by Anthony Domestico
E.M. Forster (1879-1970) is difficult writer to classify. An Edwardian modernist, he criticized Victorian middle class mores in formally traditional novels; a writer who idealized connection and sincerity above all else, he kept his own homosexuality hidden from view but defended D.H. Lawrence’s sexually daring Lady Chatterley’s Lover from obscenity charges. Forster’s enduring achievement rests upon his novels, including Howards End (1910) and A Passage to India (1924), his critical study Aspects of the Novel (1927), and his continuing, principled defense of liberal humanism despite the upheavals of the early twentieth century.
Forster was born on January 1, 1879 in London, England. His father died soon after his birth, and he was raised by his mother and a series of aunts and governesses. As a child, Forster received an inheritance from his paternal great-aunt Marianne Thornton that enabled him to travel and, later, write with little concern for finances.
Forster attended King’s College, Cambridge from 1897 to 1901, studying history,
literature, and philosophy. He became a member of the Cambridge Apostles, a
discussion society steeped in philosophical skepticism that shaped Forster’s
liberalism and led him to shed his Christian faith. Among the Apostles who
had a formative intellectual influence upon Forster were Sir James Frazer,
G.E. Moore, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, and several future members of the
After graduation, Forster traveled throughout Europe and Asia, visiting Italy, Greece, Germany, India, and Egypt. This experience would inform Forster’s cosmopolitanism and his abiding interest in foreign cultures, an interest reflected in A Passage to India and A Room with a View.
Forster contributed stories and sketches to the Independent Review in 1904, and later published a number of works in the Athenaeum, a London literary magazine that also printed work by Thomas Hardy, T.S. Eliot, and others. His first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread, was published in 1905. Two years later, he published The Longest Journey (1907), a Bildungsroman that begins at Cambridge and is perhaps Forster’s most autobiographical work.
Forster’s next two novels, A Room with a View (1908) and Howards End (1910), secured his place as one of the leading British writers of his generation. He was a comic moralist, a writer interested in exploring conflicts between ideologies that oftentimes resulted in melodrama. In Howards End, for instance, Forster used the tension between the Schlegel family, exemplars of liberalism and bohemianism, and the Wilcoxes, plutocratic businessmen, as a means to structure his plot and subtly explore the various possible stances towards life of the modern period.
In 1924, Forster published A Passage to India, his most successful novel. A deeply symbolic, mystical book that examines the nature of colonial rule, A Passage to India reveals Forster’s interest in both politics and religion, in the practical and the numinous.
Forster did not publish another novel after A Passage to India, spending the last forty-six years of his life writing short stories and non-fiction. His homosexual novel Maurice, written in 1913-1914, was published posthumously in 1971. His 1938 essay “Two Cheers for Democracy” reveals Forster at his best: gently ironic, tolerant yet chiding, willing to take a principled stand in defense of liberal values.