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News > Arts & Culture > EM Forsters novels aren’t just fiction – they’re guides for life

EM Forsters novels aren’t just fiction – they’re guides for life

Sky Arts series follows EM Forster's huge growth as a writer and the twists and turns of his personal life

 
Telegraph author Rupert Christiansen celebrates distinguished OT author EM Forster's (DB 1893-1897) writing to mark new Sky Arts series, EM Forster: His Longest Journey.

The following article was published in the Telegraph in October 2019: 

There was only one reason I wanted to go to King’s College, Cambridge, and it wasn’t the chapel or the choir, a celebrity don or a family connection: it was the knowledge that EM Forster had been an undergraduate there, and that he felt so warmly towards the place that he had returned after the war, at the college’s invitation, to live in a set of rooms overlooking King’s Parade. He died at the age of 91 in 1970, a few years before I went up, but many people I knew remembered him vividly, and his presence remained strangely palpable – whenever I walked past his door on A staircase, I felt like a pilgrim at a shrine, hopeful that some evidence of his ghost would miraculously manifest itself. But it did not oblige.

Greedily but superficially, I had read all his novels as a teenager, enjoying the unbuttoned ease and dry social comedy of A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread, while only dimly sensing the subtly subversive challenges to the prejudices and conventions of post-Victorian society proposed by mature works such as Howards End and A Passage to India.

Since then, all these tales have stayed close to my heart, weathering not only several more stringent re-readings but also glossy costume-drama adaptations of variable quality and the revelations of the man’s many foibles offered by warts-and-all biographies increasingly candid about his homosexuality. My affection and respect for Forster continues to grow: I believe him to have been a profoundly good man and that like Tolstoy’s his fiction is a source of wisdom that can guide one through life.

A new Sky Arts documentary, unpretentious and free of gimmicks, provides a useful introduction to his story and the implications of his thinking. It takes its title from Forster’s novel The Longest Journey, published in 1907 and written shortly after Where Angels Fear to Tread and before Howards End. It’s not an easy read: the jerky, uneven movement of the plot, the opaque motivation of some of the characters and the schematic symbolism that shapes its setting probably explains why it remains relatively little known, even less loved and so far unfilmed (though there is now something in the pipeline).

Forster himself knew that he hadn’t pulled it off, berating himself in his diary for giving the material “too little flesh and blood”. Yet he also said that of all his novels, it is “the one I am most glad to have written” because it allowed him “to come nearer to getting down what I had inside me”. This rawly confessional edge gives the book its peculiar urgency – an urgency that allowed Lionel Trilling, one of his earliest champions and most astute critics, to rank it as “the most brilliant, the most dramatic and the most passionate of his works”.

Its central figure, Rickie Elliott, is the nearest Forster came to a self-portrait. A student at Cambridge with ambitions to become a writer, Rickie is a shy, unassertive and slightly disabled young man who ends up taking a job teaching at a mediocre public school and marrying the bluntly unimaginative Agnes against everyone’s advice and his own inner promptings. The second half of the novel introduces Stephen Wonham, a drunken and uninhibited child of nature, ignorant of civilised restraints and detested by the respectable Agnes, who turns out to be Rickie’s half-brother. Rickie is inexorably attracted to Stephen in ways that he (and the novel) can’t fully acknowledge, and when Stephen falls drunk on to a railway line, Rickie almost masochistically sacrifices his own life to rescue him.

The novel’s title is borrowed from lines in Shelley’s poem Epipsychidion expressing the poet’s feeling that he cannot commit to follow “the longest journey” – life – along only one path or in the company of only one individual: there are so many forms of love and so many possible truths. Rickie’s tragedy is that society won’t allow him the freedom to explore: it forces him to conform to narrow norms that divert him from his true calling as a writer and repress his erotic nature, too. Implicit in the story is a quest for ecstatic release, embodied in the figure of the great god Pan, referenced frequently in the book.

Forster himself was able to write, of course (thanks to a legacy left him by his formidable intellectual aunt Marianne Thornton), but allowing himself to act on his homosexual impulses was the great struggle that dominated the first half of his life – Forster did not lose his virginity until 1917, 10 years after the publication of The Longest Journey, when he was nearly 40. Until that liberating moment, the only channel for his desires had been the writing of rather bad masturbatory short stories and Maurice, a fantasy novel of romantic fulfilment that the moral temper of the times prevented him from publishing.

Forster later said he had spent much of his life being consumed by lust, but he really didn’t think it had done him much harm and he felt furious with society for associating his longings with sin, evil and crime. From the Twenties onwards, he fought back: he became sexually very active, and found steady fulfilment in his intimate relationship with a married policeman called Bob Buckingham. What is typical of Forster is that he soon became equally devoted to Buckingham’s splendid wife, May, who appears to have known what was going on and accepted it: he died at the age of 91 holding her hand. Love for him was never exclusive. It could break all barriers and make sense of everything: or as Helen Schlegel puts it in Howards End: “Human relations are the important thing for ever and ever.”

Forster famously said of the Greek poet C P Cavafy that he wrote “at a slight angle to the universe” – a phrase that could equally be applied to Forster himself. Politically, he committed to “two cheers for democracy” but insisted that only love deserved a third. Today, that sounds like facile hippie talk, but in the Thirties and Forties, it was an unpopular position: siren calls were being made to sign up to the ideological absolutes of religion or atheism, pacifism or militarism, Fascism or Communism. All of these Forster resisted. He would not conform, he did not judge, and he pooh-poohed the temptations of earthly power and glory: instead, he continued to deplore pomposity, bullying and hypocrisy and to attempt to understand the other point of view – “to connect the passion and the prose” as he put it in Howards End. At a time when he who shouts loudest is in danger of prevailing, his quiet still voice, speaking up for reasoned tolerance and humane affection, remains vital.

EM Forster: His Longest Journey is available to watch and download on Sky Arts.

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