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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.