Authors: E. M. Forster

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

English novelist

January 1, 1879

London, England

June 7, 1970

Coventry, Warwickshire, England

Biography

Among twentieth-century novelists, Edward Morgan Forster ranks just below D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and William Faulkner. He was the only surviving child of Edward Morgan Llewellyn Forster, an architect, and Alice Clara Whichelow, who was called Lily. After Forster’s father died in October 1880, Lily reared the boy with the assistance of various doting female relatives, including her husband’s elderly aunt, Marianne Thornton, who generously funded the boy’s education at Tonbridge School and King’s College, Cambridge, and provided him the means to travel and write at leisure upon his graduation in 1901. He repaid her memory later by writing her biography. During this time Forster traveled through Italy (the chief setting of two early novels), Greece, and later Egypt and India.

Between 1905 and 1910 he published short stories and four novels. These works, coming shortly before writers such as Joyce and Virginia Woolf began to transform the English novel, are traditional in their technique and in their thematic emphasis on the conflicts of English social classes. The protagonists of his early novels are young and sensitive but often flawed by a snobbery that vitiates their good intentions and brings them a measure of grief. In the fourth of these novels, Howards End, Forster attained his artistic maturity. Its motto, “only connect,” refers not only to “the prose and the passion” but also to personal relationships, to the land, to the best in English tradition, and to European culture. With the publication of that novel critics began to use superlatives to describe Forster’s work, but his growing fame caused the young novelist much discomfort. He experienced a writer’s block in working on his next novel, and, frustrated in his creative work, accepted an invitation from Syed Ross Masood, a young Indian Muslim whom he had helped prepare for the University of Oxford a few years earlier, to visit India. Although it was a later trip to India that directly inspired his most esteemed novel, A Passage to India, this first visit intensified his interest in Anglo-Indian relations and introduced him to the landscape. The novel he wrote upon his return to England in the spring of 1913, however, was Maurice (published more than fifty years later), which he considered unpublishable because it dealt with homosexual love. At this time Forster developed ties with the Bloomsbury artists and intellectuals, especially Woolf, whose fiction he had championed early.

Portrait of E. M. Forster by Dora Carrington

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By Dora Carrington (1893–1932) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

During World War I Forster worked for the Red Cross in Alexandria, Egypt, an experience that generated two books, a guide to the city and a collection of wartime journalism. He also promoted the poetry of then little-known Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy, whom he met in Alexandria. In 1921, having published no novel in the eleven years since Howards End, he returned to India and renewed his friendship with Masood. From this visit came A Passage to India, which many critics have praised for its insights into human relations and its picture of the terrible destructiveness of racial and cultural prejudice.

After that work Forster, forty-five years old and a major novelist, ceased to write fiction; he was only at the midpoint of his long life. A number of explanations have been offered for his early retirement from novel writing, among them that the social norms he knew best did not survive the war intact, or that his homosexuality made it difficult for him to sustain interest in staples of the novel such as marriage and heterosexual relationships. He either could not or would not adopt the stream-of-consciousness and other experimental techniques that had gained favor in the early 1920s. Nevertheless, he remained a literary presence. In 1927 he gave the Clark lectures at Trinity College, University of Cambridge. Composed for an audience of listeners, Aspects of the Novel succeeded equally well in print, owing to Forster’s simple and graceful style, perceptively wide reading, and shrewd critical judgment. It remains one of the most attractive and readable discussions of the novelist’s art.

Forster’s consistent theme was the prejudice that prevents authentic personal relationships. His six novels portray a variety of prejudices—generational, class, ethnic, racial, and sexual—usually in combinations that complicate the lives of his earnest but flawed heroes. In Where Angels Fear to Tread, for example, a haughty Englishwoman sends her son to Italy to retrieve, by whatever means, the infant son of her deceased former daughter-in-law, who had remained under the care of the unsuitable Italian father. The young man overcomes the cynicism of his family and discovers the humanity of the despised foreigner. In A Passage to India, an English schoolteacher in India supports a native doctor in the wake of a hysterical Englishwoman’s charge that the doctor had tried to rape her on a holiday outing; as a result the teacher finds himself scorned by his own countrymen and distrusted by the Indians. In Dr. Aziz, Forster brilliantly captures the anguish of a proud professional man victimized by prejudice. In each of his best-known novels Forster presents a saintly older woman who is able, by her thoughtful and tolerant presence, to counter the weight of prejudice; neither Mrs. Wilcox of Howards End nor Mrs. Moore of A Passage to India is the main character, and both die well before the denouement, but both are moral touchstones who can “connect.”

The many books about Forster’s work reflect the difficulty critics have in categorizing him. He has been called a romantic and a realist, a romancer and a novelist. None of the labels accounts for the complexity of his sensibility or the variousness of his techniques. He was an old-fashioned novelist, in that he investigated class structure and class conflict and upheld the necessity of affirming the values that make society viable. He was modern in his idiom, in his insistence that the necessary values are humanistic ones, and in his refusal to believe that their adoption will easily or comfortably solve humanity’s problems.

Forster died on June 7, 1970 in Coventry, Warwickshire, England, after suffering a stroke the previous month.

Author Works Long Fiction: Where Angels Fear to Tread, 1905 The Longest Journey, 1907 A Room with a View, 1908 Howards End, 1910 A Passage to India, 1924 Maurice, wr. 1913, pb. 1971 Short Fiction: The Celestial Omnibus, and Other Stories, 1911 The Eternal Moment, and Other Stories, 1928 The Collected Tales of E. M. Forster, 1947 The Life to Come, and Other Stories, 1972 Arctic Summer, and Other Fiction, 1980 Drama: England’s Pleasant Land, a Pageant Play, pb. 1940 Billy Budd, pb. 1951 (libretto; with Eric Crozier) Nonfiction: Alexandria: A History and a Guide, 1922 Pharos and Pharillon, 1923 Anonymity: An Enquiry, 1925 Aspects of the Novel, 1927 Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, 1934 Abinger Harvest—A Miscellany, 1936 What I Believe, 1939 Virginia Woolf, 1942 The Development of English Prose Between 1918 and 1939, 1945 Two Cheers for Democracy, 1951 The Hill of Devi, 1953 Marianne Thornton: A Domestic Biography, 1797–1887, 1956 E. M. Forster’s Letters to Donald Windham, 1975 Commonplace Book, 1978 Only Connect: Letters to Indian Friends, 1979 (Syed Hamid Hussain, editor) Selected Letters of E. M. Forster, 1983–1985 (2 volumes; Mary Lago and P. N. Furbank, editors) The BBC Talks of E. M. Forster, 1929–1960: A Selected Edition, 2008 (Mary Lago, editor) The Creator as Critic and Other Writings by E. M. Forster, 2008 (Jeffrey M. Heath, editor) The Forster-Cavafy Letters: Friends at a Slight Angle, 2009 (George Valassopoulo, translator; Katerina Ghika and Peter Jeffreys, editors) The Journals and Diaries of E. M. Forster, 2011 (2 volumes; Philip Gardner, editor) Miscellaneous: The Abinger Edition of E. M. Forster, 1972–1998 (17 volumes; Oliver Stallybrass, editor) The Prince’s Tale and Other Uncollected Writings, 1998 (P. N. Furbank, editor) Bibliography Beauman, Nicola. E. M. Forster: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994. In this biography devoted primarily to the first forty-five years of Forster’s life when he was developing as a fiction writer, Beauman discusses the origins of Forster’s fictional themes in his family background and claims that his most successful years as a writer were also his unhappiest as a person due to his sexual repression and his conflicts over his homosexuality. Caporaletti, Silvana. “Science as Nightmare: ‘The Machine Stops’ by E. M. Forster.” Utopian Studies 8 (1997): 32-47. Discusses the dystopian theme in the story; claims the story denounces materialism and conformism imposed by rigid social conventions that repress diversity, spontaneity, and creativity. Caporaletti, Silvana. “The Thematization of Time in E. M. Forster’s ‘The Eternal Moment’ and Joyce’s ‘The Dead.’” Twentieth Century Literature 43 (Winter, 1997): 406-419. Discusses how the two stories are influenced by Henri Bergson’s dual concept of time as sequential and psychological. Argues that most of the characters in the stories reflect the contrast between these two modes of time. Eldridge, C. C. The Imperial Experience: From Carlyle to Forster. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. Examines the political and social views of Forster and Thomas Carlyle, as well as imperialism in their literature. Furbank, Philip N. E. M. Forster: A Life. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978. In this authorized biography of E. M. Forster, Furbank successfully re-creates an authentic, intimate, and illuminating portrait of the man behind the writer and controversial public figure. The wealth of new material contained in this biography makes it an indispensable source on Forster’s life, times, and work. Gardner, Philip, ed. E. M. Forster: The Critical Heritage. New York: Routledge, 1997. Critical essays on Forster’s works. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Iago, Mary. E. M. Forster: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. A succinct study of Forster’s novels and work for the British Broadcasting Corporation. Helpful notes. McDowell, Frederick P. W. E. M. Forster. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982. A brilliant, well-balanced, and compendious overview of Forster’s life, times, career, work, and achievement. This book contains a useful chronology, a select bibliography, and an index. It also offers a concise and perceptive analysis of Forster’s short stories. Moffat, Wendy. A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012. Explores the effect that Forster's hidden sexuality had on his life and his output as a novelist. Rapport, Nigel. The Prose and the Passion: Anthropology, Literature, and the Writing of E. M. Forster. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. Provides excellent interpretation and criticism of Forster’s literary works. Seabury, Marcia Bundy. “Images of a Networked Society: E. M. Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops.’” Studies in Short Fiction 34 (Winter, 1997): 61–71. Discusses the story as a vision of the computer revolution. Examines interrelations between technology and religious thinking in the story; explores what happens to people when they spend much of their time connected to computer networks. Stone, Wilfred. The Cave and the Mountain: A Study of E. M. Forster. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1966. A well-researched and scholarly book. Contains a vast amount of useful information about Forster’s background, career, esthetics, and work. Includes a detailed and illuminating chapter on the short stories. Using psychological and Jungian approaches, Stone offers insightful and masterly critiques of Forster’s fiction. Supplemented by notes and a comprehensive index. Thomson, George H. The Fiction of E. M. Forster. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1967. Thomson presents a critical study of Forster’s novels and short stories in terms of their symbolical and archetypal aspects. He argues that Forster’s symbols “achieve archetypal significance and mythic wholeness” through “the power of ecstatic perception” in his work. Complemented by notes and a valuable appendix on the manuscripts of A Passage to India. Trilling, Lionel. E. M. Forster: A Study. Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1943. A pioneer study, instrumental in establishing Forster’s reputation. This book assesses Forster’s artistic achievement in terms of his liberal humanism and moral realism.

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