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Forster’s Shadow

Selected Letters of E.M. Forster Vol. I: 1879–1920

edited by Mary Lago, edited by P.N. Furbank
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 344 pp., $20.00

Members of my literary generation first met E.M. Forster in the early 1930s. Before this, while we were undergraduates, he was a legend to us. Howards End seemed one of those books that make each reader a unique discoverer of its partly realistic, partly symbolic world. It was a novel of scrupulous prose realism about poetic reality, and contained hidden clues to the meaning of life. Although about human tragedy, it also seemed a guide to values that led to happiness. It was a key.

It was difficult to believe that Forster’s first novels were published between 1905 and 1910. When each of us, independently of the others, met Forster, it seemed even more difficult to associate the man with the work that we admired and yet felt was as remote from him as from us. He seemed to stand in the foreground at the edge of the plain of his whole life, which stretched back beyond the mountain range of the world war. In the furthest distance was a little compact four-peaked cluster of four novels, the highest peak of which was Howards End (1910)—a book that met with such resounding success when it appeared that, disconcertingly, Forster felt almost finished as a novelist by it. He thought he would never write another novel, and indeed did not do so until he wrote A Passage to India (1924), which everyone seemed to think would be his last.

A sign of being received into the inner circle of friends whom he trusted was when Forster sent one the typescript of his then unpublishable novel Maurice. This had the significance for him of having the subject—homosexuality—which concerned him greatly in his own life and about which he most wanted to write. It seemed to me strangely thin and one-dimensional, more like an extended version of one of his idyllic, wishful-dreaming short stories than like any other of his novels. But in some way Maurice must have seemed a final confessional revelation to him. He wrote to his Cambridge and lifelong friend Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson (December 13, 1914):

What’s to occupy me for the rest of my life, I can’t conceive. I am very glad to have got this done though it exhibits the emptiness of all literary achievement in rather an acute form.

If his fiction seemed to belong to its time, Forster himself seemed to belong to ours. His novels were in the past tense, he was wholly in the present. This was partly so because he was unassuming, unselfimportant—not that he did not realize that he was Forster, the man (first), author of the oeuvre (a remote second). With his peaked cap, rumpled clothes, somewhat undetermined features, and quizzical glance that seemed to ask whether you were someone who laughed at the same jokes as he did, he appeared in no way an Edwardian. He looked like some timeless Englishman up from the country, sitting in the corner of a railway carriage, completely of his own world, part of an England that was “a network of green lanes,” but perfectly alive to what was going on in London. He was laughingly tolerant of one’s most human feelings so long as they were personal and not of the vast, inhuman, public world. Yet at the same time there was something about that glance as judging as one’s uneasy conscience at 3 AM.

Each one of us was very glad to invite him to tea. (Somehow tea was his meal.) Standing or seated, he tended to disappear into the background of whatever room he happened to be in, producing some very funny remark accompanied by a kind of giggle that seemed, with its gaiety, to take him two steps backward. He was deceptively cozy but gave many people (myself most decidedly included) a sense of moral uneasiness a lot of the time. It was wonderful when we could feel caught up in his funniness or seriousness and forget the uneasy conscience he somehow gave us.

What made him seen a kind of conscience in the minds of his friends was that his day-to-day living—his physical appearance—seemed exactly of a piece with his silent but felt values, perhaps the most important of which was his conviction that material interests, subservience to authority, pomposity, even patriotism, stood in the way of the affection and human feelings he called “personal relations.” He was not a saint, not even an ascetic, though he was dead set against “conspicuous consumption.” He said of Cyril Connolly that he did not care for him because “he discredited pleasure.” Such a comment, made without malice, seems mild enough and yet there is something lapidary about it, like an epitaph on a tombstone: HE DISCREDITED PLEASURE. A man who can make mild asides that have a ring of finality about them is a bit alarming. In his novels also there is this penchant for attaching epitaphs rather than labels to characters. Thus Henry Wilcox: “telegrams and anger”; Fielding: “traveled light.”

Reading P.N. Furbank’s introduction to the first volume of Forster’s selected letters (to be completed in two volumes), I found myself a bit puzzled by his remark that reading them “we must not expect…to trace the creator to his lair, or to find ‘explanations’ of his novels.” If this is taken to mean that the letters throw no light on the novels or their creator at the time of creating, this seems exaggerated, to say the least. To take an obvious example, the letters from India (which are really journals sent home to be read by the circle of family and friends) set down the impressions of India and Indians that form the background to A Passage to India.

The letters do, however, leave the impression of there being a gulf between the novelist and the letter writer, not as though they were different beings but as though they were not synchronized, on different but parallel timetables. (Forster is said by Furbank to have thought that “the person or personality who sat writing his own novels was a quite distinct one…[who] ceased to exist the moment someone entered the room.”) Between 1910 and 1912, when the “novelist” Forster had already written his four early novels, which could be the complete body of work by a mature writer, the “man” seems almost a boy undergoing an extensive period of self-education.

He is painfully conscious of his inexperience. As late as June 1, 1917, in the letter to Florence Barger describing his first physical experience of sex (with a British soldier on the beach at Alexandria), he writes: “It isn’t happiness. It’s rather—offensive phrase—that I first feel a grown-up man.” The root cause of this time-lag in the mature novelist, who believed himself to have completed his literary work with Maurice in 1914, was his lack of any sexual experience until he was thirty-eight, in 1917.

After leaving Cambridge University in 1901, he settled down to sharing a house with his mother, with whom he also traveled in Italy. In 1905 he went to Nassenheide in Germany to become tutor to the daughters of the Countess von Arnim-Schlagentin, the Australian-born author of a famous book, Elizabeth and Her German Garden. He wrote amusing letters to his mother and to Cambridge friends describing his life in provincial Germany. The letters in fact contain many scenes of the socially observing kind that make his novels high entertainment. It is exceptional for the young Forster to offer at any length literary opinions such as these about Hardy, written to the wife of his Cambridge friend Malcolm Darling (September 24, 1911).

He’s a poet…and only comes to full splendour in his poems. In them his narrow view of human, and especially female, character doesn’t matter, and Wessex and Destiny at last stand clear out of the mist…. Even where I don’t read Hardy, I have idolatrous reverence for him. He is one of the few writers one trusts. What he said to a friend of mine is very illuminating: “I am a very stupid man.” He lacks the allround intelligence that one expects as a matter of course in this cultivated age—a lack that is often a sign of creative power. Michelangelo lacked, so did William S.; Goethe is the only genius who was not stupid.

One cannot read this without feeling that Forster is partly writing about himself: suddenly giving a glimpse of his belief in his own genius and, at the same time, his feeling that he is not as clever as his Cambridge friends.

There are marvelous passages in Forster’s letters but, on the evidence of those contained in this volume, he cannot be ranked as one of the “great” letter writers. One reason for this may be that he does not like the idea of “greatness” anyway (except in the work of Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, and Beethoven). His letters are not like those, say, of Keats, who runs in pursuit of his own poetic genius more than he keeps within the measure of comprehension of his set of friends in Hampstead. Forster is an egalitarian correspondent—always mindful of the limitations of his recipients’ concerns and interests—never putting across on them the fact that he is a genius.

Forster is, indeed, so conscious of the person to whom he is writing that often his letters absorb something of that person’s character. Letters to his mother seem to swim in vast reservoirs of intelligent but discreet intimacy. He is always worrying about her ailments. He keeps up the role of the very amusing only son in a household without a father. With the poet and scholar R.C. Trevelyan he writes as a colleague and fellow writer. But surely underneath this is an awareness that Trevelyan is a bit obtuse, though Forster accepts his criticisms of his novels with grace.

Forster the novelist appears in very few of these letters. Forster the son, nephew, friend is an assiduous correspondent. Forster the man pursuing his own psychological and sexual salvation is a shy but very determined creature who puts in intermittent appearances—with increasing desperation as he grows older. There is a moment in 1915 when he thinks D.H. Lawrence perhaps is his liberating angel. He writes to his crypto-homosexual and rather mystical pen pal, Forrest Reid (January 23, 1915),

Oh my dear Reid, I have been in the most awful gloom lately, and who do you think finally raised me from it? You will be so contemptuous of me. D.H. Lawrence. Not the novels, but their author, a sandy haired passionate Nibelung, whom I met last Thursday at a dinner party. He is really extraordinarily nice.

But within a month Forster is writing angrily to the Lawrences, man and wife (whom he described as “a firm”):

I like the Lawrence who talks to Hilda and sees birds and is physically restful and wrote The White Peacock, he doesn’t know why; but I do not like the deaf impercipient fanatic who has nosed over his own little sexual round until he believes that there is no other path for others to take, he sometimes interests & sometimes frightens & angers me, but in the end he will bore him merely, I know.

The tone of the letters alters entirely as soon as Forster sets foot in India in September 1912. This is partly no doubt because his letters from India form a journal for his mother and were intended to be circulated among various other relations (“a haze of aunts”). They were, too, to be kept for him to read on his return. They are essentially background notes of a most lyrical kind for A Passage to India, which he could not bring himself to write until twelve years later and which is above all a hymn to “personal relations” between himself and Indians, and a lament at their destruction by power, empire, officialdom, police—in a word the British Raj. It corresponds in Forster’s work perhaps to another passionate, loving, and lamenting paean—Rilke’s Duino Elegies.

A week after arriving in India he wrote a letter to Mary Aylward (October 30, 1912), which is the opening chord of his Indian idyll.

My time since I landed a week ago has been so marvellous that it will read like a dream. It has been one ceaseless excitement and surprise, and I have fallen straight into Indian (i.e. Native) life, which is a piece of luck that comes to very few Englishmen.

The experience of India was in fact prepared for him before he got there by his friendship with a young Muslim Indian, Syed Ross Masood, whom he tutored in Latin in 1906 and with whom, as his letters show, he coyly and frustratedly fell in love. India provided him with a kind of sensual vision, or vision of sensual life surrounding, almost engulfing him among, Indians, who had none of the emotional inhibitions of their British rulers. In this first letter he goes on to describe a banquet arranged for him by Masood, who was his host. The Indians in Masood’s village were so delighted to see Forster and his English companions, he wrote, that

they insisted we should eat their food at their expense, and prepared a sort of municipal banquet in the square. The Head man’s house had a broad arcade in front of it, in which they had ranged a row of beds for us to sleep on after lunch, and what I took to be a large bed to hold 10 little nigger boys all in a row, but this last was really the dinner table. The others squatted on it: I, being a heretic, could not squat, but perched on the edge, and in the middle was an extraordinary medley of food; you seemed to eat anything with everything or all at once…. After lunch we fell asleep on the beds, with the whole village looking on, and discussing us, but quietly, so as not to disturb us.

This is the Forsterian earthly paradise. India goes on being like it throughout his stay, and he relives it again in A Passage to India.

Perhaps the letter most revealing of Forster’s tragic sense during the First World War that all that was innocent, sensual, beautiful in the life of personal relations would be destroyed by the impersonal forces of the war is one to Lowes Dickinson, dated July 28, 1916, when Forster was unhappily working in Egypt as a member of the Red Cross. After a lyrical description of the convalescent young English soldiers on the grounds of the palace of the ex-Khedive which had been turned into the hospital where he was working, Forster goes on:

It is so beautiful that I cannot believe it has not been planned, but can’t think by whom nor for whom except me. It makes me very happy yet very sad—they came from the unspeakable, all these young gods, and in a fortnight at the latest return to it: the beauty of the crest of a wave…. I come away from that place each time thinking “Why not more of this? Why not? What would it injure? Why not a world like this—its beauty of course impaired by death and old age and poverty and disease, but a world that should not torture itself by organised and artificial horrors?” It’s evidently not to be in our day, not while nationality lives, but I can’t believe it Utopian, for each human being has in him the germs of such a world.

What strikes Forster more and more as the war goes on is the contrast between the public obsession with power and conquest and the private values of human personality which ought to be but are not capable of overcoming the public world.

How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

In another letter to Dickinson (Alexandria, May 5, 1917), he writes:

An observer from another planet who watched not only the earth’s wars but its public institutions would never infer what sweetness and nobility there can be in intercourse between individuals. Gulf between “private” and “public” has in the last three years grown dizzying, and thanks to scientific organisation more and more of men’s energy is diverted to the public side.

The peculiar kind of persistence, carried on with the force of genius of Forster, is constantly to measure the powerlessness of the people and values that he cares for—and that he carries around as his own private and personal self meeting the selves of others—against the destructive forces of the world of nation-hood and power politics. In these letters we read his own struggle, as a man and not as the novelist, to achieve fulfillment. The letters take us up to the point where at the age of thirty-eight he had sex, under slightly squalid circumstances, with a soldier. And later there was the worker on an Egyptian tram with whom he was in love. The reader may think such fulfillment a slightly comic anti-climax. But the anticlimax, one might suggest, was of the very essence of Forster’s climax.

At any rate that could be true of the man, as distinct from the novelist. And perhaps the story of the man was only a distorted shadow cast on a wall, in Cambridge or Alexandria, of the novelist who was the genius.

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