A passage to maturity: E. M. Forster learned, late, how to love

April 10, 1994|By Brian Murray

E. M. Forster died in 1970 -- in the same decade that brought Jimmy Carter, Fleetwood Mac and the start of Margaret Thatcher's political career.

But this hardly seems possible. Today, when we think of Forster (born in 1879), we recall an utterly different era, a vanished world. We think of turn-of-the-century England with its colony and its king.

Forster was, in fact, writing and publishing throughout the 1930s and '40s. He produced many fine essays and stories nearly right up until 1965, when -- at age 86 -- he had a stroke that severely curtailed his pace.

But he wasn't writing novels during all those years. And when we think of Forster, we think first of the novels he published during a brief span early in his career, including "Where Angels Fear to Tread" (1905), "A Room With a View" (1908) and "Howards End" (1910). We think of "A Passage to India," the last novel Forster published in his lifetime, appearing when he was only 45.

In more recent years, these novels of course have been turned into highly successful films. For many, then, to think of Forster is to think also of David Lean, or more probably Merchant and Ivory.

Thus Nicola Beauman's "E. M. Forster: A Biography" arrives at a time when interest in its subject is high. Her book first appeared last year in Britain under the title "Morgan" -- as Forster was known to friends. It is the first major Forster biography to appear since 1977, when P. N. Furbank's "Life" appeared to wide acclaim.

Mr. Furbank's book, published in two volumes, is very well-written and thoroughly researched. Inevitably, Ms. Beauman covers much of the same ground. But for the most part, she has produced a very different book, one that emphasizes more fully Forster's psychological history and his sexual development.

By doing so, she brings some new facts and persuasive insights to the study of Forster's life and work. For example, she insists that Forster's relationship with his mother, the long-lived Lily, was far more complex -- and oppressive -- than previous biographers, including Furbank, had appeared willing to believe.

Ms. Beauman describes Lily Forster as "over-possessive," suggesting that she maintained a "tentacle-like" relationship with her son. Lily encouraged Forster to keep writing and publishing but actually "resented her son's achievements." She quotes Forster himself as noting that his mother "is always wanting me to be 5 years old again."

The effect of all this maternal smothering on Forster's art is not made hugely explicit in Ms. Beauman's argument. She does note that Forster's characters are often constrained or limited by the demands of propriety. They are "sexually flustered." One of his "key themes" is "the disparity between people's deeply felt beliefs and feelings" and "what they pretended to think and feel; how the whole social structure in which one is so comfortably ensconsed would collapse if one suddenly declared, but I love him, or I am too irritated by you to continue with this charade, or underneath it all I am deeply, deeply unhappy."

Forster, as Ms. Beauman relates, was himself deeply unhappy with his own homosexuality -- at least for much of his life. On this subject, she is more extensive than Furbank and previous writers on Forster's life. Indeed, in the end, this biography is essentially an account of Forster's erotic and romantic life -- of his rather slow sexual education. At 30, Forster was still a bit fuzzy on the details of human reproduction. He had few relationships of his own -- fleeting or otherwise -- until well into his 40s and had gained a firmer sense of security and freedom to go along with his growing literary fame.

"The longing for love, the need to love," Ms. Beauman observes in a rather typical aside, "was something that Morgan had himself preached in his novels; how unutterly sad that he himself had found no one on whom to lavish this love."

Ms. Beauman's frank account of Forster's long relationship with Bob Buckingham is particularly worth noting. A Coventry policeman, Buckingham was one of Forster's great loves, and he emerges here as a staunch and likable fellow who clearly contributed much to the happiness that Forster did come to know in his later decades.

As a critic of Forster's novels, Ms. Beauman proves interesting if not always fresh; she is strongest when discussing the importance of place -- of location and landscape -- to his characters and plots. "A constant theme in his works," she perceptively notes, "would be disappearing houses, people displaced from their normal surroundings, the importance of an ancestral home." She further writes: "The spirit of place and the need to cherish it would be lifelong food for the imagination."

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