E. M. Forster

  • Shamsul Islam


We are all familiar with Forster’s creed — liberal humanism and belief in personal relationships and the private life.1 Forster’s non-fiction leaves no doubt as to the centrality of political beliefs in his moral framework, and the novels reflect his deepest and most generalised thoughts on the subject. And so naturally literary historians (who are fond of neat classifications) tend to see him as an antithesis of all that Kipling and his school is supposed to have stood for, namely, jingo imperialism, white man’s burden, and other reactionary myths perpetuating Western domination of the Third World.2 While there is some truth in these generalisations, I believe that the relationship between Forster and Kipling is not one of simple inversion and that Kipling has been too harshly judged by his critics. One is often struck by similarities rather than contrasts between these two writers whose imaginations were stirred by the same source — India.3 I will come to this theme in a later section, and all that I want to suggest here is that despite Forster’s liberal and anti-imperial stance, one cannot understand his complex relationship to India and the imperial idea through linear formulae.


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  1. 1.
    E. M. Forster, ‘The Challenge of Our Time’, Two Cheersfor Democracy (London: Penguin, 1974), p. 64.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    For example, Edith C. Batho and Bonamy Dobrée in their book The Victorians and After (London, 1950) state: ‘In his [Forster’s] novels and short stories we find the deepest reaction to things that Kipling stood for. Each has a distinct scale of values. … For Mr. Forster, Mr. Kipling’s world is the useless outer world, a scene of telegrams and anger, of futile efficiency, of misdirected effort.’ (pp. 97–8) It is interesting to note that even a Kipling enthusiast like Dobrée can be swept away by the force of such generalisations.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    There are some critics who do see similarities. See H. Marshall McLuhan’s article, ‘Kipling and Forster’, The Sewanee Review, 52 (1944), 332–43.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    E. M. Forster, ‘Indian Entries’, Encounter, 28 (January 1962), 20–7.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Masood was a grandson of the famous Muslim leader and educationist Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817–98) who in 1875 founded the Muslim Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh which later became the Muslim University of Aligarh. This university played a central role in the renaissance of the Muslim community in India. Masood was brought to England for education by Theodore Morrison, a close friend of Sir Syed. Masood studied at Oxford but he was not much of a scholar; he barely managed to get a second class degree in history. Later he studied law in London. Soon after meeting him, Forster was enthralled by Masood’s warmth as his earliest diary entry clearly tells: ‘Dec. 24. Masood gives up duties for friends — which is civilisation. Though as he remarks “Hence the confusion in Oriental states. To them personal relations come first.” ’ (Quoted by P. N. Furbank, E. M. Forster: A Life, 2 vols (London, 1977–8), I, 145. I am greatly indebted to Furbank for fresh information on Masood.)Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    During this first trip to India, Forster saw Masood again in January after visiting Dewas. At this time Masood was a magistrate at Bankipore which is a model for the city of Chandrapore in A Passage to India. From here Forster proceeded to Allahabad and on his way, he visited the Buddhist sites of Buddh Gaya and the Barbar Hills, later to be a model for the Marabar caves. On the last leg of his journey, Forster went to Aurangabad (in Deccan), where he stayed with Masood’s friend Ahmed Mirza’s younger brother Abu Saeed Mirza, a junior magistrate. Saeed showed him around the cave-temples of Ellora, and he is reflected in the character of Dr Aziz to a certain extent. See Furbank, E. M. Forster: A Life (London, 1977–8).Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    E. M. Forster, The Hill of Devi (London, 1953), p. 10.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    There is some difference of opinion on this point. While it is true that the novel was partly written during Forster’s 1921–2 visit and that he experienced the fast-changing political conditions at first hand, the novel’s point of view remains that of 1912 rather than 1924. However, an argument has been made that Forster intends the people in the novel to seem totally unaware of the vast changes that had occurred in India since 1912 in order to intensify the political significance and irony of the novel. See Jeffrey Meyers, Fiction and the Colonial Experience (Ipswich, 1973), pp. 36–43. Also see G. K. Das who in his recent study E. M. Forster’s India (London, 1977) makes an interesting case for the novel’s absorption of contemporary political events.Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    K. Natwar-Singh, ‘Only Connect … Forster and India’, Aspects of Forster, ed. Oliver Stallybrass (London, 1969), p. 46.Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    Andrew Shonfield, ‘The Politics of Forster’s India’, Encounter, 30 (January 1968), 68.Google Scholar
  11. 14.
    E. M. Forster, A Passage to India (London: Penguin, 1974), P. 108.Google Scholar
  12. 16.
    Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Education of Otis Yeere’, The Writings in Prose and Verse (New York, 1897–1936), VI, 9–10.Google Scholar
  13. 18.
    Heinrich Zimmer, Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilisation (New York, 1946), p. 154.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 19.
    For a full discussion of this point see Benita Parry, Delusions and Discoveries: Studies on India in the British Imagination, 1880–1930 (London, 1972). Parry is quite right in dismissing W. Stone’s thesis (presented in his study The Cave and the Mountain, Stanford, California, 1966) that Hinduism offers the key to the mystery of the caves.Google Scholar
  15. 20.
    E. M. Forster, Abinger Harvest (Penguin: London, 1976), pp. 293–4.Google Scholar
  16. 23.
    For a fuller treatment of this subject see Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, Freedom at Midnight (New York, 1975), pp. 153–71.Google Scholar
  17. 24.
    ‘E. M. Forster on his Life and Books’, Listener, 61 (1 January 1959), 11.Google Scholar
  18. 27.
    George Orwell, Burmese Days (Penguin: London, 1975), P. 17.Google Scholar
  19. 28.
    The controversy over Indian membership, usually presented in terms of a colour-bar, was going strong around the Second World War, and some clubs did admit Indians. See Charles Allen (ed.), Plain Tales From The Raj (London, 1975), pp. 99–108.Google Scholar
  20. 29.
    Forster seems to have modelled Fielding after himself and his close friend G. L. Dickinson with whom he first went to India. This impression emerges from Forster’s biography of Dickinson where he is portrayed as a humanist who blamed ‘Anglo-Indian’ haughtiness for the political mess of India. And like Fielding, Dickinson too did not want to let India go out of the Empire completely. He also believed in good will as a possible solution to the whole issue. However, there are some important differences between Fielding and Dickinson or Forster and Dickinson. For instance, unlike Forster, he felt that the gulf between East and West could not be bridged. See Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson (London, 1934).Google Scholar
  21. 30.
    E. M. Forster, ‘Reflections in India: I — Too Late?’ The Nation and the Athenaeum, 30 (21 January 1922), 201.Google Scholar
  22. 31.
    Santha Rama Rau records Forster telling her that in A Passage to India he tried to ‘indicate the human predicament in a universe which is not, so far, comprehensible to our minds’. See K. Natwar-Singh (ed.), E. M. Forster: A Tribute (London, 1964), p. 50.Google Scholar

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© Shamsul Islam 1979

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