This belated volume of E.M. Forster’s critical writings and opinions is at least the equal of Aspects of the Novel (1927), Abinger Harvest (1936), and Two Cheers for Democracy (1951), as well as far more amusing than these predecessors. The quality of the writing—compact, graceful, unobtrusively witty—is consistently of the highest. One only wonders how such bijoux can have remained scattered and unknown for so long.
The “tale” of the title is that of Prince Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa and his novel, The Leopard, the only piece in the collection with which the reader may be familiar, since it was published as a preface to the book. Forster read it in Italian first, and a single comment of his on the English translation is so sensitively observed that one regrets he does not discuss it at any length. Describing an intimate scene in which the peasant-girl mistress of the author’s de facto great-grandfather addresses her lover as “Principone,” Forster remarks that the word “combines the feudal with the erotic” in a way that “My Prince” does not.
An essay on Virginia Woolf’s earliest novels and stories confirms the largely negative verdict of Forster’s published criticism of the art of this close friend. She “cannot create character or, for that matter, tell a story or weave a plot,” he says, adding that her “chief characters are not vivid…when she ceases to touch them they cease, they do not stroll out of their sentences, and even develop a tendency to merge….” Orlando is “a fancy on too large a scale,” and “after the transformation of sex things do not go so well.” Kew Gardens has “no moral, no philosophy, nor has it what is usually understood by Form. It aims deliberately at aimlessness, at long loose sentences, that sway and meander….” Later, in his memorial lecture on the writer (published in Two Cheers), Forster had dismissed the “Invalid Lady” myth and emphasized the toughness: “She was always civilized and sane on the subject of madness.” He declares his preferences for her biographies, Roger Fry and (Elizabeth Barrett’s dog) Flush, but concludes that she will be judged by her novels alone, while allowing for the possibility that a new generation might discard them altogether as “tiresome.”
So it is all the more surprising to find in Two Cheers that Forster nominates Woolf, together with Lytton Strachey, T.E. Lawrence, D.H. Lawrence, and Joyce, as “the leading writers of our age” (1918-1939). He ventures only the single word “curious” on Ulysses, but quotes five hundred purplish ones on the death of Victoria from Strachey’s novelized biography of the Queen. Forster was apparently not considering continentals (Kafka, Musil) for this rather passé pantheon, and he seems to have been deaf to new voices (A Handful of Dust), as well as to Americans, apart from Sinclair Lewis, who happily “mistrusts the Y.M.C.A.” and is “against heartiness,” although, like other “quick, spontaneous writers,” he is “apt, when the spontaneity goes, to have nothing left.”
As might be expected, Forster is more enlightening on an English best seller, Jan Struthers’s Mrs. Miniver, than on any of Lewis’s books. He notes that “the little lady” of the title lacks “some grace or grandeur, some fierce eccentricity.” Her class, he writes, “strangled the aristocracy in the nineteenth century.” But now that “the castles are gone” and “we have to live in semidetached villas…let us at all events retain a Tradesman’s Entrance.” Coming from a writer who snipes at Woolf’s snobberies, this seems inconsistent, to say the least.
Forster believed that “good writing can only be learnt from good writing,” P.N. Furbank tells us in his elegant introduction. The subjects of this collection, however, are hardly confined to this ideal. Forster castigates the author of a book called Materials and Methods of Fiction for having read with too wide a catholicity, and for having “neither emotion nor taste, and so cannot provoke those qualities in others.” He quotes a paragraph from a biography by Sidney Lee hopelessly entangled in misrelated pronouns, and asks the reader to assign “the ‘his-es’ to their proper owners” before trying to push ahead. For comparison he praises a passage from one of Ouida’s letters for having “no hesitation, not a word out of place, the rhetoric rising naturally out of the emotion.” Even Proust, to whom Forster credits the “epic” of the early twentieth century comparable to Dante’s of the early fourteenth, does not escape grammatical and stylistic ridicule. A sentence “undulates and expands, parentheses intervene, like quick-set hedges, flowers of comparison bloom,” and “three fields off crouches the principal verb…making one wonder…what is its relation to the main subject… half a page back, and proving finally to have been in the accusative case.”
Furbank alerts us to Forster’s skill in taking his metaphors to what seems the furthest possible limit. A book of insipid poetry by Ella Wheeler Wilcox stimulates this side of his talent, viz.: here, he writes, “the quiet stream of her life joins the impetuous torrent of his at last, and they flow on together in one mighty river of broadening emotion towards the sea, whence…they will one day re-emerge in the form of dew….” In a review of an anthology called The Elizabethan Home, he asks: “Do you wish you had lived in the days of Queen Elizabeth?” and answers: “I am thankful to have escaped them.” The two great attractions of the age, he avers, are “lyric beauty and quaintness,” and the latter “disappears entirely when we form part of it.” The Queen, “a portentous figure shaped like a dinner-bell,” closed every vista. “The hard reverberations of this creature filled the air,…she made…rude metallic jokes,…she was a public virgin.” Spenser, Sidney, and Raleigh “accepted the dinner-bell as a solid woman; they did not venture to think. There was very little thought in those spacious times….” The Elizabethans “were at once too violent and too hazy to contribute much towards the development of the human mind.”
What they were responsible for was the discovery of continents, the exercise of “vigour and swagger,” and the emergence of an England that began “to splash and send ripples all over the world.” No more is said about the tinkly farthingale, but the absence of thought is neatly attributed to the choice of the other option: the Elizabethans “plumped for the native hue of resolution.”
Forster’s essays on Mrs. Gaskell and Ford Madox Ford should be read as supplements to Aspects of the Novel, which does not mention them. The former is acclaimed here as “a great Victorian novelist.” Her masterpiece, the unfinished Wives and Daughters, “believes in the goodness of human nature,” and Forster prefers the company of its heroine “to that of any fictional maiden of her century,” partly because “she learns from experience—quicker than any Jane Austen heroine.” He quotes the following exchange from the novel between an earl and a countess, who have not been mentioned hitherto:
“Preston’s a clever, sharp fellow.”
“I don’t like him,” said my lady.
“He takes looking after, but he’s a sharp fellow. He is such a good-looking man, too, I wonder you don’t like him.”
“I never think whether a land agent is handsome or not. They do not belong to the class of people whose appearance I notice.”
“To be sure not. But he is a handsome fellow: and what should make you like him is the interest he takes in Clare and her prospects.”
“How old is he?” said Lady Cumnor with a faint suspicion of motives in her mind.
As for Ford, his brief, hit-and-run The English Novel, in “The One Hour Series” published in 1929, is condemned as capricious, impertinent, cavalier in its treatment of facts, and irritating in its assumption of “the air of the repository of artistic traditions,” by which Forster can only mean the high court of opinion in all matters pertaining to the Flaubertian as well as the English novel. These defects are not offset by the book’s meritorious “swiftness” and its power to “aerate” our minds, or by a publisher’s blurb intended to forestall these objections by pretending that the author is not so much writing criticism as “thinking aloud.” But when Forster compares Ford’s survey of the English novel to an academic one, priggishly subtitled Intellectual Realism, from Richardson to Sterne, which, he grants, “delivers the goods,” he finds the academic work “dull, badly written, and conventional in its judgements.” It inclines us “neither to hear about Sterne nor to read Tristram Shandy,” Forster says, and he returns “with renewed appreciation to Mr. Ford.”
Like many other critics, Forster is at his funniest when reviewing the second- or third-rate. He dissects a literary corpse by Georges Clemenceau, the same who “urged millions to die” for France, writing that
the Tiger in 1898 was off his feed, so he turned out a novel…. Pinch the book where you will, and it does not move. Not only are the characters “dead”…being mere bundles of qualities, but the scenery, the social face of Paris, is also defunct…. He, to whom all sections of society must have been open, reads as if he had never been anywhere or seen anything…. Hum of life, vividness of details—he transmits neither.
The review of C.M. Doughty’s long narrative poem Mansoul would have to be quoted in full to give the full flavor of its fun. Forster reminds us that Doughty, whose Arabia Deserta was “sometimes praised but seldom opened,” was “highly but mysteriously spoken of by a small circle.” His prose is “gnarled, [but] what will be the fate of his verse?” he wonders, exhibiting an incomprehensible specimen:
Wherefore be those too much to blame, that pinch;
Of malice, rankling in ungenerous breast;
(Which might themselves a cattle-crib uneath
Devise:) at master-ártificers work;
And with the venom of crude lips, deface;
Who moved of hearts devotion, vows to Heavens
High Service a CATHEDRAL.
“What does ‘uneath’ mean?” he asks, and
why in the last line but one is there no apostrophe in “hearts” and “Heavens”?… One would renew the attempt to read it if, beneath the tiresomeness, there was a beautiful or intellectual general purpose. But no beauty or intelligence can be discerned in the general purpose of Mansoul. It is the old hackneyed business of a visit to the under-world—so tiring, such a getting downstairs, so dark, magic mirror, etc. First of all we meet the Kaiser, “a loathly leprosy blots his werewolf’s face,” then others of the dead. The conversation is such as is usual on infernal occasions. The shades ask the poet, with whom are associated two things called Mansoul and Minimus, how he came to be here while still alive, and he replies to them at length. Then they give their opinion on man’s destiny. Zoroaster, Confucius, Buddha, Socrates, and the other heavies each utter appropriate redes. To hear them we have to burrow backwards and forwards under the earth, sometimes tunnelling the Mediterranean.
Out of date as they are, the three pieces on H.G. Wells’s The Outline of History, written in 1920, are shrewdly observed. The book’s failure lies in its being “a history of movements, not of man.” Moreover, Wells “confuses information with wisdom, like most scientists.” But, “Who is to educate our scientists?” That is, who will teach them not to work for politicians and invent yet more terrible instruments of war? Further, Wells’s intelligence, which was always “both subtle and strong,… cannot quite supply his lack of imagination.” Wells’s principal complaint against the past is that it was so ill informed:
He notes the uneducated tendencies of the reptiles, who might have averted extinction had they taken appropriate steps…. The Chinese invented printing, but made no use of it owing to some mental blur. The Alexandrians had a library, but their books were shaped like pianola rolls, and consequently awkward to consult.
In all of Wells’s seven hundred pages, Dante is mentioned only once, and then in an irrelevant connection, hence Wells’s “ideas of what is supreme in human achievement can never coincide with ours.” But neither can Forster’s, when he names Shakespeare and Voltaire as the two people he would choose “to speak for Europe at the Last Judgment.” Not Shakespeare and Beethoven?
In Aspects of the Novel, Forster was rightly critical of D.H. Lawrence’s preaching and nagging, “so that in the end you cannot remember whether you ought or ought not to have a body, and are only sure that you are futile.” But the bullying—“I think you did make a nearly deadly mistake glorifying those business people in Howards End“—occupies for Forster only the foreground of Lawrence’s “blend of vision and vituperation,” while “his greatness lies far, far back…with a power of re-creation and evocation we shall never possess….”*
Not surprisingly, the piece in this collection about the debate, via pamphlets, between Lawrence and the Home Secretary, who had kept Lady Chatterley and its author’s paintings at bay, has lost all pertinence. But Forster fixes a common ground between them in their inability to define pornography. The Home Secretary “considers everything related to sex evil with one exception: marriage.” To turn from him to “the writer of genius” is “to turn from darkness into light,” Forster says. Lawrence “has dealt a blow at reformers who are obsessed by purity and cannot see that their obsession is impure.”
To make his point, Lawrence had quoted two poems, both obscene, with “devastating effect”: “My love is like a red, red rose,” and “Du bist wie eine Blume.” Whereas “Burns sends his emotions outwards to mingle with human beings and become passions,” Forster says, “Heine shuts his up in a circle of self-enclosure, where they fester.” Heine, not Burns, “is the modern man. He is a typical product of repression….” So the Home Secretary “wants to suppress everything except marriage, and Mr. Lawrence to suppress nothing except suppression….”
The section of book reviews is more diverting than the sections “Diversions,” “The Political Thirties,” “Memoirs,” and “The Arts in General”: Forster had an ear for music, but on the evidence no eye for painting. The best of the other pieces are on India, a subject on which “it is impossible to be too intricate.” All nine articles on its intricacies are still worth the time of anyone planning to visit the country. Even the earliest of them, on train travel in 1913, is apropos: now, as then, the iron horses do occasionally leave and arrive on time. The “trial of unpunctuality” is at intervals: “passengers forget to get in or those who are in forget to get out, and the train stops again while they alight screaming; or it stops for social reasons, so that the guard may chat with his friends….”
In declaring his bias toward Hinduism, Forster can sound like a disciple of Christopher Isherwood: “Hinduism, unlike Christianity and Buddhism and Islam, does not invite [a man] to meet his god congregationally; and this commends it to me”:
There often exists inside [the Indian temple’s] complexity a tiny cavity, a central cell, where the individual may be alone with his god…. The exterior of each temple represents the world-mountain, the Himalayas. Its top-most summit, the Everest of later days, is crowned by the sun, and round its flanks run all the complexity of life—people dying, dancing, fighting, loving—and creatures who are not human at all, or even earthly. That is the exterior. The interior is small, simple. It is only a cell where the worshipper can for a moment face what he believes. He worships at the heart of the world-mountain, inside the exterior complexity. And he is alone.
The uncharacteristic fervor reminds us that Forster believed the Maharaja of Dewas, for whom he worked as secretary for so long, and who was one of the loves of his life, to have been a saint.
Forster emphasizes the impossibility of drawing a definite line between Buddhism and Hinduism. The main issue between the religions, he says, is the social one of the caste system. By condemning caste, Buddhism became a “missionary religion,” and exported easily to China, Ceylon, Siam, Cambodia, Java, Japan, whereas Hinduism, “rooted in caste, tended to stay home.” Hinduism “modified Buddhism and complicated it.” He emphasizes the two religions’ similarities in a 1953 article extolling the Gupta period in Indian architecture—a “classic” in the sense of the word describing a norm or degree of perfection never established before or since—observing that Hindu and Muslim art occasionally blend together, as in a Muslim tomb near Golconda and the mosques of Ahmedabad.
In contrast, Forster writes in another essay, irenics in any form between Islamism and Christianity are unimaginable because of the “permanent stumbling-block” of the Trinity; the Mohammedan cannot logically “exchange his one God for a God who is both one and three.” Moreover, he tells us, the central mysteries of Christianity—“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son”—are actively repulsive to him. He is shocked by the idea that “God should love a world, that he should be a Father, and that he should allow his Son to die.”
Forster’s account of how he lost his Church of England faith, with which he seems never to have been overburdened, is gentle and low-key. When he was a boy, the Reverend Hutchinson told him and his widowed mother that “in the very next road there lived a man who did not believe in God called Mr. Huxley,” whereupon the young Forster “wondered whether the house of anyone so inconceivable would have a special shape.” Later he lost his Christian faith partly because of “the general spirit of questioning” associated with G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica. He also became aware of his lack of sympathy toward the character of Christ, having no “desire to meet [Him] personally,” and finding that his “preaching and threats…and absence of humour” contrasted unfavorably with “Krishna, that vulgar blue-faced boy,” who admits “pleasure and fun and jokes and their connection with love.”
Christ, furthermore, “is nearly always in pain…. The sufferings, we are told, are undergone for our sake, [but I hope that] none of this has been undertaken for my sake.” Christendom turned to the Virgin Mary in the Middle Ages because she gave birth to the child, “saw him grow up and saw him killed,” which is “immediately comprehensible” and “to which we can accord heartfelt pity.” But if there is such a thing as Salvation, it has now (1959) “disappeared from my thoughts, like other absolutes.”
The novelty in Forster’s review of a pamphlet by Tolstoy on poverty, and on property as the root of all evil, is Forster’s contention that the evil in possessions is simply that “they clog the life of the individual.” Furniture and ornaments, he says, are “wearisome forms of wealth—far more tiring than balances at the bank.” The present reviewer recalls an afternoon with him in his book-cluttered rooms at Cambridge, during which, between awkward pauses and hiatuses, he spent the entire time deciding which objects—the shabby William Morris armchairs, ancestral portraits, crocheted shawls, solitaire board—he could most readily do without. As he sat indulging in moral self-reproval, the reviewer thought of Isaiah Berlin’s description of him:
He is a gentle old creature who speaks in a low, low voice, giggles like a schoolgirl, and likes flattening subjects to the lowest level to which they can naturally attain if unsupported…. If you have tea with him, it is exactly like having tea with an excellent character actor pretending to be a distraught old aunt: “Oh dear, oh dear, where have I put my spectacles—what a lot of jam we have eaten! Electric torches are much more practical than candles, but I never know how to ask for the right kind of batteries.”
Disappointingly, The Prince’s Tale does not include the delightfully downplaying Introduction to the Aeneid in the Temple Classics Series (1916), in which Forster observes that Virgil himself was “greatly dissatisfied with the poem” and, besides, the hero, in the last six books, is “if possible, duller than ever.” Forster even questions its dedication to Augustus, since there was little in him “that should attract an elevated mind.”
May 6, 1999
After Forster’s three-day visit to the Lawrences in their Sussex cottage in February 1915, D.H. Lawrence wrote to Bertrand Russell: “There is more in him than ever comes out . We were on the edge of a fierce quarrel all the time . He seized a candle and went to bed, neither would he say good night.” ↩