To the Greenwood: Forster's Literary Life to Come after A Passage to India
Alley, Henry, Papers on Language & Literature
In a recent review of an edition of E.M. Forster's talks for the BBC, Zadie Smith sums up the general view of Forster as "middling" (8), and this portrait may be based in part on not only his widely chronicled hesitating manner but also on his leaving the novel form apparently so early in his life. Many years prior, Louis Kronenberger, in a general treatment of art in "the present age," speaks of Lionel Trilling chiding E.M. Forster "'for his refusal to be great' ... [which] can mask a certain evasion of moral responsibility, of final decisions and allegiances" (22). More importantly, in his highly influential The Cave and the Mountain: A Study of E.M. Forster, which is still considered by David Leavitt and Mark Mitchell to be "the outstanding critical work" (xxiv) on Forster, Wilfred Stone nonetheless sums up the novelist and critic's period after 1924 as a "postscript to a great creative achievement" (348). Even when one allows for the fact that in 1966 not all of Maurice and The Life to Come was known, Stone's assumptions still seem faultily derived. First, to assume Forster's "nonfictional prose" was not creative is to deny the liveliness, the anecdotal spiritedness of the style and content of such works as "Anonymity: An Enquiry" (1925), "A Letter to Madan Blanchard" (1931), and of course his celebrated "What I Believe" (1939). These three essays were given separate publication by Hogarth Press and stand out as highly visualized statements of faith and belief. Second, Forster's evolution as an artist was ongoing and Protean throughout his entire life, not necessarily depending on any one form to embody the vitality of his outlook. Eventually leading up to "The Other Boat" of The Life to Come stories as well as the final version of Maurice and his libretto for Britten's Billy Budd, Forster experimented in fiction, drama, as well as essays with a concept of spiritual homoeroticism that grew out of his earlier work, particularly "The Story of a Siren." Thus, for the years following the publication of A Passage to India, even when his pattern of sending a new novel to publisher Edward Arnold was long over, Forster was very much at work with a new vision of nature and civilized life that would eventually inform the final draft of Maurice. Throughout, we can see the quest for "the greenwood," the gay Arcadia that has its roots not only in Theocritus, Virgil, and Marlowe, but also in Forster's momentous visit to the farm of Edward Carpenter and his lover. The greenwood, for Forster, was the haven, ensconced in the natural world, where men were free to express love for one another, love that was both physical and spiritual.
In order to best define the literary, imaginative, and spiritual journey of the latter part of Forster's life, we might first look at a story that slightly precedes the appearance of A Passage to India, "The Story of a Siren" (1920). The first work that Forster published with Hogarth, it holds an important place in his oeuvre because it embodies the "atmosphere" Forster would later explore in his crucial essay on anonymity and also in "What I Believe." The story looks ahead to "The Life to Come" (1922) and the extraordinary "Arthur Snatchford" (1928), works which would not see daylight until after Forster's death, when the volume The Life to Come would appear in 1972. In their recent edition of Forster's Selected Stories, David Leavitt and Mark Mitchell have pointed out that "The Story of the Siren" has strong homoerotic elements (ix) and holds affinities with elements in Maurice (x). "The Story of a Siren," with its frame of civilized narrator listening to the embedded tale coming from a recently naked "child of nature," explores the common humanity so central to Forster's idea of anonymity and homoerotic bonding as well.
"The Story of a Siren" dates back to 1904 (Forster, Life to Come viii) when Forster's diary would express frustration about his not being able to get the story published. …