books monthly june 2017

This month Jerry Dowlen looks at E M Forster...

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The author E.M. Forster (1879 – 1970) in books and films.

In this second decade of the 21st century, do we still remember and revere the classic novelist E.M. Forster?

Forster’s literary reputation matured one hundred years ago in the second decade of the 20th century. His early success stemmed from his three published novels that the author and critic Malcolm Bradbury (writing in 1993) categorised as social comedies. These three were Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), The Longest Journey (1907) and A Room with a View (1908). Thereafter his significant ‘Who shall inherit England?’ novel Howards End (1910) and his powerful anti-Imperialism novel A Passage to India (1924) enshrined Forster’s eminence as an author whose fictional characters were invariably caught between two changing and clashing worlds.

Forster invited his readers to be understanding when his characters turned away from expected Victorian or Edwardian moral or social convention. He pitched his characters into situations where the new values of humanism and free will demanded their challenge of the status quo. Educated at Cambridge, Forster had been encouraged into ‘new thinking’ by the teaching of his mentor G.E. Moore, the philosopher. Moore was an advocate of common sense above idealism. Forster too had been a fringe member of the Bloomsbury set. In 1910, Forster declared himself to belong to “the fag-end of Victorian liberalism.”  

Films: A Feast of Forster

At the fag-end of the 20th century, the film industry suddenly served up a Feast of Forster. With lush settings in England, India and Italy, four of his novels were transcribed for the big screen during a period of just eight years. The first of these, in 1984, saw the swan-song of the legendary film director James Lean. He gave A Passage to India the same big-screen epic touch that had swept him to fame with earlier productions such as Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. A tale of Anglo-Indian upper class racial snobbery and prejudice, A Passage to India won seven Oscars.  A Room with a View and Howard’s End were directed by James Ivory, in 1985 and 1992. Each of these won three Oscars.

The combined box office receipts were 75 million dollars for these three films. The fourth film Where Angels Fear to Tread was a slighter production in 1991: indeed the book might be more novella than novel (130 pages length in the Penguin Classics paperback edition of 2007).

A Passage to India (book 1924; film 1984)

‘Except for the Marabar Caves – and they are twenty miles off – the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.’

Isn’t that a subtly enticing first line of a story? The reader instantly wants to know more about those caves. And in due course the story pivots on the alleged conduct of the host Dr Aziz when the caves are visited by British ladies Adela Quested and Mrs Moore (played by Judy Davis and Peggy Ashcroft in the film). Accusations fly: the result is a bitter and controversial clash of cultures. Forster offered the tale as a microcosm of the growing real-life tension in India during the 1920s as the independence movement sought to overthrow the British Raj.

A Room with a View (book 1908; film 1985) - Where Angels Fear to Tread (book 1905; film 1991)

In the romantic tragi-comedy A Room with a View the story features a young English couple who defy the Victorian conventions of their elders when they dare to be true to their feelings and to fall passionately in love. Set in Florence and the English countryside, Forster’s story was a close echo of his earlier and first published novel Where Angels Fear to Tread in which a rebellious young English widow scandalises her family by impulsively marrying an Italian peasant.

Howards End (book 1910; film 1992)

In this story Forster’s two split worlds are each located in England: the respective Wilcox and Schlegel families that are drawn together by various personal relationships but eventually become divided. The contrast is marked: the male-dominated, patriotic and imperialist Wilcox family; the two intelligent, emancipated, half-German sisters of the Schlegel family. Can there be reconciliation over the big house Howards End when old Mrs Wilcox, the owner, dies?

E.M. Forster – his legacy?

The novels of Edward Morgan (E.M.) Forster are an enduring presence on the classics shelf of our lending libraries and our bookstores. A quarter of a century has passed since that Feast of Forster: the four film releases between 1984 and 1992. But there have been some stirrings since then: in 2016 there was a USA re-release of Howards End; earlier, in 2005 the novelist Zadie Smith wrote On Beauty as a modern-styled Howards End.

To choose Forster for reading material today, the reader is effectively signing up for ‘period drama’ set in a narrow perspective of the early 20th century. Some critics might insist on the classification ‘period melodrama’, with perception that Forster was never an inspired storyteller or writer of action scenes: instead, his key motivation was character and conflict.

E.M. Forster is a major name in English literature and there is a voluminous body of critical analysis of his work. Approaching Forster through this sea of complexity, might a budding new reader have stomach for a voyage that took Forster, a novelist of ‘symbolist inclination’, from ‘liberalism to modernism’? And would a reader be deterred by notion that Forster was a precise writer but his creative impulse was not a strong one?

I hold that we might be grateful for the intervention of those film companies that reconstructed for us in the 1980s and 1990s the major novels of E.M. Forster. Filtered through the expert direction of James Lean, James Ivory and Charles Sturridge, these period dramas are engagingly brought alive and we can wallow in the portrayals of Forster’s characters by star actors and actresses such as Helena Bonham Carter, Daniel Day Lewis, Judi Dench, Denholm Elliott, Rupert Graves, Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Maggie Smith and Emma Thompson. Having thus sampled Forster on the cinema screen we can revert, if we so choose, to the printed page and we can tackle Forster’s rich prose that awaits us there.

Jerry Dowlen

April 2017


Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:


  The author E.M. Forster (1879 – 1970) in books and films.

  The novelist R.F. Delderfield and his heroes who roam from home.

  How The Wild West Was Written

Emmeline Pankhurst and Florence Foster Jenkins

John Updike

Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train

H G Wells

In praise of the British Seaside!Girls Just Wanna Have Fun in 1963: Christine Keeler & Nell Dunn

Politicians, Pop Stars and Preachers - John Mortimer's Characters of 1986

Shakespeare's 400th Centenary

Gregory's Girl: Remembering the Hit Film

The Impact and Legacy of Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

A Tribute to Margaret Forster

Remembering Saeed Jaffrey

Old Wine in New Bottles - "new" books by Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler & Agatha Christie

Remembering Ruth Rendell

Philip Larkin: His Maiden Voyage on The North Ship (1945)

The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar

Michael Holroyd

Erle Stanley Gardner

John Masefield


Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...


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