(1 January 1879 – 7 June 1970)
Edward Morgan Forster is one of the greatest of British twentieth-century novelists, his well known novels including A Passage to India, Howard’s End and A Room with a View.
Forster called himself a humanist, and was President of the Cambridge Humanists from 1959 to his death. He was a Vice-President of the Ethical Union in the 1950s, and a member of the Advisory Council of the British Humanist Association from its foundation in 1963.
He wrote and spoke in favour of tolerance in many areas of life, and he vigorously opposed censorship. He was President of the National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty).
The voice of the humanist
Forster’s open-minded and humanist view of life is seen in his novels in their focus on human relationships and the need for tolerance, sympathy and love between individual human beings from different parts of society and different cultures.
This was summed up in a series on British Authors by Cambridge University Press as:
the voice of the humanist – one seriously committed to human values while refusing to take himself too seriously. Its tone is inquiring, not dogmatic. It reflects a mind aware of the complexities confronting those who wish to live spiritually satisfying, morally responsible lives in a world that increasingly militates against individual’s needs. Sensitively and often profoundly, Forster’s fiction explores the problems such people encounter.
What I Believe
Forster wrote about his Humanism in a famous essay entitled What I Believe:
I do not believe in Belief. But this is an Age of Faith, and there are so many militant creeds that, in self defence, one has to formulate a creed of one’s own. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy are no longer enough in a world where ignorance rules, and Science, which ought to have ruled, plays the pimp. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy – they are what matter really, and if the human race is not to collapse they must come to the front before long.
Forster grew up in the house Rooks Nest in Stevenage, Hertfordshire (on which he based the setting for his novel Howards End). The area is now known as Forster Country and nearby there is now a monument to Forster.
After an unhappy conventional middle-class upbringing and public school education, Forster found the intellectual freedom of Cambridge, where he spent much of the rest of his life, liberating; he began to question religious belief while a student there.
After reading Lowes Dickinson’s The Meaning of Good (which replaced God with Good, an influential idea at the turn of the century) he walked down King’s Parade declaring, ”You shall never take away from me my meaning of Good.” This underpinned his humanist view that it is possible to be good without a belief in a god.
His travels in Italy were another liberating experience and are reflected in two of early novels, Where Angels Fear to Tread and A Room with a View. He wrote: “Italy is a beautiful place where they say ‘Yes’ and the place where things happen.” This openness contrasted with the narrow-minded attitudes of the British middle-class.
Another early novel was The Longest Journey. This was more personal and drew on his own experiences at school and university. The main character has a club-foot – a symbol for people who are different from the norm but have the right, nevertheless, to be treated equally.
Forster’s two masterpieces are A Passage to India and Howard’s End. The latter is prefaced with the phrase “Only connect”. It is about the need for two parts of society – the intellectual and cultural, and the commercial, to meet and understand each other. He writes not only about the need for society to be interlinked as a whole, but of the need for individuals to “connect the prose and the passion”, to link their rational and emotional sides.
A Passage to India arose from his friendship with individual Indians and from his visits to India. During one, he became private secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas – but he wanted to know Indian people and life rather than the tea parties and bridge games of the British people living in India. In the main character, Dr Aziz, Forster brilliantly creates a character from a different civilisation from his own.
At that time, India was ruled as a part of the British Empire. Forster felt deeply that this situation prevented the Indians and British from being true friends. The novel ends with one of the main characters, the Englishman Fielding, saying to Aziz, “Why can’t we be friends now? … It’s what I want. It’s what you want.” It is said that this novel played an important part in changing attitudes in Britain, and thus helped the movement towards Indian independence.
Forster was gay. He fell in love with Muhammad, a bus conductor, while working for the Red Cross in Cairo during the First World War. Later, after Muhammad’s death from tuberculosis (TB), he fell in love with a policeman with whom he had a close relationship for the remainder of his life.
He wrote a novel, Maurice, depicting the problems of gay men at a time when homosexuality was illegal. He decided it should not be published until after his death, and he did not reveal his homosexuality publicly during his lifetime.
- BBC archive: EM Forster reflects on his life and work
- Wikipedia article on Forster
- Unofficial Forster site
- Andrew Copson tribute to Forster
- Portraits of Forster at the National Portrait Gallery