Wednesday, August 13, 2014

10 Books for the E. M. Forster Fan

E. M. Forster, one of England's greatest twentieth century writers, completed only six novels in his lifetime, though there are also three volumes of short stories, three travel books, two biographies, two plays, and a libretto, as well as a fair amount of literary criticism. My personal favorite of Forster's novels is Howards End, though I'm also more than a little fond of The Longest Journey, which tends to be unjustly forgotten. When a Forster fan reaches the end of his works, where to turn? The first author that comes to mind, both for her romantic plots and sharp social satire, is Jane Austen, whose novels, like Forster's, were scathing critiques of English society and manners, clothed in elegant, refined prose. Any of Austen's novels should please fans of Forster, just as any of his novels would please fans of Austen. That being said, Austen's novels are already so widely read that recommending them is something of a futile exercise. Here are ten more books sure to please the Forster enthusiast.

My Lady Nicotine - J. M. Barrie
This delightful comic novel recounts the friendships of a group of men, united by their love for tobacco, and the delightfully disastrous rift that occurs when one member of their circle is unfaithful to their shared mistress with an actual woman and gets himself engaged. Barrie is today almost exclusively remembered for Peter Pan, but My Lady Nicotine, with its gentle satire of English manners and history, is far more typical of his oeuvre overall and an excellent beginning to exploring Barrie's work.

Tempest-Tost - Robertson Davies
In this, one of the most diverting of Davies's novels, an amateur theatrical society in the fictional town of Salterton, Ontario decides to put up a production of The Tempest. Local beauty Griselda is naturally chosen for the lead and is soon coldly surveying the romantic attentions of puppyish assistant director Solly, conceited womanizer Roger, and awkward, uncomfortable Hector. Davies is as deft a satirist as Forster and his loving dissection of small-town Canada is quite witty.

Parade's End - Ford Madox Ford
Ford's tetralogy is a pacifist masterpiece, the epic story of Christopher Tietjens, a painfully old-fashioned statistician caught in a miserable marriage and resisting his own desire for an affair with an alluring suffragette. Anxious to leave his troubles at home and to act honorably, he volunteers for the army and goes to the front to fight in the Great War. Forster, like Ford, was a passionate pacifist; both became pacifists after witnessing at first hand the atrocities that resulted from World War I.

The Portrait of a Lady - Henry James
The Portrait of a Lady is one of James's best novels (and also rather more accessible than his later masterworks like The Golden Bowl). Isabel Archer, an American heiress with an independent mind and a poor understanding of human selfishness, arrives in Europe intending to face what she refers to as her "destiny." James, like Forster, was fascinated by Italy and by Americans and Britishers abroad, both subjects explored at length in this novel.  

Three Men in a Boat - Jerome K. Jerome
One of the great comic novels, Three Men in a Boat is the wonderfully funny account of a boating trip on the Thames made by three friends, Jerome, George, and Harris, and their fox terrier, Montmorency. The book, published in 1889 to great popular success, is remarkably undated, its witticisms still fresh well over a hundred years later, and it is still possible for moderns to repeat the trip, following the itinerary as laid out by Jerome.

The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate - Nancy Mitford
Mitford's witty romantic novel and its sequel are neither of them masterpieces on a par with Forster's work, but they are very entertaining and have a pleasantly tart satiric sharpness. The estate of the eccentric Radlett family, led by Uncle Matthew whose love for hunting isn't swayed by a lack of foxes given his handy brood of athletic children, is the setting for this story of two young women looking for love and matrimony, hopefully with the same man.

The Blue Castle - L. M. Montgomery
My absolute favorite novel by one of my most beloved writers, The Blue Castle is about Valancy Stirling, who at twenty nine is considered a hopeless old maid and a drug on her family. When she discovers that she has a terminal heart condition, Valancy breaks free, telling her family exactly what she thinks of them, getting a job, and proposing marriage to the man she loves. The Blue Castle is an unrecognized masterpiece.

A Glass of Blessings - Barbara Pym
Wilmet Forsyth is conventionally married, supremely comfortable in her home, and without onerous obligations. Her main source of social activity is in the Anglican church (a setting central to most of Pym's novels), but the lack of meaning in her life drives her to indulge in a fantasy of infatuation with a handsome rake, Piers Longridge. Published in 1958, the novel is surprisingly frank about homosexuality.

The Custom of the Country - Edith Wharton
One of Wharton's masterpieces is this astringent story about Undine Spragg, a ruthlessly ambitious girl intent on using her family's dubiously obtained fortune to claw her way to the top of the social ladder through an advantageous marriage. A brutal social critique, a scathing proto-feminist commentary on women, wealth, and social position, and a sharp examination of the clash between American and European cultures.

For those fond of biography, Wendy Moffat's A Great Unrecorded History is both a first rate work of scholarship and an illuminating companion to the novels. It is the first biography to take into account Forster's homosexuality and its effect on his life, personality, and writing.


  1. I think my favorite Forster novel is "A Passage to India". I love the quote from Mrs. Moore: "Life never gives us what we want at the moment we consider appropriate. Adventures do occur, but not punctually." I re-read Wharton often; if forced to pick a favorite I'd have to go with "The Age of Innocence", but "Custom" is a very close second. I have a biography of Zelda Fitzgerald by Nancy Mitford---is it the same one?

    1. The biographer is Nancy Milford, rather than Mitford. I do love her biography of Zelda, but her biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Savage Beauty, is even better.