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Only Disconnect

Selected Letters of E.M. Forster Vol. II, 1921–1970

edited by Mary Lago, edited by P.N. Furbank
Harvard University Press (Belknap Press), 365 pp., $20.00

When Lionel Trilling wrote a short book of criticism about Forster’s novels—one of the earliest and best—he did not know about Forster’s homosexuality. The novelist in any case was still alive and so the subject could not have been mentioned. Our sexual climate has changed so quickly that it seems odd to remember this. The thing was taken for granted, of course, in his circle and in these letters to his friends, and mentioned no more frequently than sex itself would have been at a slightly earlier date. (As Philip Larkin puts it in a poem, “Sexual intercourse began / In 1963.”) A year or two earlier than that, I happened to mention the subject without thinking, in a piece on Forster’s novels, and was instantly sent a very sharp missive by the great man, requiring me never to do so again.

Trilling’s book gains, if anything, from the omission. And Wilfred Stone’s study, The Cave and the Mountain, does not suffer either. Forster and Stone had a ceremonious correspondence (“We talked of your research-projects, and I am concerned to think that I may be incommoding them”) and a “compromise” was worked out in 1957 which left the novelist’s privacy wholly intact. A positive advantage to Stone, who concentrated instead on the inner significance of the Marabar caves and hills, and thus added an illuminating chapter to Forster studies. Certainly one of the most haunting things in A Passage to India is Mrs. Moore’s reaction to her Marabar experiences, and here Forster seems to be using the mother figure both to test a blank experience and to protect himself against it. Mrs. Moore’s vastation and death are a curiously subtle revenge against the mother who could never be told anything, but on whom his emotional security continued to depend.

His long diary letters to his mother from India in 1921 are not of great interest, because they are seeing India through his mother’s eyes, as it were, and telling her what she would like to hear from him about it. In the second half of his life Forster became increasingly chameleonlike as a correspondent, where his mother was concerned rather touchingly so. At times does he not overdo it? Can she have been taken in when he sends her an account of Hardy’s funeral at Westminster Abbey in January 1928, remarking demurely that “it was very wonderful standing close to such great people for so long.” True, he is appropriately feline the next moment, noting that Kipling had been “dumped” between Ramsay MacDonald and Bernard Shaw and “did not seem to appreciate his position.” The mother motif returns when Forster is writing to Christopher Isherwood about The Ascent of F6, and how to mount the climactic scene with the ice mother at the top of the mountain: “You want something easy for the spectator, and the easiest is mother in white on ice-throne.”

By then Forster had long ceased to write novels, though occasional essays and puckishly evangelical pamphlets continued to flow from his pen. He frequently refers, and with a deliberative complacency, to the success of A Passage to India, and to his unexpected satisfaction with it. He knew how to retire on the crest of a classic, as it were, and from a position of acknowledged strength. But when mentioning A Passage in letters to friends he maintains his tone of cozy modesty. To William Plomer, who has just written a novel about London, he suggests that “some fallacy, not a serious one, has seduced us both, some confusion between the dish and the dinner.” They have both committed, he seems to be saying, what critics now call the “Fallacy of Imitative Form”—“I tried to show that India is an unexplainable muddle by introducing an unexplained muddle—Miss Quested’s experience in the cave.” William Plomer, a sharp, sensitive, and secretive man (he appears as the novelist St. Quentin in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart) very possibly did not care for the bland coupling of the “muddle” in Forster’s novel and in his own, but this dig may have been just what Forster intended.

When asked what happened” in the cave, he tells Plomer “I don’t know.” This ignorance may well arise from his disinclination in his public art to be specific about sex—his own kind or that of other people. If so it makes just the right kind of uncertainty, one that is in harmony with the theme of cave and mountain, and the strong narrative suspense line so brilliantly exploited in the trial proceedings and the broken friendship of Fielding and Aziz. Forster’s crypto-homosexuality turns out to be a very definite asset to the scope of the book. Women are jealous of male friendships, perhaps without knowing it, but they need men—Forster was always very insistent about this—more than men need them. His theory of homosexuality was very much a case of one law for the rich and another for the poor; lesbians had no status compared to male homosexuals, and his ideal setup, which he was later virtually to realize in his own living arrangements, was an attachment between himself and a working-class man with a warm-hearted and sympathetic wife who looks after both of them, loves her husband, and knows her place.

Such an idyll more or less takes place at the end of The Longest Journey, after Rickie’s self-sacrificing death. But though Fielding marries what seems a suitable wife—Mrs. Moore’s daughter—at the end of A Passage to India, the conclusion is more realistically somber. The friends will never be reunited; the two well-meaning women have caused trouble to themselves and others, actually more trouble than the unfeeling, race-conscious memsahibs. Forster achieves his own more subtle version of the old argument that English women have been the ruin of British India, and he can do it both because of his sympathy for women and his feeling that they bring division and crisis. They also represent a mystery, a natural mystery which he artfully turns into an “unexplained muddle” in a cave.

Such a lack of explanation is far more effective than it would be in modern novels, where it has become a fashionable technique; and the recent film of A Passage to India misses out not only on the mystery but on the humor, which is one of Forster’s greatest strengths. The drama of strong feeling is also absent from the film.

Forster’s first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread, is not only memorably dramatic but has deep feeling for the heroine Lilia and her unfortunate marriage to the handsome young Italian, Gino. Although Forster at that time probably did not realize it, he was himself in love with Gino, and hence could understand and convey with full sympathy his heroine’s infatuation.

Awareness of his sexual nature probably didn’t dawn fully until just before the war. During it, and while serving in the Red Cross in Egypt, he fell in love with a tram driver called Mohammed. His feelings were reciprocated, and Mohammed had a nice young wife, the first occurrence of a pattern more permanently repeated in England with a young policeman, Bob Buckingham, and his wife, May. Forster met Mohammed again, and for the last time, on his way back from India at the end of 1921. Submerged in family life, and suffering from tuberculosis, the Egyptian was still an affectionate and dignified figure, and Forster’s letters show how deeply he had been moved by the experience, and by being able to help him. Mohammed died and “went underground” for Forster for many years, returning in a letter written to P.N. Furbank, the coeditor of the present selection, shortly before Forster’s death at the age of ninety-one. Forster had found some of Mohammed’s old letters, with “all the things I most adore glimmering in them.”

The Egyptian episode was the most important in his emotional life, and it went with another of equal importance to his art and frequently mentioned in his letters—the encounter with Cavafy, the “Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing at a slight angle to the universe.” Something about Cavafy was important for A Passage to India, but like Mohammed himself he was a figure both too detached and too exotic to fit the cozy provincial pattern of Forster’s previous life and fiction. There are hints to several correspondents that selfknowledge made it impossible for him to write more novels for the open market, but paradoxically the homosexual stories and fantasies which he did then begin to produce from time to time, for his own pleasure and without any thought of publication, are far less convincing, in artistic reality, than his early novels. Forster was delighted when his new friend T.E. Lawrence—“Lawrence of Arabia”—who was then serving as a private in the Tank Corps, told him that one of these stories, “Dr. Woolacott,” was “the most powerful thing I ever read.” It is possible to disagree about this, though a story called “The Other Boat”—the account of an affair on a P & O liner between a young Indian and a British officer—certainly has real power.

Forster rarely discusses books, his own or other people’s, but one of the more interesting later letters contains a discussion with Lionel Trilling about Melville’s story “Billy Budd.” Forster was collaborating with Benjamin Britten on the opera, and was interested in Trilling’s use of the story in his novel The Middle of the Journey. He was intrigued by the inarticulacy of Billy, and this is significant, because the letters themselves, like the later stories, steer a curiously uneasy course between wishing to declare affection and “love,” and finding it easier to adopt a no-nonsense tone of elliptical banter. A strong belief in the need and duty to express loving feelings, as against the artist’s difficulty of finding the right words to do it, was probably the reason why he gave up writing novels. Naturally enough Forster was far more conscious than most other novelists of the extent to which “faking,” as he whimsically called it, is an important aspect of the art. When young he clearly enjoyed faking, for it gave his hidden emotions cover and free play, but by the time this correspondence begins, his experiences had determined him to live rather than to write, since there seemed to him to be, at that time, no way to write about the way he wanted to live. As is shown by Aspects of the Novel, the critical study based on the Clark lectures he gave at Cambridge in 1927, he was very conscious of D.H. Lawrence, whom he had met, and stood up against, in the early part of the war. Lawrence was direct and open, and by being such a direct and open crusader had implicitly discredited, and, as it seemed, dated, the kind of fiction Forster was able to write.

The odd thing is that his public did not forget him, or think the less of him. They thought all the more. Between the wars and after them his reputation continued to increase and he became a sort of legend, the antitype of the pompous, stiff-upper-lip Britisher, a comforting symbol of the fact that English culture did not depend upon the British empire. And unlike most other writers, when old he charmed the young ones: the letters to Britten and to Christopher Isherwood show why. Nothing unformal came amiss to him, not even Gerald Heard’s religiosity, which, as he demurely observes, “provokes snorts from the patriotic and squeals from the refined.” The more touching, in a sense, that he has as much difficulty in expressing devotion as the most tongue-tied and traditional Englishman of the Kipling era. His letters to Bob Buckingham, whom he loved deeply and who had become his great emotional refuge and standby, are a curious mixture of overdone old-fashioned slang and pernickety remonstrance. Bob is lectured to and slapped on the wrist for caring too much about the little boat he is building and not enough about “people.”

When the boat is finished and put away you’ll concentrate in the same way on something else, unless you decide to stop yourself. You have always cared more for things than people, and now this is rather running away with you, so much so that at present you do as little for other people as you can. My own faults lie in the opposite direction. I am too unselfish and soppy. So I suggest that from now onward we each try to occupy a more central position. This will do neither of us any harm.

To Forster this was doubtless the tone of manly candor to the beloved friend, but it must have been an irritating letter to get. Its censoriousness has an oddly military flavor, while reminding us too of Forster’s evangelical forebears; also of the fact that his generation, conditioned at school and home to intolerance and authoritarianism, found it easier to change the drive and direction of these habits than to get rid of them. The next to last letter in the selection censures Forster’s dead friend J.R. Ackerley for giving the impression in his books that he loved his dog more than his friends.

Mary Lago and P.N. Furbank have performed a labor of love, as before. Together with Furbank’s biography of Forster, their two selections of his letters, superbly annotated and indexed, will be invaluable to scholars of the period. For others there may be rather less of interest, but they can always go back to the novels themselves.

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