The Magazine

A Passage to Forster

The voice for the ‘sensitive’ and ‘plucky’

Feb 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 22 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Kermode never questions Forster’s greatness, but the very thinness of his book will cause anyone who reads it to do so. Was E. M. Forster a writer of the first rank? Is his high reputation deserved? What has been behind his popularity? What, if anything, had Forster’s homosexuality to do with his fiction? Forster at one point claimed he wished to write novels about homosexual men that had happy endings; he wrote one such book, Maurice, which was published posthumously in 1971, a soppy work that seemed to please no one. Forster’s taste tended toward lower-class lovers, and his first sexual encounter, in Alexandria with an Egyptian bus driver, ended in his breaking his arm through sheer
awkwardness. This is only worth bringing up because Forster was always stressing the importance of sexuality. 

Kermode cites Lionel Trilling’s mention of Forster’s “refusal to be great.” Trilling wrote: “He is sometimes irritating in his refusal to be great,” suggesting that this was connected with Forster’s suspicion of all large and powerful institutions. Implicit in Forster’s manner—and, indeed, career—has always been the note of modesty. Not always easy, to affect modesty while promoting one’s own career, but over a long life Forster brought this off handsomely. 

Born in 1879 Forster produced his first four novels and a book of stories between 1905 and 1910. He wrote Maurice in 1914. He then took 10 years to write A Passage to India—he had lived in India, working in 1921 as private secretary to the maharajah of the state of Dewas—which most people regard as his masterpiece. After A Passage to India he wrote no further novels but spent his days writing intellectual journalism and giving talks over the BBC. In his early years he lived off the funds from a modest inheritance; in later years the royalties from his novels paid the way. Somehow the less he wrote, the more greatly esteemed he became. Prizes rolled in—he refused a knighthood in 1949, though he was made a Companion of Honour in 1953, and in 1969, a member of the Order of Merit. 

Forster acted the part of the guru all his life. No mention is made in Aspects of the Novel of the element of preaching in novels, but Forster preached relentlessly in his fiction. Sometimes this preaching is by way of aperçus, some of which are quite brilliant, as when, for example, in Howards End, he reports of the relationship between the Schlegel sisters that “the affections are more reticent than the passions, and their expressions more subtle.” But other times he will use this same method to tell his readers what to think of his character; so, of Mrs. Wilcox in the same novel, he writes: 

One knew that she worshipped the past, and the instinctive wisdom the past can alone bestow had descended upon her—that wisdom to which we give the clumsy name of aristocracy.

Mrs. Wilcox—very much okay. Got it. Of Mr. Wilcox, he writes: 

For there was one quality in Henry for which she [Marget Schlegel] was never prepared, however much she reminded herself of it: his obtuseness. He simply did not notice things, and there was no more to be said.

Mr. Wilcox—distinctly not okay. Clear?

One of the great differences between Forster and Henry James, whom Forster did not admire, is that James, as part of his modus operandi, always left final judgments of characters and of situations to his readers’ moral imaginations. Forster did not trust his readers sufficiently to do so. To be sure, his novels are filled with twists and surprises. He could kill a character quicker than napalm. Another character to whom you might think him sympathetic he could treat with loathing. He did not shirk reality; idealism alone was insufficient to gain entry into Club Forster. 

Forster’s great theme, as Trilling pointed out, was “the theme of the undeveloped heart.” He was the chronicler of those institutions—the English social-class racket, nationalism, brutish insensitivity which is to be found everywhere—that narrowed one’s reaction to life, and in his fiction he was fond of sending his characters off to those places (Italy, India) where, to those susceptible, the heart was, in effect, pried open through the enlargement of experience. The largest number of undeveloped hearts per capita was to be found, for Forster, in England. Forster treated the English, V. S. Pritchett once remarked, as if they were foreigners, and far from pleasing ones. The English encountered in a Forster novel tend to be low on tolerance, cultural interest, imagination, and passion. “Only connect the prose and the passion” of life, says one of Forster’s characters, and the sweet mystery of life is yours.

Anyone who has read A Passage to India cannot but come away secure in the feeling that the English richly deserved to lose India. Whatever one’s views of British imperialism, one has also to admit that Forster, the milquetoasty blocked novelist, the long-repressed homosexual, probably contributed, through A Passage to India, as much as anyone short of Gandhi, to justifying before the world Indian independence. Yet one must go on to say that Forster, in the way he designed his novels, was playing with loaded dice. One cannot have appreciated him, after all, if one had oneself an undeveloped heart. To adore his novels meant, or at least implied, that one was oneself rather a splendid person, among those people he claimed to have admired most: “The aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky.”

Elizabeth Bowen wrote, quite rightly, that “Forster is a novelist for the young.” My own youthful admiration for him derived in good part, I now suspect, from my ardent desire to be among “the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky,” whose “members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet.” (There is much evidence that, in life if not in his novels, Forster was himself insensitive, inconsiderate, and schmucky. My friend Edward Shils told me that he once asked Forster if he might have for Encounter selections for a diary he kept while in Egypt. Forster said yes, of course—and promptly published the selections in Harper’s. “Do you suppose,” Edward said, “that he meant not ‘only connect’ but instead ‘only collect?’”) 

Sensitive, considerate, and plucky—that phrasing first turns up not in Forster’s fiction but in an essay of 1939 called “What I Believe.” What Forster believed turned out to be the general tenets of liberalism, minus the confidence in government part. Au contraire, government, not least his own British government, was among Forster’s great enemies. It is in this essay, in fact, that he announces that “if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country,” a remark of the highest dubiety. One’s friend, after all, could have turned out to be a Nazi or a Soviet spy or—who knows?—someone sleeping with one’s wife or lover. 

In an age of faith, Forster claimed to have none, apart from his belief in that old Bloomsbury standby, personal relations. (It would be difficult, not at all incidentally, to find a group of people who betrayed one another more—sexually and in other ways—than those in the Bloomsbury Group.) Forster extends democracy two cheers (not the full three) for starting from “the assumption that the individual is important” and for allowing freedom of speech, including criticism of those in power. What Forster hated is force and violence, especially of the kind purveyed by governments. Recall the year of “What I Believe” in 1939, and Hitler has begun to sweep through Europe; a strong belief in personal relations, might we agree, was unlikely to stop Hitler. Forster also distrusts “Great Men” of the kind who tend to lead what he calls “efficiency regimes.” They are, among other things, “sexless.” Forster is always calling for more sex: 

I do not feel that my aristocrats [that would be our old pals, “the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky”] are a real aristocracy if they thwart their bodies, since bodies are the instruments through which we register and enjoy the world. 

Forster closes by claiming that these are “reflections of an individualist and a liberal who has found liberalism crumbling beneath him,” though, he tells us, he remains confident that the small band of the best people could not finally be defeated. 

Lionel Trilling thought that Forster was the enemy of the liberal imagination—that set of beliefs that is “sure of the order of human affairs” and holds “good is good and bad is bad,” but “before the idea of good-and-evil its imagination fails.” Yet I wonder if Trilling got this right. Forster could surprise from time to time by showing sympathy for characters a good liberal is supposed to despise and despising other characters a liberal is supposed to revere. But in the end Forster’s chief contribution has been to that continuing project of reinforcing liberals’ feelings of self-virtue owing to their lovely imaginative sensitivity and courageous distaste for social injustice. For this, above all, E. M. Forster has become known as the great writer he most
distinctly isn’t.

Joseph Epstein is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard. The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff, his third collection of stories, will be published this year.

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