Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Whose Books Once Influenced Mine": The Relationship between E.M. Forster's 'Howards End' and Virginia Woolf's 'The Waves.'

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Whose Books Once Influenced Mine": The Relationship between E.M. Forster's 'Howards End' and Virginia Woolf's 'The Waves.'

Article excerpt

In a letter to Ethel Smyth on 21 Sept. 1930, Virginia Woolf spoke of her friend Morgan Forster as "E. M. Forster the novelist, whose books once influenced mine, and are very good, I think, though impeded, shrivelled and immature" (Letters 4: 218). In earlier letters Woolf had often alluded to Forster's influence, even insisting on one occasion that "I always feel that nobody, except perhaps Morgan Forster, lays hold of the thing I have done" (14 June 1925; Letters 3: 188). By 1930 this literary friendship had continued for more than two decades and was characterized by the kind of edginess that often marks the relationships of highly competitive artists. During the same year, Forster recorded his own anxieties about Woolf in a note that we find in his Commonplace Book: "Visit to Virginia, prospects of, not wholly pleasurable. I shall watch her curiosity and flattery exhaust themselves in turn. Nor does it do to rally the Pythoness" (54). These comments, written when both writers were well launched as established novelists and public figures, give some indication of the complex literary friendship that goaded and nourished both writers. In this essay we shall explore how that relationship manifests itself in two of their best-known novels, Howards End and The Waves, through significant parallels in their thematics, narrative voice, and imagery.

Although Forster was himself just three years older than Woolf, he represents an earlier generation, in part because of his extraordinary precocity and also in part because Woolf - not enjoying some of the educational advantages afforded Forster - began her career more slowly, publishing her first novel when she was 33 years old. In contrast, Howards End, one of Forster's two most celebrated novels, was published when its author was barely 31, having been preceded by three other novels and followed a year later by a collection of tales. When Woolf's first novel appeared in 1915, Forster had been publishing fiction for ten years, and Woolf considered him a senior peer among British writers.

Woolf and Forster related to one another as practicing novelists, as critics who reviewed each other's work, and as friends within their Bloomsbury connections. In 1910 Forster gave his first talk to the Friday Club on "The Feminine Note in Literature," and before that he had known Leonard Woolf at Cambridge through their membership in the Apostles (Furbank 1: 192). Forster began his practice of reviewing Woolf's novels with The Voyage Out. Indeed P. N. Furbank, Forster's biographer, claims that after Forster's "favourable review of The Voyage Out in 1915 [Woolf] 'became very dependent on his opinion'" (qtd. in Dowling 85). It is instructive to compare this relationship to the much more vexed one of Woolf and Katherine Mansfield. Viewed within that context, the ties between Forster and Woolf seem extraordinarily positive and long-lasting.

Forster appears to have been most comfortable with Woolf's earlier works, such as The Voyage Out, a book similar to his own: in "The Early Novels of Virginia Woolf" (1925) he describes it as "a strange, tragic, inspired book . . . [whose] closing chapters . . . are as poignant as anything in modern fiction . . ." (Abinger Harvest 107). (It seems to us that in A Passage to India Forster repeats many of the structural and thematic motifs he found in The Voyage Out.) But when Woolf began, with Jacob's Room (1922), to assume her more distinctive voice, Forster's praise became more ambivalent. Even following the comparative success of Jacob's Room, however, Woolf continued to see Forster as her senior in accomplishment until the mid-20s, when her next novel, Mrs. Dalloway, established her as the equal of her friend.

But we should not underestimate the element of competition. Both writers were trying to establish the narrative aesthetics of their time, and each resisted definitions developed by the other. In "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" (1924), Woolf places Forster among the Georgian, or new novelists who are moving away from old-fashioned realism (Captain's Death Bed 95); a year later, in "The Early Novels of Virginia Woolf," Forster praises Jacob's Room and Mrs. …

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