E M Forster (1879 – 1970)
Novelist, critic and former resident of Weybridge and Abinger Hammer, Surrey
Edward Morgan Forster (1879-1970) is best known for his ironic novels examining hypocrisy and class difference and the attitudes towards gender and homosexuality in early Twentieth Century British society. Although never declared in his lifetime he was himself homosexual, and a resident of Surrey for over 40 years.
Studies and travels
Forster was born in 1879 in London, to middle-class Anglo-Irish and Welsh parents, Edward Morgan Llewellyn Forster and Lily Whichelo. His father died when he was a toddler, leaving him to be brought up by his beloved mother and his paternal great-aunt, Marianne Thornton.
His life was one of studies and travels. He attended Tonbridge School and graduated from King’s College, Cambridge. Here he socialised with fellow literary students, many of whom went on to establish the Bloomsbury Set, of which Forster was a peripheral member.
The settings and situations for his novels and short stories were frequently inspired by his travels throughout Egypt, Italy, Germany and India. A lifelong Humanist, Forster worked with the Red Cross at the outbreak of the First World War. Click here to read more about Forster’s experiences during the First World War. He then served as private secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas, and on returning to England he resided at Monument Green, Weybridge, where he completed his last novel, A Passage to India (1924).
In 1909, Forster wrote The Machine Stops, a short science fiction story which was first published in the Oxford and Cambridge Review, and republished in Forster’s The Eternal Moment and Other Stories in 1928. The story is set in a post-apocalyptic world where humanity lives underground and relies on a giant machine to provide their needs. It chronicles the downfall of a civilization that is totally subservient to an automated life-support system, The Machine – an infallible deity that controls all communication until “There came a day when, without the slightest warning, without any previous hint of feebleness, the entire communication system broke down, all over the world, and the world, as they understood it, ended.” In modern times, many think that Forster was predicting the age of the Internet and digital technologies and its precariousness (see http://www.techworm.net/2016/10/will-happen-entire-internet-goes.html). The whole short story can be read online at the University of Illinois website http://archive.ncsa.illinois.edu/prajlich/forster.html.
Maurice and sexuality
Five of Forsters novels were published in his lifetime but Forster’s explicitly homosexual writings Maurice and the short-story collection The Life to Come were published shortly after his death in 1970. The nature of these works dictated that at the time of writing they could only have been privately distributed.
Written c.1913-1914, Maurice is a gay love story and was highly controversial, given that Forster’s sexuality had not previously been known or widely acknowledged until after his death.
Forster clearly struggled with his sexuality; he posed as heterosexual and did not come out. The foreword to Maurice alludes to this struggle, while similar issues are explored in the homosexually-charged short stories which he penned between 1903 and 1961. Forster disliked what he considered to be indiscreet and overtly gay behaviour. His one-time lover, Harry Daley of Dorking, was not only openly gay but mixed ostentatiously with Duncan Grant and other members of the Bloomsbury Set.
For Forster this had to be set against his public persona as a novelist and in April 1922, Forster recorded in his diary:
“Have this moment burnt my indecent writings. They clogged me artistically. I had a feeling that I was doing something … dangerous to my career … they were a wrong channel for my pen.“
Even today, critics continue to dispute the extent to which Forster’s sexuality influenced his writing. The Gay Liberation pamphlet With Downcast Gays by Andrew Hodges and David Hutter (1974), expresses disappointment at his lack of honesty in his public homosexuality.
In her biography of Forster, A great unrecorded history : a new life of E.M. Forster (Bloomsbury, 2010), Wendy Moffat uses unpublished archival material, photos, and interviews with surviving friends, to integrate Forster’s public and private lives and show how his sexuality shaped his life, his work, and his politics. See her website for more details http://wendymoffat.com/ A copy of this work is held at Surrey History Centre (SHC ref 920FOR).
Abinger and later years
Surrey was home to Forster for over 40 years. As a child he visited his aunt at West Hackhurst (a house designed by his architect father), in the village of Abinger. Later he inherited the lease and lived there with his mother until her death. In September 1946, he was forced to leave the property when the landlord refused to renew the lease.
He adored the Surrey Hills and was inspired to use Coldharbour and Holmbury St Mary as settings in A Room with a View. He wrote scripts for two local pageants: Abinger Pageant in 1934 (held in the grounds of the Old Rectory, with proceeds going to St James church), and England’s Pleasant Land in 1938. Both were collaborations with Sir Ralph Vaughan-Williams and the latter performed in aid of the Dorking and Leith Hill Preservation Society, in the grounds of Milton Court, Westcott, where reportedly the idyllic setting was interrupted by rain! His essay Abinger Harvest, published in 1936, was also written to celebrate the village.
Forster declined a knighthood in 1949 but on his 90th birthday he received the Order of Merit. After failing health in old age he died of a stroke in Coventry in June 1970, aged 91.
Forster is an LGBT history icon.
E M Forster Bibliography
The papers of E M Forster are held at King’s College Archives, Cambridge (reference EMF/-). Records relating to the Abinger Pageant are held at Trinity College, Cambridge (Ref/JOT/ 41/10).
Forster produced dozens of short stories, essays, travel diaries, broadcasts, pageants and even a film script.
The online Surrey Libraries Virtual Catalogue can be explored at http://www.surreylibraries.org/
Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905)
The Longest Journey (1907)
A Room with a View (1908)
Howards End (1910)
The Story of the Siren (1920)
A Passage to India (1924)
Arctic Summer (1980)
Book of Love