Paul O’Flinn


Them and Us in Literature


3. Forster and Personal Relationships

She’s Leaving Home for a Room with a View

The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was one of the best pop LPs in the past ten years. Part of its success lay in the way it captured some of the most powerful notions lying around in our society. One idea in particular comes up in several lyrics. In A Little Help from My Friends there’s:

I just need somebody to love

and in Within You Without You there’s:

With our love – we could save the world if they only knew.
Try to realise it’s all within yourself.

Then there’s this in She’s Leaving Home:

She’s leaving home after living alone
For so many years. Bye, Bye
Friday morning at nine o’clock she is far away
Waiting to keep the appointment she made
Meeting a man from the motor trade.

So, agreed, the world’s in a mess, it needs saving. Even at home we lead separate, lonely lives. The way out of the mess is to find somebody to love. They may have dreary connections (don’t we all) – say in the motor trade – but get together and within yourselves you can hack out an area where you can live liveable lives. As Getting Better puts it:

I have to admit it’s getting better
It’s getting better since you’ve been mine.
Me used to be a angry young man
Me hiding me head in the sand
You gave me the word
I finally heard
I’m doing the best that I can.

Most people would agree with that. If all life was about was making profits for the people you work for all week, then any sane person would go crazy. It’s personal relationships and the happiness and the refuge they provide that hold a lot of people together. and stop them blowing their brains out. Without somebody to love, what’d be the point of it all?

One of the exciting things about the novels of E.M. Forster is the way he probes beyond this idea, one of the central beliefs in our society. He sets it up, tests it, sees how fat it stands up and works and sees where it begins to break down and fall apart.

In a talk broadcast in 1946, Forster noted that “my books emphasise the importance of personal relationships and the private life, for I believe in them.” This belief evolved and changed, however, reshaped by Forster’s own experiences. At first personal relationships are presented in his novels as the thing that makes life worth livingg. They’re the way we escape from a society gone dismal and absurd. But in his later work this view is revised and those relationships, though still prized, are seen not as a refuge from social pressures but rather as the first victims of such pressures. Part .of the way we realise that society has become vicious and needs changing is the way~ that it again and again aborts the efforts of people to relate normally and lovingly to one another. You can’t get out of soeiety and hide in personal relationships because those relationships are seen as precisely the point where we feel social controls and distortions at their sharpest.

But Forster was a long way from this discovery in his first novels. In them, the belief that we can somehow hide within ourselves and with our friends has no limits. Philip Herriton, the hero of Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905) insists: “Society is invincible – to a certain degree. But your real life is your own and nothing can touch it.” A Room with a View (1908) builds this notion right into its title. English society is mad. Lucy Honeychurch, the heroine, gets out of it by meeting not a man from the motor trade but a socialist, George Emerson. They elope to Italy and there they throw away middle-class inhibitions and blinkers and honeymoon in a room with a view – a view across the city of Florence, a view of life and its fullest possibilities.

In both of these novels and also in a third, Arctic Summer, which Forster began in 1911 but never finished, it’s Italy that’s the key. There, out in the sun and away from the dull suffocations of English Puritanism, people dare to come alive, dare to relate passionately to one another instead of just sniffing warily at each other. Two problems here. First, if personal relationships .are to carry the weight that Forster wants them to, he has to show them working in an English setting. And second, more practically, after 1922 it became difficult even for liberals to have illusions about the uniquely liberating nature of Italian sun and air with Mussolini installed in power.

As early as 1910 Forster tried to show personal relationships triumphing against an English setting. The novel’s called Howards End and it’s full of a sense of menace and submerged violence. “Life’s going to be melted down, all over the world,” concludes one of the characters. Against this prospect, personal relationships are placed as a refuge in the shape of a marriage between the liberal Margaret Schlegel and the conservative Henry Wilcox. But it doesn’t convince. Both are empty shells by the end. Margaret has dumped her earlier radicalism and hasn’t replaced it with anything. Henry is a broken-down businessman wearily arranging his will.

Then in 1913 at the age of 34 Forster’s world changed. He realisei that he was a homosexual. In that year tie had made several visits to Edward Carpenter’s communal farm near Sheffield. Carpenter was part mystic, part socialist, part sexual revolutionary. In 1896 the Labour Press had published his Love’s Coming of Age which included a veiled defence of homosexuality as well as an examination of the sexual exploitation of women. There’s a good brief account of his life and work in Sheila Rowbotham’s Hidden from History.

Anyway, on his second or third visit to Carpenter’s farm Forster’s homosexuality, suppressed till then, emerged. He wrote:

he (Carpenter) and his comrade George Merrill combined to make a profound impression on me and to touch a creative spring. George Merrill also touched my backside – gently and just above the buttocks. I believe he touched most people’s. The sensation was unusual and I still remember it, as I remember the position of a long vanished tooth. It was as much psychological as physical. It seemed to go straight through the small of my back into my ideas, without involving my thoughts. [1]

Forster’s dim, deep sense of frustration, which is there in Howards End and which blocked his attempts to finish new novels like Arctic Summer and A Passage to India, evaporated at once. He wrote the first draft of a new novel, Maurice, in three months.

In its final version then novel presents us with Maurice Hall and takes him through his awful, sexually repressive public school to Cambridge. There he has a mild affair with Clive Durham, a fellow student. Clive, as he puts it, becomes normal later, gets married and runs for Parliament as a Tory. Alone and depressed, Maurice goes to his doctor and then a psychiatrist, looking for a cure. But his depression vanishes in a riotously physical relationship with Alec Scudder, a gamekeeper on Clive Durham’s estate. The novel ends with Maurice-’and Alec determined to live together, in spite of the enormous class difference between them, in spite of the world’s disapproval. Forster comments in his Terminal note to the book:

A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows, and in this sense Maurice and Alec still roam the greenwood ... If it ended unhappily, with a lad dangling from a noose or with a suicide pact, all would be well, for there is no pornography or seduction of minors. But the lovers get away unpunished and consequently recommend crime ... the only penalty society exacts is an exile they gladly embrace.

To “roam the greenwood” is, of course, not on as a possibility in twentieth century Britain outside the fantasy world of adverts for lavatory paper, and the unconvincing- ness of the phrase points to the book’s weakness. If Maurice and Alec had set up in a flat together in 1913, the landlady would have been round to the police five minutes after she’d found out what they were up to and that would have been that. Maurice then is not so much a novel about the real world as a necessary psychological release for Forster.

At this point, at the very moment when he begins to know himself properly, Forster’s career as a novelist more or less stops. Maurice, he felt, couldn’t possibly be published “until my death and England’s”. Forster died in 1970 and Maurice came out in 1971. Between 1913 and 1970 he published only one novel, A Passage to India in 1924, and that, as we’ve seen, was started in 1912. In 1964 he wrote sadly in his diary: “I should have been a more famous writer if I had written or rather published more, but sex has prevented the latter.” Forster, in short, joins a whole series of great writers of his era – men like Hardy, Wilde, Shaw, Joyce and D.H. Lawrence – whose experience shows the hollowness of pieties about British free speech. Each in different ways collided with the fact that you are free to say anything you like as long as it upsets nobody important. Say much more and they’ll try to shut you up.

As a homosexual, Forster was clearly forced to re-examine his attitude towards personal relationships. A naturally shy man, he says little about this directly. But the fact is that in his early novels Forster presents personal relationships as a hideout from an oppressive society; the later, homosexual Forster realised that relationships are the first target of such a society. Relationships with other people are, after all, the way we experience society, the way we live in it and have contact with it, and it is of course on the homosexual relationship that social pressures bear heaviest, in the shape of moral disgust, empty-headed jokes, explosive disapproval, active discrimination and so on. A homosexual is forced to see that relationships are not a way out of a mad world but are instead the links that bind us into the values and tensions of that world.

Armed with this radical realisation, Forster was able to complete A Passage to India and able to make it a great novel. It’s set in India where he spent several months and one of its major themes is the frustrated efforts of Aziz, an Indian doctor, and Fielding, an English teacher, to build a friendship. Both are men of sensitivity and goodwill but again and again their attempts to relate to each other are fractured by the stresses in Indian society, split as it is by imperialism, class, caste, religion and so on. Forster’s ability to moye from a grasp of an entire social structure to an investigation of what that structure means down at the personal, one-to-one level is nowhere better seen than in the famous last paragraphs of the novel. Aziz shouts at Fielding as the pair are out riding:

“Down with the English anyhow. That’s certain. Clear out, you fellows, double quick, I say. We may hate one another, but we hate you most. If I don’t make you go, Ahmed will, Karim will, if it’s fifty five-hundred years we shall get rid of you, yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then” – he rode against him furiously – “and then,” he concluded, half kissing him, “you and I shall be friends.”

“Why can’t we be friends now?” said the other, holding him affectionately. “It’s what I want. It’s what you want.”

But the horses didn’t want it – they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices, “No, not yet,” and the sky said, “No, not there.”

Individuals may want it, but what use is that when there are temples, tanks, jails, palaces and a thousand and one other moral or social or concrete barriers in the way? Break those down and then perhaps personal relationships between and within the sexes can grow and expand in ways that now we can scarcely imagine.

The young Forster had dreamed of escaping bourgeois values by finding a partner and fleeing together to a room with a view. The mature Forster realised that first you have to fight bourgeois society to build your room before you can go and live in it. But he never took the next, political step that this insight calls for. Instead he slid into the comforts that a private income and an Honorary Fellowship at King’s College, Cambridge, offered. In 1953 he was made a Companion of Honour. In the 1960s when it was suggested that it was time King’s College began to share its advantages a little by admitting a few extra students, he opposed the idea, telling The Sunday Times: “Whereas in business generally expansion may be beneficial, it is harmful w our business, which is to produce civilised people.”

In a snotty statement like that the easy retrewt from liberalism into self-defensive privilege is obviously complete, and really civilised people can have little but contempt for the attitudes and position of the old Forster. But nonetheless A Passage to India is still there, and it remains one of the best records of the mess capitalism makes of our relationships,



1. Terminal note, Maurice, London 1971, p.235.


Last updated on 14.7.2001