E.M. Forster: Aspects of Modernism
Edward Morgan Forster wrote only five published novels in his lifetime, all of them by the age of 45. A sixth, Maurice, about a homosexual relationship, though written in 1913, was not published in 1971, a year after his death, because Forster did not want to publicise his sexual orientation. For producing a relatively small canon of literature, though, Forster is intimately tied to the Modernist movement. I want to focus on two of his texts particularly, A Room with a View and Howards End, and how these incorporate issues of class and philosophy that are reflected in the use of travel, music, and property. As one modern scholar put it, Forster employs a ‘rather donnish technique of incorporating divergent sources’ to display his own broad education through the experiences and dialogue of his characters. It’s Forster’s way of calling out the philistines like the Wilcox family. It’s been discussed before how the high Modernists, in their attempt to find the new, did so with the deliberate attempt to exclude the newly literate masses. Forster’s work certainly required a little more cultural literacy than a penny dreadful, but he was certainly more readable than, say, TS Eliot. I like what Lionel Trilling said in the first comprehensive study of Forster in 1943: ‘E. M. Forster is for me the only living novelist who can be read again and again and who, after each reading, gives me what few writers can give us after our first days of novel-reading, the sensation of having learned something.’
Born in 1879, Forster’s father died of tuberculosis the following year, and he was raised under the heavy influence of his mother and other female relations, who shaped his perception, and later characterisation, of women. When his great-aunt died in 1887, she left Forster an £8000 legacy (worth about half a million pounds today) which allowed him to further his education at Tonbridge school in Kent, then King’s College, Cambridge. It should be noted that one of the benefits of this inheritance was that Forster, like the Schlegels, was never poor and could therefore indulge in writing what might be called ‘high art’ philosophising rather than the construction of ‘popular’ novels because he did not need the money from voluminous sales. At the same time, though, Forster never stopped worrying about the morality of living off of unearned money. While at Cambridge, Forster joined the Apostles, an old and revered discussion society, and many of those members went on to form the Bloomsbury Group, of which Forster became a part. After university, Forster travelled widely through Italy and Greece with his mother, which we can see reflected in his novels, the first half of Room with a View being written during his time in Italy. And in 1905 he worked as a tutor in Germany for a year, giving him even more material for his early novels. Where Angels Fear to Tread, The Longest Journey and A Room with a View were all well received, but it was the publication of Howards End in 1910 that made him a literary household name. His final and perhaps greatest work, A Passage to India, was published in 1924, after a decade of on and off work, with experiences and influences from working with the Red Cross during the war, and communication with the Bloomsbury Set. From this point on, Forster claims to have lost his creative powers. He knew how to write a novel for a time that no longer existed, so instead dedicated himself to literary theory and criticism, writing the libretto to Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd and publishing collection of short stories and essays. He was president of the Cambridge Humanist society from 1959 until his death. We see that dedication to Humanism emerge as a theme in his novels. Love and goodness toward others is more important than organised religion to him.
From the outset, both A Room with a View and Howards End are novels about class, and reconciling the shifting class structures in England during this era. The middle classes were on the rise, the poorest class was no longer invisible, out in the fields, and the upper classes could no longer play the role of the noble lord of the manor.
Even travelling abroad is not free of strict British class consciousness in A Room with a View. The Emersons, father and son, are not ‘the right sort’, and the old guests at the Bertolini Pension resent the intrusion of these slightly crude, seemingly ill-mannered gentlemen, who speak of ladies’ ‘stomachs’ (the shock! The horror!) and offer up their rooms to strangers so that they might enjoy a room with a view of the river. The dislike the other pensioners have for them is summed up by Mr. Beebe: ‘Miss Lavish, who represented intellect, was avowedly hostile, and now the Miss Alans, who stood for good breeding, were following. Miss Bartlett, smarting under an obligation [for the exchange of rooms] would scarcely be civil’ (p. 39); the Emersons are disliked for being – apparently – without intellect, without breeding, and not worthy of a debt from their betters. Lucy is our neutral view, trying to discern right from wrong, be it people or actions, as she matures during her trip abroad. In a telling moment she says to her cousin Charlotte, ‘Have you ever noticed that there are some people who do things which are most indelicate and yet as the same time – beautiful?’ This is Forster’s Edwardian liberalism, breaking away from the stiff Victorian inclination to arbitrary propriety above all else, which is Charlotte’s position, when she responds, ‘Are not beauty and delicacy the same thing?’ The lower classes are perceived to be without delicacy, and therefore cannot be beautiful, but Forster begs to differ.
In the character of Cecil Vyce (and like we’re not supposed to read into that surname, both as a clamping tool that might strangle Lucy, and as a sin) the not-very-admirable first fiancé of Lucy, we find the ‘medieval… Like a gothic statue…. he remained in the grip of a certain devil which the modern world knows as self-conscious, and whom the medieval, with dimmer vision, worshipped as asceticism’ (p. 85). Cecil, in his over-lording social position, is old-fashioned, out-dated. The world does not need his class type any longer. That is why it is so telling that the last chapter of the novel is called ‘The end of the Middle Ages’ – Lucy, and England as a whole, are, and should, move beyond that antique philosophy of the medieval lord with his fingers wrapped around the hearts and minds and throats of English civilisation.
It is significant, though that we never see the truly low classes in Room with a View, and in Howards Ends we get only a single, dismissive mention of them: they are ‘unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet.’ Howards End, we are told, ‘deals with gentlefolk, or with those who are obliged to pretend that they are gentlefolk’ (p. 38). The Basts must pretend to be gentle, as do the Wilcoxes, but the Emersons, well, they don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are, and they are better than the Basts, not just financially, but perhaps because they do not pretend.
In Howards End Forster exposes to us the lie of class mobility via the attainment of metaphysical class. The Schlegels exist in the upper-middle; they are the sympathetic characters that serve as our gateway to the upper class, represented by the Wilcoxes, and the lowest of the middle class, seen in Leonard Bast, who is only a small tragedy away from falling into the chasm. Mr. Bast is doing what the lower echelons in Edwardian England was told to do to improve themselves; read, take in public lectures and concerts, visit museums, go for walks in the country. He tries to engage in poetic discourse with the Schlegel sisters as part of this improvement but is somewhat less than successful. Margaret describes her philosophy of conversation: ‘I don’t believe in suiting my conversation to my company. One can doubtless hit upon some medium of exchange that seems to do well enough, but it’s no more like the real thing than money is like food. There’s no nourishment in it. You pass it to the lower classes, and they pass it back to you, and this you call ‘social intercourse’ or ‘mutual endeavour,’ when it’s mutual priggishness if it’s anything.’ And yet none of these help him to avert tragedy, perhaps because, as Forster suggests, Leonard Bast would have been a happier man if he had stayed in the country like his ancestors, working the land, rather than aspiring to the city and a higher economic and cultural status. This echoes the opinion of exclusion that the high Modernists seemed to adopt, why they cultivated their literature into a complex language that could not be consumed by the middling and lower classes.
One the other hand, the Wilcox family is crude and uncultured as well, caring little for music and literature, and yet they have risen to the top of the social ladder via industry. But what is industry and success without soul, without compassion, without a bit of culture and education? All the same, Mrs. Wilcox the first is described as ‘not intellectual, not even alert, and it was odd that, all the same, she had greatness’. The sisters’ German cousin calls her ‘keine Dame’ – not a lady, because Mrs. Wilcox calls on the Schlegel sisters in London rather than waiting to be called upon. The poor woman is horribly out of place at the Schlegel sisters’ luncheon, unable to keep up with or contribute to the conversation: ‘Clever talk alarmed her… it was the social counterpart of a motor car…and she was a wisp of hay, a flower’. Why does Forster imbue her with a higher sensibility and morality than the rest of her family? Of course, is she is representative of the traditional landed gentlelady (remember, Howards End is hers) of the Victorian, bucolic past, Mrs. Wilcox’s sudden death represents the passing of the old order.
The concluding conflict between Leonard Bast and Charles Wilcox reveals how legal relations between the classes have changed. Charles sees nothing wrong with his actions, bullying Leonard into heart failure in his attempt to play the role of the noble aristocrat wronged by a member of the lower classes. When asked by the police to give an account of his actions, he thinks it’s because he’s the most important witness, never imagining that it is because he’s to be held responsible. That Charles is sent down for manslaughter is a shock to him and his family. The upper echelons are no longer immune to the rule of law applied across the classes. Money is no protection from prosecution.
The question of Forster’s novel is ‘Who will inherit Howards End?’ The American literary critic Lionell Trilling expressed this as ‘Who will inherit England?’ With the class system in a state of flux, who was it who would rise to the top of the heap: The materialists and industrialists? The idealists of the leisure class? The lower middle classes clinging to the bottom rung and attempting to climb? In the end, we have an amalgamation of inheritors of Howards End/England: The property passes from the materialist to the idealist, the offspring of the idealist and the lower-middle strivers.
Travel is intrinsically related to class in this England (after all, don’t forget that one can travel first, second or third class). Begun in 1902 while in Italy, A Room with a View underwent several revisions before its final publication, changing drastically as Forster matured as an author. While in an Italian pensione, Forster complained ‘I wish I didn’t see everything with this horrible foreground of enthusiastic ladies, but it is impossible to get away from it.’ He felt repressed by the independent, middle-aged female tourist, must as we see Lucy being repressed. Forster’s very first piece of published fiction (with dates varying from 1902 to 1904 on when it actually appeared) is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek short story called ‘The Story of a Panic’, about escaping from the tourist world.
Though A Room with a View spends less than half of its pages in Italy, the effects of the travel experience occupy the whole of the novel. Lucy Honeychurch is developing from a girl who parrots the views and opinions of those around her because she does not know any better, into a young woman capable of holding her own individual thoughts, separate from English society. ‘Travel broadens the mind’ as they say. But there are growing pains to this for Lucy, as she is suddenly isolated by the secrets she must keep; being rescued by George Emerson from the square, the kiss she shares with him later, and feelings of attraction that must be suppressed. She is forced to negotiate the effects of her expanded psyche on her own. She needs to find her own room in the world, to find her own view, despite the variety of ways in which she has been indoctrinated by her cousin Charlotte Bartlett. She is socially and sexually naive, and her time in Italy is a deflowering of sorts, a sexual and intellectual awakening, and George Emerson is her shepherd, first, in retrieving Lucy from the murder in the square, a violent penetration of her psyche and sensibilities, and again when he kisses her amid the violets.
Travel also represents a means of escape; when Lucy breaks her engagement with Cecil, but is not prepared to accept her feelings for George, she proposes running away to Greece with the Miss Alans. Running overseas is a method of escaping social ‘blundering’ or a ‘muddle’, just as Helen in the next book runs to the Continent to hide from society. Travel is a method of both avoiding being seen, or to be seen doing those very upper class things such as taking in Italian art, and appreciating the Giottos according to popular thought. As much as Lucy learns about herself, we learn about the many species of English ‘tourist’, an apparently dirty word, but only to other English tourists, staying in English pensions and in this, Forster is being deliberately ironic. Everyone wants to experience the ‘real’ culture, yet are so repulsed by the natives that they hold themselves above them, staying in hotels run by British natives. What we also learn about travel is that it is the practice of the middle classes without the ties of espousement, to travel. No one in the Pensione Bertolini is married, and we are led to believe that once Lucy marries Cecil the Vyce that will be the end of her travelling days. But with George she flees overseas once more, to the Pension, defying not one but two social standards.
In Howards End, travel reveals the character of the individual, or at the very least, the desire to travel. The Schlegel sisters and the Wilcoxes first meet in Germany, on what is described as an ‘awful expedition’ to the Cathedral in Speyer. Perhaps the awfulness of this trip should have warned them off further intercourse with each other. Leonard Bast does not have the means to travel beyond London, but influenced by his books, takes an evening to go walking in the countryside – which turns out to be a miserable experience, revealing the difference between literature and reality. Where Lucy and other tourists wandered the world with their trusty Baedeker travel guides, Leonard is instead influenced by the works of others who have already done the travelling. He attempt to recreate their experiences in his own small way, just as Lucy tries to retrace the trails outlined in Baedeker’s guide to Florence. In both cases, reality fails to live up to expectation.
I don’t mean to imply that we should call all English travel abroad a futile exercise in cultural enlightenment, and I think neither does Forster. His portrayal of the traveller in his novels is more like a reaction against the haughty, close-minded British tourist, but not against the act of travel itself. Forster’s own experiences in Germany emerge in the portrayal of the Schlegel family and their relations. Germany is Helen’s chosen place of exile during her pregnancy, and though we, the reader, never see it, we are told about it in loving, musical detail. We are also confronted with the growing dislike and distrust of Germany in Howards End, as the stirrings of war were already about. Early in the novel, Aunt Juley is quick to reassure her nieces that even though their father was German, she considers his offspring to be ‘English to the backbone.’
And just like travel, music is another mark of class and culture in Forster’s work.
It’s not commonly known that E.M. Forster was a pianist in his own right, playing duets with Oscar Browning, briefly his tutor at King’s college. Composer Benjamin Britten called Forster ‘our most musical novelist’, and the two became good friends. On Forster’s eightieth-birthday, Britten wrote a tribute to Forster’s ability to express music in his literature, especially the Fifth Symphony moment in Howards End: ‘it shows a most sensitive reaction to music and allows the novelist to make some perceptive observations about Beethoven’. A mark of the modernists was there interest in all of the arts, and Forster’s integration of it into his work was mirrored by others later on, such as D.H. Lawrence’s infatuation with the works of Wagner in Women in Love. To Forster, ‘music seems to be more real than anything, and to survive when the rest of civilisation decays’ (E.M.F. C.A. III 159). We can only hypothesise how he would feel about Justin Bieber.
We see music play in the background of both of these novels, influencing and bringing together characters. In Room with a View, Lucy Honeychurch is an accomplished pianist, who is deeply moved by her own playing, and compares the psychological effects that different composers have on the psyche. Forster admits to not having the words necessary to define how one feels about music: ‘Passion was there, but it could not be easily labelled; it slipped between love and hatred and jealousy… And she was tragical only in the sense that she was great, for she loved to play on the side of Victory… Victory of what and over what – that is more than the words of daily life can tell us. But that the sonatas of Beethoven are written tragic no one can gainsay; yet they can triumph or despair as the player decides, and Lucy decided that they should triumph’ (p. 32). The piano that Lucy plays in the Pension is a stand in for the one Forster himself played at the Albergo Bonciani during his own stay in Italy, a piano he remarked as being ‘rather good’. Lucy’s time at the piano in the Bertolini is sensually described: ‘Like every great performer, she was intoxicated by the mere feel of the notes: they were fingers caressing her own; and by touch, not by sound alone, did she come to her desire.’ One would almost call this passage an obscene metaphor for orgasm, but reflect the sentiments of a writer who is intimately familiar with the nature of music. It is her passion for the music of Beethoven that first attracts the attention of Mr. Beebe, our sympathetic, refined, liberal clergyman, prophetically stating ‘If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting – both for us and for her.’ Music unites like-minded souls. When Lucy decides to go out in the evening unaccompanied, Mr. Beebe puts it down to ‘too much Beethoven’, over-stimulating Lucy and making her reckless.
However, when Lucy needs to fit into the sedateness of near-married life, she plays Schumann in her attempt to fit into the Vyse household, but her unhappiness with the direction her life is taking comes through in the music: ‘The melody rose, unprofitably magical; it was resumed broken, not marching once from the cradle to the grave. The sadness of the incomplete – the sadness that is often life, but should never be Art – throbbed in its disjected phrases…’ When Cecil Vyse asks his fiancé to play the garden piece from Wagner opera Parsifal, Lucy refuses at first, only consenting when she sees George Emerson had joined their company. But she does it badly. She plays to appease Cecil, to deny her emotional connection to George, but in her poor playing, betrays her feelings to the rest of us. Wagner’s Parsifal also relates to the events in the garden in Italy, when Lucy fell into George’s presence among the violets, ‘as one who had fallen from heaven’, just as Parsifal falls into the magic garden in Act 2, scene 2, and finds himself surrounded by flower maidens. But as Parsifal rejects the advances of the women, Lucy rejects George.
It is at a public performance of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony that the Schlegel sisters meet Leonard Bast. Beethoven is our linking musician between these texts, proving the ambiance of pivotal scenes. Leonard Bast is also a pianist, albeit a poor one. His lower-class spirit cannot rise to the occasion as Lucy Honeychurch’s comfortable middleclass status allows. This concert scene in the novel reflected much of Forster’s views about the public concert movement, including the distaste for concern programmes, those pieces of prose to accompany orchestrations, which Forster finds remove the listener’s ability to imagine the scene for themselves. This echoes the same sentiment he had about too much scholarship: ‘Study teaches us everything about the book except the central thing.’ Helen imagines goblins marching across the universe, and would have been robbed of this imaginative effort with a programme instructing her as to what she should be imagining.
Music also becomes a means of describing setting, as it does during the Schlegel’s luncheon in chapter 9 of Howards End: ‘The course of the Oder [river] is like music… The part by the landing-stages is in B-minor…but the lower down things get extremely mixed. There is a stodgy theme in several keys at once, meaning mud-banks, and another for the navigable canal, and the exit into the Baltic is in C sharp major, pianissimo’ (p. 64). This use of musical description, however, relies upon a reader to have some familiarity with musical scales and terminology. The Basts among Forster’s readers might have pretended to understand, and the Wilcoxes among them would not have bothered to try.
Where one lives, the very possession of property, is perhaps the most substantial indicator of class. The name ‘Howards End’ is the title of the novel, putting the property above all elese in the novel. Forster himself spent most of childhood at a country house called ‘Rooksnest’ in Hertfordshire, which would become the model for Howards End. Because his mother failed to renew the lease, due to her own hesitancy of deciding whether it was truly where they wanted to remain, they lost the home they loved, and Forster was introduced to the unhappy task of house-hunting, which we see the Schlegel family, on the verge of losing their childhood home, emulating. But in losing their ‘Rooksnest’ they gain Howards End. Undoubtedly the frustrations we see Margaret enduring in trying to locate a home that is just suitable to the income and lifestyle of her family is a mirror of what Forster endured with his mother. Some people have described the novel as a drawn out house-hunt. The destruction of traditional houses in London like the one in which the Schlegel’s live, in favour of large, modern flats, is one of Forster’s laments, as is the encroachment of the city as it spreads to suburban housing. The Schlegels are losing their home because property prices are climbing steadily, and what their comfortable income would once afford them is no longer sufficient. When Margaret asks Henry Wilcox to assist her in finding a house, she opines that women are mesmerized by houses, that they are alive. There is much description of the homes in this novel, their layout, their quirks and interior design. The very first page is Helen’s letter describing Howards End to Margaret. Helen rather humorously remarks to her cousin that ‘the Wilcoxes collect houses as your Victor collects tadpoles.’ (chpt 19) And just as much as the house itself, there is the property within the house: ‘The Age of Property holds bitter moments even for a proprietor. When a move is imminent, furniture becomes ridiculous, and Margaret now lay awake at nights wondering where, where on earth they and all their belongings would be deposited in September next.’ Compare this with the description of poor Leonard Bast’s basement residence: ‘It was an amorous and not unpleasant little hole when the curtains were drawn, and the lights turned on… But it struck that shallow makeshift note that is often heard in the modern dwelling place. It had been too easily gained, and could be relinquished easily.’
Lucy Honeychurch’s house, Windy Corner, has the interesting distinction of appearing to be the ‘remnants of an indigenous aristocracy’ (106), thus giving the Honeychurch family greater standing among new-comers drifting in from London than they might otherwise have expected. Never mind that the entire district is only a few decades old. The district is nearly perfect but for the condition of the ‘ugly little villas’ that mar the view of Summer Street’s Alpine village appearance, which irritates the neighbours, who want to maintain their highly artificial facade. The cottages are described as being ‘acquired’ by Sir Harry Otway the same day that Cecil ‘acquired’ Lucy, an obvious allusion to her personhood being just another piece of property. When Mr. Emerson comes to occupy one, and the humour Cecil derives from offering him this ugly residence on a lark, is indicative of Emerson’s lower class standing. They are described by the owner as being an awkward size, ‘too large for the peasant class, and too small for anyone the least like ourselves.’ This implication that there are two classes, we’, with money and possessions too numerous to fit in a simple villa, and the peasants, who could not afford nor fill the small space. So, Mr. Emerson is not a peasant, but nor is he in anyway, the ‘least like’ the others.
Forster himself, though privileged, stood at what Lionell Trilling called ‘the liberal tradition, that loose body of middle-class opinion which includes such ideas as progress, collectivism and humanitarianism’ (EMF CA II 126). All of Forster’s novels reflect the ideal of liberal political thinking as moral thinking. None of the conservative characters in his novels have much in the way of redeeming value. For Forster, to be in possession of a liberal philosophy is the highest attainment of ‘class’.
There are conflicting philosophies in A Room with a View, from the conservative, traditional views of the Victorian world, to the liberal Edwardian questioning of everything, seeking the new and rejecting the old. The Emersons are the embodiment of this, scandalously irreligious, among other things. George Emerson appears to us a lost soul, upset that he cannot make the pieces of the universe fit together properly. Perhaps Forster felt the same way? George, unbaptised, revelling in his naked swim in the Sacred Lake (perhaps a baptism just as significant), taking liberties with Lucy, tormenting himself over the nature of the universe, is the embodiment of the pagan, free from Christian drudgery. He ‘shall go back to the earth untouched’ (188) by the silly rituals of the church and live a life of sunshine in the wilderness. He leaves an interrogative mark in the room with a view he cedes to Charlotte Bennett, and she asks the obvious: ‘What does it mean?’ Charlotte, in her limited world view, can only ask about the meaning of the image; George is questioning the whole of the universe. This is quite the existential crisis George is confronting.
It is Mr. Emerson, though, George’s father, who must rescue Lucy from her Greek departure with his words of wisdom and cast her back onto the path that leads to his son: ‘I taught him to trust in love… When love comes, that is reality… Passion does not blind. No. Passion is sanity…’ (186-7). Lucy recognises Mr. Emerson as a profoundly religious man, just in a way that differs from the clergyman. Mr. Emerson exposes the problem of ‘muddles’ in life. Muddles are not the large confusions in life; they are the small ones that cause us to stumble. They are caused not by the spontaneous reactions to life, but the pretended ones, the contrived responses that confuse the desires of the heart with the expectations of society. Lucy has gotten herself into a muddle by fighting her feelings for George because she has been conditioned to think him ‘the wrong sort’. And to Forster, muddling love is the worst sort of sin.
And certainly, Forster means to through us off balance in the sudden shift of personal relations between Lucy and her elders at the end of the novel. Her cousin, Miss Bartlett, whom we first thought to be an agent meant to keep Lucy from fulfilling her heartfelt desire to wed George Emerson, was perhaps secretly acting (even unknown to herself) to push Lucy into her awakening. And our seemingly good clergyman, Mr. Beebe, always so tolerant, is enraged at Lucy’s engagement to George. (It is also probably no coincidence that the less ‘personable’ clergyman is called Mr. Eager, who is ever so eager to share what he knows and gossip about others.) Forster is reminding us that people are not always what they seem, and their expressed philosophies not as rigid as they seem.
The Schlegel sisters and their set of privileged amateur philosophers engage in much philosophising about the nature of the world, and how to improve it. The Wilcoxes have no use for philosophy, unless it relates to the amassing of wealth. We see two competing philosophies between Margaret Schlegel and Henry Wilcox: ‘Only Connect’ versus ‘Concentrate!’ ‘Only connect!’ That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest. Live in fragments no longer’ (p. 159). This is Forster’s sermon, based upon his liberal, Bloomsbury philosophies. And in the end of the novel, we find that for better or worse, some connections have been made, while others have been forever severed. Margaret declines a Christmas gift from Mrs. Wilcox because she already has ‘all that money can buy. I want more people, but no more things’ (p. 68). DH Lawrence once – mistakenly – criticised Forster for the ‘nearly deadly mistake glorifying those business people in Howards End. Business is no good.’ But Forster was attempting to reconcile a truth he always struggled with in his life: That business had provided him with the money and lifestyle he – and most of the others in the Bloomsbury set – enjoyed. Lawrence, who never enjoyed the privilege of inheritance, could only see the machines of capitalism as a social evil.
The difference between these two aspects of the upper-classes, the materialist and the idealist, is best expressed in a single sentence about Charles Wilcox and Tibby Schlegel: ‘They had nothing in common but the English language, and tried by its help to express what neither of them understood’ (p. 264). This difference between them is reflected in their perception of work and wealth. ‘Unlike Charles, Tibby had money enough; his ancestors had earned it for him… His was leisure without sympathy… Tibby gave all the praise to himself, and so despised the struggling and submerged. Hense the absurdity of the interview; the gulf between them was economic as well as spiritual’ (pp. 264-5). Charles and Tibby cannot connect, not with each other, not even with others like them. They are part of the old order, and the new British society is passing them by.
Forster’s makes several observations about the unfairness of the treatment between the sexes: ‘The barrier of sex, though decreasing among the civilized, is still high, and higher on the side of women’ (p. 55). Relationships between men and women are noticeably changing, but not rapidly. Margaret explains to Mrs. Wilcox (who is not inclined to agree or disagree, having no opinions of her own): ‘Aren’t we differing on something much wider, Mrs. Wilcox? Whether women are to remain what they have always been since the dawn of history; or whether, since men have moved forward so far, they too may move forward a little now. I say they may.’ (p. 66) This is surely an argument that would have made Forster’s mother proud. There is still mostly medieval inequality for women, though, especially for their apparent trespasses of social mores. When Margaret confronts Henry about Helen’s condition, she brings up his own past infidelity: ‘Only say to yourself, What Helen has done, I’ve done’ (p. 263). When Henry tries to argue that the cases are different, Margaret retorts that if the cases are different, it is only that society has made things worse for Helen because of her sex: ‘You have betrayed Mrs Wilcox, Helen only herself. You remain in society, Helen can’t. You have had only pleasure, she may die’ (p. 263). It is amazing how lightly Forster treads upon the ultimate faux pas in Western society, accepting the moment and immediately moving on from it. There is no time for the reader to be shocked, and Margaret, rather than excluding her sister as a Wilcox would, instead dedicates her life to her sister and coming child. This really is a monumental shift in societal expectation.
Elizabeth Bowen was profoundly influenced by her discovery of EM Forster’s work when she was young, and there are definite echoes of Where Angels Fear to Tread to be found in her seminal work The Death of the Heart, as well as the echo of inanimate psychology: remember Margaret’s conversation with Henry in chapter 13, bringing up one of Helen’s philosophies: ‘some rubbish about furniture. Helen says it alone endures while men and houses perish, and that in the end the world will be a desert of chairs and sofas… rolling through infinity with no one to sit upon them.’ (pp. 137-8). You will see this sentiment of talking furniture again.
In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway we see heavy traces of poor Leonard Bast in her doomed Septimus Smith, both members of the lower classes made into the guinea pigs of their so-called betters. Woolf was a great admirer of Forster, and valued his critiques of her work.
We can ask ourselves where there is no more; why did Forster cease to write novels after A Passage to India. He himself claimed that it was because his creativity had dried up. Maybe it was that the world had changed too much for him to grasp. For the most part, high modernism was controlled by a small, elite group, whose views of what the world could and should be were no longer tenable after the Second World War. Forster resigned himself to being an academic and a critic, at which he was still very successful. Aspects of the Novel is still widely read 85 years later.