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.

The Apostles who in 1901 exacted honesty in their debates spoke out about the taboo subject of homosexuality. Furbank thinks that by this time Forster must have known that his upbringing had made him homosexual by temperament. The “love-affair” with his mother must have ruled out any possible attraction to other women. And

It would seem likely that, partly as a result of the traumatic experience at his prep school, the onset of puberty had brought with it very strong sexual inhibitions—so much so, that for much of his youth and early manhood, physical sex played very little part in his conscious thoughts; he did not have much in the way of erotic fantasies, or, if he did, they were infantile ones.

Even when he succeeded in breaking through his inhibitions, Forster does seem to have been a man of low temperature sexually. The homosexual affections he felt at Cambridge were platonic. The aftermath of the Oscar Wilde trial made gossip about homosexual practices secretive. Mr. Furbank gives this portrait of him at the time when he had struck Lytton Strachey as being “a taupe” [i.e. a mole]:

he was drab-coloured and unobtrusive and came up in odd places and unexpected circles. There was something flitting and discontinuous about him; one minute you were talking with him intimately, the next he had withdrawn or simply disappeared. He was freakish and demure, yet at times could be earnestly direct, as if vast issues hung upon simple truth-telling. And all the time there was something hapless or silly-simple about him; friends likened him to Henry VI…. Yet there was a queer sureness about him, a super-quick sensing of immediate situations, and—in flashes—an extraordinary sweep of human understanding.

In the next ten years Forster lived the decorous life of the intellectual with his mother in their suburban villa. He had no particular career in mind, but he had begun to write. He satisfied his social conscience by teaching Latin in the wellknown Working Man’s College in Bloomsbury where many distinguished men had given their time, and he worried about the cultural snobbery of autodidacts like the Leonard Basts of pre-1914 Britain. At home the “haze of females” appeared: he dropped tea trays but he was an excellent pianist. He visited relations. He was tutor for a while in Germany to the children of the hilariously devouring authoress of Elizabeth in her German Garden; and astonished a German tutor with his belief that telephone wires were hollow. And then—as was de rigueur in his circle—he went off with his mother on momentous cultural tours to Italy and Greece where he, like the ladies of these expeditions, was frugal with his tips and sharply cut them down if any porter or servant complained. (He lived frugally all his life but was wildly generous to his friends and to causes.) On these sentimental journeys in which the Edwardian tourists colonized the pensions and small hotels with their snobberies, moralizings, and their cultural bitching, he became expert in malice.

He, of course, had read up on everything, knew his painting and sculpture, his temples and palaces, and he was a vivid diarist. Pages of dialogue went into the notebooks from which A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread were written. But Italy played its ancient trick on him. At Cambridge he had easily shed the Christian religion. Italy confirmed the pagan. His imagination came to life. He experienced almost mystical vision or at any rate sensations of the presence of some primordial and universal beckonings and fatality. The stories of The Celestial Omnibus are slight but they relate the devastating effect of metamorphosis upon people dulled or mutilated by respectability. The characters of Where Angels Fear to Tread are forced to face pagan passion which is without mercy, and situations in which dull human nature is stripped of pretenses and is or is not liberated by acts that shock the foundations of their merely social morality. Good and evil are interlaced.

Forster succeeded at once as a novelist. His originality as an observer of character and his daring as a moralist were recognized by the best judges. Howards End was a triumph. Here we meet Forster’s fear of success, the fear of future sterility. Acclaim put him at a loss for a new subject. There was, he knew, a secret forbidden subject for the truth-teller: his scarcely achieved homosexual desires. All he could do was to console himself by writing erotic stories which he eventually tore up. He was determined to speak out, a good deal because D.H. Lawrence attacked him when they met. He made the disastrous decision to write Maurice—disastrous as a step forward in a novelist’s life because the book would be unpublishable under British law at that time and would hang like a dead albatross round his neck; even more disastrous because his own experience was distinctly more wishfully sentimental than real. Yet he had to meet the self-accusation that he had been “tea-tabling” about heterosexual love and marriage while being both a misogynist and an outsider. Lytton Strachey was among those who read the privately circulated manuscript and he saw much to admire. But he wrote:

I should be inclined to diagnose Maurice’s state as simply lust and sentiment—a very wobbly affair; I should have prophesied a rupture after 6 months—chiefly as a result of lack of common interests and owing to class differences…and so your Sherwood Forest ending appears to me slightly mythical…. I think he [Maurice] had still a great deal to learn, and that the très-très-noble Alec could never teach it to him. What was wanted was a brief honeymoon with that charming young Frenchman who would have shown Mr. Eel that it was possible to take the divagations of a prick too seriously.

We know what followed: he turned to excellent literary criticism and politics. His liberal circles at Cambridge and in Fabian Bloomsbury were hostile to British imperialism in Egypt and India; he wrote for The Independent Review and The New Statesman; and at the core of his thought was his belief in the primacy of personal relationships: imperialism created the “bad heart,” the crude duty of shutting out intimacy with the ruled. He could afford to travel and, egged on by Masood, a genially fantastic, willful, and mocking undergraduate who was the ward of the foremost Mohammedan in India, he went on his first trip to India in 1912 to soak himself in Indian sights and life.

In Mr. Furbank’s prolonged accounts of Forster’s Indian experience, Forster’s engaging letter to his mother enliven a narrative that might otherwise be mere record. One notes that his physical sexual liberation was not to occur until 1916 during the First World War, when he struck out again and worked for the Red Cross in Egypt. Alexandria was the scene of his bizarre, touching, astonishing affair with Mohammed, a miserably poor tram conductor. Strachey would not doubt have called it a “divagation,” but it was well documented by Forster’s own notes and in them appears as the happy conflict of the two mocking yet feeling dignities—the dignities of the rich and the abysmally poor. (Rarely in biography do we hear what people really say to each other, but here Furbank can tell us.) Forster felt sexually released; and he had broken through the barriers of class and race. The story of his generous care for Mohammed and of his wife is strange and very moving. After the war was over and Forster had to leave, Mohammed died of illness brought on by the hopeless struggles of the Egyptian poor. Forster had to conceal his breakdown at the news of the death from his mother. One notices his own stern break with his own tears: “a thing is what it is, and not another thing.”

Being away from his mother for three years and released from “sexual apprenticeship,” Forster returned to find himself under his mother’s power once more. They agreed eventually that he might spend two nights away in London every week, but on each free day he sent her a chatty postcard! His dependence on her irked him less as he grew older and his fame as a writer was settled, but we notice the irony. With her, rather than with any man, he was making “the longest journey” which had made the idea of marriage to a woman horrifying. When she died in 1945 at the age of ninety and he was sixty-six, he wrote to J.R. Ackerley, whose portrait is incidently very good in this book:

I wonder whether women are important to one’s comfort and stability. I am inclined to think they may be. Although my mother has been intermittently tiresome for the last thirty years, cramped and warped my genius, hindered my career and buggered up my house, and boycotted my beloved, I have to admit that she provides a sort of rich subsoil where I have been able to rest and grow. That, rather than sex or wifiness, seems to be women’s special gift to men.

Still, if he dared not speak out to his mother, he did have one female confidant, the wife of a professor, who was eagerly sympathetic with his homosexual life, a harbinger of contemporary clear-headedness.

Piquant asides relieve the long chronicle. On the serious matter of Forster’s second visit to India at the moment of political crisis in 1922 and the writing of Passage to India Mr. Furbank is very discerning. He gives full attention to the situation in India and to the often angry protests made by distinguished Anglo-Indians, who fell upon Forster’s mistakes. He admitted his errors. He agreed that he had only been in India eighteen months in all, but always argued that a novel cannot be judged by its “fairness.” He wrote to Lowes Dickinson:

Isn’t “fair-mindedness” dreary! A rare achievement, and a valuable one, you will tell me, but how sterile in one’s own soul. I fall in love with Orientals, with Anglo-Indians—no: that is roughly my internal condition, and all the time I had to repress the consequences, or fail to hold the scales. Where is truth? It makes me so sad that I could not give the beloved a better show. One’s deepest emotions count for so little as soon as one tries to describe external life honestly, or even readably. Scarcely anyone has seen that I hoped Aziz would be charming….

An interesting point made by Furbank is that the influence of T.E. Lawrence is marked in the final chapters of the book. Forster admired Lawrence and feared a gang of right-wing people might get hold of him in time.

The diverting and richest aspect of the second visit is the account, drawn from Forster’s letters, of his time as the secretary of the delightful, comic, and utterly incompetent Maharajah of Dewas, whose palace and kingdom were falling to pieces. The Maharajah hated catamites though his court was alive with their intrigues, jokes, and whisperings. In a panic Forster got up the courage to confess his tastes to the Maharajah and expected to be sacked. The Maharajah was surprised and felt sorry for him, and rather than encourage him to console himself with masturbation—a great evil because it was lonely—ingeniously arranged for him to have an affair with a court barber. Barbers could come and go without scandal. The comedy is picaresque and instructive.

Further comedies were to occur in Cockney London later on in Forster’s life, in a strange local community in which the police had jolly private relations with a lot of minor crooks and others living cheerfully by their wits. This time the British class barrier was broken. It is not surprising that Forster regretted he had written Maurice before he really knew his subject. The comedy here was harmless. The pity is that it came too late for the novelist. He had become a natural teacher: it was noticed that one or two hefty and wild characters put on solemn cultural airs after their minds had been awakened by his puzzling company.

Forster’s own judgment was that the affections were dominant in the working class: they were easy about sex, but were not interested in the passion of love. This, one must say, is very sweeping. Yet in this time Forster did have his closest and lasting emotional friendship with Bob Buckingham, then a solid policeman, and his young wife. Just before Forster died Bob apparently denied that the friendship was homosexual and the matter is a mystery, for his wife assumed it was. A strange reversal of the affections occurred in this relationship which has a bearing on Forster’s outstanding characteristic—he was generous with money and considerate to a fault: his feeling for the delicacies of personal relationships was tender and endless—and it was the wife who understood him and cared for him when the husband seemed to be bored and cool. The only thing that irritated her was that Forster was untidy and had been used to being waited on by servants.

Why, after Passage to India, did Forster write no more novels? He wrote plays that have been lost and, of course, his important Aspects of the Novel and the famous Two Cheers for Democracy. He played a leading part in campaigns for civil liberties and for intellectual freedom in the Thirties and after. Furbank thinks that although he was a rationalist, Forster was superstitious about the dangers of success. Having been “royally favored” as a child he had magical feelings about his own life and would naturally “have irrational fears at the realization of very deep wishes.” More practically, Forster himself saw that, being homosexual, he had grown bored with writing about love and marriage and the relations of men and women. He must also have felt that in Maurice he had written about a homosexual love affair as a substitute for having one. It is probable, Mr. Furbank thinks, that he had, though not in the vulgar sense, “only one novel in him”—“I mean that he received his whole inspiration—a vision, a kind of plot, a message—all at once, in early manhood.”

Still more important, the social types which “ruled his imagination” were those of his Edwardian youth—which had been made almost brutally out of date by the two wars which destroyed them. Changes move fast today for the novelist. The common idiom lasts scarcely more than a decade. Also, ruthless as Forster was as a moralist, he had no great powers of invention. Perhaps also one must grant that although his private means did not make him idle, they encouraged his conscience to seek too many targets. Yet his strength as a teacher lay in the refusal to be “great.” He had the almost magical, gnomic power of making himself inconspicuous while facing with pluck—another favorite word of his—the desperate state of our world.

This Issue

October 12, 1978