E M Forster

E M Forster by Edward Gooch
E M Forster by Edward Gooch © Edward Gooch/Getty Images

Biography

The British novelist and literary critic E. M. Forster was born on New Year’s Day 1879 in London. His architect father died young, leaving Forster and his mother enough money to be comfortable for the rest of their lives. In 1883, they moved to the house in Hertfordshire which would become the inspiration for Howards End (1910).

Forster was unhappy at Tonbridge School, but enjoyed himself far more at King’s College Cambridge. Having no urgent need to make a living on graduation, he travelled with his mother in Italy, gathering the inspiration for A Room with a View (1908). His critically successful first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905) also has Italian themes; his favourite of his own novels was The Longest Journey (1907).

Between 1910 and 1913 he wrote Maurice, a novel which reflected his own – then illegal – homosexuality. But though he made a large donation to the Homosexual Law Reform Society in the 1960s and occasionally wrote articles advocating reform, Maurice was not published until the year after Forster’s death (1971). Forster was at his happiest during a two-year relationship with a young policeman called Bob Buckingham who later married; despite Buckingham's marriage, the two men remained friends.

Forster also travelled twice to India in 1912 and 1921; the trips helped him begin and complete A Passage to India (1924), which has since been read as an important early document of post-colonialism.

Forster was a member of the literary ‘Bloomsbury set’, and a perceptive critic. Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary that ‘he says the simple things that clever people don't say; I find him the best of critics for that reason’.

In the 1930s, he became an increasingly prominent public voice for what the academic Lord Annan described as ‘liberal humanism’. On the eve of the Second World War he published one of his most famous essays, ‘Two cheers for democracy’, later called ‘What I believe’.

He also collaborated with Eric Crozier on the libretto for Benjamin Britten's opera Billy Budd (1951); and though he refused permission during his life, enormously popular films were made of his books after his death.

Though Forster refused a knighthood in 1949, he accepted a Companion of Honour in 1953, eight honorary degrees, and the Order of Merit on his 90th birthday. He died in 1970, having spent the last 25 years of his life as an honorary fellow of King’s College Cambridge.

Further information about the life of E M Forster can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Related articles

E M Forster’s gay fiction

Article by:
Kate Symondson
Themes:
Gender and sexuality, Exploring identity, Literature 1900–1950

A year after E M Forster's death, his novel about a relationship between two men, Maurice, was published. Kate Symondson explores how Forster's sexuality shaped his writing and the long period during which he didn't publish anything at all.

Cities in modernist literature

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Capturing and creating the modern

The alienated modernist self is a product of the big city rather than the countryside or small town. Katherine Mullin describes how an interest in the sensibility associated with the city – often London, but for James Joyce, Dublin – developed from the mid-19th century to the modernist period.

The mystery and muddle of A Passage to India

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Power and conflict, Literature 1900–1950

Kate Symondson explores the tensions and dualities at the heart of A Passage to India and the challenges E M Forster faced in writing the novel.

Related collection items

Related teachers' notes

School students at the British Library

E M Forster's A Room with a View: The question of view and viewpoint

Draw on drafts, letters and other source material to reflect on the values and attitudes within the novel.

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A Room with a View

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The title of E M Forster’s third novel, A Room with a View (1908) refers to the booking that his characters, ...

A Passage to India

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