These few pages are some of the surviving fragments of E M Forster’s draft for the last novel published during his lifetime, A Passage to India. Writing Passage was an arduous, protracted process, taking Forster over ten years to finish. These fragments are contained in an envelope labelled by Forster as ‘Passage Stuff’. The vagueness of this label suggests the nightmarish task that faced editor Oliver Stallybrass, who studied the decade’s worth of scattered manuscripts and revisions (including this collection), alongside the several published editions of Passage, for his production of the definitive edition of the novel in 1967.
Why did A Passage to India take so long to write?
Foster’s first visit to India in 1912 inspired the first seven chapters of this novel, which he wrote in and around 1913. As his memories of his Indian experience grew hazy, however, his writing faltered. Other writing projects and an extremely active social calendar took over, then came the First World War. Circumstances overwhelmed, and Forster felt he could no longer render India with authenticity.
In 1921, Forster was given the opportunity to return to India as secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas, situated in a central Indian principality. Naturally, India had changed in the interim. It was more politically fraught than ever and was in a state of profound flux. As well as national upheavals, Forster experienced a different facet of the locality. He swapped the Anglo-Indian clubhouses for a native court, the winter for an Indian summer, travel for seclusion, Islamic India for Hindu. This second visit revivified his Indian novel, and, with his breadth and depth of experience in the intervening years, he felt finally equipped to confront what he called the ‘mystery and muddle’ of India. The last page of the manuscript was completed on 21 January 1924.
What impact did the intervening years have on the writing of the novel?
Forster had originally conceived of Passage as a book acting as a ‘little bridge of sympathy between East and West’, but the events of the intervening years – the war, the political upheaval and shifting tides in India, and the death of his friend and lover, Syed Ross Masood (to whom he dedicated the novel) – meant that conception ‘had to go’. The final draft of A Passage to India is darker than the first few chapters of 1913 suggested. It is fraught with complexity, irresolution and the unknown. While still a meditation on the connection between East and West, the novel does not claim to disentangle or finally understand that relationship, and India looms as fundamentally incomprehensible.
One of the pages found in ‘Passage Stuff’ contains the seeds of the most important concern of the novel. In both the draft and the final published version, Aziz and his friends discuss whether it is ‘possible to be friends with an Englishman’. This question, (and it’s reverse – whether an Englishman can be friends with an Indian), is at the heart of the novel. As Forster said of his first trip to India, he ‘didn’t go there to govern…or to make money, or to improve people. I went there to see a friend.’ Friendship mattered to Forster above all else, and in lieu of having a religious creed, he declared: ‘I believe in personal relationships’.
Returning to writing Passage in the 1920s, however, the simplicity of his epigraph to his previous novel of 1910 seemed now to him naïve. ‘Only connect’, as he wrote in Howards End, was the ideal, but not one that would or could be neatly realised in the post-war, imperial setting of his Indian novel.