Monday, May 21, 2007

Musings on E.M. Forster

I’m never sure exactly what to make of E.M. Forster. I find him enigmatic, but I always enjoy his stories. Are they satires? Some parts certainly make me laugh. He’s written some of the most romantic passages I’ve ever read (and reread)—in particular, that beautiful paragraph in A Room with A View when George Emerson unexpectedly kisses Lucy in a field of violets. That scene sent me into a bona fide swoon when I first read it and then saw it in the movie.

At the same time, tragedy threatens the romance and comedy. It’s pretty notable how these things all coexist in a Forster story. There is something of Austen’s slyly critical appraisal of the way people treat each other, especially the way the upper crust look down on their “inferiors.” Forster is as concerned with this in a cross-cultural context as within stratified British society.

I feel like I need a good professor to guide me through at least some of his stories, but I’ve always read his novels on my own and never in a classroom, so I’m missing quite a bit of rich conversation to be had about these books. Take a look at two passages from Where Angels Fear to Tread (which I’m currently reading):

“Lilia would not settle down in her place among Sawston matrons. She was a bad housekeeper, always in the throes of some domestic crisis, which Mrs. Herriton, who kept her servants for years, had to step across and adjust. She let Irma stop away from school for insufficient reasons, and she allowed her to wear rings. She learnt to bicycle, for the purpose of waking the place up, and coasted down the High Street one Sunday evening, falling off at the turn by the church. If she had not been a relative, it would have been entertaining.”

The bit about Lilia on the bike made me laugh, but at the same time I pitied her as a “free spirit” (albeit a foolish one) who is never accepted by her family. I’m also simultaneously amused and frustrated that a woman on a bicycle was seen as such an affront to tradition. I especially appreciate the use of the word “vulgar” to describe Lilia and her daughter in these passages. It’s a word I almost never hear anymore, and to a modern girl, it seems a ridiculous exaggeration.

“And on the second day the heat struck them, like a hand laid over the mouth, just as they were walking to see the tomb of Juliet. From that moment everything went wrong. They fled from Verona. Harriet’s sketch-book was stolen, and the bottle of ammonia in her trunk burst over her prayerbook, so that purple patches appeared on all her clothes. Then, as she was going through Mantua at four in the morning, Philip made her look out of the window because it was Virgil’s birthplace, and a smut flew in her eye, and Harriet with a smut in her eye was notorious.”

That last sentence slays me. I get a gleeful feeling knowing the overbearing Harriet is getting her comeuppance in a small way. But at the same time, it’s a shame even the most detestable people can’t enjoy the novelty and beauty of a new place, and instead have a blind, haughty attitude of racial superiority. From what I recall, there’s even more of that in Passage to India, but it’s been a long time since I’ve read it.

To sum up, Forester’s writing seems light to me one minute, then betrays a whole depth of meaning the next. He is playful, then he is critical, then he seems to poke fun at his own criticism, and then the whole process begins again, so I'm never sure if a happy ending is actually a happy ending. There's this unsettling feeling when the nice young ladies inherit Howard's End while their lower class friends have been murdered and/or forgotten.

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