Sunday, June 7, 2020

A frank and lively diarist

E. M. Forster, the important British writer, died 50 years ago today. He is famous for six novels - including Howard’s End and A Room with View - most of which were made into highly successful films. He also wrote short stories, essays, literary criticism and kept diaries from time to time. These latter were only published as recently as 2011, and the publisher claims they are of ‘immense value to scholars researching this key figure of English literature’.

Forster was born in London in 1879, the only child of a Welsh architect, who died before his son’s second birthday, and his Anglo-Irish wife. In 1883, he and his mother moved to Rooks Nest, near Stevenage, Hertfordshire, where they stayed for ten years. He studied at Tonbridge School in Kent, and King’s College, Cambridge (between 1897 and 1901). At Cambridge he became a member of a secrete society known as the Apostles; other members, like himself, went on to be part of the Bloomsbury Group. Forster was independently well-off, having inherited money from a relative, and was thus able to pursue the life of a writer. After leaving university, he travelled in continental Europe with his mother. They moved to Weybridge, Surrey, where he wrote all six of his novels.

In 1914, Forster visited Egypt, Germany and India. As a conscientious objector in the First World War, he served as a Chief Searcher (for missing servicemen) for the British Red Cross in Alexandria. He spent a second spell in India in the early 1920s as private secretary to Tukojirao III, Maharajah of Dewas. On returning to London, he completed the last novel published in his lifetime - A Passage to India. From 1925 until his mother's death in 1945, they lived together in Abinger Hammer, Surrey, though throughout the 1930s, he also had a London base in Brunswick Square. Forster was a confirmed homosexual (he had a long-term relationship with Bob Buckingham, a married policeman), and was friends with many other homosexuals in the literary and artistic worlds,  J. R. Ackerley and Benjamin Britten, to name but two.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Forster became a regular contributor to the BBC and for newspapers and magazines. As a public figure, he opposed censorship, but advocated individual liberty and penal reform; he was associated with the Union of Ethical Societies. On the eve of the Second World War he published one of his most famous essays, Two cheers for democracy, later called What I believe. During the war, he was commissioned by George Orwell (at the India Section of the BBC) to broadcast weekly book reviews. He was elected an honorary fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, in January 1946, where he lived for much of the time. Though he refused a knighthood in 1949, he accepted a Companion of Honour in 1953, eight honorary degrees, and the Order of Merit on his 90th birthday. He died on 7 June 1970.

Encyclopaedia Britannica has this assessment: ‘Although the later Forster is an important figure in mid-20th-century culture, his emphasis on a kindly, uncommitted, and understated morality being congenial to many of his contemporaries, it is by his novels that he is more likely to be remembered, and these are best seen in the context of the preceding Romantic tradition. The novels sustain the cult of the heart’s affections that was central to that tradition, but they also share with the first Romantics a concern for the status of man in nature and for his imaginative life, a concern that remains important to an age that has turned against other aspects of Romanticism.’ Further information is also available from Wikipedia, The British Library, or from reviews of Wendy Moffat’s A New Life of E. M. Forster (as in The New York Times or Telegraph).

Forster was an uncommitted diarist, keeping many notebooks and journals sporadically throughout his life, but never consistently. It was only in 2011 that these diaries were edited, by Philip Gardner, and published for the first time - in three volumes as The Journals and Diaries of E.M. Forster (Routledge). The publisher (see Scribd) says:

‘This fascinating collection of diaries, travel journals and itineraries [. . .] will be of immense value to scholars researching this key figure of English literature. They will also be a useful resource to those interested in travel during the first half of the twentieth century, as well as the wider literary and social history of the period. A frank and lively diarist, Forster was not a dogged one, and his entries over the years are irregular and eclectic. Despite this, the archival material (held at King’s College, Cambridge), here newly transcribed, is substantial. Friendships with T E Lawrence, Benjamin Britten, Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington, John Maynard Keynes and Leonard and Virginia Woolf are all attested to. Meetings with other writers of the period including A E Housman and Henry James are also documented. Details on Forster’s sexuality, though often veiled, are nonetheless in evidence, particularly with regard to his long relationship with Bob Buckingham.’

See The London Review of Books for a thorough review by Alan Hollinghurst.

The three volumes contain the following texts.
Volume 1: General Introduction; Normandy Journal (1895); Journal (1898); Journal (1899); Journal (1900); Trip to Switzerland and Italy (1901); Journal; (1901); Mediterranean Journal (1903); Notebook Journal (1903-9)
Volume 2: The ‘Locked Diary’ (1909-67)
Volume 3: Stisted (1910); Belfast Journal (1912); ‘Incidents of War’ Memoir, Alexandria (1915-17); Journal (1925); Africa Journal (1929); French Itinerary (1931); America Journal (1947 and 1949); Journal (1950); Journal (1952); Travel Journal, France (1953); Travel Journal, Portugal (1953); Loose Diary Pages (1954 and 1955); Trip to France (1955); Hellenic Cruise (1956); Trip to Australia (1957); Journal (1958); ‘Trip to Italy’ Diary (possibly 1962); Journal (1964); ‘West Hackhurst: A surrey ramble’; Index

Given the lockdown situation, I have not been able to visit the British Library (nor any other libraries), and thus have had no access to the diary volumes. Moreover, I have not been able to find, freely, any extracts from Forster’s diaries online - except for the following few.

From the British Library
3 January 1900
‘Mother & I started together: and parted in wet, she to Douglas’, I to the New Gall: Flemish masters, Rubens, & O. English - a very scrappy collection which I nevertheless enjoyed. More pleased with Mabuse who shows more taste than I expected, and was excellent in portraits. Nice Van Eyck - confounded by visitors with Van Dyck. Had lunch in A.B.C. then went to the theatre. Good seat but nodding plume in front. Sat on my coat and scrunched it a bit. Liked Kiong of France, Arthur, Eleanor, but disappointed in Tree, Constance (who was indeed an understudy) and Hubert: they all ranted. The Bastard was no good. A most depressing play: what is W.S after after - unless ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’ and incapacity for ideals. Perhaps patriotism is really the mote: John never sins against England, a Bastard, apparently so unpromising a realistic, delivers the concluding line.’

From Connecting with E. M. Forster: A Memoir by Tim Leggatt (a close friend of Forster’s in the last 15 years of his life).

21 April 1956, King’s Chapel
‘Back little more than a week from Greece I went into the chapel today while the light was fading and the organ playing Bach and felt I had stumbled back into a world which had taken the wrong turning after Christ, and had tried to explain human suffering by the doctrine of suffering, redemption, and atonement, and had identified heavenly happiness with rest. The Greeks did not solve our troubles as was sometimes dreamily hoped, their wars were horrible and endless, they were greedy and unkind. But they did not impose a false solution as Christianity has, and as Bach, burbling and buzzing through endless variations on a chorale, would confirm. The scene was magnificent - brownish light poured through the west window and converted the stone to sandstone, and picked over the niches and emphasised their different altitudes, and from the east a black tunnel advanced and swallowed the fan vaulting. I was in the greatest building of the fifteenth century.’

9 May 1956, Various deaths
‘During the last six or five months, Johnny Simpson has died, Agnes has died, Ivor Ramsay threw himself from the top of the chapel on mother’s birthday, Stephen Glanville (Provost here) died a fortnight back in a twinkling, Sydney Wilkinson has not recovered from her operation, Patrick (she told me yesterday) has injured his hip-socket and will be permanently lame, Kenneth Harrison’s father is going dotty so that K (my best friend in King’s) may have to leave Cambridge to look after him.

None of the above people I dislike, most of them I love, and the cumulative reaction on me is not sadness, but indifference to the young. It has come on me suddenly and might have anyhow. I have lost the quick warmth that used to accompany their approach or the expression of their opinions. I do not find this in Bob, whom I have mummified for my self preservation.’

4 August 1956, Brian Remnant
‘Remnant - will this funny name mean anything to me in two years time when I may next see him again, hardened and smartened by the RAF? I said a little when he went, very little, and that because I could not help it, too little for him to understand. His full-faced freshness, blue eyed, straight-staring courtesy: profile undistinguished. Myself - what a distinguished old man, and what I look like to him a glance at a looking glass must remind me. We were together from 4 to 6, and in incompatible ways happy.

Being a scholar, not a passing plough boy though he resembles one I may meet him again - coarsened, begirled, and lost, unless the feeling in me has struck a spark in him: unless his awe and excitement can be reborn as affection. If he was coming up in Oct. I should be in an odd state. He brought a cake from his mother to placate the oracle.’

From Scribd
6 August 1965
‘Certainly blinder than the overleaf entry, but this may be due to the ointment which dear Narliker squirts twice a day into my eyes. - Rested most of the day, as yesterday I was stumbly and couldn’t give order clearly in the kitchens. Where else could I grow old amid such kindness and competence? “Everyone likes me” which in literature, particularly in the drama, presages disaster. Complacency must be punished”. But life does not always follow literature, and ghouls nosing in my remains may be disappointed. - That I shall be soon swept away and forgotten is another matter and doesn’t count.’

18 August 1965
‘I should like to record - and why not here - that during nearly 70 years I have been interested in lustful thoughts, writing, and sometimes actions, and do not believe that they have done me or anyone else any harm,’

19 November 1965
‘and probably soon for me \death comes/, for the symptoms to day are tiresome, and I can write only a little legibly, am an not yet in bed at soon may be put there as I stumble so. I want to record that so far I feel no fears, pain, or remorse, only annoyance.

Faith should come to morow, Bob, May, sheraraile, Cotier, to morrow. Ben next week. The plan is to stay for the festival. - A Passage is being televised. - Every body have been very kind, including the nurses at Addenbrookes, and I don’t like leaving the err

Now to bed - can hardly leave, a nuisance.’

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