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, and who to many seemed old-maidish. Mr. Furbank, a friend of a much younger generation, does not standardize his subject as a psychological case: he watches him live with perceptiveness and sympathy. He simply shows that Forster’s dilemmas are deeply entangled with the privileges and manners of the class into which he was born, with emotional fatality and the rewards of a slow self-discovery.
There is so much detail in this book that the reviewer has to skip many piquant things. In 1879 when he was born, an only child, Forster was the odd product of interlocking families of the prolific and very mixed Victorian middle class. The important ladies came variously from the rich banking Evangelicals, known as the Clapham sect, who had in the past been eminent in the antislavery movement and had followed the traditions of philanthropical Puritanism and liberalism. From Northumberland appear clerics who became Anglo-Irish and, in the course of generations, returned to Britain to comfortable livings—Forster thought he owed his independence and his imaginative gifts to the Irish and also a Welsh connection. Another strain was from a penniless, rather Bohemian family once distinguished in marine painting who ended as modest teachers with occasional hushed-up scandals and embarrassing connections with “trade.” There was present also a County connection led by a huntin’ and shootin’ uncle who was terrifying at the dinner table (his favorite battlefield), who had genially savage ideas about “making a man” of his nephew ad whose attitude to religion was “If the house is religious, wear your trousers out and pray like blazes.” The uncle was exceptional.
But by 1879 Forster’s relatives had become mainly part of the tame and snobbish semi-surburban class of independent means. They might be called the watered-down and villa-dwelling successors of the people in Jane Austen’s novels, formidable at tea, but without the iron of the eighteenth century or the raffishness of the Regency in them. The working class and the poor were “unthinkable.” Soon after Forster was born his young father died of consumption; a grandmother and aunts flocked to the rescue of the young mother who was proper, lively, capable, but in narrow circumstances. A duel was fought over the baby who was expected to be as frail as his father had been; he was therefore cossetted and spoiled and turned into a passionate and imperious child, a girlish mother’s boy who played with dolls and was made precocious by adult company.
The inner “sureness,” the adult air Forster carried throughout his life, was established for good; but he was not being equipped to survive the horseplay and bullying and the gang life of English boys at private schools. They were quick to spot a “muff.” E.M. were bad initials—they suggested calling him “Emmy.” A more serious and central situation developed between mother and son: they adored each other. He wanted to marry her, of course; and that delightful phase did not quickly fade. She refused—it is believed—to remarry because she doted on him, and his love for her embraced his long life. (She died when she was ninety and he was sixty-six and for a great deal of the time they occupied the same houses.) The hearty huntin’ and shootin’ uncle—and other uncles—complained of his stumbling helplessness and incompetence—he couldn’t even carry a tea tray without dropping it—and could see no future for him.
And then, there was the taboo subject of sex. When he was sent, rather late, to his first prep school, schoolboy smut puzzled him: at home his penis was known as his “dirty” and he thought of it as some kind of punishment; well, children do perhaps still stick to peculiar ideas, but this one lasted. (In later life he said that it was not until he was thirty, and after he had written three distinguished novels about love and marriage, that he understood how sexual intercourse took place.)
But a sinister initiation into sexual practice was experienced when he was eleven years old. While walking on the Downs he fell in with a middle-aged gentleman in a deerstalker hat and knickerbockers who had stopped to have a pee. The man asked the boy to play with his penis. The young Forster was startled by the man’s fierce-looking organ but politely did as he was told and was astonished by the result. The man also offered him a shilling which he refused. The boy ran back, frightened, to school and at once wrote home to his mother about it. She made him report the incident to a master at school, which he did. He was miserably embarrassed, the schoolmaster was inept. By now the boy was in a “hard and important mood,” enjoying the limelight there and at the local police station. He said boldly the man could easily be identified because his organ was “diseased.” The curious thing is that he had before all this told his mother about the “dirty trick” of masturbating. He was naïvely surprised by her distress and he decided he would never be frank again. “So ended,” he said, “my last chance of a confidant.” If he couldn’t talk to the adored mother, to whom on earth could he ever talk?
Mr. Furbank suggests that if the incident was forgotten it left a lasting pattern of panic and cross-purposes and that perhaps he returned to it in Passage to India where it became a model for Angela’s vengeful and confused behavior after she imagines she has been molested by Aziz. By his mid-teens Forster was no longer the imperious spoiled darling; he was a despised “day boy” at Tonbridge School—the hellish Sawston of The Longest Journey—an enemy of the Public School regard for leadership and the team spirit. He was already a prim, buttoned-up, and pedantic intellectual, widely read, demure, and a sharp judge of the character and snobberies of Tonbridge society. One or two clever boys thought he was certain to enter the church and become a bishop. He left school and, since his father had been an architect, he was taken by his mother on a tour of French cathedrals in France, the first of many continental journeys with her in the next years.
After the French cathedrals, freedom. A beloved great-aunt made a substantial trust on his behalf which would make him independent for life and in 1897 at the age of eighteen he went up to King’s College, Cambridge. He was, Mr. Furbank points out, no awestruck provincial: he would never have mistaken the famous gateway for medieval. If he fell in love with Cambridge, it would not be in the tragic fashion of those who were content to live ever afterward a scholar-gypsy life:
For good or evil Cambridge gave a special stamp to the careers [of the sons of the professional middle classes], prolonging boyhood and opening fresh vistas—of friendship, of intellectual self-fulfilment, of social climbing—at an age when for most of their contemporaries the choices had been made…. Cambridge cushioned his existence ever afterwards.
There he started the process of “finding himself”—a process which emotionally was to take an excessively long time, largely because of the possessiveness of his mother.
The main thing about Cambridge for him was that it was the place where things were valued for what they were in themselves and not for what use you could make of them. He was there in the G.E. Moore period and although, in Mr. Furbank’s view, too much has been made of Moore’s influence (Forster never read Principia Ethica), the epigraph stuck in his mind as the “idea of the Cambridge ‘truth’: ‘Everything is what it is, and not another thing.”’
The received ideas of Tonbridge vanished. Forster cut a dim figure at first but he had influential friends in the enormously assured Darwin family. In his fourth year he was intellectually fit to be elected to the “secret” society of the Apostles which after eighty years was entering a brilliant phase. Their arguments about “states of mind” and “what exactly do you mean?” bored him. (“Arguments,” he once said, showing that he was a novelist by nature, “are only fascinating when they are of the nature of gestures and illustrate the people who produce them.”) The university also confirmed in him a prejudice which had been established in Britain early in the nineteenth century. It is one which still haunts British life and was an aspect of liberal thought: the prejudice that the scholars, civil servants, and the professional classes were the successors of the landed aristocracy and were the people who ran Britain—not the businessmen, or indeed their workers, who merely made the country rich. It is a theme which, in his sternly self-critical way, Forster dramatized in Howards End.