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.
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.
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
He takes them on a tour of these cool caves, this really remarkable Indian landmark and there, in the caves (claustrophobic), Adela becomes convinced that Aziz is going to sexually assault her - a story that a lot of white British imperialists were all too happy to believe. I'm sure you can think of some modern day comparisons. This is a fabrication; she was just uncomfortable by the situation, being in a dark, enclosed space with someone she didn't know very well. There's probably some racial prejudices built in there too. Once it becomes clear at a trial that her story is inaccurate, the British become furious with her for not pushing the prosecution and supposedly selling out their race, while Aziz has become convinced that white people and Indians just can't really be friends - at least not until India is free, and Indians and Englishmen are on a more level playing field.
So, you can really see all these ideas in Forster's novels about the issues of class and reaching beyond boundaries to make connections. It's really continuous throughout his works. It's not hard to see that the same guy wrote them and that he was exploring these issues from a lot of avenues and different angles. You can even see a progression if you look at them chronologically, where Forster turns his attention from Western Europe to England's relationship with the East with other parts of the world. While his last novel still contains some of the themes that we readily identify with Forster - notably a discussion of class issues - its central topic is one that really shocked a lot of readers. That's probably why it wasn't actually published until 1971, a year after he died.
Forster's final novel is called Maurice. This novel still contains a lot of the themes that we readily identify with Forster - notably the discussion of class issues. Its central topic is one that shocked a lot of readers. That's probably why it wasn't actually published until 1971, a year after E.M. Forster died, even though it was actually written before A Passage to India. So, what made it so scandalous was that it unabashedly celebrates a homosexual relationship. It was a bigger deal then that it would be now. It caused quite a stir because most of the people that knew of E.M. Forster didn't know that he was actually gay. Although, at least in 1971 when the book was released, homosexuality wasn't illegal in England as it was when Forster wrote it. If you want to know more of how harsh England was on homosexual people, you should check out the videos on Oscar Wilde; it goes into more detail. Suffice to say, it wasn't a great time to be an 'out' gay man when Forster was living and writing.
In the book, Maurice is a learned stockbroker, and he ends up falling in love with a lower-class man named Alec Scudder, who's an under-gamekeeper (basically, a pest-control worker).
Main characters in Maurice
He falls in love with him at the house where he is staying - the class issues are already arising. The two end up reconciling their differences and resolve to stay together despite the differences in their social status. Neither is sure if England will ever accept homosexuality as anything but a criminal behavior, which is how they viewed it at the time. Of course, fortunately, they ended up being wrong, but it really says a lot that Forster was afraid to publish this text during his lifetime; he even left a note in the manuscript that read 'publishable, but worth it?' I think I could argue that it is worth it, but it's telling about the era that he wasn't sure if he could.
Although Maurice really stands out as unique from Forster's other novels, and it's not his most popular, it's still worth consideration among his body of work. It's part of the overall story I think he was trying to tell with all of the works that he wrote.
Despite the fact that Forster had a life after he published his novels - he actually ended up being a pretty noted commentary on the BBC - I think when we hear E.M. Forster's name, we still likely think of his novels, even though those weren't the only things that he wrote or accomplished during his life. He was a man deeply concerned with the walls that people put up in British society, and trying to find ways to break down those artificially erected barriers - whether they were class, race or even homophobia - to find real opportunities for humans to connect beneath them. That's really the strong central theme of everything that he wrote. He really emphasized this need for people to come together despite whatever might keep them apart. It's this simple, potent, core message that keeps his work alive today, why people are still interested in reading it, why it's been made into movies and why it's still being discussed - and I hope that people keep discussing it for centuries more.
This lesson should teach you to:
- Discuss E.M. Forster's life and the factors that influenced his writing
- Identify the main themes present in Forster's novels
- Summarize Forster's six significant novels