Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 16, 2010

Brief Lives: E.M. Forster, by Richard Canning #BookReview

 

I’ll bet most readers of the British writer and critic  E.M. Forster (1879-1970) had no idea that he was gay until the posthumous publication of  Maurice in 1971.  Until then the author of, most famously,  A Room with a View  and A Passage to India, would have seemed as conventional as any other writer of his era.  He would have been astonished to discover that in the 21st century he has become a gay icon, in company with Oscar Wilde whom he thought trivial.

I discovered Forster’s academic work first:  Aspects of the Novel  was a set text for my English major at Melbourne.  As Richard Canning explains in Brief Lives: E.M.Forster, Forster would have liked to be a don:

It is a very great thing to be a don.  I would have given anything and would give anything to be one. (p17)

It would have delighted him that this series of lectures came about because he was invited to give the Clark Lectures in 1927.   Always pessimistic about his own efforts, Forster described these lectures as ‘ramshackly‘ (p84)  but subsequently published in book form, they became extremely influential and were staple reading in literary criticism.  Although the book is now a bit dated in the light of PostModernism and other developments, Aspects of the Novel is still widely read if the eNotes Study Guide is anything to go by.

As Canning notes, Forster had written his best-loved and most successful novels by the time he was in his thirties. (The last one was A Passage to India in 1924).  He was interested in issues of social class and hypocrisy, and he was deeply influenced by his travels, most notably to Italy and India.  (Interestingly he did not set any of his novels in Germany or Egypt to which he travelled as well).  He satirised his own mother as the unbearable Englishwoman abroad but if she did recognise herself she kept on interfering in his life anyway.  Inevitably he also modelled some of his characters on his friends, but it seems to have been mostly Forster who broke off some friendships rather than the other way round.  It seems more likely that he chose not to continue writing novels because he could not write honestly about what moved him emotionally and he did not know how to write about heterosexual love with any credibility.  His preference became literary criticism at which he was equally successful, presenting lectures on BBC radio and writing for all the major newspapers and literary magazines.

Canning is lecturer at Bristol and publishes widely in the gay lit field, so it’s not surprising that he focusses on this aspect of Forster’s life.  What Maurice makes clear is the extent to which religious faith constrains sexual identity because the Bible is unequivocal: homosexuality is a sin and therefore it must be repressed.  Forster’s character has to choose between faith and love, and can only do so in a fantasy greenwood, not in society.  Canning, however, (and he’s not alone apparently) regards it as ‘dated’ because ‘by 1971, gay themes were coming in, but agony and self-agonising were out of style’ (p106).  Perhaps in literature they were, but there’s a long way to go before coming out is an easy choice to make, even now.

Other subjects in the Brief Lives series include Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens and Tolstoy.

There’s a review of this book at Chroma which is well worth reading, and so is the Wikipedia entry about Forster.

Author: Richard Canning
Title:  Brief Lives: E.M.Forster
Series: Brief Lives
Publisher: Hesperus Press 2009
ISBN: 9781843919162
Source: Review copy courtesy of Library Thing’s Early Reviewers Program


Responses

  1. Back from our 10 days in the Top End and trying to catch up with all the blogs. This caught my eye because I loved Forster in my school and uni days. Although it wasn’t a set text, I read Maurice back then and as you say, that was how I learnt of his homosexuality. I didn’t know that he decided he could no longer write novels though. What a shame eh? Did you know that at one stage he was tutor to Elizabeth von Arnim’s children? I love picking up these connections between people of an era.

    • Hi Sue, welcome back, I knew you must be away! Yes, the book talks about how Forster ended up in Germany as a tutor – hated it at first but got to like the family and stayed there *hmm, pause, racks forgetful tired brain* two years, I think. Lisa

  2. I can’t imagine anyone not liking von Arnim though I’m sure she would have taken a little getting used to, given her particular form of wit.

  3. You’ve intrigued me, Sue! I looked Armin up on Wikipedia and it looks like she has an interesting oeuvre. How did you come across these books, written so long ago? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_von_Arnim

  4. I was introduced to her by a friend back in the 1980s – Elizabeth and her German Garden. I went on to read Summer (I think it was called) and then Enchanted April was released as a movie (late 80s, early 90s?). I have since read that, plus Mr Skeffington, and All the dogs of my life. And I have Vera in my TBR pile. I adore her wit. I’m assuming the Wikipedia article says that she was born in Australia but lived the majority of her life in Europe.

    Most if not all of her books were published by Virago. Back in the 1980s I’d scan bookshelves for the Virago imprint and bought quite a lot!

    • Good old Virago! I’ll scour my favourite 2nd bookshop and see what I can find.


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