E. M. Forster

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E. M. Forster
E. M. Forster von Dora Carrington, 1924-25.jpg
E. M. Forster, by Dora Carrington
c. 1924–1925
Born Edward Morgan Forster
(1879-01-01)1 January 1879
Marylebone, Middlesex, England
Died 7 June 1970(1970-06-07) (aged 91)
Coventry, Warwickshire, England
Occupation Writer (novels, short stories, essays)
Nationality English
Education Tonbridge School
Alma mater King's College, Cambridge
Period 1901–1970
Genre Realism, symbolism, modernism
Subject Class division, gender, homosexuality


Edward Morgan Forster OM CH (1 January 1879 – 7 June 1970) was an English novelist, short story writer, essayist and librettist. Many of his novels examined class difference and hypocrisy, including A Room with a View (1908), Howards End (1910) and A Passage to India (1924). The last brought him his greatest success. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 16 different years.[1][2]

Early years

File:Tonbridge School 2008.jpg
A section of the main building, Tonbridge School

Forster was born into an Anglo-Irish and Welsh family at 6 Melcombe Place, Dorset Square, London NW1, in a building that no longer exists. He was the only child of Alice Clara "Lily" (née Whichelo) and Edward Morgan Llewellyn Forster, an architect. His name was officially registered as Henry Morgan Forster, but at his baptism he was accidentally named Edward Morgan Forster.[3] To distinguish him from his father, he was always called Morgan. His father died of tuberculosis on 30 October 1880, before Morgan's second birthday.[4] In 1883, Forster and his mother moved to Rooksnest, near Stevenage, Hertfordshire. This house served as a model for Howards End, because he had fond memories of his childhood there. Among Forster's ancestors were members of the Clapham Sect, a social reform group within the Church of England.

He inherited £8,000 in trust (the equivalent of about £990,000 in 2017)[5] from his paternal great-aunt Marianne Thornton (daughter of the abolitionist Henry Thornton), who died on 5 November 1887.[6] The money was enough to live on and enabled him to become a writer. He attended Tonbridge School in Kent, as a day boy. The theatre at the school has been named in his honour.[7]

At King's College, Cambridge, between 1897 and 1901,[8] he became a member of a discussion society known as the Apostles (formally named the Cambridge Conversazione Society). They met in secret, and discussed their work on, and about, philosophical and moral questions. Many of its members went on to constitute what came to be known as the Bloomsbury Group, of which Forster was a peripheral member in the 1910s and 1920s. There is a famous recreation of Forster's Cambridge at the beginning of The Longest Journey. The Schlegel sisters of Howards End are based to some degree on Vanessa and Virginia Stephen.[9]

After leaving university, he travelled in continental Europe with his mother. They moved to Weybridge, Surrey, where he wrote all six of his novels. In 1914, he visited Egypt, Germany and India with the classicist Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, by which time he had written all but one of his novels.[10] As a conscientious objector in the First World War, Forster served as a Chief Searcher (for missing servicemen) for the British Red Cross in Alexandria, Egypt. [11]

Forster spent a second spell in India in the early 1920s as the private secretary to Tukojirao III, the Maharajah of Dewas. The Hill of Devi is his non-fictional account of this period. After returning to London from India, he completed the last novel of his to be published during his lifetime, A Passage to India (1924), for which he won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. He also edited Eliza Fay's (1756–1816) letters from India, in an edition first published in 1925.[12]

After A Passage to India

Arlington Park Mansions, Chiswick

In the 1930s and 1940s Forster became a notable broadcaster on BBC Radio and a public figure associated with the Union of Ethical Societies. In addition to his broadcasting, he advocated individual liberty and penal reform and opposed censorship by writing articles, sitting on committees and signing letters. His weekly book review during the war was commissioned by George Orwell, who was the talks producer at the India Section of the BBC from 1941 to 1943.[13] He was awarded a Benson Medal in 1937.

Forster was homosexual (open to his close friends, but not to the public) and a lifelong bachelor.[14] He developed a long-term relationship with Bob Buckingham (1904–1975), a married policeman.[15] Forster included Buckingham and his wife May in his circle, which included J. R. Ackerley, a writer and literary editor of The Listener, the psychologist W. J. H. Sprott, and for a time, the composer Benjamin Britten. Other writers with whom Forster associated included Christopher Isherwood, the poet Siegfried Sassoon, and the Belfast-based novelist Forrest Reid.

File:Robert and May Buckingham House.jpg
Forster lived in this house, home of his friends Robert and May Buckingham, and died here on 7 June 1970. The sign on the wall above the garage door marks the 100th anniversary of his birth

From 1925 until his mother's death at age 90 in March 1945, Forster lived with her at the house West Hackhurst in the village of Abinger Hammer, Surrey, finally leaving in September 1946.[16] His London base was 26 Brunswick Square from 1930 to 1939, after which he rented 9 Arlington Park Mansions in Chiswick until at least 1961.[17][18] After a fall in April 1961, he spent his final years in Cambridge at King's College.[19]

Forster was elected an honorary fellow of King's College, Cambridge, in January 1946,[17] and lived for the most part in the college, doing relatively little. In April 1947 he arrived in America to begin a three-month nationwide tour of public readings and sightseeing, returning to the East Coast in June.[20] He declined a knighthood in 1949 and was made a Companion of Honour in 1953.[17] At age 82, he wrote his last short story, Little Imber, a science fiction tale. At 85 he went on a pilgrimage to the Wiltshire countryside that had inspired his favourite novel The Longest Journey, escorted by William Golding.[20] In 1969 he was made a member of the Order of Merit. Forster died of a stroke[21] on 7 June 1970 at the age of 91, at the Buckinghams' home in Coventry.[17] His ashes, mingled with those of Buckingham, were later scattered in the rose garden of Coventry's crematorium, near Warwick University.[22][23]


The monument to Forster in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, near Rooksnest where Forster grew up. He based the setting for his novel Howards End on this area, now informally known as Forster Country.

Forster had five novels published in his lifetime. Although Maurice was published shortly after his death, it had been written nearly sixty years earlier. He never finished a seventh novel, Arctic Summer.

His first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), is the story of Lilia, a young English widow who falls in love with an Italian, and of the efforts of her bourgeois relatives to get her back from Monteriano (based on San Gimignano). Philip Herriton's mission to retrieve her from Italy has features in common with that of Lambert Strether in Henry James's The Ambassadors. Forster discussed that work ironically and somewhat disapprovingly in his book Aspects of the Novel (1927). Where Angels Fear to Tread was adapted as a 1991 film directed by Charles Sturridge.

Next, Forster published The Longest Journey (1907), an inverted Bildungsroman following the lame Rickie Elliott from Cambridge to a career as a struggling writer and then to a post as a schoolmaster, married to the unappealing Agnes Pembroke. In a series of scenes on the hills of Wiltshire, which introduce Rickie's wild half-brother Stephen Wonham, Forster attempts a kind of sublime related to those of Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence.

File:III Palazzo Jennings Riccioli, Firenze, Italy (2).jpg
Forster and his mother stayed at Pensione Simi, now Hotel Jennings Riccioli, Florence, in 1901. Forster took inspiration from this sojourn for the Pension Bertolini in A Room with a View[24]

Forster's third novel, A Room with a View (1908), is his lightest and most optimistic. It was started as early as 1901, before any of his others; its earliest versions are entitled "Lucy". The book explores the young Lucy Honeychurch's trip to Italy with her cousin, and the choice she must make between the free-thinking George Emerson and the repressed aesthete Cecil Vyse. George's father Mr Emerson quotes thinkers who influenced Forster, including Samuel Butler. The book was adapted as a film of the same name in 1985 by the Merchant Ivory team.

Where Angels Fear to Tread and A Room with a View can be seen collectively as Forster's Italian novels. Both include references to the famous Baedeker guidebooks and concern narrow-minded middle-class English tourists abroad. The books share many themes with his short stories collected in The Celestial Omnibus and The Eternal Moment.

Howards End (1910) is an ambitious "condition-of-England" novel concerned with different groups within the Edwardian middle classes, represented by the Schlegels (bohemian intellectuals), the Wilcoxes (thoughtless plutocrats) and the Basts (struggling lower-middle-class aspirants). Critics have observed that numerous characters in Forster's novels die suddenly. This is true of Where Angels Fear to Tread, Howards End and, most particularly, The Longest Journey. Howards End was adapted as a film in 1991 by the Merchant-Ivory team and as a miniseries in 2017. An opera libretto Howards End, America was created in 2016 by Claudia Stevens.

Forster achieved his greatest success with A Passage to India (1924). The novel takes as its subject the relationship between East and West, seen through the lens of India in the later days of the British Raj. Forster connects personal relationships with the politics of colonialism through the story of the Englishwoman Adela Quested, the Indian Dr. Aziz, and the question of what did or did not happen between them in the Marabar Caves. Forster makes special mention of the author Ahmed Ali and his Twilight in Delhi in his Preface to its Everyman's Library Edition. A Passage to India was adapted as a play in 1960, directed by Frank Hauser, and as a film in 1984, directed by David Lean.

Maurice (1971) was published posthumously. It is a homosexual love story which also returns to matters familiar from Forster's first three novels, such as the suburbs of London in the English home counties, the experience of attending Cambridge, and the wild landscape of Wiltshire. The novel was controversial, given that Forster's homosexuality had not been previously known or widely acknowledged. Today's critics continue to argue over the extent to which Forster's sexuality and personal activities[25] influenced his writing. Maurice was adapted as a film in 1987 by the Merchant-Ivory team.

Early in his writing career, Forster attempted a historical novel about the Byzantine scholar Gemistus Pletho and the Italian condottiero Sigismondo de Malatesta, but was not satisfied with the result and never published it - though he kept the manuscript and later showed it to Naomi Mitchison.[26]

Critical reception

Forster receiving an honorary doctorate from Leiden University (1954)

Forster's first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread, was described by reviewers as "astonishing" and "brilliantly original".[27] The Manchester Guardian (forerunner of The Guardian) noted "a persistent vein of cynicism which is apt to repel," though "the cynicism is not deep-seated." The novel is labelled "a sordid comedy culminating, unexpectedly and with a real dramatic force, in a grotesque tragedy."[28] Lionel Trilling remarked on this first novel as "a whole and mature work dominated by a fresh and commanding intelligence".[29]

Subsequent books were similarly received on publication. The Manchester Guardian commented on Howards End, describing it as "a novel of high quality written with what appears to be a feminine brilliance of perception... witty and penetrating."[30] An essay by David Cecil in Poets and Storytellers (1949) characterises Forster as "pulsing with intelligence and sensibility", but primarily concerned with an original moral vision: "He tells a story as well as anyone who ever lived".[31][page needed]

In the United States, interest in Forster and appreciation for him were spurred by Lionel Trilling's E. M. Forster: A Study, which began:

E. M. Forster is for me the only living novelist who can be read again and again and who, after each reading, gives me what few writers can give us after our first days of novel-reading, the sensation of having learned something. (Trilling 1943)

Criticism of his works has included comment on the unlikely pairings of characters who marry or get engaged, and the lack of realistic depiction of sexual attraction.[31][page needed]

Key themes

Forster was President of the Cambridge Humanists from 1959 until his death and a member of the Advisory Council of the British Humanist Association from 1963 until his death. His views as a humanist are at the heart of his work, which often depicts the pursuit of personal connections in spite of the restrictions of contemporary society. His humanist attitude is expressed in the non-fictional essay What I Believe (reprinted with two other humanist essays – and an introduction and notes by Nicolas Walter – as What I Believe, and other essays by the secular humanist publishers G.W. Foote & Co. in 1999). When Forster's cousin, Philip Whichelo, donated a portrait of Forster to the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association (GLHA), Jim Herrick, the founder, quoted Forster's words: "The humanist has four leading characteristics – curiosity, a free mind, belief in good taste, and belief in the human race."

Forster's two best-known works, A Passage to India and Howards End, explore the irreconcilability of class differences. A Room with a View also shows how questions of propriety and class can make human connection difficult. The novel is his most widely read and accessible work, remaining popular long after its original publication. His posthumous novel Maurice explores the possibility of class reconciliation as one facet of a homosexual relationship.

Sexuality is another key theme in Forster's works. Some critics have argued that a general shift from heterosexual to homosexual love can be observed through the course of his writing career. The foreword to Maurice describes his struggle with his homosexuality, while he explored similar issues in several volumes of short stories. Forster's explicitly homosexual writings, the novel Maurice and the short story collection The Life to Come, were published shortly after his death.

Forster is noted for his use of symbolism as a technique in his novels, and he has been criticised (as by his friend Roger Fry) for his attachment to mysticism. One example of his symbolism is the wych elm tree in Howards End. The characters of Mrs. Wilcox in that novel and Mrs. Moore in A Passage to India have a mystical link with the past, and a striking ability to connect with people from beyond their own circles.

Personal life

Forster was homosexual, which prompted themes in his works, especially the novel Maurice. Though conscious of his repressed desires, he was twenty-seven before he yielded to them physically. In 1906 he fell in love with Syed Ross Masood, a seventeen-year-old future Oxford student he tutored in Latin. The Indian had more of a romantic, poetic view of friendship, confusing Forster with constant avowals of his love.[32]

Notable works by Forster

Notable films based upon Forster's fiction




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  30. The Manchester Guardian, 26 February 1910.
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  33. . Appendix to Penguin English Library edition of Howard's End. London 1983).


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Further reading

  • Lago, Mary. Calendar of the Letters of E. M. Forster, (London, Mansell, 1985).
  • Lago, Mary. Selected Letters of E. M. Forster, (Cambridge, Mass., Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1983–1985.)
  • Martin, Robert K. and Piggford, George (eds.) Queer Forster (Chicago, 1997)
  • Mishra, Pankaj (ed.) "E.M. Forster." India in Mind: An Anthology. New York: Vintage Books, 2005: 61–70.
  • Rose, Peter, "The Peculiar Charms of E.M. Forster", Australian Book Review (December 2010/January 2011). Forster in his social context. Retrieved 28 November 2013.
  • Royle, Nicolas. E. M. Forster (Writers & Their Work (Northcote House Publishers, London, 1999).
  • Scott, P. J. M., E. M. Forster: Our Permanent Contemporary, Critical Studies Series (London, 1984).
  • Sogos, Sofia, "Nature and Mystery in Edward Morgan Forster’s Tales", ed. by Giorgia Sogos, (Bonn, Free Pen Verlag, 2018).
  • Stallybrass, Oliver, "Editor's Introduction" in "Howard's End", (Penguin English Library, Harmondsworth, UK, 1983)
  • Summers, Claude J., E. M. Forster New York, 1983).
  • Singh, K. Natwar, editor, E. M. Forster: A Tribute, With Selections from his Writings on India, Contributors: Ahmed Ali, Mulk Raj Anand, Narayana Menon, Raja Rao & Santha Rama Rau, (On Forster's Eighty Fifth Birthday), Harcourt, Brace & World Inc., New York, 1 January 1964.
  • Verduin, Kathleen, "Medievalism, Classicism, and the Fiction of E.M. Forster," in: Medievalism in the Modern World. Essays in Honour of Leslie J. Workman, ed. Richard Utz and Tom Shippey (Turnhout: Brepols, 1998), pp. 263–86.
  • Wilde, Alan, Art and Order. A Study of E.M. Forster (New York, 1967).

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