E.M. Forster

emforsterEdwin Morgan Forster (1879-1970) is one of the most celebrated English novelists of the twentieth century, even though he wrote just six novels (one of which was not published until after his death). He is known above all for A Room with a View (1908) and A Passage to India (1924). A collection of short stories published in 1911, The Celestial Omnibus, and Other Stories contains a number of fantasies (some involving gods like Hermes or Pan). But his reputation as a significant writer of fantasy and science fiction rests on “The Machine Stops”, a novella published in November 1909 in The Oxford and Cambridge Review, and collected with some other fantasies in The Eternal Moment and Other Stories (coll 1928). “The Machine Stops” is the first great dystopia of the twentieth century, a direct answer to the work of Wells (especially his A Modern Utopia, 1905). He depicts an underground world in which each human being lives in a cell, connected to each other by a version of the World Wide Web, with no direct personal connections to anyone. For a fuller analysis, see the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

He was born in London, the only child of an architect and of Alice Clara Whichelo (known as “Lily”), the daughter of an artist. His father died in 1880, and an aunt in 1887; both of them left enough money to Lily and her child that they were comfortably off thereafter. He grew up initially near Stevenage in Hertfordshire, but later went to school in Tonbridge in Kent as a day boy: his mother moved to Tonbridge to be near him. In 1897 he went up to King’s College Cambridge, where he spent four years.

He ended up with a second in 1901 (not good enough to secure him an academic job) and his mother packed up all their things and they went travelling for a year, mostly in Italy and Austria. He taught various extramural courses for Cambridge, went on a trip to the Greek Islands with old friends from King’s (and fell in love with one of them) and moved in 1904 to Weybridge, where he finished all six of his novels. The first, Where Angels Fear to Tread, came out in 1905. Between 1910 and 1913 he wrote Maurice, a novel about homosexual love, which was first published in 1971.

Between October 1912 and April 1913 he travelled in India extensively (visiting his friend Masood), and on his return he began writing A Passage to India. He returned to India after the War (see his War Experiences), working as private secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas. He finished A Passage to India, which was a huge success; it was his last novel. Thereafter he wrote many essays, and critical works such as his famous Aspects of the Novel, based on the Clark Lectures he gave at Trinity College Cambridge in 1927. In 1930 he met a young policeman called Bob Buckingham, with whom he had a close relationship until his death.

In the Second World War he became a popular broadcaster. He gave support to liberal causes, from the time he defended Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness in 1928: he was the first president of the National Council for Civil Liberties (1934), and was a defence witness in the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960. He never openly revealed his homosexuality, although in the 1960s he did give a large donation to the Homosexual Law Reform Society.

His mother Lily died in 1945, and shortly afterwards King’s gave him an honorary fellowship. He moved to Cambridge in 1946, living at 23 Trumpington Street, and in 1953 he moved into rooms in King’s College, where he lived until his final stroke in 1970. He was well enough to be moved to the house where Bob Buckingham and his wife lived in Coventry, where he died. Maurice was published the following year.

The information above mostly comes from Nicola Beauman’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, although I have also looked at P.N. Furbank’s E.M. Forster: A Life (London: Secker and Warburg, 1977 and 1978) and at Nicola Beauman’s Morgan: A Biography of E.M. Forster (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1993).

 

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