HE DEATH OF D.H. Lawrence in 1930 left Englad with two very different novelists of the first rank, Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster. They were born three years apart and were, most of the time, friends if notintimates. Woolf, afflicted by bouts of breakdown and depression, drowned herself in 1941 at the age of 59. Forster, the pessimist in literature but the optimist in life, lived into his 92nd year, dying of a stroke in 1970. New Year's Day will mark the centenary of his birth, an auspicious time for P.N. Furbank's beautifully written, comprehensive biography to be in the bookstores, and an appropriate occasion for a reappraisal of Forster whose literary reputation, once preeminent, has tended to wane as Virginia Woolf's has waxed.
During his lifetime Forster published only five novels, four of them-Where Angels Fear to Tread, A Room With a View, The Longest Journey and Howards End -in one five-year period between 1905 and 1910. The fifth, A Passage to India , usually considered his masterwork, was published in 1924. A sixth, Maurice , was completed in 1914 but because of its explicitly homosexual theme was not published until after his death. It did not, in any case, enhance his reputation, being clearly his worst novel. Nor did the act of writing it free his creative impulse for other works, as he had hoped.
The "central preoccupation" of Forster's life, Furbank tell us, was friendship, and he was a friend to many, including his chosen biographer, who knew him during Forster's last years at King's College, Cambridge. "He believed-literally, and as more than a sentimental clichethat the true history of the human race was the history of human affection," and all his novels reflect that primary of human feeling over social form. "Only connect," he stated in Howards end , and his life was dedicated to that commandment. Nothing was more important.
In an essay written in 1938 for The Nation and later entitled "What I Believe," he made his famous statement: ". . . if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friends, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." In that same controversial piece he wrote, "I believe in aristocracy . . . Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky"-all of which Forster was. "He was frequently described as 'shy'," Furbank writes in the moving penultimate chapter telling of his own 23-year friendship with the novelist, "but this too was a misnomer. What was certainly true was that he was timid: that is to say, he did not like to be hurt. He was, and wished to be, sensitive; and . . . sensitiveness made him vulnerable . . ."
He wrote to T.E. Lawrence, whom he was scheduled to visit the day Lawrence was killed, "A world of infinite suffering, but of limited cruelty: that's what one has to face."
The Forster "enigma" (if, indeed, it is one) is why he stopped writing novels after the enormous success of A Passage to India , published in 1924 but began before the war. Forster was convinced he would never write another novel, and of course he didn't.Furbank considers three explanations, the first being that he was uncomfortable with success-"wrecked," as Freud put it in his paper on the subject-and certainly Forster's attitude toward the acclaim he received was ambivalent. The second-one that Forster himself sometimes proffered-was that as a homosexual he grew bored with writing about the relations of men and woman. As an explanation, that seems more in the nature of an excuse. The third consideration a very general one but probably the most imporatant, is that he had only one novel in him. "I don't mean this in the vulgar sense that the repeated himself," Furbank writes: "I mean that he received his whole inspiration-a vision, a kind of plot, a message-all at once, in early manhood. He became an artist because of that early experience, an experience of salvation, and his inspiration as a novelist always harked back to that monent of enlightenment."
Forster himself, who was tormented by writing blocks even in his most creative period, analyzed in 1911 the causes of his sterility: "1. Inattention to health-curable. 2. Weariness of the only subject that I both can and may treat-the love of men for women & vice versa. Passion & money are the two main springs of action (not of existence) and I can only write of the first & of that imperfectly . . . 3. Depressing & enervating surroundings. My life's work, if I have any, is to live with a person who thinks nothing worth while."
The person Forster referred to was his mother, a difficult and possessive woman. His father died of tuberculosis when the boy was 22 months old and he was reared in a kind of smothering comfort by his mother (who never remarried and died in 1944 at the age of 90) and his aunts. He was a favored child of the upper-middle class but cruelly separated from the comradeship of boys and men. One "deeply cherished and lifelong daydream," Furbank says, " was to have a loving brother with whom he could share his secrets." But he had none nor could he share his "secrets" with anyone until he was much older and found friends-whom he assiduously cultivated and was devoted to-and occasionally and briefly love, always with a man of a lower class and often of another culture. "Nothing lasts" he often said.
Forster spokes once of the relationship between art and life. "The original experience-of the kind called human, but really fatuous and shallow-is of no importance and may take any form.Soon it goes, and the comtinual births and deaths of such are part of the disillusionment and livingness of this our mortal state. We do constantly invest strangers and strange objects with a glamour they cannot return. But now and then, before the experience dies it turns a key and bequeaths us with something which philosphically may by also a glamour but which actually is tough. From this a book may spring. From the book, with the violence and persistency that only art possesses a stream of emotion may beat back against and into the world." "History develops," he wrote in Aspects of the Novel , "Art stands still." And in that same valuable book-first given in 1927 as the Clark Lectures at Cambridge-he wrote, "The intensely stifling human quality of the novel is not to be avoided; the novel is sogged with humanity; there is no escaping the uplift or the downpour, nor can they be kept out of criticism. We may hate humanity, but if it is exorcised or even purified the novel wilts; little is left but a bunch of words."
Which is, when you think on it, about what is left of Forster now, but the words have not wilted and the life itself was indeed "sogged with humanity." Creation "always represented for [Forster] the supreme pleasure," Furbank writes, "but he refused to regard it as his sole raison d'etre in life; he told himself he had other resources and must make do with them." And he did, writing and speaking for liberal causes, and helping his friends with his time and his money.
Writing again to T.E. Lawrence in 1928, Forster said, "But when I die and they write my life they can say everything." Furbank has done that, and superbly, in this tough, detached but affectionate, and finally engrossing book. Forster's life, like the lives of most of us, was often muddled, as he put it, but there is nothing muddled about Furbank's life. It is an exemplary biography, dedicated-a nice touch-to E.M.F.
Francis King's book, E.M. Forster and His World , is more interesting for its 122 illustrations than for its text, but the pictures are usefully looked at in conjunction with Furbank's Life . The text itself is adequate as far as it goes. It is simply not in the same class as P.N. Furbank's masterful work.