Introduction: In Search of the Comic Muse
‘What special tribute shall we bring him?’1 Forster wryly asked in 1927, speculating on the centenary of his untimely but immediate death. More than half a century later we can echo that question but without any of the irony that Forster implied in the question’s supposed justification: ‘He could scarcely have endured to put forth masterpiece after masterpiece had he not felt assured of the verdict of posterity’. Although verdict may have ‘too much the atmosphere of the law courts’ about it, he nonetheless could feel reasonably confident about the judgement of his contemporaries (he had just delivered the Clark lectures, A Passage to India had been translated into French, reviews, essays, appraisals of the contemporary novel increasingly spoke of his importance). Nonetheless he was far less certain of the epithet ‘great’ than were some of his more enthusiastic commentators. ‘My novels will be either almost-successes or failures’,2 he wrote to Virginia Woolf in that same year and throughout his life he remained sceptical of the notion that his five published novels constituted a succession of ‘masterpiece after masterpiece’. But despite Forster’s own diffidence and his toying with the idea of greatness finally to put it aside, a cumulative verdict has been returned, in which at least one novel has been accorded that status and the entire oeuvre an importance whose extent we are only beginning to recognize. Thus the question — ‘what special tribute shall we bring him?’ — remains still to be answered.
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