The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1948
E. M. Forster
It is twenty four years since E. M. Forster published his last novel. In it he fully revealed the wealth of his imagination, the richness of his mind, his deep humanism and mature wisdom. Yet his admirers somewhat wistfully continue to voice dim protests at his sustained silence and express vague hopes that this man who appears so satisfactorily to have achieved his own personal integration will make a further statement of his faith through his chosen medium, the novel. Instead, a silence, almost ominous, rings in their ears and they find no response. There remains as an undertone only an echo which unlike the utterly dull bou-oum of the Marabar caves, carries with it the voiceless cries of Gino, Mrs. Wilcox, the Emersons and others of the elect. And what of this echo? Has Forster in his five novels and few short stories shed such of his wisdom as he cares to shed content to leave it to his readers to decide whether life is a 'mystery or a' muddle'? Certainly he has posed the question. It is not always easy to decide what his answer is or indeed whether he has really given one. There, perhaps, lies the subtle fascination of his novels. Particularly in the first four, where are interspersed the oddest coincidences and the most unlikely happenings which culminate in situations little short of pure allegory. Ansell's fantastic entry into the dining-hall, in 'The Longest journey', followed by his denouncement of his friend Rickie before the whole school, is a supreme example. And yet the reader is left feeling that however unlikely, it somehow remains true.
Forster is filled with a profound, uncertainty. In this some see his inherent weakness, his ultimate failure. To others the knowledge that life is transitory, unpredictable and never entirely understood, that to follow the anticipated course, or to realize their potential good is a fundamental truth. human beings can never he quite relied on Because Forster perceived this so clearly they see in his work so much that is true concerning people. For it is with people that Forster is always concerned. The 'inner life' and 'personal relationships' are his key phrases. As he develops he endeavours to relate these to man's social setting. From 'Howards End' (1910) in which this is attempted we span fourteen years to 'A Passage to India' (1924) where all the forces of man and nature are rallied to discover the unity, the hidden synthesis which perhaps underlies human kind and the world it inhabits. Again for some the shadowy figure of Mrs. Moore is a vague and futile creation of a mind stumbling at half-truths. But others find reposing in this woman much of the essential mystery of life. For she is a member of the silent kingdom of individuals who know and always have known and in whom the secret of living is realized from some hidden primal source. How or why it is revealed we are not told. Nor can we expect to be told. Our knowledge comes from knowing such persons and divining in them the force of nature which makes their lives so potent and so complete. This power of recognition implies some life of the spirit in us and the potentiality for entering into personal relationships with our fellow men, which if real and vital lead us to some awareness of the world of which we are part, the all-embracing world of nature.
Thus in each of Forster's novels we have some person who is the touchstone, some elemental character in whom is vested all living forces, who has perhaps 'been back somewhere—back to some table of the Gods, spread in a field wherein there is no noise', or like Gino 'who was majestic, part of Nature'. Forster's appeal is not to the divine in man but to his essential human nature. Indeed life does not believe in immortality or in eternal life. Elsewhere he says. 'The people I respect must behave as if they were immortal and as if society was eternal. Both assumptions are false: both of them must be accepted as true if we are to go on eating and working and loving and are to keep open a few breathing holes for the human spirit'.* Through all his work there is a pervading page 7 sense of transitoriness, a realization of man's impermanency and instability. 'There is much good luck in the world but it is luck. We are none of us safe.' And yet for some few people, those who are miraculously in harmony with the real world about them, life has meaning and they are fulfilled. This quality of one-ness with the world may be inherent in the individual as in the elemental Stephen Worham or it may be acquired through an act of conversion. Thus 'Philip . . . was happy; he was assured there was greatness in the world. There came to him an earnest desire to be good through the example of this good woman. He would try hence-forward to be worthy of the things she had revealed. Quietly, without hysterical prayers or banging of drums he underwent conversion. He was saved.' Just how convincing Forster's 'real' people are may be seen from a closer examination of his books.
Forster is greatly lauded by some, faintly praised by others for his famous 'charm'. His work indeed has charm. At times it spells out an almost magical beauty. It is the work of a rich and subtle imagination able in rare moments so to harmonize the soul and cosmos as to wake wonder and profound joy in the percipient. It has the quality of great music and affects the senses in the same way. In the 'Longest Journey' there is an incident in the half-brothers' journey to Wiltshire.'. . . But they played as boys who continued the nonsense of the railway carriage. The paper caught fire from the match and spread into a rose of flame. "Now gently with me," said Stephen, and they laid it flower like on the stream. Gravel and tremulous weeds leapt into sight, and then the flower sailed into deep water, and up leapt two arches of a bridge. "It'll strike!" they cried, "no it won't, it's chosen the left ", and one arch became a fairy tunnel, dropping diamonds. Then it vanished for Rickie; but Stephen, who knelt in the water, declared that it was still afloat, far through the arch, burning as if it would burn for ever.' This comes at the conclusion of notable chapter and has the effect of lifting the whole story into the world which Stephen himself inhabits. It is idle to mock such charm even if elsewhere Mrs. Wilcox's wisp of hay (with the dew on it) does perhaps become tiresome.
Forster is not primarily concerned with plot or story. How is it then that his books are all in a sense violent, starkly coincidental, sprinkled with shocks? His people die suddenly. 'Gerald died that afternoon. He was broken up in the football match' comes quite without warning. Leonard breaks up; Gino's baby is killed in a carriage accident; Rickie is run over by a train. Forster's purpose is to bring the fact of death sharply before his readers. Most men he has said are conscious of the idea of death, few know death. He is prepared then to trespass beyond normal bounds of probability in an effort to emphasize what he has to say concerning human nature and human relationships. The important point being that within such limits as he does impose we feel strongly impelled to accept as true all that happens. This because he writes with a convincing sincerity, at times passionate in its appeal to the reader.
None of his people are entirely good or wholly evil. The strange contradictions he reveals are at first 'confusing and we are left wondering quite how to interpret them. This is not accident on Forster's part. Mrs. Moore who knows the truth lifts no hand to save Dr Aziz. Does Forster retrospectively justify her action by Aziz's subsequent acquittal? Both Gino and Stephen Wonham, sons of nature are capable of coarseness, deceit and brutality. Yet they are majestic; are heroes. They are a law unto themselves and rightly. It is said of Rickie in 'The Longest Journey' that he 'suffered from the Primal Curse, which is not—as the Authorized Version suggests—the knowledge of good and evil, but the knowledge of good-and-evil'. This is basic to Forster's philosophy of life; a part of his profound uncertainty. He regards with deep suspicion divinely inspired absolute moral laws. The knowledge of good-and-evil then is the Primal Curse. It is no wonder that none of his people satisfy the longing of some for black or white outright. Instead they meet greys of varying depth and intensity and only if particularly obtuse fail to identify some such curious blending in themselves.
Forster is both artist and craftsman. He binds each of his stories together not so much by the people in them as by significant buildings and places. These assume almost symbolical reference and recur again and again, giving ballast and centrality to his work. Thus 'Howards End the home of Mrs. Wilcox page 8 is the focal point and to it is continually related the outside world of London—paradox of commerce and culture. Both the 'Longest journey' and 'A Passage to India' are divided into three component parts to form an integrated whole. Cambridge, Sawston and Wiltshire in themselves distinct and separate, have each their human counterpart in Ansell, the Pembrokes and Stephen Wonham respectively. Rockie is the centrifugal force about whom the story plays. Again in 'A Passage to India', the Mosque, Caves and Temple present three aspects of man's inner life. The unifying link being Mrs. Moore. She it is who meets Dr Aziz in the Mosque, who visits the Marabar Caves with him and whose memory wakes in the mind of Professor Godbole in the Temple. 'He had with increasing vividness, again seen Mrs. Moore, and round her faintly clinging forms of trouble. He was a Brahman, she Christian, but it made no difference, it made no difference whether she was a trick of the memory or a telepathic appeal. It was his duty, it was his desire, to place himself in the position of the God and to love her, and to place himself in her position and to say to the God: "Come, come, come, come". This was all he could do. How inadequate! But each according to his own capacities and he knew that his own were small.... "Such a passage has more than charm; it is irradient with an Oriental beauty. Peter Burra has ably described the three parts of these two books as ' planned like symphonies in three movements that are given their shape and their inter-connections by related and contrasted localities'. This is so. And particularly in 'A Passage to India' do we travel beyond mere words. Truths which find comprehension in the same way that music is comprehended. A total response is called direct from the human heart. An invocation to mingle with the Gods of Truth and Beauty and the more tangible Deities who are the stars and night and earth and hills and long-winding rivers of water which flow to limitless seas. Such is Forster's appeal.
All this is only hinted at in his earlier novels. For he has more direct concerns. 'Where Angels Fear to Tread' (1905) and 'A Room with a View' (1908) might be read solely as highly amusing social comedies. Admittedly the former ends on a tragic vein with the sudden death of Gino's child after Harriet has kidnapped her, but explicit in both is the contrast between life in suburban England on the one hand and in Italy—land of sunshine and laughter—on the other. The conventions as against the natural and spontaneous, the distinction between the real and the pretended. Both are novels of personal drama. In 'Where Angels Fear to Treads the hero is undoubtedly Gino, the Italian son of a local dentist who marries Lilia, a widowed middle class suburban Englishwoman. She dies in childbirth and the story from then on centers around the surviving child of two alien worlds. She (Caroline) was silent. This cruel vicious fellow knew of strange refinements. The horrible truth, that wicked people are capable of love stood naked before her and her moral being was abashed. It was her duty to rescue the baby and save it from contagion. and she still meant to do her duty. But the comfortable sense of virtue left her. She was in the presence of something greater than right or wrong.' The conflict then is between love and arid moral duty. Forster leaves no doubt as to which is the real and which the pretended.
Likewise in 'A Room with a View ' Lucy's refusal to recognize her love for George brings an impassioned plea from George's father. 'You must marry or your life will be wasted. You have gone too far to retreat. I have no time for the tenderness, and the comradeship and the poetry and the things that really matter and for which you marry. I know that with George you will find them and that you love him. Then be his wife. He is already part of you. . . . It isn't possible to love and to part. I know by experience the poets are right: love is eternal.' But more, love is real, and Lucy must recognize this, forsake pretence. It requires only that she be true to her inner self. Nothing in the world is more important than that.
'The Longest Journey' (1907) comes in point of time between the two novels just discussed. But in effect it is the synthesis of these two in which all the problems there implied or expressed are here presented in a heightened emotional form. It is a far greater book than the other two and one in which. Forster attempts to reconcile the fundamentalpage break page break page 9
problems of the true relationship of human beings one with another and with the universe. If he fails it is a splendid failure. The conflict again is between the real and the pretended. The urgent need for the human spirit to remain unclouded and unimpeded by the corrupting influence of social conventions. It is a little disconcerting to find that the touchstone is the elemental Stephen Wonham to whom ultimately all problems are referred for their final answer. Stephen is the symbol of life. He is a man of fine limbs, great physical strength and little learning. An agnostic reared on the Wiltshire Downs among the shepherds, his bed often as not the hills, his companions the stars and wind in the trees in the mystic circle of the 'Rings'. One who has been far back and sat with the Gods in the fields of Elysium. In his company his half-brother Rickie is at long last brought to realize 'The man (Stephen) was right and would have been lovable. He longed to be back riding over those windy fields, to be back in those mystic circles, beneath pure sky. There they could have watched and helped and taught each other until the world was a reality and the past not a torn photograph but Demeter the Goddess rejoicing in the spring. Ah, if he had seized those high opportunities! For they led to the highest of all, the symbolic moment, which if a man accept he has accepted life'. And so Rickie accepts Stephen. He leaves his wife who has wed him to the conventions and joins Stephen and his Cambridge friend Anse11, who ' kept away and somehow saved himself'. He (Rickie) stood behind things at last and knew that the conventions are not majestic, and that they will not claim us in the end.' Out of the chaos had emerged one fierce burning light. Stephen was a hero. He was a law unto himself and rightly. He was great enough to despise our small moralities. This evening Rickie caught Ansell's enthusiasm and felt it worthwhile to sacrifice everything for such a man." His disillusionment soon follows. Inexplicably the light turns dim, splutters and dies out. Stephen breaks a solemn promise to Rickie who now 'remembered that Stephen was a law unto himself. He had chosen to break his word and would break it again. Nothing else bound him. To yield to temptation is not fatal for most of us. But it was the end of everything for a hero.' Rickie is finally ruined. From the bridge the whole constellation was visible and Rickie said "May God receive me and pardon me for trusting the earth" . . . then he leant against the parapet and prayed passionately for he knew that the conventions would claim him soon.' Soon after he is killed, while rescuing Stephen who lay drunk on a railway crossing nearby. While we are convinced of Rickie's failure, can we accept Stephen as the apotheosis of mankind? Has Forster unwittingly falsified the situation and endowed Stephen with qualities which he could not conceivably possess. I believe this to be so. 'Forster's fundamental error consists of invoking the spiritual principle and then referring it for its ultimate sanction—not to God, to the supernatural, a resort which would have had the effect of thoroughly disequilibrizing Forster's mental pattern and bringing it to a new and revolutionary centrality—but to Nature.'† There is a basic inconsistency in Forster's appeal to Nature. Thus he says, 'There is indeed another coinage that bears on it not man's image but God's. It is incorruptible and the soul may trust it safely; it will serve beyond the stars. But it cannot give us friends, or the embrace of a lover, or the touch of children, for with our fellow-mortals it has no concern. . . . Have we learnt the true discipline of a bankruptcy if we turn to such a coinage as this? Will it really profit us so much if we save our souls and lose the world?' No, Forster proclaims, for Stephen has saved his soul who has turned not to God but to the earth and stars and deep dark rivers of night. Where then is the point of contact between the spirit of man and nature? Wherein lies the real union between the external world of nature and man's soul? Forster does not tell us for in Stephen there is no true union. The last we know of him as the book closes is that he had fled with his girl child to sleep out on the hillside. Thinking of the departed Rickie it is said,' . . . The body was dust, and in what ecstacy of his could it share? The spirit had fled in agony and loneliness, never to know it had bequeathed him salvation. . . . One thing re-mained that a man of this sort might do. He bent down reverently and saluted the child: to whom he had given the name of their page 10 mother. 'Man turns in the night not to God but to man. To his own kind. Although the soul must trust God who is 'beyond the stars' Stephen turns to his own child for therein lies man's fulfilment. Forster has rejected the supernatural which' is incorruptible and which the soul may trust' in favour of—Nature.
It has been suggested that Forster, conscious of his failure here turned outwards to the relationship of people and society. 'Howards End' is an intense plea for the recognition of the inner life of the individual. It explores the country of the heart. But it goes further. It attempts a reconciliation between the life of personal relations and the outer life of 'telegrams and anger'. 'Only connect . . .' urges Forster. And his story endeavours to show us that such a connection is achieved. Margaret marries Henry Wilcox. A cultured and leisured woman of independent means, she at last realizes that the Wilcoxes have some real worth, do really live. Shortly before her marriage she remarks to her sister Helen, 'If Wilcoxes hadn't worked and died in England for thousands of years, you and I wouldn't sit here without having our throats cut. There would be no trains, no ships to carry us literary people about in, no fields even. Just savagery. No—perhaps not even that. Without their spirit life might never have moved out of protoplasm. More and more do I refuse to draw my income and sneer at those who guarantee it.' Such then are the Wilcoxes, chief of whom she marries. Margaret is an ostensibly cultured person, vitally concerned with the arts and the true integration of the human personality. A passionate believer in personal relationships. Henry Wilcox is none of these things. I am not a fellow who bothers about my own inside.' Rather is he an Empire-builder, an ever-expanding business man, obtuse to personal influence, intellectually confused, crudely conscious of the material world and no more. Between these two worlds Forster imposes a connection. Somehow the diametrically opposed are found mutually compatible. Nor is there implied any necessary subordination of the one to the other. Henry does not suddenly in a moment of clairvoyance divine the hidden spirit and testify to its supremacy. How then is the gap bridged, the irreconcilable harmoniously joined? Both Margaret and Henry are brought low by personal tragedy — Helen's pregnancy and Charles' imprisonment. But in the healing atmosphere of 'Howards End' in which the ghost of Mrs. Wilcox still lingers, all is redeemed. 'Nothing wrong has been done.' The book is very beautiful but not finally convincing. If a connection is to be established between a person such as Margaret and another such a connection could only be real if it were made with some one to whom the 'inner life' was also a reality. Forster has postulated the truth and validity of this inner life and then attempted to forge a union with one to whom it is unreal and of no significance. With one in whom it is not so much as preconceived and then consciously or unconsciously derived. Either Margaret is not what we are presumed to infer, a symbol for a higher life, or else Forster has falsified the relationship. In either case he has failed satisfactorily to achieve a real connection.
Throughout 'Howards End' there runs as a frequently recurring sub-theme the topic of money. 'When your socialism comes', says Margaret, 'it may be different and we may think in terms of commodities instead of cash. Till it comes give people cash, for it is the warp of civilization whatever the woof may be. The imagination ought to play upon money and realize it vividly for it's the—the second most important thing in the world, but so few of us think clearly about our own private incomes, and admit that independent thoughts are in nine cases out of ten the result of independent means.' Perhaps this is true for the people with whom Forster is primarily concerned, the middle class Edwardian Englishman. But it has no necessary application to real genius in any age. History through the centuries has produced men in whom, despite utmost poverty, the human spirit has so flowered as to leave for all time expressions of rare beauty; eternal truth. If this world has riches other than those of which Mr. Wilcox was mindful, and Forster asserts repeatedly that it has, then how can it be consistently said 'Talk as one would, Mr. Wilcox was king of this world, the superman with his own morality, whose head remained in the clouds'? Mr. Forster's subtlety has surely confounded its creator.
'A Passage to India' is Forster's last pronouncement. It suffers from none of the defects of his earlier novels for it is a work conceived in universal terms and expresses the thought of two civilizations. It is in a sense an impersonal work although paradoxically enough finds its tangible reference in terms of the growth of a friendship between East and West, between Fielding a liberal English educationalist and Dr Aziz, a Moslem doctor. Throughout as an undercurrent is the intangible indeed mysterious figure of Mrs. Moore who, like Mrs. Stephen or Mrs. Wilcox, Gino or the Emersons in the earlier novels, is the touchstone, the elemental being to whom all is somehow related. And pervading the whole story are the Caves, the Marabar Caves. It is here that the novel finds its climax when Miss Quested, whom Dr Aziz has accompanied on a visit to one of the caves, fears she has been assaulted and later accuses the Moslem of attempting to molest her. Dr Aziz is imprisoned and when at his trial his conviction seems assured, Miss Quested breaks down and withdraws her charge. She is no longer certain as to what really happened. Throughout, Fielding has stood by Aziz in protesting his innocence. Such is the framework around which Forster's imagination has worked to produce something that is more than a commentary on India and the English. For in the result it is a work of deep beauty. All the Gods, Hindu, Christian and Moslem alike, are invoked, none accepted, none rejected. The limitless plains, rugged hills and whispering trees fuse into the mystic night of the vast starry Indian night. Perhaps all find expression in the deathless echo of the Marabar Caves which so affected Mrs. Moore. ". . . the echo began in some indescribable way to undermine her hold on life. Coining at a time when she chanced to be fatigued it had managed to murmur "Pathos, piety, courage—they exist, nothing has value ". If one had spoken vileness in that place or quoted lofty poetry, the comment would have been the same—"oy-boum".'
There is no finality in A Passage to India ', no answer, no ultimate salvation offered, no way of life proffered as the certain path to fulfilment. For life is a mystery. In it certain things are tangible, for the rest, only a few are born with the knack of knowledge. Mrs. Moore was one such and she died weary and ill on a ship at sea.
It is, of course, too early to assess Forster's place in English literature. But that his work is completed there can be little doubt. Apart from occasional writings nothing has come from his pen since 'A Passage to India. Nor need we expect more. For age has only confirmed what he has always felt, that 'tolerance, good temper and sympathy—they are what matter really' and no more need be said.
* *What I Believe—Hogarth Press 1939.
† D. S. Savage in Writers of Today. Ed. Denys Val Baker.