Most writers battle with periods of being blocked; it's almost an occupational hazard. But in the writing of his last and greatest novel, A Passage to India, EM Forster got stuck for nine years. Now that is unusual. The book took him 11 years in total to complete, which means the actual physical work – setting the words down on the page – lasted two years. All the rest was hesitation.
What tripped him up so badly? We may never know. There were two areas of his life, physical intimacy and writing, which Forster kept highly private. For the rest, his diaries and letters are full of self-examination, giving the impression of somebody free with his emotions. But he shared his sexual secrets with very few people, and in his journals he usually recorded such matters in a very oblique way. His writing he hardly mentions at all.
At the time that he embarked on A Passage, Forster was at a curious point in his creative life. All of his other published novels were written in a flurry between 1905 and 1910. He had published some short stories too, but there are strong indications that his novelistic impulses were running dry. He had started a new one, which he called "Arctic Summer", in 1911, but it had already stalled before he set out on his first visit to India and it would never be completed.
His motive for going to India was to see Syed Ross Masood, a young Indian man whom he'd befriended in 1906 and with whom he was deeply in love. The affection was lopsided: Forster had twice declared his feelings, but Masood was straight and couldn't reciprocate. Nevertheless, the two men were close, and when Masood completed his legal studies and returned to India, Forster followed a few months later.
By then, the country had already started to exercise his imagination. Masood had talked about it with Forster and had put the idea into his head of writing an Indian novel. It was enough of a possibility for Forster to have mentioned it to his publisher before he left. From the outset, the notion of an Indian novel was inseparable from Masood. "But for him," Forster reflected years later, "I might never have gone to his country, or written about it … I didn't go there to govern it or to make money or to improve people. I went there to see a friend."
He was in India for six months, from October 1912 to April 1913. He travelled a huge amount in that time, covering a lot of ground and meeting a great many people. It's easy to pick up, in his letters and diaries, how stirred he was by his experiences. And, unsurprisingly, a great deal of what he saw and heard went straight into his book. In Simla he attended an "advanced" Muslim wedding where men prayed at one end of a veranda while a gramophone played a silly English song at the other. In Lahore he was introduced to a Mr Godbole, who talked to him about ragas and sang to him as they walked through the public gardens. In Hyderabad, a friend of Masood's lost his temper and had an outburst against the English: "It may be 50 or 500 years, but we shall turn you out." Anybody familiar with A Passage to India will recognise these and many other moments.
He began writing the book in July 1913, soon after returning from India, but just two months later, in September, he dropped it in favour of Maurice, his "unpublishable" homosexual novel. The event that derailed him was a visit to Edward Carpenter in Millthorpe. Carpenter was 20 years older than Forster, a socialist and free thinker, who took a vocal stand on issues from feminism to vivisection to "homogenic love" – his term for being gay. He lived openly with his lover, George Merrill, a much younger working-class man from the Sheffield slums.
It was Merrill, in fact, who set Maurice in motion, by touching Forster's bottom in the kitchen after lunch. "I believe he touched most people's," Forster mused later, though the effect, in his case, was startling. In a moment, like a lightning flash, the plot and characters of his new novel appeared to him. He started writing it almost immediately and by the middle of the following year he was done.
He might have gone back to his Indian novel then, but didn't. Life intervened, in the form of the first world war. Forster went to Alexandria with the Red Cross, where he stayed for three years. He took his manuscript with him and tinkered with it, but it was clear that he'd lost his way. It was only after a second, year-long visit to India in 1922, this time as the private secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas, that he was able to finish.
During this nine-year gap Forster was writing other things, so it's safe to assume that a specific element of the novel was causing him trouble. Oliver Stallybrass, who collated and edited the original manuscripts of A Passage to India, believed that it was on the question of what happened, or didn't happen, to Adela Quested in the Marabar caves that Forster foundered. He points out that the extant earliest versions of the scene look like fair copies, as if previous attempts had been written out again and the originals thrown away.
This episode is, of course, central to the novel and the issue of whether Dr Aziz (partly based on Masood) is guilty or innocent is the axle on which the whole book turns. Yet when he started writing, Forster had no clear idea in mind about this essential aspect. In an interview with the Paris Review in 1952, he says: "When I began A Passage to India I knew that something important happened in the Marabar caves, and that it would have a central place in the novel – but I didn't know what it would be."
In his first drafts, Miss Quested is subjected to a physical attack, though it's not clear by whom exactly. She has just been musing to herself that she and Ronnie, her fiance, probably do not love each other. Then she becomes aware that somebody has followed her into the dark – she later assumes that it's Dr Aziz – and a violent struggle ensues, in which she fights him off.
The description is halting, unconvincing. Forster, a shy and retiring man, was never good at writing about violence, but in this instance, one feels, the action is unpersuasive because its author is only half-involved. The writer can sense that he's going in the wrong direction, but is trying to force a way through.
The solution that Forster eventually decided on is brilliant, because it is ambivalent. He doesn't show us what happened in the caves. We see Miss Quested running away down the hill, getting tangled in thorns, and all we have to go on is her feverish, half-dreamy memory of being assaulted. It's also clear that Dr Aziz is not her attacker. Perhaps the guide is responsible – or perhaps it is some kind of spiritual assailant, the evil demon of the caves themselves. Or perhaps – and this is most likely – the attack is imaginary, what a psychologist would think of as a repressed fantasy: Miss Quested is in love with Aziz, but cannot say so, or act on her feelings, and instead turns them inside out, into violence against herself.
The genius of this moment is that its lack of certainty covers all possibilities. The attack, or non-attack, is at the heart of the story, and everything turns on it. The question of whether or not Dr Aziz is guilty puts British justice, and the Raj, on trial. In that sense, it's political. But its psychology, full of repressed longings and fears, is true to the characters involved, and in that sense it's personal. The confrontation is highly charged and its power lies precisely in the fact that we don't know whether it happened at all.
Unlike many of the other elements that Forster incorporated, there is no obvious original for this event, although the setting has a basis in reality. The Barabar caves, which became the Marabar caves in Forster's version, are close to Bankipore, where Masood was living at that time. Forster was there for two weeks in the middle of his Indian travels, and he visited the caves on the day that he left.
With a man as timid and repressed as Forster, it is often what is not said that matters the most. So we have to pay attention to the fact that Forster had said goodbye to Masood the previous night. Although he was only halfway through his stay in India, they wouldn't see each other again on this visit or, indeed, for many years afterwards. He had travelled halfway around the world to spend time with his friend, but out of a six-month sojourn they were together for only three weeks – and Forster still had three months of his journey in front of him.
The impact of this parting goes almost entirely unremarked in his diaries and letters, and yet it must have been of huge importance to him. There are only faint but significant clues as to how he felt. In his diary on 27 January, the night before he leaves, he admits that he has had a "long and sad day". Then we find this cryptic entry: "Aie-aie-aie – growing after tears. Mosquito net, fizzling lamp, high step between rooms. Then return and comfort a little."
It seems that something happened between the two men that night. But what? He apparently never spoke about it to anybody else and the diary entry is frustratingly opaque. But it's almost certain that this incident, whatever it was, involved Masood and some kind of rejection. Whether he tried to touch or kiss his friend, it's clear that he made some sort of overture and was rebuffed. And the sparse, telegrammatic style of the words indicate – in his case – how deeply felt they were.
It was in this state of mind that he set off to the caves the next morning. In fact, the visit had been organised by Masood, perhaps as some kind of consolation, though he didn't get up to see his English friend off. In his journal Forster tersely notes: "Left at 6.30. After one glimpse the raw greyness." His mood, one senses, was saturated with the feeling of loss – and he carried this feeling with him into the caves a few hours later.
Is it too fanciful to imagine that everything Forster must have been experiencing that day – a confusion of love, sadness, disappointment and possibly anger – was projected on to the caves, and took form in the imagined attack? It's never explicitly stated in the novel, but it's obvious that Miss Quested is attracted to Aziz. If the assault is a fantasy, it's because her desires have no outlet – and the same could be said for Forster.
This would explain, perhaps, why he got stuck with the book, just as, emotionally speaking, he was stuck in his relationship with Masood. It would be many years – more or less around the time of his second visit to India – before things settled down between them again. By then Masood was married and a father, and Forster had made peace with the knowledge that his friend would never belong to him. By then, too, Forster had finally lost his virginity ("parted with respectability," as he put it) and had had his first physical affair with a man in Egypt during the war.
Much had been resolved at last, and on his return from India, Forster sat down to his book again. He finished it on 21 January 1924. It was dedicated "to Syed Ross Masood and to the 17 years of our friendship". He would never write another novel.
• Damon Galgut will be discussing A Passage to India at the Writer's Retreat at Edinburgh international book festival on 20 August. edbookfest.co.uk.
Damon Galgut's latest novel, Arctic Summer is published by Atlantic Books.
|E. M. Forster|
E. M. Forster, by Dora Carrington
|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)|
|Alma mater||King's College, Cambridge|
|Genre||Realism, symbolism, modernism|
|Subject||Class division, gender, homosexuality|
Edward Morgan ForsterOMCH (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 in early 20th-century British society, notably A Room with a View (1908), Howards End (1910), and A Passage to India (1924), which brought him his greatest success. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 16 different years.
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. 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. 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 (£802,290 as of 2015 of which £1,735,000 were in sovereigns [1883 tr.oz.]) from his paternal great-aunt Marianne Thornton (daughter of the abolitionist Henry Thornton), who died on 5 November 1887. 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.
At King's College, Cambridge, between 1897 and 1901, 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.
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. In the First World War, as a conscientious objector, Forster volunteered for the International Red Cross, and served in Alexandria, Egypt.
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 his last novel, 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.
After A Passage to India
In the 1930s and 1940s Forster became a successful broadcaster on BBC Radio and a public figure associated with the Union of Ethical Societies. In addition to being a broadcaster, he advocated individual liberty, 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 Indian Section of the BBC from 1941 to 1943. 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. He developed a long-term relationship with Bob Buckingham (1904–1975), a married policeman. 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.
From 1925 until his mother's death at age 90 on 11 March 1945, Forster lived with her at West Hackhurst, Abinger Hammer, finally leaving on or around 23 September 1946. 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.
Forster was elected an honorary fellow of King's College, Cambridge, in January 1946, 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. He declined a knighthood in 1949 and was made a Companion of Honour in 1953. 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. In 1969 he was made a member of the Order of Merit. Forster died of a stroke on 7 June 1970 at the age of 91, at the Buckinghams' home in Coventry. His ashes, mingled with those of Buckingham, were later scattered in the rose garden of Coventry's crematorium, near Warwick University.
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.
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 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 condottieroSigismondo 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.
This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it.(August 2012)
Forster's first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread, was described by reviewers as "astonishing" and "brilliantly original".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."Lionel Trilling remarked on this first novel as "a whole and mature work dominated by a fresh and commanding intelligence".
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." 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".[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.[page needed]
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.
Notable works by Forster
Plays and pageants
Collections of essays and broadcasts
Notable films based upon Forster's fiction
See also: Category:E. M. Forster in performing arts
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- General portals