E.M Forster writes, “As a rule, if a writer has a romantic temperament, he will find relationships beautiful”. This statement encapsulates the optimistic truth that Forster asserts in his literature about the nature of humanity. Considered by some critics to be one of the greatest moralists of his time, Forster directs his attention to flaws in character which affect personal relationships.
E.M Forster was a prominent English novelist, essayist and short-story writer. His works display an enormous depth of insight into the human condition.
Edward Morgan Forster was born in London on January 1,1879, the only son of Edward Morgan Llewellyn Forster, a descendant of prominent members of the Clapham sect, an evangelical group of social activists and Alice Clara (Lily) Whichelo Forster. His father, an architect who had studied with Sir Arthur Blomfield (Thomas Hardy’s mentor), died unexpectedly in 1880.
The baby was left in the care of his mother, his maternal grandmother, Louisa Whichelo and his paternal great-aunt and godmother, Marianne Thornton, who financed his education and became his benefactress.
The Bloomsbury Group
In 1893 mother and son moved to Tonbridge where Forster attended the local school from 1893 to 1897. He was very unhappy there. In 1897 he joined King’s College, Cambridge and came into contact with many people who exercised a profound influence on his work. During his final year there, Forster became a member of the Apostles society, which was later to be known as the Bloomsbury Group. It was a literary, artistic and intellectual society which carried out its activities in the Bloomsbury area of London. Among its members were such notable figures as Virginia Woolf, the novelist. Lytton Strachey, the biographer, Clive Bell, the art critic and John Maynard Keynes, the influential economist.
In the aftermath of his departure from Cambridge, Forster travelled extensively across Italy and Germany in the company of his mother. This travel provided the setting and material for his early novels which satirize English tourists abroad.
His literary career started in 1903 with his contribution to the Independent Review, a Bloomsbury Group periodical of liberal ant-imperialist sympathies. In 1905, Forster tutored the children of Countess van Arnim in Germany and returned to England for the publication of his first novel Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905). He taught Latin at Working Men’s College and lectured on Italian art and history for the Cambridge Local lectures Board. In 1906 he became a tutor and developed strong ties with Syed Ross Massood, an Indian Muslim patriot. The longest Journey (1907), Forster’s second novel, A Room with a View (1908) and Howards End (1910) established him as one of England’s leading novelists.
Forster visited India for the first time in 1912. Two visits followed in 1921 and 1945. During World War I he spent three years in Egypt. He published three minor works: The Government of Egypt (1921), Alexandria: A History and a Guide (1922) and Pharos and Pharillon (1923). In 1924 Forster published A Passage to India, his final “and most critically acclaimed novel”. He started working on the novel in 1913, and after a huge gap, completed it after his return from India.
Attack on Hypocrisy
He inherited a house from his aunt in West Hackhurst, near Dorset, and lived there with his mother until her death in 1945. He delivered Clark Lectures at Cambridge and published them as Aspects of the Novel (1927). In 1936, Forster published his first collection of essays. Arbinger Harvest – A Miscelleny, an attack on the hypocrisy and self-righteousness he attributed to the British mentality.
He visited America in 1945 and delivered lectures at Harvard University. Forster wrote two biographies Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson (1934) and Marianne Thornton (1956), collaborated with Benjamin Britten and Eric Crozier on the libretto for the opera Billy Budd (1951) and published his second collection of essays, Two Cheers for Democracy (1951) and an “uneven collection of letters and experiences from India in The Hill of Devi (1953)
Forster received significant recognition for his literary achievements. Queen Elizabeth II awarded him membership in the Order of Compassion of Honour to the Queen (1953). In 1960, Santha Rama Rau adapted A Passage to India for the theatre. The play was staged in London for one year and then opened on Broadway where it ran for a hundred and ten shows. Most critics believed that the play was inferior to the novel but Forster was pleased with the adaptation.
On June 7, 1970, he breathed his last at the home of Bob and Marley Buckingham in Coventry. He had two works published posthumously, Maurice (1971), written in 1913 but not released until the public disclosure of his homosexuality and The Life to Come and Other Stories (1972), fourteen stories that reveal much about his private inner life.
The Outsider as Narrator
Critics agree that Forster’s finest achievements were his novels. Therein the plot is given less importance than the conflict of ideas and development of character. He achieves objectivity in many of his novels by having recourse to the figure of the outsider as narrator. His narrative style is straightforward, with events happening in logical sequence. Much of his work is a study of personal relationships. Personal emotion is elevated above social convention in most of his novels. Forster makes use of the recurring theme of society’s oppression of the individual’s characteristically generous and sensitive inclinations. The heart/conscience conflict is a major concern in many of Forster’s works. He constantly expresses opposition to racism and prejudice among individuals.
A Passage to India is considered to be E.M Forster’s artistic masterpiece. It was his last novel. The work is a sympathetic portrayal of the belief that once human beings are prisoners of mythology, it is very difficult to alter the way they think. They have to transcend the elements of culture that imprison them so that they may reach out to humanity.
The title of the novel is taken from American poet, Walt Whitman’s poem but “is its thematic antithesis”. Whitman envisions the total unity and spiritual connections of all people. Forster, for his part, suggests that this is impossible. A Passage to India illustrates the indifference of nature and humanity’s compulsion toward order. “The inarticulate world is closer at hand and readier to resume control as soon as men are tired”.
The works that followed took the form of literary criticism, general essays and biography. Perhaps his most well-known and influential volume of nonfiction is Aspects of the Novel in which he suggests that characters in a novel are either round, able to surprise the reader or flat, stereotypes or caricatures.
Music and Art
In most of Forster’s novels music and art became basic tools of communicating meaning. He believed that music was the deepest of arts and that it, more so than language, “would civilize the barbarian”. In A Room with a View, Reverend Arthur Beebe understands the nature of Lucy Honeychurch by the way she plays Beethoven. He is conscious of the depth of her passion and observes that, if she lived the way she plays, her life would truly be more exciting. A passage in Howards Enol explores the reaction of the audience to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and, ironically, makes clear the ineffability of a musical experience. Music displays an integrating power. It plays a powerful and evocative part in five of Forster’s works.
A Passage to India
The novel, a ‘liberal classic’, has a tripartite structure – mosque, caves and temple. The Marabar Caves section is the most puzzling. Goldworthy Lowes Dickinson, a number of readers and other reviewers of Forster’s works objected to the mystery of the Caves scene. In a letter dated June 26,1924, addressed to Dickinson, Forster writes, “In the cave it is either a man, or the supernatural, or an illusion. And even if I know! My writing mind therefore is in a blur here – i.e. I will it to remain a blur, and to be uncertain, as I am of many facts in daily life… It sprang straight from my subject matter”.
In The Hill of Devi, Forster states that he started A Passage to India on his first visit and took the opening chapters out with him on his second and more extended visit. They there went dead on him, and only after his return to England was he able to finish the book. The India depicted in the novel is primarily a pre-1914 India, the wartime gap would not have had much significance, for the World War had little effect on India, where the social and political pattern imposed by the British continued largely unchanged until almost the time of the ultimate withdrawal.
Part 1 takes place in the cold weather but by the end of it the heat has begun and the central crisis of part II takes place in the hot weather. Part lll takes place in the rains that brings to a close the cycle of the Indian year. In a brief but highly suggestive essay, Peter Burra has pointed out that the three parts resemble the movements of a symphony and certainly of all Forster’s novels this one most appropriately “aspires to the condition of music”, that art “deep beneath the arts” which he most values. The novel which is going to celebrate the hundredth year of its publication in 2024 still gives rise to a lot of debates and interpretations.
Malcolm Bradbury is of the opinion that as a writer Forster demands a personal connection between inner and outer worlds and demands that both society and humankind be whole. This accounts for the fact that his works focus on individual redemption and personal relationships, while, at the same time, they are very social novels.
- Grandson, K.W. M. Forster, London, Oliver and Boyd, 1962.
- Shahane, V.A. Focus on Forster’s “A Passage to India, Hyderabad, Orient Longman, 1975
- Evans, Charlene Taylor. M. Forster, New York, Salem Press Inc, 1993