Abinger Harvest

by E. M. Forster
[Harcourt, Brace, $3.50]
Two hundred years ago, by the road that lies beyond Mr. Forster’s garden at Abinger Hammer, young Captain Gibbon, fresh from an unhappy love affair, went to take part in a comic dispute between two county militias, his mind full of the noble struggles of Rome against the Vandals. The godmother of Mr. Forster’s greataunt was Hannah More, and from her he had a red mitten and an inkling of all the sharpness and unconventionality which a diligent and pious editor has spared her memory.
For Mr. Forster all the literary figures of whom he has chosen to write are similarly a shape passing at the end of his garden or the godmother of his greataunt. Looking at them with humorous affection, he is able to catch them unawares, long before they compose their countenances for the Dictionary of National Biography. And since in Mr. Forster the novelist goes hand in hand with the critic, his analysis has ever the color of fiction.
Thus he shows us the runaway from Cambridge who called himself by the magnificent name of Silas Tomkyn Comberbacke, who expected his horse to groom itself but told stories of Thermopple (sic); a queer clumsy creature who was to contract smallpox, to be bought out of the Dragoons, to be disgraced irretrievably, and to write The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. He details the irritations of that conscientious business man Mr. Abbey, guardian of the four young Keats children, who tried to suppress the lawlessness of the eldest and never got around to mentioning their comfortable inheritance until long after that restless boy had died of neglected tuberculosis. For him Voltaire is not the bitter-tongued sage of Ferney, but a thin anxious man who with his mistress (called by Frederick the Great ‘VenusNewton’) patiently weighed cauldrons of hot iron to determine the weight of fire, or poured hot vinegar on a fragment of Mont Blanc to see if Hannibal had really been able to dissolve the Alps in that fashion.
Nearer our own time, he sketches the life and writings of a forgotten nineteenth-century novelist of Boston extraction, Howard Overing Sturgis, and builds up a picture of the self-torturing New England community which Henry James and Henry Adams similarly fled but could not escape. And with equal subtlety, with equal freedom from pomp or patronage, he judges the writers of to-day, Virginia Woolf, Sinclair Lewis, Eliot, Proust.
Mr. Forster’s preoccupations are not exclusively literary; his view of life is wide enough to include even a romantic interest in Minnie A louse. Politically, his is the limbo of the too-intelligent. As in A Passage to India he stated the impasse of Empire, so to-day he understands the evil habits induced by the opiate of Fascism, and yet is too old for the adventure of Communism. In his own phrase about Roger Fry, ‘he rejects authority and mistrusts intuition.’
For such a man the world holds no refuge except the fruits of a quiet rich summer of learning and understanding and humor, his Abinger harvest.