EM Forster

Images above: EM Forster’s flat in Arlington Park Mansions; photograph by Alanna McCrum; EM Forster, portrait by Dora Carrington (1920), courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Edwardian novelist who lived in Arlington Park Mansions, overlooking Turnham Green

EM Forster (1879 – 1970) is considered one of Britain’s greatest novelists. He wrote six novels, all of which were hugely successful from the moment of publication. After his death, A Room with a View, Howards End, and A Passage to India were discovered by new audiences when they were made into films which became every bit as popular in the 1980s and early 1990s as the books had been at the beginning of the century.

He came to Chiswick at the start of the Second World War, by which time he was broadcasting for the BBC and writing for a range of publications. Arlington Park Mansions, where he lived, bears a blue plaque to commemorate the time he spent here.

Images above: EM Forster (1922) by Lady Ottoline Morrell; blue plaque photograph by Alanna McCrum

According to English Heritage, ‘Forster moved from Bloomsbury to Arlington Park Mansions in October 1939, partly to escape central London following the outbreak of war, and partly to be closer to his friend and lover Bob Buckingham in Shepherd’s Bush.

‘The mansion block was built in 1905, and Forster occupied a top-floor flat – number 9 – ‘with a lovely view over Turnham Green’.

‘In 1945 Forster was elected a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, but continued to spend one or two days a week in London, invariably travelling with his small Gladstone bag by bus and train, since he regarded taxis as ‘a vulgar extravagance’. He retained the flat at Arlington Park Mansions as a pied-à-terre until his death’.

He spent his final years living in his college rooms at King’s.

EM Forster – the EM stands for Edward Morgan – was already well established as a great literary figure when he came to Chiswick, as he moved here when he was 60. He continued writing short stories until he was 82 and died at the age of 91, but he had finished his last novel, A Passage to India, fifteen years earlier when he was only 45.

Image above: EM Forster, bromide print by Howard Coster (June 1938), courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

EM Forster the broadcaster

When he came to Chiswick ‘Morgan’, as he was known to friends and colleagues, was well into his career as a broadcaster.

He began broadcasting at the BBC in 1928, when the BBC was six years old, so he was in at the start of the Talks department. Academic Mary Lago, who studied him as a broadcaster, wrote that he was happy working for the BBC:

“Characteristically uneasy with persons in whom he could find no grounds for respect, Forster found the working atmosphere of the BBC congenial.”

Miss Jean Rowntree, one of his producers in the 1940s, remembered him as:

“a natural broadcaster, who combines the rhythms of informal speech with a pattern of thought that made them easy to remember. His actual voice was against him, as it was rather high and easily became squeaky but the substance of his broadcasts was so good that it did them no harm. Listeners used to say that you went on thinking as soon as he had stopped talking.”

One of his fellow intellectuals at the BBC was George Orwell, who worked in the BBC India Section as a talks producer from 1941 to 1943. He commissioned Forster to write a weekly book review. The majority of Forster’s radio talks were about books and he campaigned for more radio time to be devoted to literature. He was respected by producers as a reliable professional and carried on broadcasting on and off until 1963, when he was 84.

During the war he gave talks about literature, and very unwillingly he allowed himself to be dragged into contributing to wartime propaganda, though he retained a large degree of editorial independence and every script was squared with his conscience (as evidenced in lengthy correspondence with BBC staff).

In 1940 he gave three talks on the Nazis and Culture. During the war Forster also broadcast to India, a country he knew well from having travelled there in 1914 and worked there in the early 1920s as a private secretary to a Maharajah. He was able to speak directly to an Indian audience whom he knew would be interested in Western culture, about the London theatre audiences continuing to go to performances of Shakespeare’s plays, despite the wartime destruction all around them.

He was disparaging about the efforts of his colleagues in the News department. Literature and News were two separate concepts which should not be confused as far as he was concerned. Comparing the two, he told George Barnes, Director of Talks in 1941:

“The question of quality must come in! And I would hazard in passing that literature exhibits good taste rather than frivolity, and nobility rather than sermonizing”.

Images above: EM Forster (June 1938) by Howard Coster, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Censorship and propaganda

Forster was ambivalent about being used as a propagandist. In 1940 Richard A Rendall, the Director of Empire Services, expressed doubts about Forster’s attitude to the war. Forster wrote:

“What I feel about the war. I don’t want to lose it. I don’t expect Victory and I can’t join in any ‘Build-a-New-World’ stuff. Once in a lifetime one can swallow that, but not twice.”

He had been a conscientious objector during the First World War. Instead of fighting, he served with the British Red Cross as Chief Searcher for missing servicemen in Alexandria, Egypt.

He was concerned about wartime censorship:

“I hope the censor won’t demand any alteration which I consider vital. I should have to give up the job if he did”.

He made a stand at the BBC when he discovered there was a wartime blacklist of certain performers and that the Government was involved. He went on strike. There was a huge protest involving playwright Bernard Shaw and composer Ralph Vaughan Williams amongst others. Vaughan Williams withdrew permission for his works to be used by the BBC and so did Forster. It was effective. Three days later the Government gave a clear promise that the blacklisting would cease.

The composer Michael Tippett was on this blacklist. He and Forster were both on board of the Freedom Defence Committee, committed to upholding freedom of speech and civil liberties, and later they got to know each other through mutual friend Benjamin Britten, with whom Forster was working on the opera Billy Budd, as co-librettist with Eric Crozier. (Tippett also lived briefly in Chiswick, but in the 1920s).

EM Forster was the first President of the National Council for Civil Liberties. Formed in 1934, the NCCL was at the forefront of the anti-fascist campaign in Britain during the 1930s. He campaigned for freedom of speech and individual liberty and against the racism which he saw exercised against Indians in the UK. He also campaigned for penal reform.

He was also active in the British Humanist Association. He donated money to the cause of homosexual law reform and met Wolfenden, author of the 1957 report that led to the decriminalization of homosexuality. He testified on behalf of DW Lawrence in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover case in 1960, which changed the legal definition of obscenity.

Images above: Where Angels Fear to Tread; The Longest Journey; A Room with a View


Reading about his broadcasting and campaigning for the NCCL (now Liberty), it’s hard to think of Forster as an Edwardian, but that he undoubtedly was. He was already twenty years old as the nineteenth century came to a close. In fact his 21st birthday fell on the first day of the new century.

He came down from Cambridge the following year, having studied Classics, and set off to travel continental Europe with his widowed mother. They stayed in 1901 at the Pensione Simi in Florence, the inspiration for the Pension Bertolini in A Room with a View, where the independent minded young woman Lucy Honeychurch stays with her overly-fussy spinster cousin and chaperone, Miss Charlotte Bartlett (played so memorably by Helena Bonham Carter and Maggie Smith respectively in the 1985 Merchant Ivory film). Overheard expressing their disappointment with the lack of a view from their room by fellow guest Mr Emerson, they accept his offer to swap rooms, despite Charlotte’s misgivings about being indebted to two strange men. Thus begins the love affair between Lucy and Emerson’s son George.

A Room with a View (1908) and Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905) are both about English tourists in Italy and are often bracketed with the novels of Henry James and Somerset Maugham, the earliest fiction writers writing in the English language to feature foreign as well as English or American characters. They all explore the ways in which different cultures impact on each other.

Forster’s first book Where Angels Fear to Tread was described by reviewers as “astonishing” and “brilliantly original”. The American literary critic Lionel Trilling proclaimed it: “a whole and mature work dominated by a fresh and commanding intelligence”.

His second book, The Longest Journey (1907), was a coming of age novel. It was Forster’s personal favourite and also the most biographical. The main character Rickie, goes to Cambridge University, wants to be a writer and is invited to teach Classics, as Forster did for a bit (though Forster was briefly a private tutor, not a schoolmaster). Unlike Forster, Rickie finds himself trapped in a loveless marriage. The novel was very well received by critics, but less popular with the public and is the only one not to have been made into a film. Journalist Gilbert Adair, who was himself also a novelist, wrote that the greatest weaknesses for readers is its “unrelenting intellectuality, its sublimation and even outright repression of the importance of the erotic in human relationships” and the “… not always intentional priggishness of its characters.”

Image above: Howard’s End film poster

Howards End (1910) also closely observes the behaviour, codes of conduct and social conventions of the time. The story revolves around three families: the Wilcoxes, rich capitalists with a fortune made in the colonies, the half-German Schlegel siblings (Margaret, Helen, and Tibby), who are cultured, interested in socialism and the suffragist movement, and the Basts, an impoverished young couple from a lower-class background. Forster socialized with the Bloomsbury Group, whose women made perfect studies for the Schlegels.

Howards End is regarded by many as his greatest novel. In the Merchant Ivory film (1992) based on the book, Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter played the Schlegel sisters; Vanessa Redgrave and Anthony Hopkins the Wilcoxes; Samuel West and Nicola Duffet the Basts.

Images above: A Passage to India; Maurice 

A Passage to India (1924) takes as its subject the relationship between East and West, seen through the lens of India in the later days of the British Raj. Forster connects personal relationships with the politics of colonialism through the story of the Englishwoman Adela Quested, the Indian Dr. Aziz, and the question of what did or did not happen between them in the Marabar Caves.

David Lean directed the film version (1984) with a star-studded cast: Judy Davis as Adela Quested, Victor Banerjee as Dr Aziz; Peggy Ashcroft, Alec Guinness, and Nigel Havers, Art Malik and Saeed Jaffrey among them.

Maurice was substantially completed in 1914 but not published until after his death in 1971 because its subject was a love affair between men. Forster was quite private about being gay, which was perhaps not surprising given that homosexuality was illegal until 1967 and he died three years later.

Maurice was also adapted as a film (1987) by the Merchant Ivory team, starring James Wilby in the title role, Hugh Grant and Rupert Graves, supported by Denholm Elliott, Simon Callow, Billie Whitelaw and Ben Kingsley.

Forster was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 16 separate years but never won it. Interviewed by the BBC on his eightieth birthday, he said:

“I have not written as much as I’d like to … I write for two reasons; partly to make money and partly to win the respect of the people whom I respect … I had better add that I am quite sure that I am not a great novelist.”

Be that as it may, three of his novels made it into the Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best Novels: A Passage to India (no.25); Howard’s End (no.38); A Room with a View (no. 79).

Images above: TE Lawrence (1931) by Howard Coster; Lytton Stracey & Virginia Woolf (1923) by Lady Ottoline Morrell; Thomas Hardy (1923) by Reginald Grenville Eves, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery


He lived such a long life and was successful so young, his correspondence with poet Siegfried Sassoon over 40 years reads like a who’s who of twentieth century literature.

He was friendly with Thomas Hardy, and TE Lawrence in the 1920s. Hardy was much older than Forster but lived to the ripe old age of 88, dying in 1928. Lawrence was nine years younger than him but died at the tragically early age of 47, killed in a motorcycle accident in 1935.

He met and disagreed with Henry James, but was a lifelong friend of WH Auden.

Writers Leonard Woolf (husband of Virginia) and Lytton Strachey (founder of the Bloomsbury Group and author of Eminent Victorians), philosopher Bertrand Russell and economist John Maynard Keynes were his contemporaries at Cambridge, all members of the exclusive Apostles Club, which debated philosophical and moral questions.

He socialised with the Bloomsbury Group members but wasn’t considered one of the group. It seems he and Virginia Woolf didn’t exactly like each other but each was respectful of the other’s achievements. He had a similar rivalry with DH Lawrence, whom he met first in 1915. They weren’t friends exactly but when Lawrence died in 1930 Forster published a tribute to ‘the greatest imaginative novelist of his generation’.

Others who might have popped in to his flat in Chiswick were J. R. Ackerley, a writer and literary editor of The Listener, the psychologist W. J. H. Sprott, (also a member of the Bloomsbury Group, romantically involved with Keynes) and the composer Benjamin Britten.

HG Wells was one of the National Council of Civil Liberties’ vice presidents in the 1930s, when Forster was president. Other writers in his circle also included Christopher Isherwood, Belfast-based novelist Forrest Reid and William Golding.

Image above: EM Forster (June 1938) by Howard Coster, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Forster on friendship

He once said: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country”.

Find out more about the cultural history of Chiswick

EM Forster’s flat is one of 21 sites of literary interest on the Trail of Books & Writers, produced by Torin Douglas, Director of the Chiswick Book Festival. There is also a Chiswick Timeline Art Trail created by Karen Liebreich and Sarah Cruz of Abundance London, a trail around the sites of Georgian Chiswick: In Georgian footsteps, produced by the Brentford & Chiswick Local History Society and William Hogarth Trust, and a guide to Chiswick House and Gardens, produced by Chiswick House and Gardens Trust.

Download the trail maps here:

Trail of Books & Writers

Trail of Art & Artists

In Georgian Footsteps

Guide to Chiswick House and Gardens

Mary Lago’s collection of the correspondence of E. M. Forster, over 15,000 letters which she gathered from over the world, is kept at the University of Missouri.

The Chiswick Calendar would like to thank the National Portrait Gallery for their permission to republish portraits of EM Forster and people he knew.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Explore Chiswick’s cultural history online and on foot

See also: Johann Zoffany: eighteenth century high society painter who lived at Strand on the Green

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