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E. M. Forster: An Enabling Modesty


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1On the first day of 1959 E. M. Forster celebrated his eightieth birthday. Among events held to mark the occasion was an hour-long BBC television programme, the gist of which was printed in the following week’s Listener, and articles of a more or less adulatory nature appeared in most of the quality weeklies and periodicals. There was also an interview in the Observer conducted by its chief book reviewer, Philip Toynbee. This is of interest, if only because it shows that Forster was keeping up his reading. William Golding is praised, as is J. D. Salinger – Forster reveals that he liked both The Catcher in the Rye and the story “For Esme with Love and Squalor” – but he thinks Dr Zhivago over-rated. “It quite lacks the solidity of War and Peace. I don’t think Pasternak is really very interested in people. The book seems to me most interesting for its epic quality. The political argument is quite incidental, and I don’t at all feel that this was his main objective.”

2To this, Toynbee, who was at the time trying to advance himself as an experimental novelist, asks Forster whether he thinks that Pasternak has suffered because “he has been isolated from the main development of the novel in the West? I believe, for example, that he has never read Proust.” Toynbee is currying favour here. He knows of Forster’s often-stated admiration for Proust. But Forster nimbly side-steps. “I don’t think that’s very important, do you?” he answers. “As a matter of fact the only time I met Pasternak was in the West, in France sometime during the 30s. He was very charming and very amusing.”

3Toynbee had in the 1930s been an ardent Communist, who at that time had dismissed Forster as hopelessly out of touch, and by 1959 he was an equally ardent cold-war warrior as well as convert to Christianity. One of the reasons Forster’s eightieth birthday was so fêted – why at Reading University a third year undergraduate had even begun writing a critical monograph on him, 47 typescript pages of which survive – is that he had been neither of those things, and that during decades when it was easy to become, as he himself said, “rattled”, he tried not to panic. That this could occasionally look like wilful turning away from issues of the day, is obvious. Indeed it was so obvious to intelligent and committed Marxists in the 1930s, that they not surprisingly took his refusal to appear in Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War as evidence of a liberalism which inevitably failed to meet the imperatives of the day. “I do not feel that manifestos by writers carry any weight whatever”, Forster had written by way of explaining to Nancy Cunard why he wouldn’t be contributing to the pamphlet of which she was chief organiser (Chisholm 240). That Forster was not soon to be forgiven for this piece of fence-sitting, as it presumably appeared to the left, can be gauged from the cover illustration to the March 1948 issue of the communist arts paper, Our Time, designed by James Boswell, an artist who during the previous decade had done much distinguished work for Left Review and the Daily Worker. Here, Forster, along with Aldous Huxley, Stephen Spender, Cyril Connolly and others, is shown trying to shore up the Tree of – well, of what I’m not entirely clear. Of State? Of old liberal Europe? At all events, Forster is identified with those who resist change, which, in view of the narrative he had written for Humphrey Jennings’ fascinating film, Diary for Timothy, betrays a deep misunderstanding of Forster’s desire for a different and a better world.

4Or does it? Because you could say that from the start Forster had always been chary of causes. The most famous statement of his distrust, one he identifies with heroic individualism, comes in the essay “What I Believe”:

No, I distrust Great Men. They produce a desert of uniformity around them and often a pool of blood too and I always feel a little man’s pleasure when they come a cropper. Every now and then one reads in the newspaper some such statement as: “the coup d’état appears to have failed, and Admiral Toma’s whereabouts are at present unknown.” Admiral Toma had probably every qualification for becoming a Great Man – an iron will, personal magnetism, dash, flair, sexlessness – but fate was against him, so he retires to unknown whereabouts instead of parading history with his peers. He fails with a completeness which no artist and no lover can experience, because with them the process of creation is its own achievement, whereas with him the only possible achievement is success. (Two Cheers 82)

5In his affectionate essay, “Mr Forster’s Good Influence”, F. D. Klingopulos alludes to Forster’s immediately subsequent declaration of faith in “an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky” as “the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos”, as something he found valuable at the outset of the War, even though “They seemed frail words, even, at such a time, slightly absurd” (246). I think they are tougher than Klingopulos will allow, but this is because they seem to me deliberately frail. They oppose the grandiosity of public utterance, take their stand on a modesty which slyly rebukes the headier rhetoric of more insistent claims, especially those made on behalf of Great Man. And after all, the 1930s was very much the decade of the “Great Man”. Forster’s readiness to speak for the “little man” is part of a deliberate strategy, a way of establishing himself as that despised phenomenon, the “bourgeois liberal”.

6Just how consciously he planned to make this effect can, I think, be gauged by looking at the history of the essay itself. Although in the original 1951 edition of Two Cheers for Democracy it is dated to 1939, it was in fact written and first published a year earlier, in the Spring of 1938. The essay was prompted by an invitation to Forster to contribute to a series of articles to be called “Living Philosophies”, commissioned by the New York magazine, The Nation. Forster apparently worked hard on the essay, to which he gave the title, “Two Cheers for Democracy”. But the following year, when it was broadcast by the BBC, the essay was retitled “What I Believe”. Twenty years later, when Forster recorded the essay during June-August 1958 as one side of an Argo LP, issued in 1959, the record sleeve note tells us that “In an introduction to this recording Mr Forster states that some of the opinions he held when writing this essay in 1939 have been modified since, but he does not consider that a writer has the privilege of altering anything he has written.” Yet even this isn’t quite right, because on the recording itself Forster prefaces his reading by noting that the essay “was written during the last war”, but that, though he has changed some of his opinions since then, “I don’t think that an author has the right to tamper with his own text.”

7But he has tampered with it, at least to the extent of suggesting that the essay was written after the start of the war, when in fact it was written over a year before the war began. I don’t think this can be put down to forgetfulness. My own view is that in 1958-9 Forster was especially keen to suggest that even in war time he had written that

Personal relations are despised today. They are regarded as bourgeois luxuries, and we are urged to get rid of them and to dedicate ourselves to some movement or cause instead. I hate the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country. (Two Cheers 78)

8What Forster is doing, I suggest, is to signal to his audience that if he dared to say such things in wartime, they should be prepared to say them when times were easier. Here, at least, is a cause he elects to stand by, that of gay rights, as we should call them now, although in 1959, which was not long after the publication of the Wolfenden Report had been denounced by John Gordon in the Sunday Express as “the Pansies’ Charter”, practising male homosexuality was not only still illegal, it was more or less a taboo subject. And even Forster, we may feel, has to codify his message. Still, its meaning was clear enough. As a result, Forster’s posthumous reputation had to endure the assertion by John Carey and others that he had given comfort to the “Homintern”, those left-wing intellectuals who, be it noted, had in the late 1930s denounced him as a wishy-washy liberal. Still, no man who earns the displeasure of Carey and of King Street can be all wrong, and Forster in 1958-9 was not merely feted, he was venerated.

9This veneration didn’t depend on critical assessment of his fiction. I doubt that any of the growing number of critics who were writing about him thought of him as a great novelist. Lionel Trilling’s 1943 study had singled him out as a supreme example of the liberal spirit in fiction, but praising Howard’s End at the expense of A Passage to India was bound to seem to most a betrayal of the very cause Trilling meant to advance. And in his TV interview, Forster himself went out of his way to disavow any claim to greatness. I can only write about three kinds of character, he said, those I like, those I dislike, and those I would like to be. And of course at an earlier moment, the death of D.H. Lawrence, he had famously, and, as Leavis noted, honourably, called Lawrence “the greatest imaginative novelist of his generation” (Coombes) – which was Forster’s own generation. Besides, he was on record as remarking that his personal favourite among his own novels was The Longest Journey, which I imagine most readers would think the least successful of the six full-length works of fiction published during his lifetime. (Rumours of a seventh, unpublishable one were widespread but Maurice didn’t appear until 1971, a year after Forster’s death. And it was known that another, Arctic Summer, begun soon after the completion of Howard’s End, had as soon been abandoned, and survived only as a fragment.)

10A modest achievement, then. And modesty seems a word that attaches to Forster in a manner that is as adhesive as it may seem to be disabling. Yet if we consider his oeuvre as a whole, it is a good deal more substantial than this account would suggest. For in addition to the novels there are two collections of short stories, neither, I will admit, exceptional, there are two collections of essays, Abinger Harvest and Two Cheers for Democracy, which, though they contain some makeweights, also include a number of important pieces on which I shall draw, there is his Aspects of the Novel, regularly pooh-poohed by critics yet oddly memorable, even, I think, durable, two biographies, one of which, the life of his aunt, Marianne Thornton, is a first-class study that tells us much that other commentators have either ignored or said less well about nineteenth-century Evangelicalism, there is his intriguing Guide to Alexandria, as well as Pharos and Pharillon, there are two pageant plays, The Abinger Pageant (given in 1934 and printed at the end of Abinger Harvest) and England’s Pleasant Land  (produced four years later and published in 1940 by the Hogarth Press), and there is the film script for Diary for Timothy (1945), as well as a mass of reviews and occasional pieces for newspapers and periodicals. In short, there is far more of Forster than you might think. There is also much more to him than those intendedly dismissive or at all events containing words “liberal” and “modest” can fairly suggest.

  • 1  Given that these talks were recorded early in 1940 and that he especially instances their murderou (...)

11True, modesty seems Forster’s stock in trade. But this can have its own proper intransigence. “I distrust Great Men. They produce a desert of uniformity around them and often a pool of blood too” (Two Cheers 82). The allusion to Shelley’s “Ozymandias” may seem to be compromised by “a pool of blood”. Shouldn’t the alternative to a desert be an ocean, or at the very least a lake? But Forster resists the rhetorical flourish that will either aggrandise or demonise. Whether he has in mind one or all of Franco, Mussolini, Hitler or Stalin, to name only the most obvious contenders, he isn’t at this moment prepared to identify them as monsters. He won’t raise his voice in hectoring denunciation. Nevertheless, he did denounce Hitler as well as Stalin, and in a number of war broadcasts – see for example the pamphlet Nordic Twilight (Macmillan War Pamphlet no 3) – made plain his long-standing detestation of the Nazis.1

12In fact, he won’t raise his voice at all. In his invaluable Red Letter Days: British Fiction in the 1930s, Andy Croft notes that all who attended the 1935 Paris International Writers Congress were united in their opposition to fascism. Among the many speakers at the Congress was Forster, who made what Croft calls “a well-received contribution” (52). Not according to others. In his biography, P.N. Furbank quotes at length from the report of the American novelist, Katherine Anne Porter, who was present on the occasion:

I think it was just after André Malraux – then as dogmatic in communism as he is now in some other faith – had leapt to the microphone barking like a fox to halt the applause for Julien Benda [whose sympathy with right-wing politics suggest that not all in Paris for the occasion were “united in opposition to Fascism”], that a little slender man with a large forehead and a shy chin rose, was introduced and began to read his paper carefully prepared for the occasion. He paid no attention to the microphone, but wove back and forth, and from side to side, gently, and every time his face passed the mouth-piece I caught a high-voiced syllable or two, never a whole word …. Then, surprisingly, once he came to a moment’s pause before the instrument and there sounded into the hall clearly but wistfully a complete sentence: “I DO believe in liberty!”

The applause at the end was barely polite, but it covered the antics of that part of the audience near me; a whole pantomime of malignant ridicule, meaning that Mr. Forster and all his kind were already as extinct as the dodo. It was a discouraging moment. (225-6)

13Given that this was written from McCarthyite America in 1953, we don’t have to believe every one of its rhetorical flourishes in order to recognise that Forster’s contribution was unlikely to have been rapturously received, and not merely because he refused to acknowledge the microphone’s existence. (Though this is at least emblematic of his preference for the unraised voice.) His talk, entitled “Liberty in England” (it is reprinted, dated to June 21 1935, in Abinger Harvest, 62-8) is important because it is as unyielding a definition as anything he ever wrote of what he meant by the term, and I therefore want to spend a few moments considering what Forster says.

14Freedom and Liberty are, he asserts, closely entwined, and in the past have been championed by such writers as Milton, Shelley and Dickens. This may seem an odd trinity, but I suspect that Forster is thinking of Milton less as the apologist for a God of merciless justice than as the author of Areopagitica (about which he was to write a sharp little essay in 1944, demanding press freedom even in, or perhaps especially during, war time), of Shelley as the author of “Epipsychidion”, lines from which, championing a kind of Fourier-like free love, form the epigraph and, of course, title of The Longest Journey, and Dickens as the writer who, in Orwell’s words, is “generously angry”. (And who, we should recall, was at best condescended to by the literary intelligentsia of his day gathered round the Westminster Review for being indifferent to the ideological orthodoxy of positivism which they espoused.) Forster then announces that he is neither Fascist – “Fascism does evil that evil may come,” nor Communist, “though perhaps I might be one if I was a younger and a braver man,” he adds, “for in Communism I see hope. It does things which I think evil, but I know that it intends good.” As it is, “I am actually what my age and upbringing have made me – a bourgeois who adheres to the British constitution, adheres to it rather than supports it, and the fact that this isn’t dignified doesn’t worry me. I do care about the past. I do care about the preservation and extension of freedom. And I have come to this congress mainly to listen to what is being done and suffered in other lands” (Abinger Harvest 63). Although he repeats the word “do” here, it is noteworthy that he doesn’t capitalise it as Porter does, any more than he says that he cares about “Liberty”, which especially in the early 1950s was an American watchword.

15There is a degree of mischief-making in Forster’s identification of himself as a “bourgeois”, just as there will be in “What I Believe”, where he speaks of personal relationships being despised as “bourgeois luxuries”. (Auden had so characterised them, in his 1935 poem “A Bride in the Thirties”, Look, Stranger! poem 5, 19.) But this is serious mischief. Forster refuses to align himself with the determined – perhaps over-determined – anti-bourgeois stance of those attending the Paris Congress. And this is why he modulates into an attack on what he calls the presence of “Fabio-Fascism” in British life, which he defines as “the dictator-spirit working quietly away behind the façade of constitutional forms, passing a little law (like the Sedition Act) here, endorsing a departmental tyranny there, emphasizing the national need for secrecy elsewhere, and whispering and cooing the so-called ‘news’ every evening over the wireless, until opposition is tamed and gulled.” The Sedition Act, “passed last year by our so-called National Government”, is one that strikes “an open blow against freedom of expression” and, by restoring the right of “General Search … impedes the moral and political education of the soldier … encourages the informer, and … can be used against pacifists.” With such an Act in existence, Forster says, it is easy to set up what he calls “psychological censorship … and the human heritage is impaired.” And from this he moves to consider how, recently, the publishers of James Hanley’s novel, Boy, which had appeared in 1930, were in 1934 successfully prosecuted for having “published an obscene libel” (Abinger Harvest 63-4).

16This case, which has been written about before (Furbank has something to say on the subject, 223-4), is, I imagine, known to anyone at all interested in the 1930s. What concerns me is not the case itself but why Forster should make it central to his speech to the Congress. And to answer that question we have surely to consider what he means by “Fabio-Fascism.” It is the spirit which, in its belief in abstract causes, considers itself justified in curbing freedoms which seem to or may be held to threaten those causes. Above all, it fears the unorthodox, which of course includes homosexuality. By 1935, Forster, who counted Isherwood among his close friends, would have known of Hitler’s closing down the nightclubs of Berlin and other cities as part of a move against “degeneracy”. He couldn’t have read the following words, because they didn’t appear until 1937, but the attitude they express was well entrenched by the time of the congress: “One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist and feminist in England” (Orwell 206). And although Orwell, whose words these are, doesn’t here use the phrase “pansy poets”, it hovers about his list of undesirables and will, of course, be produced on future occasions. As I pointed out in The Radical Twenties (118-25), you would be hard put to find such a list being trotted out by anyone on the left in that decade, and this, as much as anything, might justify Forster’s coinage of the term “Fabio-Fascism.” And to sharpen this point, I will add that a month after Forster’s address to the Congress in Paris, Left Review carried a full page cartoon by James Boswell which makes use of a comment by the Duke of Kent who had apparently said that “there were few things in our life that gave more pleasure than flowers.” Accompanying this we get an assortment of caricatural heads of male homosexuals. Pansies, you see. Perhaps whispers about the Duke’s own sexual predilections helped prompt Boswell’s drawing, but this hardly excuses it. After all, the case against the Duke of Kent shouldn’t have been that he was a closet gay.

17The 1930s, whether to Left or Right, are undoubtedly marked by the kind of concern for “purity” – of mind, body, political allegiance – which Orwell may pretend to despise but which he exemplifies in his snarling contempt for any show of eccentricity. Sitting beside “an ordinary man” on a bus as two “dreadful-looking old men got on” – both wearing shorts – he is aware that to his companion, who identifies them as socialists, “a crank meant a Socialist and a Socialist meant a crank. Any Socialist, he probably felt, could be counted on to have something eccentric about him” (Orwell 206). Lurking in the shadows of “eccentricity” is the dread word “degeneracy”, which could be readily attached to anything thought not sufficiently pure, whether that turned out to be homosexuality or, for example, jazz. As far as I know, Forster never said anything about jazz, but such indifference or, possibly, restraint, is in itself worthy of note in a decade where by and large the orthodox reaction on the Left, quite as much as on the Right, was one of distrust deepening into downright condemnation of what the Marxist George Thomson would call “debased commercialised music” (141). And his was by no means the most severe response. For Stalin, every bit as much as for Hitler, such music was anathema. It was, after all, the music of Blacks and, increasingly, Jews.

18Forster’s championing of James Hanley’s novel isn’t, then, an issue of marginal importance, even if that was how the Congress chose to see it. Censorship is the mortal enemy of freedom. In this context, it is worth pausing to consider Forster’s comments on André Gide, whose novel The Counterfeiters he had perhaps over-praised in Aspects of the Novel, whom he met at the Congress, and about whom he wrote a piece in 1943, “Gide and George” (Two Cheers 233-50). There, he calls Gide a humanist, and he defines a humanist as possessing four characteristics: “curiosity, a free mind, a belief in good taste, and belief in the human race.” He praises Gide’s speech to the Congress, in which the French writer declared his belief that “individuals and their peculiarities can best flourish in a communist society” (Furbank 195). This was in line with the position of André Malraux, who had most to do with organising the Congress, and who explained that ‘the Soviet Union, being frequently accused of neglecting or stifling culture, wanted a public opportunity for its writers to expound their ideas” (Furbank 192). In view of which, it is piquant to learn that Gorki withdrew from the Soviet delegation for “health reasons”, and that Malraux, quite apart from wanting to stifle applause for Julien Benda’s contribution, tried to tell delegates what they should say.

19Forster’s short essay on Gide is characterised by an habitual generosity of spirit the more commendable once you know that when they met in Paris in June 1935 Gide had more or less given him the cold shoulder. At all events, Forster, Gide and Malraux dined together, but at the conclusion of the meal, when Forster was anticipating conversation, the others abruptly got to their feet and left. Perhaps they feared that a threat to their Communist conviction – especially new-found in Gide’s case – might come from prolonged contact with the English writer. It reminds me, a little, of the later cold-shoulder turned by Sartre to Camus, and this prompts the reflection that there is a point of comparison to be made between Dr. Rieux’s remark in The Plague, to the effect that “it’s too damned silly living only for the plague”, and Forster’s remark towards the end of his speech to the Congress, that

One must behave as if one is immortal, and as if civilization is eternal. Both statements are false – I shall not survive, no more will the great globe itself – both of them must be assumed to be true if we are to go on eating and working and travelling, and keep open some breathing holes for the human spirit. (Abinger Harvest 67)

20These words come immediately after Forster has said that “if nations keep on amassing armaments, they can no more help excreting them than an animal which keeps on eating can help itself from excreting.” What then is a writer to do? “We have just to go on tinkering as well as we can with our old tools until the crash comes.” After that “if there is an after – the task of civilisation will be carried on by people whose training has been very different from my own” (67).

21Reading those words I find coming into my head Auden’s lines from “A Summer Night” about the monsters which lie stranded among the wreckage of a post-cataclysmic world, and for whom “sounds of riveting terrify/ Their whorled, unsubtle ears.” “A Summer Night”, which was written in June 1933, anticipates a coming collapse of the favoured and exclusive civilisation of those who shelter behind “creepered walls” (Look, Stranger! poem 2, 13-16). Whether Forster had read Auden’s poem is less important than his shared foreboding about a forthcoming smash. Of course, there is nothing at all unusual about this. You’d have needed to travel far and wide before finding someone who didn’t anticipate some imminent disaster. But the point is that for Forster “tinkering” has intrinsic value because it helps to keep open “a few breathing holes for the human spirit.” “A few”, notice: no grand vision here. This is the essence of modesty.

22Such modesty is very much to the point of the two pageants for which Forster at this time provides the working scripts. The 1934 Abinger Pageant, with music supplied by the socialist Vaughan Williams, is a simple-enough re-telling of the history of that part of Surrey where Forster then lived, from pre-Roman times to the present. The narrator, a “Woodman”, ends up by asking his audience to consider whether it wants a future in which “our Surrey fields and woodlands” are ruined by “Houses and bungalows, hotels, restaurants and flats, arterial roads, by-passes, petrol pumps and pylons” (Abinger Harvest 351). I am not here to defend this, although I will say that Forster’s dismay over what would later be called “planning blight” isn’t as reactionary as may at first appear, and that it was and had been widely shared – by, among others, that principled man of socialist convictions, the architect Clough Williams Ellis and the equally radical poet, Ivor Gurney.

23The Abinger Pageant was a parish affair. But the second pageant, England’s Pleasant Land: A Pageant Play, written in 1938, again with music by Vaughan Williams, is rather more ambitious. Set in a slightly different part of Surrey, its historical narrative touches on the evil attending on eighteenth-century enclosures, new game laws, the mass emptying of the land as agricultural labourers move to the cities, and it ends with the arrival of the developers, the spokesman for whom is Jerry, who finds that as always the law is on his side. The pageant was written for the Dorking and Leith Hill Preservation Society, and Furbank tells us that Forster wanted to draw a parallel “between the eighteenth-century Enclosures, which had robbed the peasantry of their common land, and the twentieth-century Death-duties, which, in theory, returned their land to them – in theory, but not in practice”. Property developers will rob them all over again. The pageant’s final episode features a kind of anti-masque “of Horrors” in which, as Jerry and Bumble begin their dance, the direction reads:

A procession of little bungalows… fill the stage. Motor cars, motor bikes, motor buses, paper and empty tins. In the distance, more motor vehicles and masses of adverts. The people in the buses shriek and wave to the families in the bungalows, show shriek and wave back. Officials enter when the chaos is fully established, to plan regional development. Pedestrians are knocked down. (78)

24Forster’s dislike of the motor car, which had begun in Howard’s End, here reaches what may seem to be an unintentionally comic apotheosis. Yet before we condemn it as regressive sentimentalism, we should note that Forster’s pageant takes much from the Hammonds’ The Village Labourer, and that his sympathetic inclusion of what Furbank calls the “Labourers’ Revolt of 1830” was almost certainly what led to the resignation of one of the pageant’s sponsors, Lord Ferrars, who, Forster suspected, found that episode, in Forster’s own words, altogether “too bolshie”. We should also note that the following year the Communist Party of Great Britain devised a quite brilliant piece of film propaganda, intended to be shown in cinemas as part of the campaign for the General Election that the outbreak of war prevented, in which the hero is a farm-labourer shown following his horse and plough over a field that can stand for England’s pleasant land threatened, as ever, by rentier capitalists.

25Of course it remains the case that Forster’s two pageants will look to be tame, local events, and a far cry – in every sense – from the more typical public performances associated with radical activity in the 1930s: Mass Declamations, opera by the Clarion singers, the work of Unity Theatre and, for that matter, a huge pageant organised by the Co-operative Movement. This event, which took place in Wembley Arena on 2 July, 1938, a week before England’s Pleasant Land was presented in, so Forster says, “surroundings of exquisite natural beauty”, was to celebrate the Sixteenth Annual Co-operative Day. According to the Co-Op’s Souvenir Programme (housed in the Co-Op Library, Salford), proceedings featuring, as they say, a cast of thousands, began at 2.30, with “Band Selections, and Clowning by Liley Bros. and Lofty”, and ended with the Dagenham Girl Pipers, after which there was Ballroom Dancing until 11 pm at the Empire Stadium Ballroom. As for the pageant itself, some of which was filmed, and which was called “Towards To-morrow: A Pageant of Co-operation”, the scenario was devised by Montagu Slater and Andre van Gyseghem (the latter of whom also acted as pageant master – and, so I understand, demanded a considerable sum for his work), and music was composed and arranged by Alan Bush. Given that both Slater and Bush were Communist Party members, it is only to be expected that the eight “episodes” of their pageant, which is, they tell us, about “man and his will to cure the disease of his society and the darkness of his mind”, should provide a socialist account of English history, from “Merrie England” through to the glimpsed future, in which a Ballet of Young Workers is succeeded by an International Procession. The Programme notes that at this moment “two decorated cars of PEACE and DEMOCRACY are drawn on by hundreds of children dressed in white.” The Co-operative Resolution is then read out:

The Co-operators of the World… Renew the declaration of their unshakeable Faith in the Principles of Democracy, Freedom and Peace;

Manifest their abhorrence of all interference with the Rights and Liberties of Free Peoples, and of any abrogation of their opportunities of Voluntary Association and Free Development; Proclaim their conviction that the Economic Principles and Social Ideals which lie at the basis of their World Movement constitute the best hope for the Regeneration of Society and the Surest Guarantee of Universal peace through Association;

Pledge Themselves, and their respective Co-operative Organisations, to redouble their efforts for the Defence of Freedom and to intensify their support of every means which afford the possibility of a Peaceful and Equitable Solution to the Present World Conflicts.

A dense white cloud of pigeons, with wings fluttering, rises up and disperses to all parts of Great Britain, carrying messages of greeting to other Co-operators.

26Far more than a week seems to separate the event at Wembley from Forster’s village pageant. And indeed the novelist’s inherent distrust of public occasions, his preference for the small, the local, the unofficial, all come together in the Lilliputian scale of England’s Pleasant Land. Moreover, making Death-duties the bogeyman which threatens England is bound to seem small beer compared to the various expressions of “disease” which the Co-Op pageant identifies as threatening peoples’ health. It’s as though, to apply to him the phrase by which he made C. P. Cavafy famous to Anglophone readers, he is “standing at a slight angle” to the concern of others.

27Nevertheless, there is more in common between Forster’s village pageant, with its understanding of how dispossession works on individuals, and the Co-operative Day Pageant, than there is between either of them and Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, the novel she began to think about in 1938 and which she eventually finished in February 1941, a month before she drowned herself. A pageant is at the heart of this novel, set in one country house and its estate, but it is one in which England is to be depicted from the Middle Ages to the time of Victoria, and in which the lives of the novel’s characters – what happens between the acts – are remote from the social and political concerns that pageants are for. In her novel the private lives of individuals are lived out in indifference to larger issues. In Forster’s Pageant, such lives are threatened and indeed overwhelmed by them, and even if we say that the threat seems inadequately presented, we should remember that at more or less the moment he was writing England’s Pleasant Land Forster was also writing “What I Believe”, in the course of which he says that force and violence “is the ultimate reality”. And to this essay I want for a moment to return.

28Forster arrives at his statement by means of an elaborate reading of Wagner’s Ring, a work which had long fascinated him, as had all of Wagner’s work, including Parsifal, whose story underpins A Room With a View. Force, so Forster says, “gets out sooner or later, and then it destroys us and all the lovely things which we have made.” Fortunately, he adds, the strong are so stupid:

Consider their conduct for a moment in the Nibelung’s Ring. The giants there have the guns, or in other words the fold; but they do nothing with it, they do not realise that they are all-powerful, with the result that the catastrophe is delayed and the castle of Walhalla, insecure but glorious, fronts the storms. Fafnir, coiled round his hoard, grumbles and grunts; we can hear him under Europe today; the leaves of the wood already tremble, and the Bird calls its warnings uselessly. Fafnir will destroy us, but by a blessed dispensation he is stupid and slow, and creation goes on just outside the poisonous blast of his breath. The Nietzschean would hurry the monster up, the mystic would say he did not exist, but Wotan, wiser than either, hastens to create warriors before doom declares itself. The Valkyries are symbols not only of courage but intelligence; they represent the human spirit snatching its opportunity while the going is good, and one of them even finds time to love. Brünnhilde’s last song hymns the recurrence of love, and since it is the privilege of art to exaggerate, she goes even further, and proclaims the love which is eternally triumphant, and feeds upon freedom, and lives. (Two Cheers 80)

29I suspect that these words, as much as any, prompted Auden’s dedicatory sonnet to Journey to a War, first published early in 1939. I quote here from the version prefixed to the Revised Edition of the book published in 1973:

Though Italy and King’s are far away,
And Truth a subject only bombs discuss,
Our ears unfriendly, still you speak to us,
Insisting that the inner life can pay.

As we dash down the slope of hate with gladness,
You trip us up like an unnoticed stone,
And, just as we are closeted with madness,
You interrupt us like the telephone.

For we are Lucy, Turton, Philip: we
Wish international evil, are delighted
To join the jolly ranks of the benighted

Where reason is denied and love ignored.
But, as we swear our lie, Miss Avery
Comes out into the garden with a sword.

30Furbank reports an argument between Isherwood and Auden not long before Auden wrote the sonnet, in which Auden teased Isherwood about the latter’s violent atheism, suggesting that he must be on the point of a conversion. In reply, Isherwood invoked Forster, saying that “Morgan Forster was incapable of having truck with such ‘fascist filth’” (Furbank 240).

31It is with this in mind that we can properly understand the famous remark that “I hate the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” The remark, which as I noted earlier has been held up for contempt by John Carey and others, is in fact – which means in context – not only defensible, it is entirely honourable. Here, then, is the passage in sufficient entirety:

Personal relations are despised today. They are regarded as bourgeois luxuries, as products of a time of fair weather which is now past, and we are urged to get rid of them, and to dedicate ourselves to some movement or cause instead. I hate the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country. Such a choice may scandalise the modern reader, and he may stretch out his patriotic hand to the telephone at once and ring up the police. It would not have shocked Dante, though. Dante places Brutus and Cassius in the lower circle of Hell because they had chosen to betray their friend Julius Caesar rather than their country Rome…. Love and loyalty to an individual can run counter to the claims of the State. When they do – down with the State, say I, which means that the State would down me. (Two Cheers 78)

32As Forster’s account of the Ring would have made clear to all but the terminally stupid, the force he feared – the Strong – was Nazi Germany, even though when he sat down to write his essay, satirising Hitler was still not allowed in the British press. And here, when he speaks of the betrayal of friendship and of what was done in the name of Rome, he every bit as clearly intends to direct his readers’ attention to Mussolini’s increasingly brutal Fascism. This leaves those who, like Carey, deride Forster, in the position of appearing to say that dissident individuals, including homosexuals and – who knows? – Jews, should be handed over to the state and its agents, whether these happen to be the NKVD, the Hitler Youth Movement, or Mussolini’s polizia. In which context, it is worth noting that in 1939 Forster wrote a short essay, “Jew Consciousness”, in which he remarked that “A nasty side of our nation’s character has been scratched up” and that “People who would not ill-treat Jews themselves, or even be rude to them, enjoy tittering over their misfortunes …. The grand Nordic argument, ‘He’s a bloody capitalist so he must be a Jew, and as he’s a Jew he must be a Red,’ has already taken root in our filling-stations and farms” (Two Cheers 25).

33Forster’s admiration, in “What I Believe”, for his aristocracy of “the plucky, the considerate, and the sensitive” gives priority to private faces in private places, as opposed to those who “in power, become crooked and very often dotty as well.” Forster’s language, here as throughout, refuses to shift towards the rhetoric of public occasion. It remains steadfastly that of the private conversationalist. As such, it can be quietly devastating:

The more highly public life is organised the lower does its morality sink; the nations of today behave to each other worse than they ever did in the past, they cheat, rob, bully and bluff, make war without notice, and kill as many women and children as possible; whereas primitive tribes were at all events restrained by taboos. (Two Cheers 84)

34That was written in 1938. I don’t know whether he was aware that at more or less the time he was writing his essay, Joseph Needham and a group of fellow biologists had formed the Cambridge-based Theoretical Biology Club, which, so Stephen Rose says in his splendid Lifelines: Life Beyond the Gene, to which I owe my discovery of the Club, was an expression among several of an “almost underground non-reductionist tradition in biology”, though ‘their voices were and still are drowned out by an almost universal reductionist consensus” (78-9). Even if he did know of the Club, Forster, who as far as I know had no especial interest in the natural sciences, could have been no more than generally approving of a group which might be taken to threaten the universalist claims of, say, Lysenko or those who argued for the purity of the Aryan race or Nordic type, contempt for whose “grand argument” we have already seen Forster expressing. But his love for those individuals who signal through the encroaching dark, the men and women whom he calls “unquenchable lights of my aristocracy”, and whom he imagines signalling their message “let’s have a good time while we can”, undoubtedly heartened Auden when, in the poem “September 1, 1939”, he, too, imagined the coming dark, where “Defenceless under the night/ Our world in stupor lies;/ Yet, dotted everywhere,/ Ironic points of light/ Flash out wherever the Just/ Exchange their messages” (Another Time, 112-15).  I would even suggest that the voice with which Auden hopes to undo the folded lie in that poem is a Forsterian one.

35By then, of course, Auden was in America. In England, Forster was asked by the BBC to broadcast talks to the nation. But not all were so lucky. With the coming of war, various performers, among them Alan Bush, found themselves blacklisted, in his case because he belonged to the “People’s Convention”, a Communist-run body. The blacklist was defended by Duff Cooper, Minister for Information, which suggested government-approved backing for the blacklist. The BBC Board of Governors had, Duff Cooper said, voluntarily resigned and left decision making to him. This was news to the Governors. A mass protest meeting was held at Conway Hall on March 17, and Forster was one of the main speakers. He read out a letter from Vaughan Williams protesting against Bush’s victimisation, and he emphasised the need to be concerned for “the smaller people. Because when important people are thrown overboard they make a big splash…. But the smaller people don’t make a splash; they vanish silently and the injustice never comes to light.” Three days after the meeting, Furbank tells us, “Churchill promised in the House that the ban would be removed, and twelve days after that Duff Cooper announced the reconstitution of the B.B.C’s Board of Governors”, whom he had previously dismissed, though they were said to have gone voluntarily (Furbank 240).

36Nor was Forster done. Three years later, he gave a talk to coincide with the tercentenary of Milton’s Areopagitica, in which he asked, would Milton have liked the wireless?, and answered:

Yes and No. He would have been enthusiastic over the possibilities of broadcasting, and endorsed much that it does, but he would not have approved the “agreed script” from which broadcasters are obliged to read for security reasons. He believed in free expression and in punishment afterwards if the expression turned out to be illegal …. You can argue that the present supervision of broadcasters is necessary and reasonable …. But if you feel like that, you must modify your approval of Areopagitica. And do not say “Oh it’s different to-day – there’s a war on.” There was equally a war on in 1644. (Two Cheers 64)

37A year later, with the war coming to an end, Forster provided the script for Humphrey Jennings’s film, Diary for Timothy. The donnée for this is simple enough. The film opens at Christmas 1944, with the birth of a baby boy. What world will he grow up to join? Will it be one of peace, of social justice, of properly-paid work, or one in which the mistakes of the past are repeated. The film’s slant is, I suppose, Labourite, redistributive. But, moving as I found it (I came upon a copy in a DVD of work for the Crown Film Unit that was part of the Paul Nash exhibition at Liverpool’s Tate), I was irritated by Michael Redgrave’s upper-class voice as he spoke Forster’s words, and even more by the film’s assumption that the infant Timothy would be from middle-class Oxford. It was therefore good to discover from Kevin Jackson’s recent biography of Jennings that Forster was similarly irritated. Why shouldn’t the infant have been born in working-class Liverpool, he wanted to know?

38But he was dead set against social engineering, and in view of Our Time’s caricaturing him as clinging to the dying tree of, presumably, liberal England, it is equally good to know that in 1947, a year before the cartoon appeared, one of the magazine’s contributors, the Communist Randall Swingler, tried to reassure him that “Marxists share his awareness of mechanistic planning”, and that Forster was right to criticise Marxists for sometimes being “mechanistic, sectarian, philistine and dogmatic” (Croft Comrade Heart 182). These are faults of which Forster can never be accused.

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Auden, W. H. Look, Stranger! London: Faber and Faber, 1936.

——. Journey to a War. London: Faber and Faber [1939], revised 1973.

——. Another Time. London: Faber and Faber, 1940.

Chisholm, Anne. Nancy Cunard. London: Sedgwick & Jackson, London, 1979.

Coombes, B. L. (ed.). D. H. Lawrence: Penguin Critical Anthology. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972, 218-22.

Croft, Andy. Red-Letter Days: British Fiction in the 1930s. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990.

——. Comrade Heart: A Life of Randall Swingler. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003.

Forster, E. M. Two Cheers for Democracy. London: Edwin Arnold, 1951.

——. Abinger Harvest. London: Edwin Arnold, 1936.

——. England’s Pleasant Land: A Pageant Play, London: The Hogarth Press, 1940.

——. Readings of “What I Believe” and “The Road to Colonus”. R G 153. London: Argo Record Company (cut June-August 1958), 1959.

Furbank, P.N. E.M. Forster: A Life, vol. 1. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977.

Jackson, Kevin. Humphrey Jennings. London: Picador, 2005.

Jameson, Storm. Journey from the North, vol. 2. London: Virago, 1984.

Jennings, Humphrey. A Diary for Timothy. Crown Film Unit (Ministry of Information), 1946. Available on DVD Humphrey Jennings Collection. London: Film First, n.d.

Klingopulos, F. D. “Mr Forster’s Good Influence”.Pelican Guide to English Literature, vol. 7: The Modern Age. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961, 245-56.

Lucas, John. The Radical Twenties. Nottingham: Five Leaves Publications, 1997; New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1999.

Orwell, George. The Road to Wigan Pier. London: Gollancz, 1937.

Rose, Stephen. Lifelines: Life Beyond The Genes. London: Vintage Books, 2005.

Thomson, George. Marxism and Poetry. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1942.

Trilling, Lionel. E. M. Forster. Connecticut: New Directions, 1943.

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1  Given that these talks were recorded early in 1940 and that he especially instances their murderous treatment of Polish friends of his, I am at a loss to explain a moment in Storm Jameson’s autobiography, Journey From The North (II: 37-8), to which Jennifer Birkett has drawn my attention, in which Jameson records her bewilderment at Forster’s questioning the evidence for Nazi atrocities in Poland.

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John LUCAS, « E. M. Forster: An Enabling Modesty », E-rea [En ligne], 4.2 | 2006, document 4, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2006, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.229

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Nottingham Trent University
John Lucas, Emeritus Professor of English at the Universities of Loughborough and Nottingham Trent, is the author and editor of many books of criticism, including England and Englishness: Ideas of Nationhood in English Poetry and Dickens: The Major Novels, and of six collections of poetry. Recent books include The Radical Twenties: Writing, Politics and Culture (1999), Ivor Gurney (2001), Starting to Explain: Essays on Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry (2003), and A World Perhaps: New and Selected Poems (2002). Since 1994 he has been the publisher of The Shoestring Press, Nottingham.

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