The Complexities of E. M. Forster

SELECTED LETTERS OF E. M. FORSTER, Vol. II (1921-1970) edited by Mary Lago and P. N. Furbank, Harvard University Press, $20.00.
WRITING TO Lionel Trilling in 1955, E. M. Forster exercised his curiosity by speculating playfully but not quite frivolously about the respective social status of the five senses. “I started considering why sight and hearing have more prestige than the others,” he said. “Once I had a theory that they were held to be superior because they could be shared with other people: several people can look at the same Grecian Urn, but they cannot swallow the same drop of claret. This leaves out poor old smell, though: no sense is morally inferior to smell.” That’s a sample of the complicated Forster revealed in his letters. Who else would write mock-pityingly of “poor old smell,” exhibiting at the same time both a liberal impulse to correct an unfairness and an aristocratic impulse to satirize sentimentality? Not to mention his concern, which surfaces everywhere, with hierarchies of moral superiority.
The first volume of Forster’s letters was published last year. It included letters to his mother and to his friends from school and from Cambridge; from his early European—largely Italian—travels; from Nassenheide, in Germany, where he was an English tutor in a family; and from England, where he re-installed himself in 1905, writing a lot to the Indian Syed Ross Masood, an early crush to whom he dedicated A Passage to India seventeen years later. He wrote from India during his first visit there, in 1912— 1913, to see Masood; and he wrote from Alexandria, where during the Great War he served in the Wounded and Missing Bureau of the Red Cross, trying to ascertain from soldiers in the hospitals what had happened to men listed as “Missing.” “The regular and definite work,” he wrote Masood from a hospital, “has stopped me thinking about the war, which is a mercy, for in England I very nearly went mad.” In Alexandria he was distracted also, by a tender affair with a young streetcar conductor, Mohammedel-Adl, whom Forster loved dearly but who died of tuberculosis in 1922.
This second and final volume contains Forster’s descriptions of the comedies attending his “secretarial” work for the Maharaja of Dewas, in 1921, and the surprising success of A Passage to India, in 1924. He delivered the Clark lectures at Cambridge, which were published as Aspects of the Novel (1927). In 1930 he met Bob Buckingham, the policeman who became his lifetime love. Buckingham’s marriage, two years later, did little to diminish Forster’s interest in him, and it was to the Buckinghams’ house that, forty years later, he was carried to die. During the thirties he was active in various international writers’ organizations opposing totalitarianism and censorship, and after war broke out, he broadcast, largely to India, for the BBC. As a result there are some admirably firm letters abusing the BBC’s administrators for their wartime timidity about broadcasting criticism of anything except the enemy. To one acquaintance distressed by his published sneers at Mrs. Miniver, the great fictive prototype of unimaginative British bravery and privilege, he wrote: “The closing down of criticism, and the division of criticism into ‘responsible’ and ‘illegitimate’ are two of the things I am out against, and whose victory would in my judgment hasten the coming of darkness.” Asked by a BBC producer to say what he felt about the war, Forster answered: “WhatI feel about the war.I don’t want to lose it. ... I can’t join in any ‘build-a-newworld’ stuff. Once in a lifetime one can swallow that, but not twice.”
Freedom opened before him in 1945, when his mother died: she had treated him like a little girl, he said. It was then that he was taken into his old Cambridge college, King’s, as a fellow, with a comfortable room and no duties. One of the most exciting jobs in his latter days was helping Benjamin Britten with the libretto of Billy Budd, and he also kept his blood circulating by more traveling in India—he was now in his mid-sixties— and in the United States, which he admired for its complex anomalies. He wrote to Buckingham: “Chicago—is— oh well, a facade of skyscrapers facing a lake, and behind the façade every type of dubiousness.” In 1961 he corresponded enthusiastically with Santha Rama Rau, whose dramatization of A Passage to India was a hit in England and the United States. Before the New York production Forster advised her earnestly about the courtroom scene: “MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL the nude beautiful punkah wallah”—the bottom-caste Indian who moves the fan hanging from the ceiling. In the production at Nottingham, Forster noted, he was “neither beautiful nor nude,” with the result that the effect was enfeebled. Forster wrote letters to the last—curious, assertive, affectionate, focusing on “the things that have most interested me in life, . . . personal relationships and the arts.”
A MAN OF LETTERS obsessed with friendship and who lives into his early nineties is likely to write a lot of letters. Forster wrote some 15,000, and his editors, Mary Lago, an American professor of English, and P. N. Furbank, the author of the excellent standard biography (1977), have had to select severely: they print only 446. One effect of this rigorous selection is to make Forster seem more benign and controlled than he always was. Although the editors do show him on occasion snotty and angry and childishly stubborn, especially with publishers and reactionary Anglo-Indians, they have stopped short of including Forster’s bizarre letter of April, 1961, telling his old friend W. J. H. Sprott, whom he had appointed his literary executor, that he was too drunken to do the job responsibly. “Long may you . . . continue to swill,” he wrote, but really, being a literary executor requires an undamaged brain. Again, when Forster learned that Bob Buckingham wanted to get married, he threw crazy physical tantrums. The letter to Sprott printed in this selection describes these mildly and abstractly: “When I cannot ‘get what I want’ I have tempers . . . they are canny & calculating & non-suicidal and I hate them.” Much more damaging is another description Forster sent Sprott the same day, which this selection omits, although Furbank included it in his biography: “Attacks take the form of sudden yelps, contortions, pretence fainting-fits, and the hitting of parts of my body that don’t hurt against objects in the room that aren’t valuable.” Sudden yelps? From the author of Howards End and Marianne Thornton?
Sprott was clearly a correspondent to whom Forster could speak frankly. Others were fellow homophiles Joe Ackerley, Christopher Isherwood, and Siegfried Sassoon, although Sassoon began to disappear as a correspondent once he had committed the apostasy of marriage. If Forster could never reveal much of the truth about himself to his mother, he did to another woman, the admirable Florence Barger, his most sympathetic confidant in his Alexandria affair with Mohammed-el-Adl. With his French translator, Charles Lauron, he talked literature; with the Cambridge don Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, love, morals, aesthetics, and that pressing late-Victorian subject, their interrelation. With a cadgy T. E. Lawrence he flirted. He exhorted Constantine Cavafy, in Alexandria, to produce more poems, and George Valassopoulo to translate them, so that Cavafy’s work could be properly appreciated in England. He wrote fan letters generously, to Virginia Woolf (of whom usually he was not terribly fond), Robert Bridges, and A. E. Housman, and his motive was not any desire to sidle up to greatness. He often wrote authors quite unknown, like the New Zealand novelist Frank Sargeson: “I would like you to know how much your work interests me.” But to Buckingham he could be surprisingly bitchy, rebuking him for his hail-fellow superficiality, his hobbyism, and his nervousness about social class. Smitten with jealousy, Forster was not above ridiculing Buckingham’s pleasure in rowing, waiting once, after his friend had proudly won a trophy, “Was very pleased to see you win your little piss-pot.”
Clad in his tacky, nondescript clothes, and emitting his little titter, Forster struck many people as shy and reclusive, but actually his resemblance to a mouse was external only. With all his enthusiasm for Only Connecting and for Love, the Beloved Republic, he was mighty tough, and his principles were unbending, as some of his correspondents learned — like the sahib venturing to wonder about the accuracy of A Passage to India, who was told: “I really don’t endorse anything you say in your letter!” Or the secretary of P.E.N., which had innocently allied itself with a cunning travel agent’s scheme to convey groups of the faithful to Skyros for the unveiling of a monument to Rupert Brooke. “I regret,” Forster wrote him, “that I must terminate my connection with the P. E.N.” Its crime had been to publicize, a little, the travel agent’s cruise, which “appears to be a purely commercial undertaking, aggravated by every circumstance of bad taste.” At one point he informed Gerald Brenan that “booksellers are dishonest” and publishers largely morons: “It is my fate and perhaps my temperament to sign agreements with fools.” To Sassoon he wrote, “Dear me, one doesn’t like many people.” You’d have to go far to find someone morally more critical than Forster. “He was deceptively cozy,” Stephen Spender remembers, “but gave many people (myself most decidedly included) a sense of moral uneasiness a lot of the time.” So much so that a good moral test of any current action—meddling in Central America, for example—could be, What would Forster think of it? (Try this on school prayer, or snitching on girls who get diaphragms at public expense.)
READERS OF THESE letters may look for answers to some teasing questions. For one: How could a writer of Forster’s sensitivity, wit, and clear-sightedness put on so embarrassingly silly and inert a performance as his posthumous homophilic Maurice? He imagined that it was unpublishable during his lifetime because of British puritanism. But actually it was unpublishable because it is bad, with its implausible plot, its unreal motivations, and its melodramatic, distorted vision of the actual social world, Forster knew perfectly well, and asserted often at international conferences, that there’s no necessary connection between social justice and art, that art must freely construct its shapes regardless of social and political consequences. Yet he desired so fervently a redeemed world that would “understand" homosexuals, he was so besotted with fantasies of ideal friendships, in which faithful male lovers lived ecstatically in the perpetual “greenwood,” that with Maurice he allowed his critical faculties to slumber and produced the sort of propaganda that normally he scorned. Nowhere visible in the work is the irony attending Forster’s notion of “poor old smell,” not to mention A Passage to India, where he perceived that human hopes are bound to turn out badly because they are human hopes. Maurice is utterly unironic, and thus utterly humorless, and thus not human. Yet when Forster wrote one friend that two others agreed that “it is beautiful and the best work I have done,” he did not demur. He told T. E. Lawrence, who had begged off reading the manuscript, that he should be acquainted with Forster’s homoerotic writings “if you want to sum me up.” Alas, too true. His blindness about Maurice indicates that even so sensitive an artist was not immune to thematic adhesions capable of travestying his art. “An intensely self-critical man,” his editors call him. Not always, as the letters make touchingly clear.
Another question readers may hope these letters will answer: Why, after A Passage to India, did Forster publish no more novels? He was at the height of success, celebrated everywhere, poised for a career as a novelist to equal or surpass Woolf’s, Conrad’s, even Hardy’s. Yet he quit, and for his remaining fortysix years turned out radio talks, essays, reviews, family memoirs, travel pieces, family biography, a local pageant—and coy, “unpublishable” short stories. Even while at work on A Passage to India, in 1923, he sensed that he had reached some sort of turning point. To Sassoon he wrote, “I shall never write another novel after it,” and offered as a reason: “My patience with ordinary people has given out.” But in 1966, when the American scholar Wilfred Stone, the author of a critical study of Forster, wondered about the matter, Forster answered: “I have been racking my brains and can find no reply to this very reasonable question. I can only suggest that the fictional part of me dried up.” Perhaps the truth is that the more respectable fictional part dried up and the “romance” urge took over, daydream ousting the world of presentable social data. While remaining tough-minded about politics, war, coercion, censorship, stupidity, and other facts of the real world, imaginatively he hankered increasingly for the greenwood. In his dreams the nude beautiful punkah wallah of pastoral and romance finally displaced the Adela Questeds and Cyril Fieldings of the novel. In Forster’s vulnerability to that sort of fantasizing there’s something moving, and something that positions him near the center of the Edwardian and Georgian secret “aesthetic” culture. In our own day of frankness, not to say exhibitionism, it can hardly be understood. These letters help. □