Novelists or Dentists

E M Forster
image credit: By Dora Carrington (1893–1932) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m pleased to welcome a guest writer to my blog today with some insights into the writing of E. M. Forster. Actor, writer and teacher, Michael Murray was born in Stepney, East London. He trained for the stage at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Under his Equity name, Michael worked for many years as an actor and voice-over artist. His career also encompassed teaching, writing and directing. Michael is a Drama in Education specialist and holds an advanced qualification in the teaching of drama: the A.D.B. (Ed). He also has an M.A. in Education. Michael now writes full-time. His latest novel, ‘Leefdale’, was published earlier in 2018.
Michael is the author of:
Magnificent Britain 2012
Julia’s Room 2012
Learning Lines? (A Practical Guide for Drama Students and Aspiring Actors) 2014
A Single To Filey (A DCI Tony Forward Novel) (Amazon Bestseller 2015)
Leefdale 2018. Michael is also my other half and I’m delighted he agreed to my posting this fascinating article.

I once had a fractured tooth which became infected and the infection spread to half of my face. Various attempts were made to save the tooth but they failed and it was eventually extracted. Afterwards, instead of healing normally the site of the extraction developed an agonizing condition known as “dry socket” which painfully protracted the healing process for several weeks.

When the pain of my infected tooth was at its most intense and I was desperate for it to be extracted, I had the fairly commonplace (and understandable) thought that one dentist was worth more to me than all the novelists who had ever written. Assertions similar to this have often been advanced to confute the value of a literary career in favour of the acquisition of a more practical or “useful” occupation: or, indeed, to repudiate the contribution of the arts in general. “Yes, but when are you going to get a proper job?” and so on. A brief reflection will reveal that the observation made when I was in extremis was fallacious. You only have to substitute other jobs or professions for novelists and you will see that the proposition is ludicrous. My only excuse is that I was in appalling pain, was half delirious and needed a dentist to pull my tooth. No-one else would do.

Appropriately, it was after my tooth had been extracted and I no longer needed the services of a dentist that Literature was able to fulfil its indispensable role in my existence and make its contribution to my recovery. In my period of recuperation I felt the need for something soothing and familiar: the literary equivalent of comfort food. And so, I turned to E M Forster’s Howards End. My paperback copy was decades old and fell to pieces in my hands. I downloaded a new one right away with the immediacy of my Kindle.

How delightful it was to renew my acquaintance with the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes: two families representing the opposing sides of Forster’s sublime dialectic; and also Leonard Bast, autodidact and aspiring bibliophile, who, in his unwitting way, is responsible for so much of the development of the novel’s plot. With perfectly judged symbolism, Leonard dies when a bookcase falls on him and buries him in a pile of books. (Forster’s novels often have a high mortality rate).

I first read Howards End when I was in my early twenties, and, at that time, probably understood half of it. I specifically failed to appreciate the subtle synthesis by which Forster resolves his own dialectic.

In my forties, I read the novel again. I comprehended more but had grown intolerant (one of the great sins in a Forsterian universe). I now felt justified, along with various Marxist critics, in dismissing the Schlegels as no more than champagne socialists and bourgeoise reactionaries who, being uncomfortable with their privilege and wealth, sought to deflect criticism from the proletariat by espousing socialism and “doing good”. After all, none of them really suffered, did they? Forster, I decided, just wanted Capitalism with a human face.

My latest reading of Howards End has occasioned one criticism and provided me with a fascinating discovery. First the criticism, which is that the dialogue between Leonard Bast and Jacky now seems embarrassingly contrived and false. It is as though the author had never met anyone from the Basts’ class and was relying on third hand accounts of what such people would say. The result is that Forster, unusually, appears out of his depth and the relationship between Jacky and Leonard is unconvincing. Part of the difficulty is that Jacky is essentially a “flat” character and yet she has to engage domestically with Leonard who is much more in the round. Another quibble: the past relationship between Jacky and Mr Wilcox also seems too coincidental to be believable even though it is vital for the advancement of the plot.

Now the discovery. In a previous post I described at some length Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory or Theory of Omissions. Well, it now seems to me that Forster pre-dated Hemingway in this respect by a decade. In Howards End, there is an oblique suggestion, through the agency of Mrs Avery, that before Mrs Wilcox had met Mr Wilcox, she had been betrothed to a soldier who had been killed in action. The man, according to Mrs Avery, was a better man than Mr Wilcox. There seems no reason for Forster to allude to this unless he is hinting that perhaps Wilcox’s eldest son is the child of another man, which would certainly add an extra dimension to Mrs Wilcox, whom Mr Wilcox regarded as entirely innocent and virtuous. It would also parallel Helen’s pregnancy by Leonard Bast out of wedlock.

Until this reading of Howards End I had never appreciated how much England and the English countryside is foregrounded in the novel. Sometimes sociologically; sometimes scenically; sometimes mystically. It is always there, like another character, involved in the action yet detached from it; often accompanied by Forster’s dire warning that its survival is under threat from building and modern development.

Above all, however, it is Forster’s literary technique, that I shall take away from my most recent reading of Howards End. For example, the dexterity with which he changes viewpoint within a single scene, so that often within the course of just one or two sentences we are privy to Margaret Schlegel’s consciousness and then we are seamlessly segueing into Helen’s thoughts or those of Mr Wilcox or Leonard Bast. At times we may also find ourselves being addressed by the omniscient narrator, the voice of Forster himself, viewing his characters objectively, or from the perspective of the mystical and the “unseen”: making a synthesis of all humanity and reducing their huge differences (such as exist between the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels) to barely perceptible bumps in the great fabric: reminding us that the world needs Schlegels and Wilcoxes just as much as it needs novelists and dentists.

Thanks for visiting my blog today.

You might also like:

Stuck for a Plot? Try reading Machiavelli

Miniatures with a huge perspective

Get more details of Michael’s books on his Amazon Author Page

or take a look at his latest novel.