E.M. Forster, Middle Manager


In the taxonomy of English writing, E.M. Forster is not an exotic creature. We file him under Notable English Novelist, common or garden variety. Still, there is a sense in which Forster was something of a rare bird. He was free of many vices commonly found in novelists of his generation—what’s unusual about Forster is what he didn’t do. He didn’t lean rightward with the years, or allow nostalgia to morph into misanthropy; he never knelt for the Pope or the Queen, nor did he flirt (ideologically speaking) with Hitler, Stalin, or Mao; he never believed the novel was dead or the hills alive, continued to read contemporary fiction after the age of fifty, harbored no special hatred for the generation below or above him, did not come to feel that England had gone to hell in a hand-basket, that its language was doomed, that lunatics were running the asylum, or foreigners swamping the cities.

Still, like all notable English novelists, he was a tricky bugger. He made a faith of personal sincerity and a career of disingenuousness. He was an Edwardian among Modernists, and yet—in matters of pacifism, class, education, and race—a progressive among conservatives. Suburban and parochial, his vistas stretched far into the East. A passionate defender of “Love, the beloved republic,” he nevertheless persisted in keeping his own loves secret, long after the laws that had prohibited honesty were gone. Between the bold and the tame, the brave and the cowardly, the engaged and the complacent, Forster walked the middling line.

At times—when defending his liberal humanism against fundamentalists of the right and left—that middle line was, in its quiet, Forsterish way, the most radical place to be. At other times—in the laissez-faire coziness of his literary ideas—it seemed merely the most comfortable. In a letter to Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, Forster lays out his casual aesthetics, casually:

All I write is, to me, sentimental. A book which doesn’t leave people either happier or better than it found them, which doesn’t add some permanent treasure to the world, isn’t worth doing…. This is my “theory,” and I maintain it’s sentimental—at all events it isn’t Flaubert’s. How can he fag himself to write “Un Coeur Simple”?

To his detractors, the small, mild oeuvre of E.M. Forster is proof that when it comes to aesthetics, one had really better be fagged: the zeal of the fanatic is what’s required. “E.M. Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot,” thought Katherine Mansfield, a fanatic if ever there was one. “He’s a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain’t going to be no tea.” There’s something middling about Forster, he is halfway to where people want him to be. Even the compilers of The BBC Talks of E.M. Forster, an exhaustive collection of broadcasts between 1929 and 1960, find it necessary to address the middlebrow elephant in the room:

Forster, though recognized as a central player in his literary milieu, has been classed by most cultural historians of this period as secondary to Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, or T.S. Eliot…relegated not quite to the lesser lights of modernism, but perhaps to the “middle lights,” if we might invent this term.

Conscientious editors, they defend their subject fiercely and at length. It feels incongruous—never was there a notable English novelist who wore his status more lightly. To love Forster is to reconcile oneself to the admixture of banality and brilliance that was his, as he had done himself. In this book that blend is perhaps more perfectly represented than ever before. Whether that’s a good thing or not is difficult to say.

At any rate, what we have here is a four-hundred-page selection of the talks Forster delivered over the wireless. The great majority of them were about books (he titled the series Some Books); a quarter of them concern—and were broadcast to—India and its people. Scattered among the remainder is a miscellaneous hodgepodge of topics that tickled Forster’s fancy: the Great Frost of 1929, the music of Benjamin Britten, the free wartime concerts given in the National Gallery, and so on.

The tone is resolutely conversational, frothy, and without academic pretension (“Now you have to be cool over Yeats. He was a great poet, he lived poetry, but there was an element of bunkum in him.” “What is the use of Art? There’s a nasty one”), the sort of thing one can imagine made T.S. Eliot—also broadcasting for the BBC during this period—sigh wearily as he passed Forster’s recording booth on the way to his own. Eliot was very serious about literary criticism; Forster could be too, but in these broadcasts he is not, at least not in any sense Eliot would recognize. For one thing, he won’t call what he is doing literary criticism, or even reviewing. His are “recommendations” only. Each episode ends with Forster diligently reading out the titles of the books he has dealt with, along with their exact price in pounds and shillings.

In place of Eliot’s severe public intellectual we have Forster the chatty librarian, leaning over the counter, advising you on whether a book is worth the bother or not—a peculiarly English aesthetic category. It’s a self-imposed role entirely lacking in intellectual vanity (“Regard me as a parasite,” he tells his audience, “savoury or unsavoury who battens on higher forms of life”), but it’s a mistake to think it a lazy or accidental one. Connection, as everyone knows, was Forster’s great theme; between people, nations, heart and head, labor and art. Radio presented him with the opportunity of mass connection. It went against his grain to put any obstacle between his listeners and himself.

From the start, Forster’s concern—to use the parlance of modern broadcasting—was where to pitch it. Essentially it was the problem of his fiction, writ large, for he was the sort to send one manuscript to Virginia Woolf, another to his good friend Sergeant Bob Buckingham of the Metropolitan Police, and fear the literary judgment of both. On the air, as it was on the page, Forster was never free from the anxiety of audience. His rupture from his Modernist peers happens here, in his acute conception of audience, in his inability not to conceive of an audience. When Nora Barnacle asked her husband, “Why don’t you write sensible books that people can understand?,” her husband ignored her and wrote Finnegans Wake. Joyce’s ideal reader was himself—that was his purity. Forster’s ideal reader was a kind of projection, and not one entirely sympathetic to him.

I think of this reader as, if not definitively English, then of a type that abounds in England. Lucy Honeychurch of A Room with a View is one of them. So are Phillip Herriton of Where Angels Fear to Tread and Henry Wilcox of Howards End and Maurice Hall of Maurice. Forster’s novels are full of people who’d think twice before borrowing a Forster novel from the library. Well—they’d want to know—is it worth the bother or not? Neither intellectuals nor philistines, they are the kind to “know what they like” and have the “courage of their convictions,” though their convictions are not entirely their own and their courage mostly fear. They are capable of cruelty born of laziness, but also of an unexpected spiritual greatness, born of love. The right book at the right moment might change everything for them (Forster only gave the credence of certainty to love). It’s worth thinking of these cautious English souls, with their various potential for greatness and shabbiness, love and spite, as Forster’s radio audience: it makes his approach comprehensible.

Think of Maurice Hall and Alec Scudder, settled by their Bakelite radio waiting for the latest installment of Some Books. Maurice, thanks to his superior education, catches the literary references but, in his suburban slowness, misses much of the spirit. Alec, not having read Wordsworth, yet grasps the soul of that poet as he listens to Forster recount a visit to the Lake District, Wordsworth country:

Grey sheets of rain trailed in front of the mountains, waterfalls slid down them and shone in the sun, and the sky was always sending shafts of light into the valleys.

Early on, Forster voiced his determination to plow the middle course:

I’ve had nice letters from people regretting that my talks are above them, and others equally nice regretting that they are below; so hadn’t I better pursue the even tenor of my way?

Well, hadn’t he?


I’ve made up an imaginary person whom I call “you” and I’m going to tell you about it. Your age, your sex, your position, your job, your training—I know nothing about all that, but I have formed the notion that you’re a person who wants to read new books but doesn’t intend to buy them.

But here Forster is too humble: he knew more of his audience than the contents of their passports. Take his talk on Coleridge of August 13, 1931. A new Collected is out, it’s a nicely printed edition, costs only 3/6, and he’d like to talk to us about it. But he senses that we are already sighing and he knows why:

Perhaps you’ll say “I don’t want a complete Coleridge, I’ve got ‘The Ancient Mariner’ in some anthology or other, and that’s enough. ‘The Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan’ and perhaps the first half of ‘Christabel’—that’s all in Coleridge that really matters. The rest is rubbish and not even good dry rubbish, it’s moist clammy rubbish, it’s depressing.” So if I tell you that there are 600 pages in this new edition, you’ll only reply “I’m sorry to hear it.”

Still—600 pages makes one think.

The first half of Christabel—how perfect that is, and how it makes one laugh. A mix of empathy and ventriloquism fuels the comic engines of his novels; here in the broadcasts it’s reemployed as sly technique, allowing Forster to approach the congenital anti-intellectualism of the English from an oblique angle, one that flatters them with complicity. Here he is, up to the same thing with D.H. Lawrence:

Much of his work is tedious, and some of it shocks people, so that we are inclined to say: “What a pity! What a pity to go on about the subconscious and the solar plexus and maleness and femaleness and African darkness and the cosmic battle when you can write with such insight about human beings and so beautifully about flowers.”

Have you had that thought? Don’t worry if you have, so has E.M. Forster. Still, it’s a mistake:

You can’t say, “Let’s drop his theories and enjoy his art,” because the two are one. Disbelieve his theories, if you like, but never brush them aside…. He resembles a natural process much more nearly than do most writers…and one might as well scold a flower for growing on a manure heap, or a manure heap for producing a flower.

It’s a gentle correction, but a serious one, aimed democratically at both listener and speaker. And like this, pursing a gentle push and pull, iron fist hidden in velvet glove, Forster presses on in his determined, middling way. He’s educating you, but surreptitiously, and unlike the writings of his childhood hero, Matthew Arnold, it never feels painful. The leggerezza of his prose lightens every load. Speaking on June 20, 1945, Forster outlines Arnold’s more muscular approach:

One of his complaints against his countrymen was that they were eccentric and didn’t desire to be anything else. They didn’t want to be better informed or urbane, or to know what is great in human achievement. They didn’t want culture. And he flung at them another of his famous accusations: Philistines. The Philistine is the sort of person who says “I know what I know and I like what I like and that’s the kind of chap I am.” And Matthew Arnold, a Victorian David, slung his pebble bang in the middle of Goliath’s forehead.

Forster was no pebble slinger. For him, not only the means but also the aims were to be different. It really didn’t matter to Forster if a fellow had read Yeats or not (he is consistently sentimental about the unlettered: peasants, sailors, gardeners, natives). But to deny Yeats, because he was not to your taste, or to deny poetry itself, out of fear and incomprehension—that mattered terribly. The only philistinism that counted was the kind that deforms the heart, trapping us in an attitude of scorn and fear until scorn and fear are all we know. On February 12, 1947, recommending Billy Budd, Forster finds an unlikely ally in Melville:

He also shows that…innocence is not safe in a civilization like ours, where a man must practice a “ruled undemonstrative distrustfulness” in order to defend himself against traps. This “ruled undemonstrative distrustfulness” is not confined to business men, but exists everywhere. We all exercise it. I know I do, and I should be surprised if you, who are listening to me, didn’t. All we can do (and Melville gives us this hint) is to exercise it consciously, as Captain Vere did. It is unconscious distrustfulness that corrodes the heart and destroys the heart’s insight, and prevents it from saluting goodness.

Undemonstrative distrustfulness is what Lucy Honeychurch feels toward George Emerson, what Phillip Herriton feels in Italy, what Maurice Hall feels for his own soul. Forster nudges his characters toward a consciousness of this weakness in themselves; they do battle against it, and win. They learn to salute goodness. Sometimes this is achieved with delicacy and the illusion of freedom, as it is in A Room with a View; at other times, in Maurice, say, happiness arrives a good deal more dogmatically (though no less pleasurably). But it is always Forster’s game by Forster’s rules. In radio, though, each man’s consciousness is his own. There are no Lucy Honeychurches to play with—only nameless, faceless listeners whose sensibilities can only be guessed at, only assumed.

In the anxiety of this unfamiliar situation, a comic novelist, with his natural weakness for caricature, is apt to assume too much. The broadcasts suffer from empathic condescension: Forster is unconvinced that we might also, like him, be capable of a broad sympathetic sensibility. Recommending two memoirs, one by Sir Henry Newbolt (patriotic, public school adventurer with “a touch of the medieval knight about him”) and another by Grant Richards (a “gay and irresponsible” fin-de-siècle journalist who “loves Paris with a fervour”), he predicts two camps of readers, split by sensibility, unable to understand each other:

Mr Grant Richards is a very different story. The title he has given his memoirs proves that: he calls them Memoirs of a Misspent Youth…. Like Sir Henry Newbolt he is a friend of Rothenstein and was fond of birdsnesting, but those are the only bond between them…. The atmosphere of the book one might call Bohemian, and if you find yourself in complete sympathy with Sir Henry Newbolt you won’t care for Memories of a Misspent Youth, and vice versa.

There is an element of the nervous party host in Forster; he fears people won’t speak to each other unless he’s there to facilitate the introduction. Occasionally his image of the general reader is almost too general to recognize. Who dreads philosophy so much they need easing into Plato like this?

The word Plato has rather a boring sound. For some reason or other “Plato” always suggests to me a man with a large head and a noble face who never stops talking and from whom it is impossible to escape.

Who’s (this) afraid of The Magic Flute?

It’s a lovely book,1 I implore you to read it, but rather unluckily it’s based on an opera by Mozart. I say “unluckily” not because the opera is bad, it is Mozart’s best, but because many readers of the book won’t have heard of the opera, and so won’t catch on to the allusions. You’ll have to be prepared for some queer names.

No one reading these words, perhaps. On the other side of the class and educational divide—a line that so preoccupied Forster—it’s easy to forget what it’s like not to know. Forster was always thinking of those who did not know. He worries that simply by having this one-way conversation he pushes the Alec Scudders in his audience still further into the shadows. Frequently he asks the (necessarily) rhetorical question “And what do you think?” We can be sure that Eliot, in the next booth over, never asked that. But isn’t there a point where empathy becomes equivocation? Can’t you hear Henry Wilcox, fuming: “Good God, man, it’s not what I think that matters! I’m paying my license fee to hear what you think!”

Henry would want a few strong opinions, the better to repeat them to his wife and pass them off as his own. Forster does have strong opinions to offer. At first glance, they seem the sort of thing of which Henry would approve:

I like a novel to be a novel. I expect it to be about something or someone…. I get annoyed. It is foolish to get annoyed. One can cure oneself, and should. It is foolish to insist that a novel must be a novel. One must take what comes along, and see if it’s good.

But halfway through that paragraph Forster has given Henry the slip.

In the foreword to this volume, P.N. Furbank calls Forster “the great simplifier.” It’s true he wrote simply, had a gift for the simple expression of complex ideas, but he never made a religion of simplicity itself. He understood and defended the expression of complexity in its own terms. He was E.M. Forster: he didn’t need everyone else to be. Which would appear the simplest, most obvious principle in the world—yet how few English novelists prove capable of upholding it!

In English fiction, realists defend realism and experimentalists defend experimentalism; those who write simple sentences praise the virtues of concision and those who are fond of their adjectives claim the lyrical as the highest value in literature. Forster was different. Several times he reminds his listeners of the Bhagavad Gita and in particular the advice Krishna gives Arjina:

But thou hast only the right to work; but none to the fruit thereof; let not then the fruit of thy action be thy motive; nor yet be thou enamoured in inaction.

Forster took that advice: he could sit in his own literary corner without claiming its superiority to any other. Stubbornly he defends Joyce, though he doesn’t much like him, and Woolf, though she bemuses him, and Eliot, though he fears him. His recommendation of Paul Valéry’s An Evening with M. Teste is representative:

Well, the very first sentence is illuminating. “La bêtise n’est pas mon fort.” Stupidity is not my strong point. No it wasn’t. Valery was never never stupid. If he had been stupid sometimes, he would no doubt have been more in touch with the rest of us, who are stupid so frequently. That was his limitation. Remember on the other hand what limitations are ours, and how much we lose by our failure to follow the action of a superior mind.

Forster was not Valéry, but he defended Valéry’s right to be Valéry. He understood the beauty of complexity and saluted it where he saw it. His own preference for simplicity he recognized for what it was, a preference, linked to a dream of mass connection. He placed no particular force behind it:

And it’s Mister Heard’s2 sympathy that I want to stress. He doesn’t write because he is learned and clever and fanciful, although he is all these things. He writes because he knows of our troubles from within and wants to help with them. I wish he wrote more simply, because then more of us might be helped. That, really, is my only quarrel with him.


Occupying “a midway position” between the aristocrat’s memoir and that of the bohemian, Forster recommends As We Are, the memoir of E.F. Benson (“The book’s uneven—bits of it are perfunctory, but bits are awfully good”). He finds one paragraph particularly wise on “the problem of growing old” and quotes it:

Unfortunately there comes to the majority of those of middle age an inelasticity not of physical muscle and sinew alone but of mental fibre. Experience has its dangers: it may bring wisdom, but it may also bring stiffness and cause hardened deposits in the mind, and its resulting inelasticity is crippling.

Is it inelasticity that drives English writers to religion (Greene, Waugh, Eliot), to an anti-culture stance (Wells, Kingsley Amis, Larkin), to the rejection of accepted modes of literary seriousness (Wodehouse, Greene)? Better, I think, to credit it to a healthy English perversity, a bloody-minded war against cliché. It’s a cliché to think liking Chaucer makes you cultured (Larkin and Amis defaced their college copies of The Canterbury Tales); a commonplace to think submission to God incompatible with intellectual vitality. Then again it’s hard to deny that in many of these writers a calcification occurs, playful poses become rigid attitudes. Forster feared the sea change. In the year Forster finished broadcasting, in the same BBC studios, Evelyn Waugh submits to an interviewer interested in his “notable rejection of life”:

Interviewer: What do you feel is your worst fault?

Waugh: Irritability.

Interviewer: Irritability with your family? With strangers?

Waugh: Absolutely everything. Inanimate objects and people, animals, everything….

Forster worked hard to avoid this fate, first through natural inclination and then, later, by way of a willed enthusiasm, an openness to everything that itself skirts perilously close to banality. He did not believe in the “rejection of life,” whether for reasons of irritability, asceticism, intellectual fastidiousness, or even mystical attachments. He quotes approvingly a discussion, from the novel The Magic Flute, between Jesus and Buddha:

Lord Buddha, was your gospel true?”

True and False.”

What was true in it?”

Selflessness and Love.”

What false?”

Flight from Life.”

In the wartime broadcasts in particular Forster gets into life, though with difficulty: one senses in more peaceful times he would have left the public speaking to those more suited to it. Passing H.G. Wells in the street in the early Forties, Forster recalls Wells

calling after me in his squeaky voice “Still in your ivory tower?” “Still on your private roundabout [carousel]?” I might have retorted, but did not think of it till now.

During the war Forster got onto his own roundabout, broadcasting mild English propaganda to India, ridiculing Nazi “philosophy” from the early 1930s onward, attacking the prison and police systems, defending the Third Program, speaking up for mass education, the rights of refugees, free concerts for the poor, and art for the masses. Recognizing that “humanism has its dangers; the humanist shirks responsibility, dislikes making decisions, and is sometimes a coward,” he was anyway determined to hold faith with the “failed” liberal values so many of his peers now jettisoned:

Do we, in these terrible times, want to be humanists or fanatics? I have no doubt as to my own wish, I would rather be a humanist with all his faults, than a fanatic with all his virtues.

Forster, an Edwardian, lived through two cataclysmic wars, watched England’s transformation from elegant playground of the fortunate few to the mass factory of everybody. And still he kept faith with the future. In the greatest of his broadcasts, “What I Believe,” a much longer piece absent from this volume, he sympathizes with our natural reactionary instincts, but doesn’t submit to them: “This is such a difficult moment to live in, one cannot help getting gloomy and also a bit rattled, and perhaps short-sighted.” As our present crop of English novelists gets rattled, Forster’s example begins to look exemplary.

On Forster’s centenary, again in the same studio, another notable English novelist good-humoredly recognizes his own U-turn, motivated by gloom:

Interviewer: In 1964…you said you felt that British culture was the property of some sort of exclusive club and you’d always bitterly resented that fact; I get the impression from certain things you’ve written recently that you now resent the fact that it’s not the property of an exclusive club any longer….

Kingsley Amis: (laughing) That’s right, yes….

But Forster was clever about even this kind of literary insincerity:

The simple view is that creation can only proceed from sincerity. But the facts don’t always bear this out. The insincere, the half sincere, may on occasion contribute.

Lucky for the English that this should be so! On October 3, 1932, Forster considers a critical study of Wordsworth, a writer who, like Amis, “moved from being a Bolshie…. to being a die-hard.” The study argues that Wordsworth “had a great deal to cover up,” having had an affair and an illegitimate child with a French woman, Annette Vallon, all of which he kept hidden. Back in England he made a hypocritical fetish of his own Puritanism and lived “to be a respectable and intolerant old man.” Something calcified in Wordsworth: he ended up hating the France he’d loved as a youth, becoming a “poet of conventional morality” more concerned with public reputation than poetry itself.

Forster too had a good deal to hide and kept it hidden; one feels in his attention to the Wordsworth story the recognition of a morality tale. It is almost as if, with the door of his private sexuality firmly closed, Forster willed himself to open every window. This curious inverse effect is most noticeable in the honesty and flexibility of his criticism. On his affection for Jane Austen: “She’s English, I’m English, and my fondness for her may be rather a family affair.” On a naval book that celebrates the simplicity of the sailor’s life: “I don’t know whether I am overpraising the book. Its values happen to coincide with my own, and one does then tend to overpraise.” He is gently amused to learn of J. Donald Adams’s (then editor of The New York Times Book Review) suspicion of the recent crop of American fiction:

The twenties and thirties of this century were unsatisfactory, Mr Adams thinks, because they contributed nothing positive; they pricked holes in the old complacency (like Sinclair Lewis) or indulged in private fantasies (like James Branch Cabell) or played about frivolously like Scott Fitzgerald.

Here’s the funny thing about literary criticism: it hates its own times, only realizing their worth twenty years later. And then, twenty years after that, it wildly sentimentalizes them, out of nostalgia for a collective youth. Condemned cliques become halcyon “movements”; annoying young men, august geniuses. Unlike Adams, Forster had the gift of recognizing good writing while it was still young. Enthusiastically he recommends Rosamund Lehmann, William Plomer, Christopher Isherwood. And it’s only 1932! He defends their modern qualities against English nostalgia:

If they still believe in what Keats called the holiness of the heart’s imagination, then aren’t we with them, and does it make any difference to us that they don’t use Keats’ words?

Which reminds us of the simplest and greatest pleasure of this volume: Forster gets it right, often. He’s right about Strachey’s Queen Victoria, right about the worth of H.G. Wells and Rebecca West and Aldous Huxley; right about Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” and Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. Sitting on a 1944 panel titled “Is the Novel Dead?”3 he is right to answer in the negative.

The editors of his BBC talks, making heavy weather of it, claim that “Forster’s talks engaged and helped shape British culture.” I imagine Forster would have been surprised by that statement, and perplexed by their concern for his literary status. He thought the words “highbrow” and “lowbrow” “responsible for more unkind feelings and more silly thinking than any other pair of words I know.” He was not the sort to get riled up on that subject. He was a popular novelist. Who could say he didn’t know his craft! And not in the workaday way Somerset Maugham knew his. There’s magic and beauty in Forster, and weakness, and a little laziness, and some stupidity. He’s like us. Many people love him for it. We might finish with what Forster himself would say about these talks, what in fact he did say:

There is something cajoling and ingratiating about them which cannot be exorcised by editing, and they have been the devil to reproduce.

But Forster was always a little too humble, a tad disingenuous. His talks are humane and charming, like everything he wrote, and on top of that, they’re good fun to read, and if not quite right for a lecture hall, perfect for a lazy afternoon in an armchair. The title again, for those who missed it: The BBC Talks of E.M. Forster. The price is $59.95.

  1. 1

    He refers to the narrative version by Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson (1920).

  2. 2

    The book recommended is The Social Substance of Religion by Gerald Heard (1931).

  3. 3

    The other panelists: Desmond MacCarthy, Rose Macaulay, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and Philip Toynbee.