E. M. Forster (1879-1970)

Edward Morgan Forster was the only child in a comfortable London family in 1879. His Welsh father, an architect, died of tuberculosis before his son was two years old, leaving the boy to be raised by his Anglo-Irish mother and great‑aunt. These women remained influential over Forster for much of his life, which may have some connection to the presence of many strong female characters in his novels. In 1887, Forster inherited a sizeable inheritance in the form of a trust from a paternal great-aunt. His family wealth meant that he could pursue a career as a writer without having to earn a living. Forster went to a day school in Kent and proved to be a bright student. Starting in 1897, he attended King’s College at Cambridge University, where he studied classics and history and thrived in the intellectual climate where he met many individuals who would remain long-time friends.

Forster graduated from Cambridge in 1901—the same year that Queen Victoria died, ending a reign that had begun in 1837—and resolved to pursue his writing. He spent much of the next decade traveling and living abroad, dividing his time between working as a journalist and writing short stories and novels. The years between the turn of the century and World War I were an optimistic time for England. As liberal Edwardian ideals slowly moved in over the old Victorian ways, a general optimism began to prevail, manifested in the belief that man might be made better through a more liberal education. Throughout his life, Forster stressed the importance of individuality and good will, emphasizing his belief in humanity's potential for self-improvement.

Forster’s travels during this period included to Italy and Greece with his mother, out of his admiration of the classical pasts of those countries, and to Germany, where he worked as a tutor to help hone his understanding of language. He also had what would prove to be his largest outburst of published works during that decade as well, starting with Where Angels Fear to Tread in 1905, and followed by The Longest Journey (1907) and A Room with a View (1908).

Many of Forster’s observations and experiences from this time figure in his fiction. Where Angels Fear to Tread is the story of a young English widow’s love for an Italian man and her shocked English family’s efforts to reclaim her from Italy. Most notably, however,  A Room with a View chronicles the experiences of a group of English people vacationing in Italy. (Forster wrote the first half of A Room with a View during a stay in Italy with his mother.) The novel shows his support for the new, liberal social behaviors of the Edwardian age, in contrast to the more sober ideals prevalent during Queen Victoria's reign. Even in his early work, Forster's style distinguished itself as lighter and more conversational in diction than the English novelists who preceded him. His critical yet sympathetic views of people and their interactions marked him as a master of character and societal analysis. His novel Howards End was published to great public acclaim in 1910. In that novel, Forster criticized the class divisions and prejudices of England, solidified his reputation as a social critic and a master of incisive observational fiction.

A Passage to India, which Forster had begun in 1913, was published in 1924 and is known as his most complex and mature work. It would also prove to be the last major work of fiction by Forster published during his long lifetime. Forster also published short stories, essays, and the famous critical work, Aspects of the Novel (1927). He also collaborated with Eric Crozier on the libretto to the opera Billy Budd, Sailor (1951), composed by Benjamin Britten and based on the Herman Melville novel. His novel Maurice, about a gay couple, was published, according to his wishes, after his death in 1971, as was a collection of his short stories entitled The Life to Come, which dealt with similar themes of homosexuality.

Forster’s decision to have his more overtly gay-themed works published only after his death bears some examination. Forster was open about his sexuality only with his close friends. Although he had fallen in love before, notably with a young Indian man named Syed Ross Masood who he was tutoring in 1906, he did not have sex until he was nearly 40 years old—with a British soldier while working on a job for the British Red Cross in Alexandria, Egypt, as a conscientious objector during World War. He would go on to have other male lovers, including a long-term relationship with a married policeman named Robert Buckingham, and remained close to Buckingham and his wife May for the rest of his life.

In the many years between the publication of A Passage to India in 1924 and Forster’s death in 1970, he traveled some, lived in various places—including in a village in Surrey with his mother until a year after her death in 1945. In 1946, Forster was made an honorary fellow of King’s College, where he stayed for most of the rest of his life. During this time, he received many honors, and turned down a knighthood in 1949, although he accepted an Order of Merit in 1969. Forster was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 20 separate years, but never one it. He wrote and worked sparingly, although he lectured and made broadcasts. When Forster died of a stroke in 1970 at the home of his friends the Buckinghams in Warwickshire he was 91.

Forster’s works began a period of revival in the 1980s and early 1990s when several of his most notable works were made into largely excellent and well-received movies by a series of sympathetic film makers. Director David Lean’s 1984 adaptation of A Passage to India received numerous Academy Award nominations and wins, as did the 1985 film version of A Room with a View by the producer-director team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, for which screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala won a screenwriting Oscar for best adapted work. Merchant and Ivory followed up in 1987 with their sensitive adaptation of Maurice. Five years later, in 1992, the same team made an adaptation of Howards End that received Best Picture and Best Director nominations for Merchant and Ivory, and for which Ruth Prawer Jhabvala won her second screenwriting Oscar. Where Angels Fear to Tread was brought to the screen by director Charles Sturridge in 1991.

Background on Howards End

The acclaim that Forster achieved in 1910 for Howards End, exceeded what he had been given for his previous novels, and some critics consider it to be his best novel. A symbolic exploration of the social, economic, and philosophical forces at work in England in the years before World War I, Howards End uses three families (the Schlegels, the Wilcoxes, and the Basts) to explore the competing idealism and materialism of the upper classes, as well as to explore the belittling effects of poverty on the human soul. The widespread praise that Howards End won due to its deft treatment of a large theme help reinforce Forster as one of England's most important writers—a reputation he would hold for the rest of his life in spite of his relatively small output of fiction works after it (and particularly after A Passage to India was published in 1924).

Forster's style is marked by his sympathy for his characters, his ability to see more than one side of a single story, and his fondness for simple, symbolic stories that neatly encapsulate large-scale problems and conditions. These tendencies are all evident in Howards End, which also features a highly nuanced exploration of gender relations in the post-Victorian era.