A First Rate Literary Biography
P. N. Furbank (Phillip-1920-UK-also the author of biographies on Samuel Butler and Diderot) has written a very good comprehensive biography of E. M. Forster (1879 to 1970-UK-Morgan), one of the great novelists of the 20th century. Forster is the author of Howards End and A Passage to India and four other novels.
There is a lot to like and learn in this biography. I have read quite a few literary biographies over the years and this book is one of the best. Furbank met Forster when he was attending Cambridge and Forster was living there as a fellow at King's College. Forster suggested that Furbank write his biography.
Furbank does a very good job of bringing Forster and his world to life for us. Forster is a GLBT icon. Furbank tells us as much about the private life of Forster as he feels he can say with certainty. Forster's only sexual interest was in men, often working class men much younger than him. He maintained several long term kind of odd avuncular relationships with these men, often extending them support for long periods and even becoming friends with their wives. It does seem that Forster was exploited in some cases by these young men. Reading a bit between the lines, what little sex Forster had in his life was quick, furtive and not a lot of fun.
Two of the biggest things in Forster's live were his long stays in Alexandria Egypt and in India. In Alexandria he wrote a travel/history guide and fell in love with a street car conductor. In one of the most interesting segments of the book Furbank tells us about the time Forster spent in India as the adviser to an Indian Price (think gay Arthur act alike Maharajah). He did everything from tell him how to conduct affairs of state to sharing his opinion on which of the royal dancing boys were the most beautiful.
One question we have to ask is why did Forster stop writing novels in 1924 (he talked about some others but never got started) even though he lived on for 46 more years. One reason is that Forster inherited enough at age 45, along with the money he had coming in from his novels, so he did not have to write anymore. Furbank tells us that Forster also had grown tired of writing stories about the relationships of men and women. He seems to like to "putz about" with friends, his mother and other relatives and Cambridge students. He also had formed a long term relationship with a policemen (we are not sure what went on behind closed doors here) and his wife. They kept a room in their house for Forster (he helped them buy it) when he wanted to get away from Cambridge. He was friends with Virginia and Leonard Woolf and is considered a Bloomsbury figure. He was at Katherine Mansfield's funeral in Paris. He helped Mulk Raj Anand get published. He was a true friend, (though he could be peevish), a very good son, a true lover of the reading life, and really a very good person. As far as we learn in this biography, Forster never did anything mean to anyone.
Furbank really helped me understand how Forster lived his life. He does a good job talking about his novels as they relate to where he was in his life when he wrote them.
I think Forster devotees can, though they would mostly deny this, into two camps, one for Howards End and one for A Passage to India. Furbank is in the first group and I am in the second. Among at least book bloggers I am in the minority but for sure I think both novels are great works.
I would say first read A Passage to India then read Howards End and then ponder your next move. I intend to read and post on all his novels and much of his short fiction.
Please share your experience with Forster with us