The Cambridge Companion to E. M. Forster
David Bradshaw, ed.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
290 pages, ISBN 0-521-54252-9.
Reviewed by Laurent Mellet
David Bradshaw has been the editor for Blackwell of the recent Concise Companion to Modernism and Companion to Modernist Literature and Culture. His Cambridge Companion to E. M. Forster is thus under the aegis of a specialist of modernist writing and offers contributions from many scholars already famous for their interest in Forster (such as David Medalie and Judith Scherer Herz). This Companion gathers sixteen essays and as many sometimes conflicting viewpoints on Forster the writer and the man. The contributions appear in logical order along the following axes: Forster’s life and values, conceptions of literature and writing, approach to (homo-)sexuality, main novels, and, finally, most contemporary issues such as modernism, film adaptations and postcolonial dimension. With many fields under study and some new interpretations, the book investigates a large scope of the Forster studies, though sometimes relying on too easy and out-of-date questions.
In his “Introduction” [1-7], Bradshaw provides necessary basic information about the life and work of a writer who, he claims, needs to be reassessed now that much has been written on his homosexuality and peculiar form of modernism, which, indeed, scholars have been trying to unravel for more than thirty years. For Bradshaw, what is at stake is still to understand why Forster “dried up as a novelist”  after 1924. His challenging introduction specifies that the essays to come will reach somewhat contradictory conclusions testifying to the enduring significance of Forster’s work.
In “Forster’s life and life-writing” [8-31] Max Saunders embarks on a surprising search for Forster within his biographical writing. Claiming that these books reveal Forster’s conception of the individual, Saunders actually offers a coherent first essay inasmuch as it definitely gives the pitch for those to come: one of his main contributions is to set Forster’s whole ambiguity in this very conception of the individual. The Companion itself might give in to such inescapable Forsterian “muddle” and multifaceted ambiguity, and to present where it stands in and what it adds to the research on Forster, the essays that sum up that research on a specific issue will here be dealt with before those trying to go further and present innovative and often conclusive Forsterian food for thought.
Paul Peppis tackles the theme of “Forster and England” [47-61] and brings to the fore the myths and legends of England that inform the novels. The reader will discover here the basic features of each novel and the Englishness of the writer remains a challenging issue for scholars.
In “Forster and women” [120-37] Jane Goldman has brilliant pages on A Room with a View and Forster’s paper “The Feminine Note in Literature,” and the way she accepts and applies the homosexual reading grid from Martin’s and Piggford’s Queer Forster illustrates what prevailed after Forster’s death among critics, which surely had to be evoked in a Companion. Though the contribution sometimes repeats elements present in the previous essay in the book, by Lane, it is based on such a queer reading of the woman as a sign on the Forsterian page. In “Maurice” [173-87], Howard J. Booth writes a snapshot on this underestimated novel by elaborating on the various ways the novel was received by critics. As for the conclusion of Booth’s last sentence but one (“homosexual love and the act of writing are a form of crucifixion” ), the only judge shall be the reader.
Other essays offer complete introductions to other novels. In “A Room with a View” [138-50], Judith Scherer Herz’s deep knowledge of the book enables her to argue and prove that it is more complex than it may seem in its themes, style and narrative. Her analysis of Forster’s “inability or unwillingness to look at his characters once the plot design has been completed”  is really convincing and a perfect example of what a Companion might be—a new angle to look at the novels and thereby present their basics to a non-specialist reader.
Peter Childs does exactly the same with “A Passage to India” [188-208] and a rich presentation of how the novel was written and then analysed. Forster’s conceptions of the novel and short story, his own criticism and the film versions of his novels are also presented at great length in the Companion.
Dominic Head mentions many stories in “Forster and the short story” [77-91] and, with a view to restoring them to favour, studies their modernist narratives and echoes of the novels. His is a welcome contribution in a field often neglected by scholars, unconvinced as they are by the literary value of the stories.
In “Forster and the novel” [92-103], Elizabeth Langland cogently analyses the bases of the Forsterian narrative in Where Angels Fear to Tread and then reads the other novels in the light of Forster’s main concepts in Aspects of the Novel. The theme of the essay is rather new in the Forster studies and this contribution undoubtedly helps define a modern— if not always modernist—Forster.
Gary Day also has a close look at Forster’s 1927 book in “Forster as literary critic” [223-34] and above all at its contradictions and setbacks. Here again the reader shall find a complete introduction to the book and more generally to Forster’s views on literature. Finally in “Filmed Forster” [235-53], Marcia Landy evokes the five film adaptations of Forster and the various debates they led to or were part of, such as the heritage film or the new benchmark aesthetic of literature on film with the Merchant-Ivory productions. Her introduction is a precious contribution to the studies of Forster on film and she analyses the films without judging or debunking them as mere adaptations. She will then convincingly argue, for example, for a form of femininity linked to colonialism in David Lean’s Passage to India or for the self-conscious style of James Ivory’s Room with a View.
Another group of essays work as similar updates on prominent Forsterian features and then provide original fresh analysis. David Medalie, famous for his innovative E. M. Forster’s Modernism, has chosen here another basic Forsterian motif with “Bloomsbury and other values” [32-46]. Medalie writes that we always admire both the novels and the man because the former build up a work of values obviously embodied by their writer. Yet such reading blocks or blurs the modernist dimensions of the novels. So Medalie suggests we should stop venerating the man and accept his contradictions, even those shaking his famous values and beliefs—quite an inspiring method for a subject often dealt with and on which scholars now generally agree.
On the more tricky issue of modernism Randall Stevenson sometimes disagrees with Medalie in “Forster and modernism” [209-22]. Stevenson claims in his first lines that there is no modernist writing to speak of in Forster’s work. Yet there might be some modern writing system set up against the modern society rejected by so many writers, Lawrence and Woolf included. Here again Forsterian ambiguities are at work: Forster may be modernist at times, using identified topoï within a traditional narrative, and in the way he bridged the Victorian imagination into the modern era. The essay really delves into Forster’s modernist quandary and provides useful distinctions between modernism and modernity.
Ann Ardis tackles a major though rarely mentioned dimension of Forster’s work, “Hellenism and the lure of Italy” [62-76]. As with Herz’s paper on A Room with a View, we have here a perfect sample of innovative research on the novel that casts new light on its structure and basic themes. Starting from the critical stance of Forster and his characters towards Hellenism and the Grand Tour (Maurice), Ardis links the failure of the mere tourist trip to Italy to what she calls “re-circuiting desire” , and offers a convincing parallel with George Eliot’s Middlemarch. “Forsterian sexuality” [104-19] is as ambiguous as dangerous a title after the queer studies that have often oversimplified the texts.
But Christopher Lane’s essay is one of the best papers ever written on the subject, distancing itself from commonplace homoerotic discourse. The contribution teems with new analyses of rarely studied material, such as Lawrence’s aggressiveness and incomprehension, the unfinished fragment “Ralph and Tony” or the far from dull unfinished novel Arctic Summer. Lane also elaborates on the never quoted statement from Forster that he had written his erotic short stories “not to express [himself] but to excite [himself],” amplifying on a decisive relationship between sex and literature for Forster, much more interesting than traditional homoeroticism and undoubtedly opening up new vistas for scholars.
The last essay is devoted to one of the topical interests in Forster: in “Postcolonial Forster” [254-73], Peter Morey explains why and how A Passage to India became a landmark for such literary criticism. He provides a snapshot on this momentous face of the Forster studies before being more critical towards Forster’s liberal attitudes on India and Indians. Morey evokes Forster’s Indian essays to reassess what is generally written on the subject and offer one of the most stimulating papers in the Companion. His doubts on Forster’s involvement are founded and convincing.
With David Bradshaw’s contribution on “Howards End” [151-72], those are the most challenging essays in the book. Likewise, Bradshaw revisits Forster’s liberalism always mentioned to account for the clear-cut structure and message of the novel. Through an in-depth reading of the text and inventive developments on the intrusive narrator, the British Empire or the issue of eugenics, Bradshaw demonstrates that the Schlegel sisters are not so guileless, that esprit de classe still prevails for Forster, that the Wilcoxes may well be “the fittest” to survive, and that “Panic and emptiness” might have been a more honest epigraph than “Only connect” in view of the complexities and ambiguities of the book. As Bradshaw writes in his introduction, only the reader will judge—and surely most of them will agree with his innovative study. By taking the opposite view of traditional conclusions on Howards End, Bradshaw first evokes them but also further research—another example of the ideal combination of information and research for such a Companion.
The essays here collected eventually fuse into a coherent modern image of Forster. Most of what matters today in Forster studies is mentioned or analysed. Some common ground often crops up, such as with the idea of Forster as a bathetic writer—though here there may be no proper innovation. The Companion chooses to say little about Forster as a politically committed man in the twentieth century. After all, this dimension of the man is too often and anachronistically evoked to understand the novels, and it might be up to the specialist reader to get then to this part of Forster’s life and work. As a whole the scholars here refuse all kinds of hasty labelling and so much for the better, since Forster’s novels build up an evasive work whose inner tensions have too often been smoothed out by narrow-mindedness. In that sense, the Companion is a good example of modern research on a modern writer. The reader will find many essays to discover the Forsterian universe, and the researcher many others to further reflection. And the inner contradictions of this well-balanced collection between reviews and research are indeed evidence of the ambiguous modernity of the novels. Other current issues in Forster studies have been left out, such as Englishness, an aesthetic analysis of the films, or the links between Forster’s “liberal-humanism” and his particular approach to style. But there is no doubt that such studies will be stimulated by this Companion thereby securing the place in contemporary research of a discreet yet baffling writer.
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