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Introduction to E.M. Forster: Overview of Life and Works

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  • 2:55 Where Angels Fear to Tread
  • 4:00 The Longest Journey
  • 5:19 A Room with a View
  • 7:29 Howards End
  • 8:47 A Passage to India
  • 11:07 Maurice
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stacy Redd

Stacy has taught college English and has a master's degree in literature.

E.M. Forster is one of the most celebrated British novelists of the 20th century. In particular, his depictions of class issues struck a chord with many readers - and continue to do so today. Watch this lesson for an overview of his six key novels!

Edward Morgan Forster

Okay, E.M. Forster. You can call E.M. Forster 'Baby 1879' - you don't have to; you can stick to E.M. Forster - but you can call him that because he was born on January 1st of 1879. He was the only child in his family. I'm an only child, too; I relate. He was actually named Henry Morgan at birth, which is not something that you can abbreviate with an E.M., but an accident during his baptism mistakenly gave him his father's name, which is Edward Morgan. The words 'baptism' and 'accident' are probably two words you don't want to hear together too often, but it's probably better than 'bris' and 'accident.' As far as baptismal accidents could go, this one wasn't too bad. H.M. Forster doesn't sound too good to me, anyway.

E.M. Forster's father died before he even turned two, so he was mostly raised by his mother. An inheritance from his wealthy great-aunt gave him enough income to pursue his passion of writing. I would love to have a wealthy great-aunt like that. It's a nice deal, if you can get it. Forster was a super-accomplished writer throughout his life; he knocked out several books of short stories, critical essays, a few biographies, a film script, and even a libretto from an opera. So, way to go E.M.! However, it's his novels that we continue to pay the most attention to even decades after his death and what we'll talk about today.

But that's jumping a little bit ahead for now. Let's talk E.M. Forster the early years. Forster was educated at the prestigious King's College in Cambridge, where he was an active member of a noteworthy discussion group called 'The Apostles.' After graduating college, he traveled Europe extensively (again, nice work if you can get it), which is important to remember because travel is going to feature heavily in a lot of his novels. He did most of his novel-writing in the decade or so following his graduation. All but one of his novels had been written (though not necessarily completed) by World War I when he volunteered for the Red Cross as a conscientious objector to the fighting. He ended up serving in Alexandria, Egypt, so even more travel.

His Novels

He sounds like a pretty interesting guy, right? He looks good on paper, and you haven't even heard about his novels yet! He published five novels during his lifetime; one was published after he died. Let's keep in mind a couple of related themes that keep appearing in his work: class and connectivity. In every one of his books, you can see that Forster is almost obsessed with breaking down monetary barriers to find some sort of unity within English society.

Another idea that keeps popping up a lot is travel, which shouldn't be a surprise. As you can see from his life, Forster really thought of himself as a citizen of the world - long before hipsters came around and made that term really annoying. With that in mind, let's go and look at each of his novels and examine how you can find the themes of class, connectivity, and travel in these different situations.

Where Angels Fear to Tread

Forster's first novel is called Where Angels Fear to Tread, and it was published in 1905. In it, there is an English widow named Lilia Herriton, and she falls in love with a younger Italian man while - yup - traveling. The two marry and have a child, but Lilia dies in childbirth - that's great. Her in-laws, a haughty upper middle-class family, are scandalized by these events. They're really obsessed with public appearance, and they don't like the way that this looks, so they decide to travel to Italy, and they're going to take the child from, what they consider to be, an uncivilized life. Long story short - and spoiler alert - things do not go very well, and the child dies, causing a drastic (and probably much needed) change in their family as far as what they value. They were a little too superficial before. Forster's first long-form work sets up a lot of the ideas that really play out through the rest of his career and his works. Most notable here is the reaction of Lilia's family, who really fear for the upbringing of her baby because they think it will seem improper.

The Longest Journey

Two years later, Forster released The Longest Journey. In this novel, an enthusiastic Cambridge student named Frederick 'Rickie' Elliot leaves school for a dreary teaching position offered up by his brother-in-law at a place called the Sawston School. He doesn't necessarily want to go, but his wife's constant insistence on being practical wears him down. Ah, nagging wives; over in America, you can see nagging wives in Rip Van Winkle, which was written around the same time. The influence of the nagging wife and her horrible family has other bad effects - like causing him to ignore his illegitimate and troubled half-brother, who is someone that society probably would have frowned upon greatly at the time. Rickie eventually decides to leave his wife and be with his brother, but then dies attempting to save his brother from being run over by a train while he's drunk (his brother's drunk, not Rickie). However, because he eventually leaves his oppressive wife to embrace his family, no matter how socially unacceptable his brother may be, Rickie's soul finds salvation at the end; he becomes a famous author after his death as a kind of reward. So, you can see the class issues and again connectivity of reaching out to someone even across social and economic barriers.

A Room with a View

In 1908, he released A Room with a View, which I like to call 'A Room with a View, a Staircase and a Pond,' because of a British comedian I really like and that's what he calls it. A Room with a View was actually the first novel Forster starting writing, even though it wasn't the first one that he published.

You can tell this because, like Where Angels Fear to Tread, this is another story about English tourists who travel to Italy. In A Room with a View, the young, well-off woman - whose name is Lucy Honeychurch (I don't know where these people come up with these names) - stays at the same Italian hotel as a man named George Emerson, who's from a peculiar, lower-class family. So, a well-off lady and a not-well-off man encounter each other in romantic Italy. What could possibly occur? That's right; they end up falling in love. They even have a romantic kiss in a field of poppies.

Lucy Honeychurch, like any proper fancy lady with a froufrou name, fights the attraction, especially because of the reaction of her more froufour-ier cousin, Charlotte. Charlotte does not approve of George or of the Emerson family. Lucy eventually returns to England and becomes engaged to a high-class but buffoonish gentleman. However, as chance would have it, Lucy runs into George again in England. Isn't that convenient? George, excited to see her, tries to woo her but has no luck. However, immediately after this encounter, she becomes incredibly frustrated and annoyed with her fiancé and breaks off the engagement. She eventually realizes her true feelings for George, and the two become engaged even though she does not have her mother's blessing. Apparently, that's a bigger deal then.

By the way, pretty much every Forster novel - except The Longest Journey - has been adapted into a movie at least once. You may have seen a couple of these. Some of these, like A Room with a View, were really popular and are worth checking out if you haven't seen them. Here's some fun trivia for you: Helena Bonham Carter (you might know her from the Harry Potter movies) has been in three of those five films. Spread that around and impress your friends.

Howards End

Anyway, so Forster's been interested in class relations this whole time. In 1910, one of his two most popular novels makes that fascination even more concrete than ever before. We're talking about Howards End, which is my personal favorite Forster novel (I'm excited to talk about this one).

The plot of Howards End is a little too convoluted to go into here; I recommend watching the video (and of course, reading it yourself). Here's what you need to know. There are three principle families in the novel: the wealthy Wilcoxes, the middle-class Schlegels and then the poor family - the Basts. The Schlegels, particularly the oldest sister Margaret, act as a link between the classes as they deal with issues, like inheritance, the working life and infidelity, which make it pretty exciting. When Forster's characters isolate themselves from the other classes, they suffer; when they embrace the other classes, it gets better (because he likes connectivity)! In the end, Forster really wants us to know that we have to reach beyond social and economic boundaries to make connections with people from all classes in life if we want to be successful and happy humans. That isn't a bad lesson, at all!

A Passage to India

After Howards End, Forster really didn't publish much for a while. He came back swinging in 1924, and he did so with a text that many people consider to be his definitive novel, A Passage to India. In Forster's final book published during his lifetime, he takes a sharp critique of the British class system and takes it on an international scale, embracing racial issues while he's at it. Why not? As you might guess from its title, this novel's set in India during the Indian independence movement from Britain of the 1920s. It's driven by a central question: can a white man and an Indian be friends? It maybe doesn't seem like a compelling idea now, but it was more so at the time.

Its main character is Aziz, a physician who befriends - wait for it - a couple of white tourists from England, including a schoolmistress named Adela.

Major characters in A Passage to India
A Passage to India Characters

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