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Infidels, Freethinkers, Humanists, and Unbelievers
Forster, Edward Morgan (1879-1970)
"Faith, to my mind, is a stiffening process, a sort of mental starch, which ought to be applied as sparingly as possible.... I do not believe in it for its own sake at all."

-- Edward Morgan Forster


Edward Morgan (E.M.)Forster was an English novelist, short story writer, and essayist. He is most famous for his novels, most of which have been filmed. Forster is also known for a creed of life which can be summed up in the epigraph to his 1910 novel Howards End, "Only connect". A certain amount of controversy relates to the fact that Forster was homosexual but did not make this fact public during his lifetime.

Life
Born in London, the son of an architect, he was to have been named Henry but was baptised Edward by accident. Among his ancestors were members of the Clapham Sect. As a boy he inherited £8000 from his paternal aunt Marianne Thornton, daughter of the abolitionist Henry Thornton, which was enough to live on and enabled him to become a writer. He attended Tonbridge School in Kent as a day boy.

At King's College, Cambridge between 1897 and 1901, he became involved with the Apostles (formally named the Cambridge Conversazione Society), a discussion society. Many of its members went on to constitute what came to be known as the Bloomsbury Group, of which Forster was a peripheral member in the 1910s and 1920s. There is a famous account of Forster's Cambridge and that of his fellow Apostles at the beginning of The Longest Journey.

After leaving university he travelled on the continent with his mother and continued to live with her at Weybridge and Abinger Hammer in Surrey until her death in 1945. His early novels, set in England and Italy, were praised by reviewers but did not sell in large quantities. It was Howards End (1910) that made him famous.

He travelled in Egypt, Germany and India with the classicist Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson in 1914. Doing war work for the Red Cross in Egypt, in the winter of 1916-17, he met in Ramleh a tram conductor, Mohammed el-Adl, a youth of seventeen with whom he fell in love and who was to become one of the principal inspirations for his literary work. Mohammed died of tuberculosis in Alexandria in spring of 1922.

After this loss, Forster was driven to keep the memory of the youth alive, and attempted to do so in the form of a book-length letter, preserved at King's College, Cambridge. The letter begins with a quote, "Good-night, my lad, for nought's eternal; No league of ours, for sure." and concludes with the acknowledgement that the task of thus resurrecting their love is impossible.

He spent a second spell in India in the early 1920s as the private secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas state (senior branch). The Hill of Devi is his non-fictional account of this trip. After returning from India he completed A Passage to India (1924) which became his most famous and widely-translated novel.

Forster wrote no more novels after A Passage to India, and little fiction apart from short stories intended only for himself and a small circle of friends. Some critical debate has concerned the question of why he gave up writing novels.

In the 1930s and 1940s Forster became a successful broadcaster on BBC radio. He also became a public figure associated with the British Humanist Association.

Personally speaking, Forster had a happy relationship beginning in the early 1930s with a constable in the London Metropolitan Police, Bob Buckingham. He developed a friendship with Buckingham's wife May and included the couple in his circle which also included the writer and editor of The Listener J.R. Ackerley, the psychologist W.J.H. Sprott and, for a time, the composer Benjamin Britten. Other writers Forster associated with included the poet Siegfried Sassoon and the Belfast-based novelist Forrest Reid.

After the death of his mother, Forster accepted an honorary fellowship at King's College, Cambridge and lived for the most part in the college doing relatively little. He died in Coventry at the home of the Buckinghams.

Novels
Forster had five novels published in his lifetime and one more, Maurice, appeared shortly after his death although it was written nearly sixty years earlier. A seventh, Arctic Summer, he never finished.

His first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), is the story of Lilia, a young English widow who falls in love with an Italian, and of the efforts of her bourgeois relatives to get her back from Monteriano (based on San Gimignano). The mission of Philip Herriton to retrieve her from Italy has something in common with that of Lambert Strether in Henry James's The Ambassadors, a work Forster discussed ironically and somewhat negatively in his book Aspects of the Novel (1927). Where Angels Fear to Tread was adapted into a film by Charles Sturridge in 1991.

Next, Forster published The Longest Journey (1907), an inverted bildungsroman following the lame Rickie Elliott from Cambridge to a career as a struggling writer and then a schoolmaster, married to the unappetising Agnes Pembroke. In a series of scenes on the hills of Wiltshire which introduce Rickie's wild half-brother Stephen Wonham, Forster attempts a kind of sublime related to those of Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence.

Forster's third novel, A Room with a View (1908) is his lightest and most optimistic. It was started before any of his others, as early as 1901, and exists in earlier forms referred to as 'Lucy'. The book is the story of young Lucy Honeychruch's trip to Italy with her aunt, and the choice she must make between the free-thinking George Emerson, and the repressed aesthete Cecil Vyse. George's father Mr Emerson quotes thinkers who were influential on Forster including Samuel Butler. A Room with a View was filmed by Merchant-Ivory in 1987.

Where Angels Fear to Tread and A Room with a View can be seen collectively as Forster's Italian novels. Both include references to the famous Baedeker guidebooks and concern narrow-minded middle-class English tourists abroad. Many of their themes are shared with some of the short stories collected in The Celestial Omnibus and The Eternal Moment.

Howards End (1910) is an ambitious Condition of England novel concerned with different groups within the Edwardian middle classes represented by the Schlegels (bohemian intellectuals), the Wilcoxes (thoughtless plutocrats) and the Basts (struggling lower-middle-class aspirants).

A feature frequently observed in Forster's novels is that characters die suddenly. This is a feature of Where Angels Fear to Tread, Howards End and, most notoriously, The Longest Journey.

Forster achieved his greatest success with A Passage to India (1924). The novel is about the relationship between East and West, seen through the lens of India in the later days of the British Raj. In it, Forster connected personal relationships with the politics of colonialism through the story of the English Adela Quested and the Indian Dr Aziz and the question of what did or did not happen between them in the Marabar Caves.

Maurice (1971) was published after the novelist's death. It is a homosexual love story which also returns to areas familiar from Forster's first three novels such as the suburbs of London in the English home counties, the experience of being at Cambridge, and the wild landscape of Wiltshire.

Key themes
Forster's views as a secular humanist are at the heart of his work, which often features characters attempting to understand each other, in the words of Forster's famous epigraph, across social barriers. His humanist views are expressed in the non-fictional essay What I Believe.

Forster's two most noted works, A Passage to India and Howards End, explore the irreconcilability of class differences. Although considered by some to have less serious literary weight, A Room with a View is also notable as his most widely read and accessible work, remaining popular for the near century since its original publication. His 1914 novel Maurice, published posthumously in 1971, explores the possibility of reconciling class differences as part of a homosexual relationship.

Sexuality is another key theme in Forster's works and it has been argued that Forster's writing can be characterized as moving from heterosexual love to homosexual love. The foreword to Maurice expresses his struggle with his own homosexuality, while similar themes were explored in several volumes of homosexual-themed short stories. Forster's explicitly homosexual writings, the novel Maurice and the short-story collection The Life to Come, were published shortly after his death and caused controversy.

 
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