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Forster the Teapot Warmer

ISSUE:  Winter 1979
E. M. Forster: A Life. By P. N. Furbank. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. $19.95.

IN a survey of “Reputations Revisited,” conducted by the Times Literary Supplement in January 1977, three distinguished contemporary novelists—Angus Wilson, Anthony Powell, and Anthony Burgess—said that Forster’s novels were overrated. The first half of P. N. Furbank’s biography, which covers the years from 1879 to 1914, helps to explain why Forster’s reputation is on the decline. Though Furbank was a friend of Forster, was able to question him about all aspects of his private life and was the first scholar to have access to Forster’s papers, now at King’s College, his book is rather dull and reads like the life of a Victorian clergyman, This is partly because Furbank is not sufficiently objective and critical of two dominant and closely related strains in Forster’s early life: Cambridge and homosexuality. The biography confirms much more than it reveals (for example, that G. E. Moore’s influence has been exaggerated and Housman’s under-estimated, and that Rickie Elliot’s lameness symbolizes his homosexuality), and does not significantly change our view of Forster’s life and works.

Unlike the young Katherine Mansfield, who craved experience and was willing to suffer for it, or the hedonistic homosexual, Norman Douglas, who frequently had to “hop it” across the frontier when his liaisons became dangereuses, Forster lived amidst a haze of elderly ladies and, apart from his four years at Cambridge, led an exceptionally boring, suburban life of teacups and long skirts, until his first trip to India in 1912.His father died of tuberculosis when Forster was a year old, and he soon began a love affair with his mother which lasted for the rest of their lives. She appears to have been a demanding and unpleasant woman, who changed for the worse after her own mother’s death in 1911, but Forster lived with her until she died at the age of 90 in 1945.The young Forster, who was considered “delicate” and coddled excessively, was never allowed out of the house if it was raining. And the “little sissy,” who was sent to Tonbridge School as a day boy in 1890, was the very opposite of the model English boy—timid, awkward, self-conscious, and unattractive. He was inevitably bullied at school (the most unhappy two years of his life) and sometimes had to be rescued by his mother. His uncle considered him almost an imbecile and thought he was destined for hopeless failure.

For Forster, as for Ernest Pontifex in The Way of All Flesh, “Cambridge was the first place where he had ever been consciously and continuously happy.” (In Howards End Forster’s delight with Cambridge is transformed into snobbery when an undergraduate gives Leonard Bast the “keenest happiness of his life” by inviting him to his rooms for coffee.) Forster’s novels have their intellectual origin in the pervasively homosexual milieu of fin-de-siècle Cambridge (which D. H. Lawrence despised and condemned), where high-minded dons like Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson and Oscar Browning, a dominant influence on Forster and his circle of friends, practiced and preached the Greek ideal of male love. In the highly respectable Dictionary of National Biography, Dickinson wrote that Browning, who was dismissed from Eton for pederasty and became a fellow Kingsman, “assisted young Italians, as he had done young Englishmen, toward the openings they desired.”

Cambridge provided a group of friends with congenial ideas and sexual tastes. Though condemned by society at large, they formed an influential cadre in the university and the literary world, and their way of life suggested to Forster the possibility of creating fiction which would seem to conform to repectable norms and yet subtly express his personal proclivities. Almost all of Forester’s fiction concerns an attempt to make the emotional leap from repression to fulfillment and achieve a triumph of the intuitive and impulsive over the rational and repressive mode of experience. When “The Story of a Panic” appeared in 1904, a Cambridge Précieux wittily explained to Maynard Keynes what the story was “really about”: “Having had an unnatural act performed upon him by a waiter at the hotel, Eustace commits bestiality with a goat, then when he has told the waiter how nice it has all been, they try it on with each other again. I am amazed . . . I am horrified . . .and longing to meet the author.”

Forster called his first trip to the Mediterranean, where he travelled with his mother in 1901, “a very timid outing” and admitted that the “orthodox Baedeker-bestarred Italy . . .delights me.” Though mother and son liked to amuse themselves with satiric observations about the other guests in the pensione, they must have appeared equally pathetic. Just as the technical perfection of The Waste Land masked Eliot’s self-laceration, so Forster’s artistic control disguised the fact that in the Italian novels he satirized the stiffness and snobbery he shared with his mother. For he was much more like Philip Herriton and Cecil Vyse than like Gino and Mr. Emerson. The vein of cruelty that runs through his novels is a manifestation of his own bitterness, frustration, and impotence.

In 1905 Forster became tutor to the children of Elizabeth von Arnim whose best-seller, Elizabeth and Her German Garden, idealized her rural life in Pomerania. Forster claimed he could not find her garden and spoke of her “false teeth and society drawl.” But Furbank does not do full justice to the fascinating personality and biting wit of the Australian Elizabeth, who was Katherine Mansfield’s cousin and later became H. G. Wells’s mistress and Bertrand Russell’s sister-in-law. After their affair, Elizabeth described Wells as “that coarse little man” and he said: “When you’ve had her for a week you want to bash her head through the wall.” During the war, when told about a man who had been wounded in 17 places, Elizabeth replied: “I didn’t know a man had 17 places.”

Forster’s meeting with Henry James in 1908 was (like the famous encounter of Proust and Joyce) a non-event, for Forster felt that James could never mean much to him personally. His visit to the homosexual apologist, Edward Carpenter, in 1913 was far more important, for when Carpenter’s lover, George Merrill, gently touched Forster’s backside the novelist rather self-consciously imagined that he “conceived” Maurice at that precise moment. He might have written a better book if Merrill had touched his frontside.

Forster’s experience, which was extremely limited, was carefully harvested in his books. But he achieved a certain sharpness and intensity by focusing on a narrow aspect of society and revealing a profound understanding of his own milieu. Though he cultivated satiric objectivity, all his novels were self-explorations.Marianne Thorton revealed his paternal background; Howards End portrayed his childhood home; The Longest Journey described Tonbridge School, the Cambridge Apostles, and suburban gentility.Where Angels Fear to Tread and A Room With a View were based on his journeys to Italy, Alexandria and Pharos and Pharillon on the war years with the Red Cross in Egypt, and The Hill of Devi (much inferior to J. R. Ackerley’s Hindoo Holiday) and A Passage to India on what he called “the great opportunity of my life.” Maurice records his mild homosexual flirtations with men like H. O. Meredith, to whom A Room With A View is dedicated. But in A Room With A View, “ The Road from Colonus” (his finest story), and A Passage to India, Forster is most sympathetic to older characters who have no sexual life. Reverend Beebe, Mr. Lucas, and Mrs. Moore, who transcend the joys and fears of sex, speak with authority and wisdom.

At Tonbridge one of the boys called Forster’s penis “a beastly little brown thing,” and this remark reinforced his own feeling that it was “dirty.” The repressed and miserable Forster was very different from the sybaritic Etonians (mentioned by Furbank) who, when expelled from school, left in the same taxi and were pelted with rice by their friends. Masturbation played a large part in Forster’s adult life, and he rarely had the opportunity to use the “beastly thing” with male lovers. He confessed his passion for Syed Ross Masood, a mandibular Moslem whom Forster visited in India and to whom he dedicated A Passage to India, but Masood remained unresponsive. And Forster, who was tormented by the “vision of a khaki greatcoat” which covered “manhood’s hidden column,” was driven to public lavatories in the half-hearted hope of a pick-up. He did not fully understand how copulation took place until he was 30 and had published three novels, and he did not have his first physical affair until he was 40, Despite his liberalism and personal tastes, he never took a public stand on homosexuality and refused to publish Maurice in his lifetime, even after the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 had legalized homosexuality between consenting adults.

Forster, a slow starter, did not achieve sexual liberation until the end of his life. Though one of Forster’s friends said he was almost blind during his last years, Ackerley noted that Forster’s “sight may not be good, but it is quite good enough to see a male nude.” While Ackerley renounced sex and discussed wildlife, Forster remained randy and preferred to talk about “cockstands.” The letters from Forster which Ackerley sold to the University of Texas for £6000 give a unique account of Forster’s emotional affairs, especially with the married policeman, Bob Buckingham.

But there is a terribly tepid strain in all his early novels. In 1917 Katherine Mansfield noted the serious disparity between form and content, art and emotion, when she wrote in her Journal of Howards End: “ E. M. Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot. He’s a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. It is not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain’t going to be no tea.” And the critical but perceptive Lytton Strachey, the model for the uninhibited Risley in Maurice, believed Forster’s “language is so linked up with his mother and his aunts that it’s like a dialect which I can’t talk . . .there always seems to be a trace of Weybridge in his style.” Strachey told Gerald Brenan that “the increased hardness and bite of A Passage to India and its lack of sentimentality are due to his . . .love affair with an Indian.”

Though we are accustomed to think of the older Forster as a great man, Furbank’s biography places him in the perspective of his contemporaries. He appears in a photograph at Garsington, where everyone else seems to be having a pleasant time, buttoned-up and tight-collared, with his trousers hitched above his ankles, looking distinctly uncomfortable. The manly ex-colonial, Leonard Woolf, thought Forster “a perfect old woman” and Strachey, who called him “The Taupe,” observed: “He’s treated rudely by waiters and is not really admired even by middle-class dowagers.” Forster recognized that his imagination could not fully compensate for the limited experience and personal feebleness which vitiated his novels. The intrepid traveller, who lost his glasses and guidebook and dictionary and purse, and sprained his ankle and broke his arm, admitted that T. E. Lawrence had gone to places where he “should smash and scream in 30 seconds.” His question: “Is it impossible to live with old people without deteriorating?” implied that it was indeed impossible, but they provided models which he used effectively in his fiction. He was an observer rather than a participant in life, and his complex and turbulent inner feelings provided a powerful contrast to his dull daily existence. Though he might have agreed with Flaubert that “the satisfactions of the body and of the mind have nothing in common,” that “one must make two parts in one’s life,” Forster was not able, like Flaubert, to connect the two halves and to “live like a bourgeois and think like a God.”


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