On the Slyly Subversive Writing of E.M. Forster
If a Happy Ending Required Marriage, Forster Was All for Pessimism
E.M. Forster conceived of A Room with a View in 1901, when he was 22. Months after graduation from Cambridge, marooned with his mother in a dreary Neapolitan pensione that catered to middle-class British tourists, without a job or even the prospect of a career, the young Forster felt alienated and adrift. He sketched out a list of characters—“Lucy . . . her cousin Miss Bartlett . . . Miss Lavish”—followed by the urgent question “Doing what?” It would take seven years of stops and starts to answer that question. But in wrestling A Room with a View into print, Forster came to understand both his characters and himself. His lifelong subject would be the tragicomic limitations of the English character and the moral consequences of an “undeveloped heart.” Writing this novel showed him who he was and where he belonged in the world, and as he found himself, he found his voice as one of the great writers of the 20th century.
In his final months at Cambridge, Forster was elected to the secret intellectual society known as the Apostles. Ethics was their subject, friendship their secular theology. This small fraternity dedicated to liberal ideas produced some of the most influential British men of the 20th century: the economist John Maynard Keynes, who devised policies that would lift the Great Depression of the 1930s; the editor and political writer Leonard Woolf; the art critic Roger Fry, who brought the French post-impressionist painters Cézanne and Matisse to British audiences; the biographer Lytton Strachey; and the philosopher Bertrand Russell. The Apostles were serious about their philosophy, and sometimes eccentric in their mien. They knocked down Victorian shibboleths to make way for modern new ideas—women’s rights and social equality, personal liberty and public art. As they migrated after university to the then-shabby Bloomsbury neighborhood near the British Museum, the bohemian circle extended to women who were barred from Cambridge because of their sex—Virginia Woolf (who would marry Leonard) and her sister, the artist Vanessa Bell. Thus Forster was knit into the Bloomsbury Group at its inception.
But for Forster, that intellectual and artistic community was still far in the future. Just at the moment when his friends began to hone their plans for occupations in the civil service, colonial administration, or teaching, Forster lost momentum. It was considerably easier for him to see what he was not than to imagine what he might become. His undistinguished marks on exams foreclosed the prospect of an academic career; he shifted his course of study from classics to history and stayed on for a fourth year to complete his degree. In 1901, the year Queen Victoria died, Forster graduated from Cambridge. He embarked on a yearlong tour of Italy in the sole company of his mother.
Gloves, parasol, guidebook. By the time Lily Forster and her son set off on their not-so-Grand Tour, Italian tourism had devolved into a carefully orchestrated industry. Baedeker travel guides cataloged the sights that must be seen and the things that must be done, and fueled a proliferation of respectable pensiones. Ensconced in a bubble of English tourists, Forster felt cut off from the real; he complained to a friend: “Our life is where we eat and where we sleep and the glimpses of Italy that I get are only accidents.” Month after month the pair followed a prescribed itinerary: five studious weeks in Florence, Milan, Rome, Naples, a week in minor places like Ravello, San Gimignano, Perugia, and retreat to the Italian Alps in the heat of summer. It was difficult to revel in the wonders of Renaissance humanism or to celebrate the artistic glory he had read about in Ruskin’s Stones of Venice while eating boiled mutton.
Armed with a pocket notebook, Forster began to record snippets of overheard conversation, contrasting the pinched puritanical attitudes of British tourists with the warmth of Italy and its people. “Cherish the body and you will cherish the soul,” Italy seemed to say to Forster. Southern Italy especially seemed uninhibited and Hellenistic, a place where “the belief in wearing away the body by penance so the quivering soul might be exposed had not yet entered the world.” And the Italian men looked like gods.
The very act of anticipation—all this studying and reading and appreciating—seemed to preclude the possibility of surprise.
I missed nothing [he noted in his private diary], neither the campaniles, nor the crooked bridges over the dry torrent beds, nor the uniformity of the blue sky, nor the purple shadows of the mountains over the lake. But I knew that I must wait for many days before they meant anything to me or gave me any pleasure.
Forster could articulate his observations. But too much writing had interposed for any educated Edwardian man to approach Italy as freshly as Percy Bysshe Shelley or Ruskin had done. Raised to be “afraid to feel,” Forster had lost the hang of it. In middle age, Forster astutely analyzed this psychology in his famous essay “Notes on the English Character.” But as a young man, he was under its spell. In letters to friends at home, Forster began to observe himself detachedly, as if he were a character in his own life. “I watch my own inaction with grave disapproval but am still as far as ever from settling what to do.”
“It was considerably easier for him to see what he was not than to imagine what he might become.”
As he lingered in Italy, Forster’s sense of humor bubbled up, and his self-consciousness relaxed into a sort of comic detachment. As it would do for his heroine Lucy Honeychurch, “the pernicious charm of Italy worked on [him] and instead of acquiring information [he] began to be happy.” He gathered little aperçus and private jokes in his notebook, and slowly they made their way into the gestating novel. A pair of elderly women from the pensione overlooking the Arno became the Misses Alan. In Perugia Forster encountered a lady novelist of a certain age, soaking up the atmosphere for a bodice-ripping romance set during the 19th-century Italian revolution. Though frugal and cautious, Miss Emily Spender fashioned herself a renegade. As Miss Lavish, she is immortalized in a pun: Lavish (Spender). The earliest drafts of what Forster called the “Lucy novel” favored caricature over character, and character over plot. But the voice, both sympathetic and ironic, came into focus. Displacement, Forster began to understand, reveals who you actually are. But how to make things happen in a narrative remained elusive to him.
Then suddenly, the inspiration for a short story seized Forster. In Ravello, while walking along the hills overlooking the sea, he conceived a story whole:
I would bring some middle-class Britishers to picnic in this remote spot, I would expose their vulgarity, I would cause them to be terribly frightened they knew not why, and I would make it clear by subsequent events that they had encountered and offended the Great God Pan.
Forster composed “The Story of a Panic,” his first published fiction, in two days of frenzied writing. He stole the plot, such as it was, directly from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. A peevish schoolboy separated from his family during a thunderstorm becomes inexplicably uninhibited and wild—barking like a dog, embracing an Italian waiter. Eustace’s carnality makes him run mad and ends in tragedy, but the story’s comic power stems from the English narrator’s obtuseness. He never grasps the essential mystery that the anarchic spirit of Pan has overtaken the boy. In writing so closely to his own fears and desires, in an allegory of suppressed gay desire, Forster uncorked a wild energy. But Lucy Honeychurch and her story remained frozen like a bee in amber when Forster and his mother returned home in September 1902.
This wry romantic novel gave its author a lot of trouble. Although the “Italian half” of the Lucy novel was Forster’s earliest experiment in fiction writing, A Room with a View would become his third published novel. Twice he set aside the manuscript to write and publish Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905) and The Longest Journey (1907). A Room with a View came into print in 1908. Forster intermixed the drafts of all three early novels, salvaging phrases and ideas from one to another draft. He felt his way along in all three, testing the question of “whether I am conventional or not” in narrative form.
The working notebooks for A Room with a View reveal a young writer strikingly unsure of how to advance a plot, either innocent of literary conventions or resistant to their rules. A family friend, a novelist, complained that Forster “did not make up his mind at the start whether it was to be a tragedy or a comedy. It seemed quite a new idea to him . . . that one ought to have any conceptions of one’s intentions in this respect.” An early draft ended inconclusively, with Lucy bolting from Charlotte to travel alone to Rome. In two others, Forster contemplated killing off not one but both Emersons. (Here Forster’s propensity for melodrama verges on preposterous: when the lovers plan an elopement, George Emerson is dispatched by a falling tree.)
In December 1903, recording in his private diary that he sensed the “Idea of a new novel getting coherent,” Forster took matters in hand. He bought a new notebook, labeled it “New Lucy,” and placed his protagonist in a love triangle between the restless young man now named George Emerson and a new character, the buttoned-up aesthete Cecil Vyse. He added characters: Lucy’s mother and brother, and Rev. Beebe, who “was, from rather profound reasons, somewhat chilly in his attitude towards the other sex”—perhaps because he secretly favored George.
Decisively, Forster framed out an “English half” and animated the plot by bringing Lucy home. Even in Summer Street, a fictional village at the margin of London’s suburban sprawl, Italy’s anarchic power lingers. Panic and Pan stalk Lucy in Surrey just as they had in Fiesole. At the local rectory Rev. Beebe reappears at Windy Corner, and the Emersons unexpectedly rent a villa nearby.
“He was tired of the ‘old, old answer marriage.’ Partly because he could not imagine such a happy ending for himself, partly because marriage felt like a capitulation to a comedic formula, Forster yearned for something more capacious.”
Forster worked steadily on the manuscript for a year. But just at the moment when Cecil Vyse proposes to Lucy—perhaps in a moment of queer panic—Forster abandoned the draft. A new novel burst into Forster’s imagination “with almost physical force.” In Italy Forster had overheard and recorded a tidbit of gossip, scandalized whispers about a young English widow going rogue to marry an Italian man. In Where Angels Fear to Tread Lilia Herriton’s impetuous romance promises liberation, but it ends in tragedy for her and for the benighted English family bent on “rescuing” her child. In December 1904, Forster wrote the whole novel headlong—ten short chapters in under a month—and sent it off to a publisher. The following autumn, he was rather dazed to find himself a published author.
In 1907 he dutifully returned to the unfinished manuscript that he had been drafting for six years.
I have been looking at the Lucy novel. It’s bright and merry and I like the story. Yet I wouldn’t and couldn’t finish it in the same style. I’m rather depressed. The question is akin to morality.
“Akin to morality” is a telling phrase. Ending the story with Lucy’s marriage now felt coercive to Forster. He was tired of the “old, old answer marriage.” Partly because he could not imagine such a happy ending for himself, partly because marriage felt like a capitulation to a comedic formula, Forster yearned for something more capacious. He wanted to be true to the complexities of his inner life, he confided to a friend. “I can’t write down I care about love, beauty, liberty, affection, and truth, though I should like to.” As he wrote the last chapters of A Room with a View, Forster worked through his ideas for a new genre of novel in a lecture for the Working Men’s College. If a happy ending in fiction required a marriage, he told his audience, he was all for pessimism. The novel’s form must be pliant enough to reflect the reality of modern life. After all, Forster told a crowd of young working-class men, “the woman of today is quite another person” than “an early Victorian woman.” And yet, to be true to the comic premise of its plot, Lucy must get wed.
Forster’s ingenious solution in fiction, as in life, was to be at once conventional and subtly subversive. He did this by marrying two strains of the traditional novel of manners—a male and a female tradition—into the two halves of A Room with a View. At the time Forster could not credit his innovation in melding the tourist novel and the marriage plot. But we can.
The tourist novel essentially had been the domain of male writers, from Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey to Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, from Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad to Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. Forster had read James’s novel while at Cambridge, and was fascinated with its craft but repelled by its chilly insistence on observing its young heroine as a purely aesthetic object. (Chapter IX, “Lucy as a Work of Art,” satirizes this view.) But female writers, confined to the domestic, deepened the moral questions of the marriage plot. So Forster took Jane Austen as his guide. It was bold for a young writer to emulate Austen, and bold for a male writer to identify with Lucy’s point of view. Forster focused particularly on the problems Austen explored: the tension between female characters understanding things and their being able to do anything with their discernment. (In her later fiction, Austen pursued this narrative problem with steely precision. Persuasion’s heroine Anne Elliot has insight but no agency; Emma Woodhouse the inverse—great social power without self-knowledge.) Like Austen, Forster was at once firmly situated inside bourgeois culture and detached enough to satirize it. So as both critic and empath he adopted Austen’s free indirect discourse—the third-person narrator who slips in and out of the consciousness of characters, especially the imperfect lens of the mind of his heroine.
The publication of A Room with a View in 1908 rounded off Forster’s seven-year apprenticeship as a writer. He found his great themes here, and his brilliantly ambivalent narrative position, but after this novel he would refuse to be constrained by comic forms. After A Room with a View, Forster plumbed the moral complacency of the “English character” in a darker tone. In his later novels, he widened the focus from the future of a pair of lovers to the fate of England—and indeed all of humanity. In Howards End (1910) and A Passage to India (1924), Forster peered across the chasm of his own privileged social position, giving subordinated characters agency and voice.
In his later fiction, and in his pungent political essays of the 1930s and beyond, Forster turned the lens back on Englishmen, exposing the tribalism at the heart of English identity, and even testing the limits of liberal goodwill. After he abandoned published novels—“wear[y] of the only subject that I both can and may treat—the love of men for women & vice versa”—he wrote seminal gay fiction—the novel Maurice, and two collections of short stories, The Life to Come and The Other Boat. He directed that they should be published posthumously. Forster lived into the modern world—past the First World War and the Blitz, past the atomic age and the moon landing and even the Stonewall riots. He died at 91, in 1970, in, of, and transcendently beyond the Edwardian world of his coming-of-age.
How wide a vista can be seen from a room with a view? Surely a room with a view is still a room. What kind of insight does such a sheltered point of view afford? Forster reminds us in this novel that even if we are self-conscious, we are nevertheless always contained and contextualized, always looking at the world through the particular frame of our social position. We can’t escape our conventions and our prejudices, but we can come to know them, laugh at them. And we can grow. Embracing constraint, Forster asks his readers to strive for a capacious vision of the possible and the real.
From the introduction to A Room with a View by E.M. Forster, Copyright © 2018 Wendy Moffat. Used with permission of Penguin Classics.