E.M. Forster: A Life
by P.N. Furbank
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 656 pp., $19.95
It has often been said that the British venerate old age. The sins of the ancient are forgiven for they have become “characters”—a national ideal. Even the talented survive their inevitable denigration: they have freed themselves from the national obsessions with social obligation and the virtue of worry. This is true of E.M. Forster who lived until he was ninety and who had become a kind of wayward holy man by the time he was seventy: a status he would hardly have achieved in France, for example, where old age is often publicly derided. Perhaps the British cult is simply Victorian for the Victorians solemnly sought to get over youth as quickly as possible and assume elderly airs—children died like flies—and here one must note that the famous liberal, humanist, rationalist intellectuals seem to have had a gift for longevity. One can argue, of course, that they were all born whimsical and elderly; this was sometimes the impression given by Forster who was elderly when he was a boy and in many ways schoolboyish to look at when he was old: the tweed cap too small, the sleeves of the shabby jacket too short, the shoes neglected as he skipped across to King’s College chapel at Cambridge to hear the Sunday singing. He looked like a whim.
More decisive suggestions appear in Mr. Furbank’s biography which, while not ignoring Forster as the psychological and social “case” or strange “instance” he certainly was, re-creates him and his succeeding circles of friends in close chronological detail and illuminates the intimate life that ran, often underground, with his public career as a novelist, critic, essayist, and figure of controversy. So much critical work has been done about him that it is a relief to see the man himself. He was at once comically drab and intensely alive, and so fresh in the offhand private voice speaking in the public place where it disconcerted because it dodged conventional utterance. The voice was the most important thing about him and his prose; it was unofficial, conversational, free of jargon, and dropped a dissident but carefully timed word or two of Edwardian slang into the emotive moments of argument. One or two of these malign words stick in the mind: certain kinds of thought and action did not “pay”; or about his own kind of merit in which he liked to be that problematical racehorse, a possible “cert.”
Mr. Furbank’s Life is long perhaps for a writer whose abstentions were long, but Forster’s life was filled by seminal friendships with the eminent in literature, politics, the universities, and high administration; with Maharajahs, coolies, busmen, barbers, policemen, casuals, and soldiers and—it strikes one—perhaps the largest collection of female relatives any famous writer has ever had. The oddity is that this range of aunts, cousins, and connections came to a man who was shy and even timid, and yet drastic in moral courage, kind but tart when irritated …