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E M Forster is primarily known as a novelist, short story writer and literary critic of a rare distinction. Though his contribution to English essays is substantial, he has yet to receive the critical due attention as an essayist. He is best known today for novels such as Howards End and A Room with a View, famously transformed into sumptuous Merchant-Ivory films. During his lifetime, he achieved fame as a writer and broadcaster and mixed with many other leading writers and artists, including the Bloomsbury group. His books often explore social issues, and he aligned himself with the Humanist movement, stating that “the humanist has four leading characteristics – curiosity, a free mind, belief in good taste, and belief in the human race.”

Unlike the other writers, Forster began his literary career as a short story writer and a novelist and then turned to essay writing. Any discussion of Forster as an essayist is complete concerning his prose style. The style of a writer expresses the nature of his thoughts. Hence, the popular view is that ‘style is the man.’ Bacon says that language is the instrument of thought. The most unique thing about Forster’s prose style is that it is racy. It may start with an event, an incident, or an argument and is linked with various aspects of life. Throughout, we find the language ray and fascinating.

In 1938, with a “gathering political storm”, he penned an essay called What I Believe “because these are strenuous and serious days, and one likes to say what one thinks while speech is comparatively free: it may not be free much longer.” The essay is wide-ranging, covering politics, social issues and religion. One theme he keeps returning to throughout, however, is humankind’s capacity for decency and optimism – “Well, at all events, I’m still here. I don’t like it very much, but how are you?”

In What I Believe, he begins an argument by stating that he has to live in an Age of faith. He immediately links it with items like personal relationships, which he feels would bring about some order. Then, he discusses the merits of democracy. Next, he dwells upon the role of Force. Later, he turns to hero-worship and expresses his belief in aristocracy.

Despite the title of his essay, Forster was wary of political declarations and manifestos and began his work with a paradoxical statement: ‘I do not believe in Belief’. Forster believes in personal relationships, which he sees as solid in a world entirely of violence and cruelty. Forster stresses three values he views as fundamental: tolerance, good temper and sympathy. 

But What I Believe also contained controversial ideas, such as the well-known extract below: “Personal relations are despised today. They are regarded as bourgeois luxuries, as products of a time of fair weather which is now past, and we are urged to get rid of them and to dedicate ourselves to some movement or cause instead. I hate the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”

Forster’s words were particularly divisive, considering that they were written in a period when Britain’s involvement in another world war was becoming increasingly inevitable. While Forster was not unpatriotic, he placed greater importance on personal loyalty than on national belonging.

He highlights the importance of relationships and human connection as “something comparatively solid in a world full of violence and cruelty”, “as one can, at all events, show one’s little light here, one’s poor trembling flame, with the knowledge that it is not the only light shining in the darkness, and not the only one which the darkness does not comprehend.”

The best-known quote from the essay paints an inspiring picture of humanity at its best: “I believe in aristocracy, though — if that is the right word, and if a democrat may use it. Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity; a few are great names. They are sensitive for others as well as themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but power to endure, and they can take a joke.”

The raciness of Forster’s language makes his prose very interesting. Forster’s prose is sometimes straightforward, easy, and realistic. Forster’s prose is easy, simple and direct. For example, his essay ‘Happiness’ is clear and can be followed even by a layman. He says Eve and Adam “have lived there as long as they can remember amongst the birds and flowers, they have ridden giraffes and turtles, and danced into shades and lights of the forest; they have played by the cataract at sunset.” These lines reveal to us the lightness of Forester’s prose style.

The predominant quality of Forster’s prose is its absolute fidelity to the truth of life and its exposure to the most important events of contemporary English society. Realism is not an attempt at bookkeeping of existence but an artistic endeavour to transcend the actual. For example, his ‘The Challenge of our Times’ records the events of contemporary times. Here, he brings about the evil effects of war and the collapse of moral values in modern society. The old capitalist order based on free enterprise, which enabled a few to have a good life at the expense of the many, has completely collapsed in many countries today. The new order puts the people at the mercy of the officials, allows the state to interfere in the day-to-day life of the citizens and paves the way for totalitarianism.

Sometimes, Forster resorts to deliberate irony and a beautiful amusingness in his essays; ‘Jew Consciousness’ provides a good example. After an extremely accusing amount of two preparatory schools where it was a disgrace to have respectively a sister and a mother, Forster suddenly pounces: “Those preparatory schools prepared me for better than I realized, for having passed through two imbecile societies, a sister-conscious and a mother-conscious, I am now invited to enter a third. I am asked to consider whether the people I meet and talk about are or are not Jews and to form no opinion on them until this fundamental point has been settled. What revolting tosh: Neither science nor religion nor common sense has one word to say in its favour”. Here, he comments ironically that science, religion, and common sense have kept themselves deliberately mum about the persecution of the Jews.

Forster, in his essays, comes to us as a good stylist. His prose is racy because he starts with an argument and links it with various aspects of life. His prose is simple, easy and direct. The predominant quality of his prose style is its fidelity ‘to the truth of life’. It aims at a beautiful amusingness, not without truth. It is sometimes metaphorical and highly poetic. Thus, Forster’s style is racy, easy, eloquent, amusing, symbolic and poetic.

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Devika Panikar
δάσκαλος (dáskalos) means the teacher in Greek. Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges under this directorate and is now posted at the Government Law College, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of lecture notes she prepared by referencing various sources for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.