by LORD DAVID CECIL
MR. E. M. FORSTER is not a revolutionary author in the sense that Virginia Woolf was. Indeed to turn from one of her books to his is to feel oneself transported back almost into the age of Meredith and Henry James. For here once more is a regular plot, here are characters, conversations, comic relief; here also are moral judgments. Those above all. Mr. Forster is as much a didactic writer as George Eliot herself. Though pulsing with intelligence and sensibility, he does not make these his ultimate standard of value, or look on them as the most important things in life. When he sets out to draw the world, it is its moral aspects that strike him most forcibly. The categories in which he ranges people are primarily moral, the pattern he imposes on experience is the pattern of his moral vision.
Here it is, though, that his originality shows itself. Mr. Forster’s moral vision is a fresh, private, independent affair, owing something no doubt to previous moral systems, but not the same as any of them. To see human nature from his point of view is to see it in a new moral perspective. This point of view owes its individuality to the fact that Mr. Forster unites in himself two qualities seldom found together. He is al once tenderhearted and unattached. I nattached congenitally; he feels himself pari of no corporate unit, seems temperamentally unresponsive to those instinctive, irrational, magnetic forces that draw the individual into a group: national feeling, class feeling, family feeling, comradely feeling. Even the more primitive animal emotions, which link people otherwise diverse, do not mean much to him, if we are to judge by his account of them. Sex in his stories is a curiously bloodless and uncompelling affair.
The only emotional relation between human beings into which he enters fully is friendship, that exquisite sense of a mutual sympathy of heart and mind which occasionally arises between independent individuals. The very sensitiveness which makes such friendship delightful also makes it precarious. Any jarring note — an error of taste, a failure of sympathy—can destroy it completely. Mr. Forster notices this and draws his conclusions. The differences between human beings strike him far more forcibly than the characteristics that they have in common.
They strike him unpleasantly, however. Here is where his tenderheartedness comes in. Affectionate, dependent, yearning to love and to be loved, the personality that declares itself through his books holds that only in close relation to another person can the finest part of a man’s nature find fulfillment. Mr. Forster is the opposite of the Miller of Dee in the old song, who sang so jollily because he cared for no one and nobody cared for him. Not for Mr. Forster the satisfactions of Virginia Woolf’s aesthelic solitude; self-sufficient intellectual persons like Tibby in Howard’s End strike him as repulsively hard and cold. He is always girding against exclusiveness; he even criticizes South Hertfordshire, because it contains so many fenced-in gentlemen’s parks. That human beings should be united with each other in love is to him the first need in life. The first fact about it, on the other hand, is that they are not so united. This contrast between what man wants, in relation to his fellows, and what he gets is the outstanding feature of Mr. Forster’s vision of the world.
He is not content, however, merely to record it. This is where his moralism shows itself. It is wrong as well as sad that people should be divided from each other. The wrong should he righted. Mr. Forster is deeply concerned to discover how this can be done. In his earlier books he seeks a remedy in a sort of Whitmanesque faith in Nature. The primitive, spontaneous, natural man does not feel cut off from his kind. But artificial divisions have made him so: divisions of class, convention, of nation. If man would put aside these false idols, erected by tradition and selfish worldliness, and yield himself uninhibitedly to the worship of the great God Pan, the great, God Pan would save him.
The people in these early books group themselves according to how they react to this choice. On the one hand are the “natural” characters, Gino, Stephen Wonham, the Emersons; against them are ranged Mrs. Herriton and her daughter, the Pembroke family, Cecil Vyse, most of the visitors to the Pension Bertolini. Between them waver Philip Herriton, Ricky and Lucy Honeychurch. They waver partly from timidity, for to follow Pan needs courage. Pan and his followers can be rough and ruthless. But even their brutality, because it is uninhibited, clears the air and breaks down barriers: it is the sign of a genuine relationship. The barriers however must be broken down by feeling, nol intellect. Philip in Where Angels Fear to Tread and Ansell in The Longest Journey fail at first to overcome their inhibitions because they strive to remove them by a deliberate intellectual process and not by yielding simply to the pressure of the instinctive movement of their hearts.
In his next book, Howard’s End, Mr. Forsters interpretation of man’s predicament is a little dilferenl. Once more we are presented with a division: the division between the humane, civilized, individualistic Schlegels on the one hand and the efficient, Philistine, anti-individualistic Wilcoxes on the other. Mutually attracted and repelled, they come into a conflict which results in disaster and impasse. Though the Wilcoxes are vanquished, the rift between them and the Schlegels remains. Once more, however, Nature steps in as savior. Only this time it is Nature symbolized less by Pan than by Ceres, the serene, unchanging mother of the earth and its children, whose spirit has been expressed earlier in the book by the august inarticulate figure of the first Mrs. Wilcox and which continues to pervade the almosphere of her house, Howard’s End. To Howard s End, Mr. Wilcox and Margaret Schlegel retire at the conclusion of the story, where, yielding themselves resignedly to the cycle of night and day, spring and autumn, death and birth, they find their differences slowly dissolved, their souls mysteriously healed and revived.
A Passage to India represents another modification of Mr. Forster’s original attitude. Here the division is between Indians and t he English in India; midway between these opposing parties stand a tolerant, peace-loving group, Fielding, Mrs. Moore, and Miss Quested. The crisis of the book comes when the last trio go on a picnic to the Marabar caves with the Hindu Aziz. Suddenly their effort at friendship with him is frustrated; not by human agency this time, but by Nature, Nature appearing for the first time in Mr. Forster’s works as a potentially malignant, force. Some dangerous, hostile strain in the elemental constitution of things manifests itself in the caves, supernaturally, it would seem, affecting the characters. Mysteriously it exhales an atmosphere baleful and irresistible which, as she breathes it, turns Miss Quested into Aziz’s enemy.
The conclusion of the book, however, is not wholly pessimistic. In the strange last section set significantly in a native state where Indian and English are not pitted one against the other, the surviving characters attend a religious festival, where the spirit of Nature shows itself once more benignant. During the feast each one feels himself involuntarily lifted to a region of mystical bliss where human differences arc resolved in a sense of the union of all creation. Only as long as it lasts though: in the final paragraphs of the book, once more back to common earth again, human divisions reveal themselves as unbridgeable as ever: —
“Why can’t we be friends now?" said the other, holding him affectionately. “It’s what I want. It’s what you want.”
But the horses didn’t want it—they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Man beneath: they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices, “No, not yet,” and the sky said, “No, not there.’
We are left in a state of doubt. There is a passage earlier in the book in which Mr. Forster describes Fielding and Miss Quested at the end of one of their incessant conversations on the Indian problem:
Perhaps life is a mystery, not a muddle. Perhaps the hundred Indias which fuss and squabble so tircsomcly are one and the universe they mirror is one. They had not the apparatus of judging.
Their creator does not seem to have the apparatus either.
SUCH then is the vision of life presented in Mr. Forster’s books. It is a complex one to incarnate in novel form, for it involves the fusion of such diverse elements. The drama is a realistic drama, a picture of the everyday human life as Mr. Forster sees it. As such it must give a convincing illusion of this everyday life. Yet since he is also out to express a moral and spiritual interpretation of experience, Mr. Forster has to make use of symbol ancl allegory. He has evolved a form specifically to solve this problem. His moral purpose is the basis of it. Not character or probability, but the thesis he wishes to expound, determines the main lines of his plot’s structure. But this structure is concealed beneath a closely woven fabric of realistic detail, and the one is still further assimilated to the other by a continuously running flow of comment — moral, satirical, whimsical — addressed to the reader by the author. So that symbol and realistic description are alike conveyed to us in the same highly idiosyncratic tone of voice.
Certainly a very difficult kind of hook to write successfully! Mr. Forster, however, brings an extraordinary accomplishment to his task. Mastery of form for one thing; not a detail in the scene or dialogue, however casual-seeming, but contributes to the general effect. And he tells a story as well as anyone who ever lived. Incident follows incident in a series of pictures, easy, vivid, economically drawn, and always either unexpected in themselves or presented from a slightly unexpected angle, so that the reader’s curiosity is kept quiveringly and delight fully astir. Sometimes, it is true, This unexpectedness becomes too much of a trick. In The Longest Journey, for instance, too many people die suddenly; and Mr. Forster’s way of announcing their deaths — every time with the same deliberate lack of emphasis or preparation does seem an affectation. But how effective his unexpectedness can be, in its proper place. Look at the account of the street brawl in Florence in A Room with a View: —
“Nothing ever happens to me,” she reflected, as she entered the Piazza Signoria and looked nonchalantly at its marvels, now fairly familiar to her. . . . Then something did happen. Two Italians by the Loggia had been bickering about a debt. “Cinque lire, they had cried, “cinque lire!” They sparred at each other, and one of them was hit lightly upon the chest. He frowned; he bent towards Lucy with a look of interest, as if he had an important message for her. He opened his lips to deliver it, and a stream of red came out between them and trickled down his unshaven chin. That was all. A crowd rose out of the dusk. It hid this extraordinary man from her, and bore him away to the fountain.
Narrative power, however, is not enough to make a successful serious novelist. Novels are about people; they live through their characters. Mr. Forster has an acute insight into certain aspects of character. He is a subtle observer of the actual movement of the human mind: with microscopic exactness he traces and analyzes the blended course of thought and feeling and changing mood behind a fragment of dialogue. Listen To Ronny and Miss Quested when they have just broken off their engagement: —
“We’ve been awfully British over it, but I suppose that’s all right.”
“As we are British, I suppose it is.”
“Anyhow we’ve not quarrelled, Ronny.”
“Oh, that, would have been too absurd. Why should we quarrel?”
“I think we shall keep friends,”
“ I know we shall.”
MR. FORSTER’S picture of mankind is brought to life by a hundred little strokes of nature, of penetrating observation into the characteristic complex of sentiment, impulse, and motive implicit in apparently trivial acts and insignificant speeches; flickering qualms of conscience, unconscious selfdeceptions, spontaneous betrayals of bias: —
“Why not ask the Pleaders to the club?” Miss Quested persisted. “Not allowed. He was pleasant and patient, evidently understood why she did not understand. He implied that he had once been as she, though not for long.
Or to take another passage from Howard’s End:
“Money pads the edges of things,” said Miss Schlegel. “God help those who have none.” “But this is something quite new!” said Mrs. Munt, who collected new ideas as a squirrel collects nuts, and was especially attracted by those that are portable.
These last two passages are humorous. Humor is the most sustained and unquestionable of all Mr. Forster’s gifts; he brilliantly continues that delicate comedy tradition that descends through the English domestic novel from Jane Austen onwards, but adding to it a vagrant airy whimsicality all his own: —
Gathering that the wedding dress was on vievs and that a visit would be seemly, she went to Evie’s room. All was hilarity here. Evie in a petticoat was dancing with one of the Anglo-Indian ladies, while the other was adoring yards of white satin. They screamed, they laughed, they sang, and the dog barked. Margaret screamed a little too, but without conviction. She could not feel that a wedding was so funny. Perhaps something was missing in her equipment.
The demure smile implicit in these curt, charming sentences is never absent from Mr. Forster’s lips for long. Indeed, for all that the purpose of his books is so serious and their conclusions often so painful, he is essentially a comedian. Though he can be touched by his characters’ emotions, he never respects them as a tragedian does; nor does he identify himself with them. Always we are aware of the author standing a little outside his drama, judging, criticizing, observing, with an irony sometimes bitter, more often sympathetic, the hot, perplexed, undignified little bundles of hopes and aspirations, fears and desires, that he conceives human beings to be.
An incidental result of this is that he draws most successfully types who naturally provoke a smile: nervous, serious, comical maiden ladies like Miss Bartlett, and Miss Lavish; undignified, pathetic mixtures of contradictory impulses like Aziz; comically unself-conscious children of nature like Gino. On the rare occasions when he attempts to portray a grand and more dignified spirit —old Mr. Emerson in A Room with a View, for example—Mr. Forster is not so convincing. Me feel that at heart he does not believe in dignity and is with difficulty restraining himself from debunking it: indeed he can only avoid doing so by becoming sentimental. Alas the comedian, grown serious, turns all too often into a sentimentalist.
Not that there is any question of Mr. Forster being only a comedian. Blended with his comic vein and equally charact eristic of him is his poetry. He has an acute lyrical sensibility — to landscape, to music, and more especially, to the imaginative charm of the exotic, the Indian scene, the Italian scene. His response to such things is less exclusively aesthetic than Virginia Woolf’s. Romantic association counts for more in it than mere sensuous appeal to eye or ear. Always it sets his imagination to work, embodying the emotion it evokes in him in all manner of dreams and fanciful figures.
Lovely as Mr. Forster’s poetry is, it is never inconsistent with his comic spirit. The tone in which he speaks remains colloquial, the arabesques with which he decorates his vision are, as often as not, freaked with an elfish humor. “The sun rose high in its zenith, guided not by Phaeton but by Apollo, competent, unswerving, divine.”Thus he describes a beautiful autumn morning. But if it does not dissipate his comedy, Mr. Forster’s poetry modifies it. He is a romantic comedian. He satirizes from the standard not of common sense, but of uncommon sensibility. Behind the little group of precisely drawn Jane Austen figures, and making them look by contrast a trifle absurd, stretches a dreamy vista of turf and tree and filmy distance through which flit, scarcely seen, the insubstantial forms of faun and dryad.
It is an odd combination, and makes a complex impression on the imagination of the reader. Indeed the flavor of a Forster novel is eminently complex. The poet, the satirist, and the moralist all contribute ingredients to it. In the space of one paragraph Mr. Forster can he wise and flippant, censorious and lyrical. It is this variety which gives his books their peculiar fascination. After reading one of his packed, live, iridescent pages, the work of most other authors seems obvious and monotone. For the concourse of so many streams •— intelligence, fancy, observation, moral judgment — all flowing swift and high, sets the whole shimmering and foaming and frothing with an exlraordinarv and varied vitality. Every inch of surface is continuously animated by the play of mind: hardly a sentence but gives us a little shock of surprise and interest. And delight; for all the diverse elements are fused together in charming harmony by Mr. Forster’s use of language.
Style in the work of most novelists is of secondary importance. We read them for what they say, rather than how they say it. Mr. Forster’s style is a chief instrument in the pleasure his books give. Like all the best styles it is an exact mirror of its author’s mind and temperament. Not in any sense is it a grand style; there is no eloquence or burning passion in it. But it is infinitely sensitive, infinitely dexterous, infinitely graceful. In it, all his diverse qualities are to he seen deftly and fastidiously translated into his very choice of epithet, the very lilt and tempo of his light tuneful, unpredictable rhythms. Nor does complexity ever obscure beamy, Mr. Forster is like a dancer who can execute the most complicated steps easily and without making a single ugly movement:
Few things have been more beautiful than my notebook on the Deist Controversy as it fell downward through the waters of die Mediterranean It dived, like a piece of black slate, but opened soon, disclosing leaves of pale green, which quivered into blue. Now it had vanished, now it was a piece of magical india-rubber stretching out to infinity, now it was a hook again, but lugger than the book of all knowledge. It grew more fantastic as it reached the bottom, where a puff of sand welcomed it and obscured it from view. But it reappeared, quite sane though a little tremulous, lying decently open on its back, while unseen fingers fidgeted among its leaves.
WITH all these qualities Mr. Forster ought to he one of the most satisfactory of novelists. But somehow this is not so. In spite of all their brilliance and all their charm his books leave an oddly ambiguous impression in the mind. Our pleasure in them is flawed: shot through by moments of disbelief, even of discomfort. The disbelief is largely due to a technical defect, almost inevitable considering the extreme difficulty of the task he has set himself. He does not, for all his art, always succeed in harmonizing realism and symbolism. As his stories shift from one to the other, now and again we feel a jar. The symbolic episode is too improbable for the reader to maintain his illusion of everyday reality.
To lake an example: Helen Schlegel’s seduction of Leonard Bast in Howard’s End. The symbolic significance of the incident is clear. The Wilcox point of view and the Sehlegel point of view have come into conflict over Bast; Helen thinks that the Wilcoxes have ill-treated him. In order therefore to demonstrate her delianl disapproval of that, whole social system of which the Wilcoxes are pillars, she commits the most flagrant breach of its conventions of which she can think; suddenly, unpredictably, in the space apparently of a few hours, she persuades Bast to become her lover. The only trouble about the episode is that the reader cannot believe a word of it. Neither party to the intrigue is in love with the other; and Helen, for all her theoretically emancipated views, has up till then been represented as a respectable serious Edwardian middle-class lady without any unusual strength of sexual temperament and surely incapable of setting about the seduction of a timid young man of humble station with this breathtaking speed and efficiency.
Again, what are we to make of the scene in The Longest Journey where Ricky, hearing casually on a country walk that he possesses an illegitimate brother, faints dead away? Once more the symbolic intention is clear enough. The greatest shock that can befall Ricky, hidebound as he is by puritan convention, is to discover that the animal passions from which he has been taught to shrink have already made themselves known, with very practical results, in the life of his own parents. All the same it is not credible that a mature young man, even in the virtuous days of good King Edward the Seventh, should be so sensitive as actually to lose consciousness at such a revelation.
The demands of his symbolic pattern also lead Mr. Forster astray by making him go outside his creative range, and to attempt character and experience too alien for him to be able to give them imaginative life. Consider the portrait of Stephen, the illegitimate brother in question. Stephen’s function is to express that primitive virile paganism, some infusion of which is necessary for the salvation of Ricky’s soul. Primitive virility, however, of any kind is remote from Mr. Forster’s supercivilized spirit - with the result that Stephen is most unconvincing. He is credible as long as he is silent, tossing off a glass of beer at the public house, or silhouetted against the sky as he gallops on horseback over the Wiltshire downs. But when he begins to speak, it is as Mr. Forster and his friends speak. Out of his rugged lips come the incongruous accents of a gentle Cambridge undergraduate, having a cozy heart-to-heart chat with a dear friend: —
The cloud descended lower. “Come with me as a man,” said Stephen, already out in the mist. “Not as a brother; who cares what people did years back? We’re alive together, and the rest is cant. Here am I, Ricky, and there are you, a fair wreck. They’ve no use for you here—never had any, if the truth was known — and they’ve only made you beastly.”
And the masculine George Emerson, breaking down Lucy’s sexual inhibitions, addresses her in similar tones. All too often Mr. Forster’s toughs turn out to be muffs under their skins.
As a matter of fact Mr. Forster is liable to go outside his range even when he is not impelled thither by the pressure of his symbolic pattern. This range is as unusual as everything else about him. It is not confined to a single social group like Hardy’s peasants and Jane Austen’s county gentry. He can write equally about dogs and bank clerks, English spinsters and Indian students — as long as he confines himself to those sides of their characters which he understands. There are sides which he does not.
His knowledge of human nature is, as it were, patchy. Sometimes his plot takes him on to patches outside his range. Then his picture loses reality. This most frequently occurs when he touches on those elemental human relations for which he has so little instinctive feeling. The relation of parent to child for instance; of Mrs. Moore to Ronny or Mrs. Honeychurch to Lucy. Mrs. Moore and Mrs. Honeychurch are supposed to be fond of their children; yet they show none of that instinctive identification of themselves with them, that untiring preoccupation with their interests and happiness which, however marred by irritation or stupidity, is outstandingly characteristic of the maternal relation. They behave towards their children like friendly acquaintances or, at best, friendly aunts.
More acutely still does Mr. Forster’s deficiency appear when he writes of the relations between the sexes. His novels, like most other novels, involve engagements and marriages. It is not unfair to say that hardly one of them is credible. Margaret Schlegel and Mr. Wilcox, Ronny Moore and Miss Quested, Ricky and Caroline Pembroke, Lucy and Cecil: what on earth, we ask ourselves, has brought these incongruous pairs together? They have not got a thought in common with one another, nor is Mr. Forster able to account for their connection by suggesting the impelling force of animal passion. The feelings of the heroines are especially unconvincing. Since women are more instinctive than men, they are fortunately a less fit subject for Mr. Forster. His heroines are not masculine, but they are strangely sexless; nervous, honest, unaware of their bodies, preoccupied with intellectual problems. It is impossible to imagine what they looked like, or to visualize them as being of any particular age.
THE curious feeling of discomfort, however, which Mr. Forster’s books leave on the mind is due to a deeper cause: to a fundamental confusion in that moral vision which gives his books their perspective. His professed moral beliefs do not correspond to his instinctive moral feelings. Intellectually he is convinced that the divisions between human beings can be broken down by allowing the natural love of man for man to have free play, the elemental qualities common to humanity to express themselves; but in fact he himself cannot convey the presence of these qualities.
The differences between diverse types strike him so strongly that they scarcely seem beings of the same species. There is in his world no common emotional plane on which Kicky and the Pembrokes, Schlegels, and Wilcoxes find their individual differences sunk in common humanity. We do feel the conflict between Englishman and Highlander in Seott’s Two Drovers to be a tragic one, because Scott makes us so vividly aware that, in spite of the differences engendered in them by national tradition, they are in a sense brothers and, as such, should be able to live in perfect harmony with each other. In A Passage to India Indians and English appear almost as different as cats and dogs; so that there is no inner clash within the breasts of each strong enough to produce tragic tension. Further, though Mr. Forster always preaches tolerance and sympathy, involuntarily he reveals himself as not particularly sympathetic or tolerant. It is all very well to tell us that the Pembrokes in The Longest Journey were in the wrong because they were unable to enter into any point of view but their own. What signs of sympathy does Mr. Forster show of entering into their point of view? They are portrayed wholly and only as monsters of hardness and stupidity.
So in a less degree with the Wilcox family in Howard’s End. If is a basic postulate of his drama that the Wilcoxes possessed certain virtues which the Schlegels admired and lacked: good sense, practical ability, and a straightforward kindness that made them useful to society. There is in consequence something to be said on both sides in the Wilcox-Schlegel conflict. Mr. Forster, however, does not say it. He dislikes the Wilcox vices so much that he cannot do any effective justice to their virtues. The Wilcoxes are portrayed as so insensitive and complacent and materialistic that the reader cannot understand how the Schlegels or any other civilized person tolerated their company for an hour.
The question is not whether Mr. Forster is or is not justified in disliking the Wilcox type. An author is at liberty to dislike whom he feels inclined. And we — whatever our personal feelings — must, while receiving the hospitality of his world, fall in with his inclinations. But Mr. Forster has not the courage of his dislikes. He errs in trying to persuade us that he is describing something with sympathetic impartiality, when in fact he is doing nothing of the kind. Told to feel one thing and forced to feel another, the reader finds his pleasure checked by an involuntary impulse of protesting irritation.
A similar gap between intention and performance impairs the effect of moments of ecstasy — those passages when the characters, under the influence of Pan or Ceres or Krishna or whatever deity it may be by which Mr. Forster symbolizes the healing spiritual force of the natural universe, feel their souls released, to soar upwards into rapturous union with something greater than themselves: the bathing scene in A Room with a View, the laughing fight between Ansell and Stephen in The Longest Journey, the festival at the end of A Passage to India. The first two passages fail partly because the incidents they describe are not strong enough to carry the weight of significance Mr. Forster attaches to them. The deep-seated inhibitions of a lifetime are surely not to be removed by an hour’s schoolboy ragging or even by bathing naked in company. Salvation by romps is not a credible concept. But perhaps Mr. Forster does not at heart think if is either.
These scenes fail more fundamentally because they do not communicate the emotion the characters arc supposed to be feeling; so that we doubt if in fact, the author believed that they did. He would like to, but that is a different thing. The festival in A Passage to India is far better. The forces of nature in A Passage to India — mysterious, half-malevolent, half-benignant — are much more plausibly conceived. Indeed the festival is a wonderful flight of fancy, shimmering with its author’s typical blend of romantic imagination and elfin comedy. All the same, Mr. Forster hardly succeeds in conveying to us that sense of mystical exaltation which he appears to have in mind. Again, rightly or not, we are not convinced that he has himself experienced it. Rather he seems to be talking on hearsay; to be weaving a daydream of what he would like to be true, though he is not sure it is. Hearsay and wish-fulfillment dreams are not enough to convince us of the truth of a mystical vision.
No wonder Mr. Forster leaves his readers a little uncomfortable! This inability to achieve a consistent moral relation to his subject matter means that the world of his creation is fundamentally unstable. For, unluckily, that world rests on moral foundations; it is the expression of his moral vision. If that vision is incoherent, if those foundations are insecure, so also is the building that rests on them. We move through it entranced but uneasy; for we are, half consciously, aware that at any moment the whole delicate structure may come tumbling about our ears.