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[448] The Longest Journey – E.M. Forster

” The sense of purity is a puzzling and at times a fearful thing. It seems so noble, and it starts as one with morality. But it is a dangerous guide, and can lead us away not only from what is gracious, but also from what is good. ” (15:149)

The Longest Journey, perhaps Forster’s most dramatic and passionate novel, follows the lame Rickie Elliot from Cambridge to a career as a struggling writer and then to a post as a schoolmaster, married to the unappetizing Agnes Pembroke. Born out of parents who were stuck in a loveless marriage, Rickie never fancies marrying. His physical deformity also adds to his qualm. Bookish and sensitive, and given to philosophical enthusiasm, Rickie is made for a life at Cambridge and eventually intelligentia—until he becomes entangled with Agnes, whom he consoles after her fiancé’s sudden death. Rickie’s abrupt engagement to Agnes marks the downfall of his idealism.

He is, of course, absurdly young—not twenty-one—and he will be engaged to be married at twenty-three. He has no knowledge of the world; for example, he thinks that if you do not want money you can give it to friends who do. He believes in humanity because he knows a dozen decent people. He believes in women because he had loved his mother. (7:66)

So naive and ignorant is Rickie, who takes a modest view of life and assumes the best of people. In Agnes he believes too hastily. From the comforts of Cambridge Rickie is dragged into the petty intrigues of Sawston, where Agnes’ brother, Herbert, has received an offer to be the head of a dormitory. He can only fill the post if Agnes and Rickie marry quickly and join him. So gone is Rickie’s ambition to become a writer, as he is suppressed by the dreary regimen of teaching. When his aunt lets slip the secret of a half-brother, Stephen Wonham, an illegitimate son of his mother and a man devoid of delicacy, manipulative Agnes tries to buy Stephen’s silence by giving him money. She contrives to shun the existence of Rickie’s brother, considering him something to be deeply ashamed of. In ridding him she is safe with the aunt’s inheritance. But her conventional hypocrisy has been more detrimental and far-reaching: she lies and abets Rickie to lie, she keeps him from the work that suits him, from his friends and from his brother. His moral sense is suffocated by her influence.

He moved forward—into what? He pretended to himself he would rather see his father before he answered; that it was easier to acknowledge him thus. But at the back of his soul he knew that the woman had conquered, and that he was moving forward to acknowledge her. (14:148)

In The Longest Journey, Forster, most stylistically daring ever, wields together words with such eloquence and wit. But the clarity of the story is never compromised. The narrative voice and Rickie’s voice are almost interchangeable, except that Rickie can only reflect and acquiesce on how he was better off to be left alone in his idealism. The novel, therefore, is one in which the protagonist is wiser at the start and degenerates from there, until he sees what he has lost, both as a writer and a man of refinement and sensitivity. The longest journey, of course, is the span of one’s life, or, in a metaphoric sense, the development, the enlightening, into one’s true self. For Rickie, it’s a success that he receives his vindication by arriving at moral clarity, but at the expense of his life.

309 pp. Vintage International Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[413] Where the Angels Fear to Tread – E.M. Forster

” He was sure that [his mother-in-law] was not impulsive, but did not dare to say so. Her ability frightened him. All his life he had been her puppet. She let him worship Italy, and reform Sawston—just as she had let Harriet be Low Church. She had let him talk as much as he liked. But when she wanted a thing she always got it. ” (5, 85)

E.M. Forster’s 1905 debut lays down the theme of English middle class’s sterility that he would more fully develop in his later works. Where Angels Fear to Tread opens with a scene at Charing Cross Station where the Herriton family sends off Lilia to Italy. The young widow has been pushed through life by her mother-in-law, who ensures her to not bring disgrace on the family, for ten years since she fell in love with her late husband. Quick-witted and calculated Mrs. Herriton is exasperated by the news of a possible courtship on Lilia by Mr. Kingcroft. She advises Lilia to travel abroad to a quaint Italian town called Monteriano, in the company of her friend Caroline Abbott in order to avoid further scandal.

Italy, the land of beauty, was ruined for [Philip]. She had no power to change men and things who dwelt in her. She, too, could produce avarice, brutality, stupidity—and, what was worse, vulgarity. It was on her soil and through her influence that a silly woman had married a cad. (5, 70)

The trip is a welcoming change to Lilia’s being subject to the refining influences of the (condescending) Herritons. But she falls in love with a young hustler named Gino Carella and plans to marry him shortly after her arrival. The news mortifies her former in-laws: how could she disgrace them and marry a man beneath her class, the idle son of a dentist, a Catholic? Philip Herriton, Lilia’s pedantic ex-brother-in-law, is immediately dispatched to stop the fiasco. Not only does he fail his mission, the whole story also takes an unexpected nose-dive that forces the Herritons into mourning. Eager to adjust her life to the poor but picturesque town, Lilia relinquishes her English way. Upon discovery of Gino’s adultery, she is eager to save her marriage by having a baby—but she dies in childbirth delivering a son to Gino.

Lilia is dead and her husband gone to the bad—all through me. You see, Mr. Herriton, it makes me specially unhappy; it’s the only time I’ve ever gone into what my father calls ‘real life’—and look what I’ve made of it! All that winter I seemed to be waking up to beauty and splendour and I don’t know what; and when the spring came, I wanted to fight against the things I hated—mediocrity and dulness and spitefulness and society. (5, 77)

The story does not finish with Lilia’s death. In fact, the Herritons feel threatened by a possible scandal when a postcard, signed “little brother”, arrives from Italy addressing to Lilia’s little daughter Irma, who has no clue of her mother’s marriage. Recoiled in fear, and are convinced that the good-intentioned Miss Abbott would divulge the secret of the child, even though they don’t love the child, they decide to fight for the child’s custody, and to raise him as English blood. The obvious satire of cavalier Edwardian English attitudes toward Catholic Europe is only a backdrop to the more specific issue of whether the Herritons should assume custody of a baby with whom they have no legal familiar relation and whom they don’t care for. Caroline Abbott appeals to Philip that the well-being of the baby should supersede his principles. That he has seen what is right but pause at action is more than insincerity. In the eyes of Dante and on the account of Inferno Philip is not evil in his life but would never take a stand. Although he is not subject to the torture of running forever after a banner, he is unhappy, incapable of love. The principles and appearances that he keep up neither inspire him with reverence nor sensibility. The novel, after all, is a slap on England’s face for its diplomacy, insincerity, self-righteousness, and continual repression that amount to nothing but unhappiness. I do not recommend this book as the initial sampling of Forster’s works, solely because of his rather hasty attempt to rectify the plot into a happy ending. But his critique of his country and its self-absorbed values is always above par.

181 pp. Vintage paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[397] A Room with a View – E.M. Forster

” It isn’t possible to love and to part. You will wish that it was. You can transmute love, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you. ” (XIX 189)

Visiting Italy with her prim and proper cousin Charlotte Bartlett as a chaperone, Lucy Honeychurch encounters the seemingly uncouth, ill-bred and unconventional Mr. Emerson and his son, George. Deprived of a room of a view that she has reserved at The Bertolini, the Emersons offer to exchange with her but she refuses lest the men, obviously of a class below her, shall take advantage of her acceptance. A Room with a View chronicles how a fortuitous collection of people in an Italian pensione shall become enmeshed in each other’s life beyond their wish and expectation. For a while the story concerns itself with various subtle and intricate questions about the British class consciousness, snobbery, patriarchalism, self-love, and convention—all taken up for comic and satirical purpose.

It is obvious enough for the reader to conclude, ‘She loves young Emerson.’ A reader in Lucy’s place would not find it obvious. Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practise . . . She loves Cecil; George made her nervous; will the reader explain to her that the phrases should have been reversed? (XIV 132)

As the rector Mr. Beebe has wisely observed, “Italy is an euphemism for Fate,” the story itself requires a good deal of ingenuity from fate and coincidence. Contrived as Lucy is to avoid further contact with George Emerson, he comes to her rescue twice. She is lost at Santa Croce without a map after her companion jilted her. Then she is strayed by her evening wandering, where her flighty recklessness crosses with a quarrel the ends with a murder. As if fate hasn’t enough of its mischief, the Italian cab driver, half-conversant in English, leads her to the wrong “good man,” by which she means the clergyman. Up on the hill the view forms at last, but at the same moment the ground gives way, and with a cry she falls out of the wood. Light and beauty (physically and figuratively) envelop her. Onto an open terrace she falls. It is at this idyllic setting where George Emerson seals her fate with a kiss. Obviously the heroine doesn’t adopt the same romantic opinion, since his behavior is an outrage, a breach of propriety and act of impudence to her.

The contest lay not between love and duty. Perhaps there never is such a contest. It lay between the real and the pretend, and Lucy’s first aim was to defeat herself. As her brain clouded over, as the memory of the views grew dim, and words of the book died away, she returned to her old shibboleth of nerves. (XVII 150)

Upon her return to England, she is engaged to Cecil Vyse, who encompasses the weaned generation of Brits who are running out of tricks in the hat. A supercilious aesthete who “can’t know anyone intimately,” (XVII 160) he is the subject of Forster’s mockery. Every moment of their meeting he is forming Lucy, imposing his taste on her, and obliging to introduce her into more congenial circle. A Room with a View indicts such generation of people who, dying of manners, are determined to go on snubbing reality. Lucy is raised in a way that she neither trusts her emotions nor encourages her own thoughts. She cannot see her intentions and her emotions don’t match; her conscious and subconscious are in dispute. In breaking off the engagement with Cecil she has done the right thing; but it takes a fair amount of lying (in the sense of denying her emotion for George Emerson) and an accident or two to put her in the right. For in most of the story Lucy has an undeveloped heart, and that her engagement to Cecil based on his status, class, and taste is another example of convention’s prescribed notions. She has to trust her emotions and learns the difference between what she feels and what she has been taught to feel.

In spite of a lighter style, Forster lays down most of his key themes in this novel. A Room with a View is a comedy of manner that mocks those who follow neither the heart nor the brain. They yield to the only enemy that matters—the enemy within. Over time they are being censured as their pleasantry and piety show cracks, the wit becomes cynicism, and their unselfishness hypocrisy. Full of puns and metaphors, the book is a stunning study of contrasts in values.

206 pp. Penguin Classics softcover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[243] Howards End – E.M. Forster


Life’s very difficult and full of surprises. At all events, I’ve got as far as that. To be humble and kind, to go straight ahead, to love people rather than pity them, to remember the submerged—well, one can’t do all these things at once, worse luck, because they’re so contradictory. It’s then proportion comes in . . . [67]

Howards End is the kind of book that leaves one overwhelmed with its ambitious scope, and that the omnipresence of symbols renders one misgiving as to where to begin interpreting the meanings. The novel begs rumination—sort of looking at it from a distance in order to appreciate how the pedagogy fits in the big picture. One is ushered into a realistic series of episodes that Virginia Woolf criticizes as lacking in cohesion. These elements—early death of a pivotal character, a destroyed will, a sexual scandal, manslaughter—nonetheless contribute to a strong plot. From the beginning Forster is setting up a novel that concerns social wholeness. Through a full-fueled melodrama he poses a deep inquiry into the state of England and its culture. Outwardly, like the plots of so many English novels, Howards End is about the rights of property, but the concern of heirs transpires to a grander scale that asks the question: Who shall inherit England?

She seemed to belong not to the young people and their motor, but to the house, and to the tree that overshadowed it. One knew she worshipped the past, and that the instinctive wisdom the past can alone bestow had descended upon her . . . [20]

The novel opens when Helen Schlegel begins an impetuous affair with Paul Wilcox, a competent colonial administrator who is foolish. That Helen is more seduced by his family’s way life is comic. When Margaret Schlegel (8 years senior) steps in to interfere with this impulsive engagement, she meets Ruth Wilcox, who possesses a fair English good sense and compassion that are in danger of being corrupted and defaced by modern commercialization and materialism by people like her husband, Henry Wilcox, who longs for comradeship but fears affection. The haphazard friendship with Mrs. Wilcox develops into an intense kinship that Ruth bequeaths Howards End to Margaret in her will.

That she would have—that it is a case of undue influence. No, to my mind the question is the—the invalid’s condition at the time she wrote. [89]

Ruth Wilcox is the soul of the novel because she bears the values that align with those of Forster. She serves her purpose even she exits so early on the book. Since the families have had dealings through the affair between Helen and Paul, the bequest of Howards End to Margaret seems a greater betrayal to the Wilcoxes. The real battleground in which the Wilcoxes and Schlegels clash in their conflicting values is Leonard Basts, a lowly clerk who has lost his job because of a casually false advice Henry Wilcox gives.

Here was the core of the question. Henry must be forgiven, and made better by love; nothing else mattered. Mrs. Wilcox, that unquiet yet kindly ghost, must be left to her own wrong. To her everything was in proportion now, and she, too, would pity the man who was blundering up and down their lives. [221]

However Margaret wants to convert Henry, through love and patience, she is not able to bring him out of the fortress, because the man is incapable of emotion—he is realistic and practical. Not only is her marriage to Henry Wilcox just as impulsive as Helen’s affair, Forster seems to use marriage to satirize the sexual lack which has its concomitance and perhaps the result in the deprivation of a developed sense of personality.

The dramatic sequence of events that Virginia Woolf deems incohesive, therefore, calls for an amalgamation of what Forster feels are best in each of the castes—the unsentimental and practical Wilcoxes, the intellectual and intuitive Schlegels, and the downtrodden Basts. Forster envisions a society where all the conflicts and understandings created by division of class will disappear as the different values and ideals will resolve the differences and complement one another. As James Ivory, director of three Forster films, has stated, “the love of humanity also has its own vices and the love for truth its own insensibilities.” The choice of moral course does not settle the quality of morality.

312 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

Airport Reading

At the Los Angeles airport, people choose to munch away at restaurants, nap, on a row of seats, hog the electrical jacks to recharge all their gadgets or play video game to kill time until the boarding call. I find a comfortable seat within eye-sight to monitor that might announce gate change and coop up with a book. That book happens to be Howards End by E.M. Forster. This novel is what Forster the name of a great novelist. Like the plots of so many English novels, the story of Howards End is about the rights of property, about a destroyed will-and-testament and rightful and wrongful heirs. The premise and the atmosphere in which I read remind me of the reading experience of The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope, which also concerns the rights of ownership of a heirloom diamond. The two hours at the gate afforded over halfway through the book. Who says classics are not made for on-the-go reading? What do you read when you fly?

(I will attend to your comments and resume reading your blogs. I’ve got a lot to catch up!)

[241] Maurice – E.M. Forster


Read my first review from almost three years ago.

Maurice looked at him with tenderness. He was studying him, as in the earliest days of their acquaintance. Only then it was to find out what he was like, now what had gone wrong with him. Something was wrong.” [114]

Written in 1914, E.M. Forster was ahead of his time when it comes to social acceptance toward homosexuality. In Maurice Christopher Hall, one finds an unfairly generous share of virtues: privileged for success, Cambridge education, handsomeness, and business success. But deep in his heart is a misery because the only sex that attracts him is his own: he loves men and always had loved them. He renounces his faith, frees from claws of religion, and rebels against being his father’s double, refuses to uphold the tradition of upper-class propriety. He’s completely sold out for Clive Durham, who believes in platonic restraint and induces Maurice to acquiesce, for Maurice is humble and inexperienced at that stage.

I have become normal—like other men, I don’t know how, any more than I know how I was born. It is outside reason, it is against my wish. [126]

Maurice and Clive are both outlaws. Whereas Maurice does not cease to love, Clive chooses to assimilate to the social norms, and that is, heterosexuality. After what seems to be (Forster makes it seem to be) some kind of “hellenic” temperament that flings him into Maurice’s affectionate arms, Clive quickly turns to women and sends Maurice back to the prison of loneliness. Even though their actions demonstrate a difference in courage, what Forster wants to emphasize is one’s will to suffer. It touches me immensely that Maurice pours into his love dignity as well as the richness of his being—he never stops loving even when his heart is broken. Clive, on the other hand, has avoided suffering by adopting the easy way. Although it’s indisputable that he intends no evil toward Maurice, Clive slowly deteriorates through his political pretensions and self-deceit.

Not to crush it down, not vainly to wish that it was something else, but to cultivate it in such ways as will not vex either God or Man. [70]

The love of women would rise as certainly as the sun, scorching up immaturity and ushering the full human day . . . some goddess of the new universe that had opened to him in London, someone utterly unlike Maurice Hall. [130]

So Maurice’s fall actually acclerates his descent to the pit bottom, but suffering has only prepared him and toughened him for what is in store, true love. I’m not sure if the relationship woe makes Maurice more courageous, it certainly makes him stronger. Unlike Clive, Maurice is more inclined to accept human nature as his suffering and pain have shown him a niche behind the world’s judgment. When he relapses with Clive’s gamekeeper at the house, he has taken a risk and they have loved. The exchange between Maurice and Alec are suggestive but affirmative. That they have both taken a risk to love has put them in a test of which the outcome bodes auspice. In Maurice, E.M. Forster has deftly delved, ahead of his time, in the issues of homosexual love, openness, class, and self-deceit. It’s a poignant and yet redeeming story of one’s journey to find love, through suffering, doubt, and conviction.

Did you ever dream you’d a friend, Alec? . . . Someone to last your whole life and you his. I suppose such a thing can’t really happen outside sleep. [197]

255 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

There’s A Hero (If You Look Inside Your Heart…)

You should have seen this one coming … Who is your favorite Male lead character? And why?

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My hero doesn’t shed blood in the war. Neither is he a veteran nor a F16 pilot. He doesn’t advocate for global warming, nor does he receives a holy message from Mount Sinai. He is someone in whom I identity myself–Giovanni in Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. The novel explores the troubling emotions of man’s heart with unusual candor and yet with dignity and intensity. It delves into the most controversial issue of morality with an artistry. The most touching and absorbing thing is Giovanni’s unconditional love for David, whose fearful intimation opens in him a hatred for Giovanni that is as powerful as his love for him. This love for Giovanni has been meticulously suppressed, and is not recognized until the ineluctable separation, which compounds David’s scruple.

Going hand in hand with Giovanni is Maurice in Maurice by E.M. Forster. speaks the truth of the hearts of many who are stricken by the very stigma, shame, and fear decades later. It reassures us that assimilating to any normality, or abiding by any standards does not give us dignity. Instead dignity manifests itself and comes to engulf us without our knowing when we are at ease with who we are. What makes a profound impression on me about the novel is not the gay protagonist, but the inexplicable loneliness Maurice has to live and to persevere. Maurice seems to hold the key to trouble but deep inside he is rather a simple-lifer who searches for love and wants to be loved. It makes me realize sometimes there are maladies in life so strange that one has to pass through them in order to attain the true happiness.

Both Giovanni and Maurice, to me, are very courageous men.