very different from the European type. Long after she is gone, Professor Godbole, Aziz’ Hindu friend, remembers her in connection with the wasp. Love of humble forms of life, which the other Westerners in the novel notice only as irritations if at all, is for the Indians of Forster’s A Passage to India a reliable indication of spirituality.
The sensitivity of Mrs. Moore and the goodwill of Fielding seem like frail counterweights to the prevailing cynicism and prejudice that stifle the necessarily furtive social initiatives of well-intentioned victims such as Aziz. If these flawed but genuine human beings have little impact on the morally bankrupt society in which they move, they have for more than half a century heartened readers of like aspirations.
Other major works
Short fiction: The Celestial Omnibus, and Other Stories, 1911; The Eternal Moment, and Other Stories, 1928; The Collected Tales of E. M. Forster, 1947; The Life to Come, and Other Stories, 1972; Arctic Summer, and Other Fiction, 1980.
Plays: Billy Budd, pb. 1951 (libretto; with Eric Crozier).
Nonfiction: Alexandria: A History and a Guide, 1922; Pharos and Pharillon, 1923; Aspects of the Novel, 1927; Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, 1934; Abinger Harvest, 1936; Virginia Woolf, 1942; Development of English Prose Between 1918 and 1939, 1945; Two Cheers for Democracy, 1951; The Hill of Devi, 1953; Marianne Thornton: A Domestic Biography, 1797-1887, 1956; Commonplace Book, 1978; Selected Letters of E. M. Forster, 1983-1985 (2 volumes; Mary Lago and P. N. Furbank, editors); The Feminine Note in Literature, 2001.
Miscellaneous: The Abinger Edition of E. M. Forster, 1972-1998 (17 volumes; Oliver Stallybrass, editor).
Beauman, Nicola. E. M. Forster: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
Bradshaw, David, ed. The Cambridge Companion to E. M. Forster. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Edwards, Mike. E. M. Forster: The Novels. New York: Palgrave, 2002.
Furbank, Philip N. E. M. Forster: A Life. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.
Gardner, Philip, ed. E. M. Forster: The Critical Heritage. New York: Routledge, 1997.
McDowell, Frederick P. W. E. M. Forster. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982.
Rapport, Nigel. The Prose and the Passion: Anthropology, Literature, and the Writing of E. M. Forster. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.
Stone, Wilfred. The Cave and the Mountain: A Study of E. M. Forster. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1966.
Trilling, Lionel. E. M. Forster: A Study. Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1943.