Who is E.M. Forster?
Edward Morgan Forster OM CH (1 January 1879 – 7 June 1970) was an English fiction writer, essayist and librettist. Many of his novels examine class difference and hypocrisy, including A Room with a View (1908), Howards End (1910) and A Passage to India (1924). The last brought him his greatest success. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 16 separate years.
Forster, born at 6 Melcombe Place, Dorset Square, London NW1, a building no longer standing, was the only child of the Anglo-Irish Alice Clara “Lily” (née Whichelo) and a Welsh architect, Edward Morgan Llewellyn Forster. He was registered as Henry Morgan Forster, but accidentally baptised Edward Morgan Forster. His father died of tuberculosis on 30 October 1880 before Morgan’s second birthday. In 1883, he and his mother moved to Rooks Nest, near Stevenage, Hertfordshire until 1893. This served as a model for Howards End in his novel of that name. It is listed Grade I for historic interest and literary associations. Forster had fond memories of his childhood at Rooks Nest.
Among Forster’s ancestors were members of the Clapham Sect, a social reform group within the Church of England. Forster inherited £8,000 in trust (the equivalent of about £990,000 in 2017) 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 as a day boy Tonbridge School in Kent, where the school theatre has been named in his honour, although he is known to have been unhappy there.
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 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 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.
In 1904, Forster travelled in Greece and Italy as he was interested in their classical heritage. He then sought a post in Germany so that he could learn the language, and he spent several months in the summer of 1905 in Nassenheide, Pomerania, (now the Polish village of Rzędziny) working as a tutor to the children of the writer Elizabeth von Arnim; he wrote a short memoir of this experience which was one of the happiest times in his life.
In 1906 he fell in love with Syed Ross Masood, a 17-year-old Indian future Oxford student he tutored in Latin. Masood had a more romantic, poetic view of friendship, confusing Forster with avowals of love.
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. As a conscientious objector in the First World War, Forster served as a Chief Searcher (for missing servicemen) for the British Red Cross in Alexandria, Egypt. Though conscious of his repressed desires, it was only at this time, while stationed in Egypt, that he “lost his R [respectability]” to a wounded soldier in 1917.
Forster spent a second spell in India in the early 1920s as private secretary to Tukojirao III, Maharajah of Dewas. The Hill of Devi is his non-fictional account of this period. After returning to London from India, he completed the last novel of his to be published in his lifetime, A Passage to India (1924), for which he won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. He also edited the letters of Eliza Fay (1756–1816) from India, in an edition first published in 1925. In 2012, Tim Leggatt, who knew Forster for his last 15 years, wrote a memoir using unpublished correspondence with him dating from those years.
Forster was awarded a Benson Medal in 1937. In the 1930s and 1940s Forster became a notable broadcaster on BBC Radio, and while George Orwell was the BBC India Section talks producer from 1941 to 1943, he commissioned from Forster a weekly book review. Forster became publicly associated with the British Humanist Association. In addition to his broadcasting, he advocated individual liberty and penal reform and opposed censorship by writing articles, sitting on committees and signing letters.
Forster was open about his homosexuality to his close friends, but not to the public. He never married, but he had a number of male lovers during his adult life. 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. He was a close friend of the socialist poet and philosopher Edward Carpenter, and it was a visit to Carpenter and his much younger lover George Merrill in 1913 that inspired Forster’s novel Maurice, which is partly based on the couple.
In 1960, Forster began a relationship with the Bulgarian emigre Mattei Radev, a picture framer and art collector who moved in Bloomsbury group circles. He was Forster’s junior by 46 years. They met at Long Crichel House, a Georgian rectory in Long Crichel, Dorset, a country retreat shared by Edward Sackville-West and the gallery-owner and artist Eardley Knollys. Forster lived in this house, home of his friends Robert and May Buckingham, and died here on 7 June 1970. The sign on the wall above the garage door marks the 100th anniversary of his birth
From 1925 until his mother’s death at age 90 in March 1945, Forster lived with her at the house West Hackhurst in the village of Abinger Hammer, Surrey, finally leaving in 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. After a fall in April 1961, he spent his final years in Cambridge at King’s College.
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. According to his friend Richard Marquand, Forster was highly critical of American foreign policy in his latter years. This was one of the reasons why he consistently refused offers to adapt his novels for the screen, because Forster felt that such productions would inevitably involve American financing.
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, Warwickshire. His ashes, mingled with those of Buckingham, were later scattered in the rose garden of Coventry’s crematorium, near Warwick University.