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. Forester’s novel Maurice, about a homosexual couple, was published, according to his wishes, after his death in 1971, as was a collection of his unambiguously homosexually themed short stories entitled The Life to Come.

Forster’s decision to have his more overtly gay-themed works published only after his death bears some examination. Forster was open about his homosexuality 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 A Passage to India

Long before Forster first visited India, he had already gained a vivid picture of its people and places from a young Indian Muslim named Syed Ross Masood, whom Forster began tutoring in England starting in 1906. Forster and Masood became very close, and Masood introduced Forster to several of his Indian friends. Echoes of the friendship between the two can be seen in the characters of Fielding and Aziz in A Passage to India. By the time Forster first visited India, in 1912, the Englishman was well prepared for his travels throughout the country.

At the time of Forster’s visit, the British government had been officially ruling India since 1858, after the failed Sepoy Rebellion in 1857, in which Indians attempted to regain rule from the British East India Company. The East India Company, a privately owned trading concern, had been gaining financial and political power in India since the 17th century. By the time of Forster’s visit, Britain’s control over India was complete. English governors headed each province and were responsible to Parliament. Though England had promised the Indian people a role in government in exchange for their aid during World War I, India did not win independence until three decades later, in 1949.

Forster spent time with both Englishmen and Indians during his visit, and he quickly found he preferred the company of the latter. He was troubled by the racial oppression and deep cultural misunderstandings that divided the Indian people and the British colonists, or, as they are called in A Passage to India, Anglo-Indians. The prevailing attitude among the British in India was that the colonists were assuming the “white man’s burden”—writer Rudyard Kipling’s phrase—of governing the country, because the Indians could not handle the responsibility themselves. Forster, a semi-closeted homosexual living in a society and era largely unsympathetic to his lifestyle, had long experienced prejudice and misunderstanding firsthand. It might be of little surprise, then, that Forster felt sympathetic toward the Indians. Indeed, Forster became a lifelong advocate for tolerance and understanding among people of different social classes, races, and backgrounds.

Forster began writing A Passage to India in 1913, just after his first visit to India. The novel was not revised and completed, however, until well after World War I and his second stay in India, in 1921, when he served as a private secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas State Senior. Finally published in 1924, A Passage to India examines the racial misunderstandings and cultural hypocrisies that characterized the complex interactions between Indians and the English toward the end of the British occupation of India.

Forster’s style is marked by his sympathy for his characters, his ability to see more than one side of an argument or story, and his fondness for simple, symbolic tales that neatly encapsulate large‑scale problems and conditions. These tendencies are all evident in A Passage to India, which was immediately acclaimed as Forster’s masterpiece upon its publication. It is a traditional social and political novel, unconcerned with the technical innovation of some of Forster’s modernist contemporaries such as Gertrude Stein or T.S. Eliot. A Passage to India is concerned, however, with representing the chaos of modern human experience through patterns of imagery and form. In this regard, Forster’s novel is similar to modernist works of the same time period, such as James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925).