From the Guardian:


In 1909, EM Forster published a short story set in the future called “The Machine Stops”. It was, he said later, a reaction to the utopias of HG Wells. In Forster’s vision, people in the future live in enclosed underground rooms, communicating only through video conferencing and messaging, engaging with people only through what is, fairly exactly, depicted as the internet to come. When the Machine breaks down, most people die immediately from the shock. Does Forster still speak to us? You bet he does.

An exact technological prediction is remarkable by itself. Forster goes on telling us about our lives because of where that prediction sprang from. He saw, above all, both that people need to be with each other, and that they will constantly put up barriers to prevent these connections. Laws against sexual connection and artificial conventions against associations across race or social levels are Forster’s subject. As a novelist he loves the rules that mean that Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson should not marry; that Maurice and Alec have to disappear from society; that Aziz and Fielding cannot be friends. He is in the not unusual position for a novelist of hoping that changes in society will make his novel unnecessary.

In this, Forster failed, and so his books remain necessary. Probably his most important novel is Howards End, but its meaning has rather shifted over the years. For most readers, the novel now matters most when it turns to Leonard Bast: hungry for culture and learning, intelligent but disadvantaged and at the mercy of the whims of the rich. In my view, Forster underestimates what a Leonard Bast could have done to save himself in 1910. There were dozens of literary and popular journals at the time that would have happily published a short story or a piece of reportage from a literate, intelligent, working-class writer, and paid a very useful £20 for it. By contrast, in 2017, a Leonard Bast would be unlikely to meet a Helen Schlegel at a concert in London. He wouldn’t be able to afford to live in London; his education wouldn’t have introduced him to that sort of high culture; there are no libraries with the resources to let him pursue his curiosity. If he lost his job, as Bast does, there would, in effect, be no means of supporting himself through literary expression. That has passed into the hands of the children of the rich. A modern-day Bast would not starve, but he would be seriously deprived, and he would have been kept from the literature that could have saved Forster’s character. Things for him have got worse.

Philippa Coulthard as Helen Schlegel.
Philippa Coulthard as Helen Schlegel. Photograph: Laurie Sparham/BBC/Playground Television UK Limited 2017/Laurie Sparham

Bast is an intensely controversial figure, still, and one of the marks of Forster’s vivid energy is how much acrimonious debate is raised by his novels. When Maurice was published after Forster’s death, critics queued up to explain that it was, of course, far weaker than his other novels because of its subject of homosexual identity. Actually, it was written between Howards End and A Passage to India, and (for some of us, at least) it ranks with his very best work. Its subject, of how a minority can live in a society that proscribes it, continues to be of general interest: the specific case, neatly demonstrated by the novel’s eventual reception, of how homosexual voices are denigrated and ignored, has become still more marked. It is hard to imagine a 21st-century homosexual novelist being permitted to have the cultural centrality of a Forster, a Proust, a Thomas Mann, a Gide.

Perhaps still more acrimonious is the debate over A Passage to India, and in particular what Indian readers regard as its unwitting Orientalism. The large question here is perhaps a self-important one: will Indians and Englishmen ever be able to be friends? Personally, as someone who is married to a Bengali, I rather hope we’ve reached that point, but there is no doubt that the question, viewed from the other side, has for once become rather irrelevant. For Indians, not very much rests on it any more. And yet the larger question – are we going to retreat into our cells, our nationhood, the social status that has been awarded us? – is more important than ever. All Forster’s novels are crowded with characters, making connections or resisting connection; they were written, it seems to me, by a shy person who saw the importance of not retreating, but reaching out.

Most intelligent people come to the view that life is a long and painful journey towards this general statement: “Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that.” Forster always understood that. He said he gave two cheers for democracy, and was rather reviled for it, but after Trump and Brexit, we concede his point. Humanity is fundamentally decent; and it is hard to look at the suffering humanity causes. The steadily increasing aptness of Forster to the way we live is, in some ways, a matter we might choose to regret.

Howards End is on BBC One on 12 November at 9pm.

Howards End on TV: life would be worse for a modern-day Leonard Bast

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