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 …

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