Tuesday, March 1, 2011

E. M. Forster’s earlier novels deserve more attention.

I decided to read an earlier novel of Forster’s after rereading Maurice. The early novels remain surprisingly vital. They prepare for the great later novels, like Howard’s End, Maurice, and Passage to India, to be sure. But they deserve more attention themselves.

The Longest Journey

E. M. Forster’s second novel, The Longest Journey (416 pages, Penguin, $14) first appeared in 1907. It is hard for us to imagine that Edwardian world, as blocked out as it is by the First World War, but Forster’s novel gives poetry to those odd years in which a culture was slowly dying. Almost as if he understood that death at the time, the novel is a tragedy. But it is much more than that as well.

The novel concerns Ricky Elliott, an undergraduate at Cambridge when the novel opens. Ricky is sensitive and intelligent, maybe not as intelligent as some of his Cambridge friends, but he is self-aware and ready to work at his classical studies. Even more important than his studies, for him and for many of his Cambridge contemporaries, are the friendships they are establishing. In fact, friendship could be said to be the most important issue in the novel. Even though Rickie meets a woman whom he loves, or thinks he loves, and marries, that is nowhere near as important as the friendships he establishes. “There should be a registry of friendships,” the Cambridge undergraduates declare.

The plot is complex, but it has simple contours. Rickie, who suffers a club foot, is lame and a bit withdrawn from the games and much of the social life at Cambridge. Instead he hangs out with an intellectual set, led by one Stewart Ansell, who imagines himself a philosopher and has an annoying habit of ignoring people if he doesn’t think they are worth his attention. One such person is Agnes Pembroke, a friend of Rickie’s who visits him in college. Ansell ignores her. This upsets Rickie, but it forebodes later developments in the novel.

Agnes is engaged to the handsome athlete Gerald. Rickie sees them as a kind of ideal couple, and when Gerald dies suddenly, he thinks that Agnes should dedicate herself to the memory of Gerald. When after a while, he befriends her again, they fall in love and they decide to marry. At first they are all right together, but before long it becomes clear that they are going through the motions.

By this time Rickie and Agnes are living in a boarding school, which Agnes’ older brother Herbert has started. Rickie’s teaching, and responsibility for boys at other times too, makes it impossible for him to keep up the writing he was doing when he was younger, but Agnes still encourages him. It is as if the writing might offer them an escape.

In fact they never do escape but something else rather shocking happens. They meet a young man at Rickie’s aunt’s house in the country. This rather rough, but handsome and direct fellow is known as Stephen. He and Rickie get on very badly, but when his aunt gets upset with Rickie, she lets it be known that Gerald is his half brother. When Agnes finds this out—she is there when the announcement is made—she is quick to decide that it has to be kept secret, and Rickie, weakly and reluctantly, goes along with her.

The rest of the novel is concerned with this deception, which Rickie regrets, and with his ultimately intense relation with this half-brother. Their relation, in the end, becomes the most important in the novel. Forster doesn’t call it or even describe it as a gay relation, but the novel feels as if it almost needs an explanation like that.

The ending is tragic, or perhaps bittersweet is a better word, but it is a profound analysis of an age that is nearly forgotten.

E. M. Forster

Get a copy of The Longest Journey at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

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