Morgan to his Friends

Denis Donoghue

  • Selected Letters of E.M. Forster: Vol. I: 1879-1920 edited by Mary Lago and P.N. Furbank
    Collins, 344 pp, £15.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 00 216718 2

On 10 February 1915 E.M. Forster visited D.H. and Frieda Lawrence at Greatham. The visit went off reasonably well, by the standards appropriate to those participants. The men, according to Forster, ‘had a two hours walk in the glorious country’ between Greatham and Arundel. Lawrence told Forster ‘all about his people – drunken father, sister who married a tailor, etc: most gay and friendly, with breaks to look at birds, catkins, etc. Last night we painted pill boxes ... ’ and an editorial note explains that these were bee boxes, used for transporting live bees. But the conversation was evidently more searching than Forster’s account suggests. Nearly seven years later, Lawrence writing from Taos assured Forster that ‘Yes, I think of you – of your saying to me, on top of the downs in Sussex – “How do you know I’m not dead?” ’

It was a good question, but nothing in Forster’s letters – or in Lawrence’s – quite explains how it came to be asked. In 1915 Lawrence thought Forster’s life was ‘ridiculously inane’: ‘the man is dying of inanition,’ he told Mary Cannan ten days after the visit.‘He was very angry with me for telling him about himself.’ The main effect of the visit was that Lawrence got steamed up to the point of sending off a long letter to Bertrand Russell denouncing money and demanding a sexual revolution:

The ordinary Englishman of the educated class goes to a woman now to masturbate himself. Because he is not going for discovery or new connection or progression, but only to repeat upon himself a known reaction.

  When this condition arrives, there is always Sodomy. The man goes to the man to repeat this reaction upon himself. It is a nearer form of masturbation. But still it has some object – there are still two bodies instead of one. A man of strong soul has too much honour for the other body – man or woman – to use it as a means of masturbation. So he remains neutral, inactive. That is Forster.

Forster’s ‘thank you’ note to the Lawrences responded to the invitation to come again: ‘As for coming again to Greatham, I like Mrs Lawrence, and I like the Lawrence who talks to Hilda and sees birds and is physically restful and wrote The White Peacock, he doesn’t know why; but I do not like the deaf impercipient fanatic who has nosed over his own little sexual round until he believes that there is no other path for others to take, he sometimes interests & sometimes frightens & angers me, but in the end he will bore me merely, I know.’ (The editorial note says that ‘Hilda’ may have been Hilda Doolittle – the poet H.D. I doubt it.)

Lawrence’s answer to Forster’s question – ‘how do you know I’m not dead?’ – hasn’t survived. There is more in Forster ‘than ever comes out’, he told Russell, ‘but he is not dead yet, I hope to see him pregnant with his own soul.’ Meanwhile ‘he tries to dodge himself – the sight is painful.’

There is a good deal of dodging in the first volume of Forster’s Letters. He was an infant when his father died, and he grew up, as he later commented, ‘in a haze of old ladies’. Most of his letters presented a winning manner to his mother, his aunts, his grandmother: he soon became adept at pleasing them. In the Preface to The Hill of Devi (1953) Forster noted that his letters were none the better for having been addressed to his mother and other relatives. ‘I was writing to people of whom I was fond,’ he remarked, ‘and whom I wanted to amuse, with the result that I became too humorous and conciliatory, and too prone to turn remote and rare matters into suburban jokes.’ In editing the letters for The Hill of Devi he cut out ‘a good deal of “How I wish you were all here!” or “Aren’t Indians quaint!” ’ He got into the habit of dodging himself, so it is hard to know what relation the letters bear to the feelings from which they arose. He often wrote a good letter on the same plan he brought to the composition of well-turned essays. Many letters were written from exotic places, and he knew what was expected of him. So he turned in a sprightly performance, but not necessarily a pondered account of the matters he described.

Indeed there is something unsatisfactory in the letters, something brittle, as if he felt himself drab and had to remind himself to be brilliant. This quality corresponds to the insecurity of valuation which F.R. Leavis, in an essay otherwise laudatory, attributed to Forster’s art. ‘The very poise of Mr Forster’s art,’ he said,‘has something equivocal about it – it seems to be conditioned by its not knowing what kind of poise it is.’ Quoting a paragraph from A Passage to India, about the Krishna ceremony, a paragraph in which Forster’s touch seems sure and then again, within a phrase or two, unsure, Leavis remarks: ‘how extraordinary it is that so fine a writer should be able, in such a place, to be so little certain just how serious he is.’

A letter is a far more casual thing than a novel, indeed, but mention of Lawrence is enough to make the point that, with the finest letters, we are not impelled to think of them as casual or to explain a false note, such as one of produced brightness, by referring to the circumstances in which it was written. The letter to the Lawrences is one of the few animated occasions in this first volume and, by the same token, one of the few occasions on which we are convinced that Forster’s feelings correspond to what the words say they are. Mostly, the letters give the impression that local effects, as of charm or wit or niceness, were easier to achieve than sincerity.

Mary Lago and P.N. Furbank have found 15,000 letters to choose from. I assume they have chosen what they consider the most interesting ones, the letters which most reveal Forster’s personality, the quality of his friendships, the conditions of his work. In the years covered by this first volume he published Where angels fear to tread (1905), The Longest Journey (1907), A Room with a View (1908), The Celestial Omnibus (1911), and Howards End (1911). He wrote his underground novel Maurice, too, but didn’t publish it: he showed it, in typescript, to choice homosexual friends. The letters haven’t much to say about these books, except for a very good one to Robert Trevelyan about Where angels fear to tread.

Mostly, the letters are home thoughts from abroad, weekly reports from some frontier of feeling Forster had either crossed or backed off from. You wouldn’t learn from the letters what it meant for him to fall in love with H.O. Meredith at King’s. Or, much later, what his ‘strong friendship’, as the editors put it, with Syed Ross Masood entailed. Forster met him in 1907, and for several years their relation was such that Forster signed off his letters with ‘thine for ever: Morgan’. But Masood married in 1914, his wife gave birth to a son in 1915, and Masood asked Forster to adopt the boy. For a while, ‘Dearest Boy’ was replaced by ‘Dear SRM’, and ‘thine for ever’ by ‘with love’, a phase begun by Forster’s understandable protest that ‘if you had wanted me to adopt the boy I think you would have insisted on him bearing my name, or would at the least have written to me when he was born.’ But they patched things up. Forster dedicated A Passage to India to Masood, and paid further tribute when he died in 1937 – the tribute is reprinted in Two Cheers for Democracy. But the most intense friendship Forster had, in the later years of this first volume, was with a tram-conductor, Mohammed el Adl: an experience Forster elaborately reported to his confidante, Florence Barger.

The letters are informative, up to a point soon reached, on Forster’s personal and professional relations. They are interesting when they involve Oscar Browning – who brought Forster to see six chickens he tended – G.L. Dickinson, E.J. Dent, Siegfried Sassoon, Forrest Reid and Edward Carpenter. Interesting, too, when they involve places, travels, holidaying. Forster had what sounds like a very long holiday, beginning in October 1901, with his mother in Italy. Five months in Germany in 1905 didn’t leave a permanent impression. But the big events were the trip to India in 1912-13 and to Alexandria for the war years. The gist of the first of these is given in The Hill of Devi, but the new letters add much local colour to a familiar impression. Forster hated Egypt: ‘What I have seen seems vastly inferior to India, for which I am always longing in the most persistent way, and where I still hope to die,’ he told Masood.‘It is only at sunset that Egypt surpasses India – at all other hours it is flat, unromantic, unmysterious, and godless – the soil is mud, the inhabitants are of mud moving, and exasperating in the extreme: I feel as instinctively not at home among them as I feel instinctively at home among Indians.’ But he thought better of Egypt when he relished the sight of hundreds of young soldiers in the convalescent hospital at Montazah. ‘They go about bare chested and bare legged,’ he wrote to the author of The Greek View of Life, ‘the blue of their linen shorts and the pale mauve of their shirts accenting the brown splendour of their bodies; and down by the sea many of them spend half their days naked and unrebuked.’

On other writers, Forster’s letters are illuminating, but it’s hard to know how truthful he is, and how willing to bend the truth for someone’s sweet sake. He refers to ‘The Golden Bowl, The Ambassadors and similar impossibles’, but then he was writing to Aunt Laura, who was reading Portrait of a Lady and may have indicated that the going was getting rough. In Aspects of the Novel (1927) Forster gave several pages to The Ambassadors, and showed that he thought it quite possible but stingy – an instance of James’s premise, according to Forster’s libel, ‘that most of human life has to disappear before he can do us a novel.’ Forster’s opinion of Hardy is much the same in the letters as in Aspects of the Novel, that Hardy is not a novelist at all but a poet. But there is nothing in the letters to sustain the notion, in Aspects, that the flaw of Hardy’s novels is that ‘he has emphasised causality more strongly than his medium permits.’ There is a silly letter about Keats, but again Forster may have chosen to be silly because he was writing to Malcolm Darling: ‘What shall I talk about, dear Malcolm? for I want to talk. Shall I say a few words about Keats?’ Similarly he says a few words, not invariably silly, about Matthew Arnold, Pater, Cavafy, Lawrence, Gibbon, Kipling, and Edward Thomas: ‘I am prejudiced beyond all explanation against the poetry, prose, personality, and papa of Edward Thomas ... ’

But the most typical – not the liveliest – letter is one that arose from Howards End. A.C. Benson read it, compared notes on it with his mother, Mary Sidgwick Benson, and wrote off warmly to Forster, complaining only that ‘the appeal of the house was a little strained – I should rather have expected the conventionalists to have felt that than the idealists.’ Forster’s reply included his standard self-deprecation – ‘one’s confused little mind is visited by impulses of beauty, whereas systematic thought can only come to the mind that is both strong and orderly’ – but it took up the point about the house: ‘The house certainly would not appeal so strongly to the idealists: I had not thought of that. Indeed, though the supernatural element in the book is not supposed to be “compulsory”, I’m afraid that only those readers who “take” it will get through with any ease.’ Benson is saying, I suppose, that an old house with an aura about it is not the sort of thing bright modern idealists – the Schlegels – would care for: business people – the Wilcoxes – go in for such enthusiasms to persuade themselves that they have a full life. What Forster is saying isn’t as clear, mainly because his ‘indeed’ tips the sentence in an odd direction. I take him as saying that while a reader can take or leave ‘the supernatural element’ – the aura, and the things, benign or dreadful, that happen at Howards End – he’d find the going easier if he took it. I haven’t seen this aspect of the novel discussed, perhaps because most readers take Forster’s word for the house and its appeal.

The editing of these letters seems to me superb. The annotation is nearly always what we want. Sometimes the point of an allusion can’t be recovered, but mostly the obscurities are cleared up. A line seems to have dropped from a footnote on page 90, by the way.