restricted access Bloomsbury Aesthetics and the Novels of Forster and Woolf, and: E. M. Forster as Critic (review)
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Reviewed by
David Dowling. Bloomsbury Aesthetics and the Novels of Forster and Woolf. New York: St. Martin's, 1985. 249 pp. $22.50.
Rukun Advani. E. M. Forster as Critic. Dover: Helm, 1984. 256 pp. $29.00.

If David Dowling had restricted his book to Virginia Woolf alone, one would have little quarrel with it. On Jacob's Room Dowling is excellent in pointing out the effects of what might as well be called "word-painting," heavily influenced by Roger Fry. He is interesting also on the effect of Beethoven on the form of The Waves. However, the interpretations of Virginia Woolf's novels are prefaced by a perfunctory chapter on historical aesthetics, not specifically "Bloomsbury" aesthetics, and a reading of Forster's works that is Procrustean in the extreme. In his Introduction Dowling speaks of the importance of painting, and paintings as matters of allusion in fiction, and mentions also the possibility of regarding a fiction as an object of art in itself. What he emphasizes, however, is "the sense that a novel should be appreciated in the same way as a painting is." For Virginia Woolf s novels this leaves him a wide range of appreciative reading-space, with no requirement that aesthetics as such be mentioned at all. To Forster, in contrast, Dowling brings the argument, or interpretation, that Forster always preferred life to art and that whatever beauty of form occurs in his novels, the true focus is on the usual failure of personal relations. On A Passage to India, always a touchstone that measures the optimism or pessimism of Forster's readers, Dowling declares, "Even the possible friendship of narrator and reader is left to wither and die." Surely this depends on the reader, insofar as anything so mysterious [End Page 317] depends on individual effort. Moreover, although there is much to be said about Forster's belief that the substance of art, particularly visual art, is fundamentally more important than its form, Dowling manages to attribute Rickie Elliot's important comment on Turner, in The Longest Journey, to a maligned Agnes and makes no mention of Arctic Summer, in which Forster's hero finds his response to a fresco much affected by his recent meeting with the living embodiment of one of the pictured figures. This very "Bloomsbury" fragment, written in 1911-1912 and published in 1980, would have strengthened Dowling's argument. And with regard to visually appreciative readings, I wonder whether Dowling's account of a bucolic Mrs. Wilcox, with "a wisp of straw in her hair" rather than her hand, is merely a misprint.

Where Dowling is impressionistic and personal, Rukun Advani is thorough and abstract. His Introduction places Forster firmly in the nineteenth-century liberal tradition and carefully specifies the political leanings of the journals in which his essays were published. Advani then divides Forster's philosophy into topics to which single chapters are devoted, among them Forster's view of "The Nature of Man and Human Existence," "Social Order," "Religion," and "Aesthetics." This involves a fair amount of repetition, which Advani acknowledges, and there is also little chronological sense of difference; as Advani shows, Forster repeats himself quite regularly, reiterating his faith in tolerance and love throughout his writing career. Like Dowling, Advani finds A Passage to India pessimistic but gives a more familiar account of Forster's admiration of aesthetic order. One has the impression that Advani, like Dowling, would rather that Forster had preferred "life" to "art," but Advani's more personal comments are usually limited to his often lively footnotes. Ideas of critical theory are restricted to those best known in England during Forster's lifetime, so that any challenge of postmodernist evaluation, perhaps wisely, is absent. Where Advani excels is in the care with which he has read and described Forster's unpublished essays, although he gives little attention to the broadcasts Forster made so faithfully throughout World War Two. Those of the broadcasts available in the Forster Archives at King's College, Cambridge, are listed in Advani's bibliography, but this useful aid hits now been superseded by the beautifully detailed second edition of B. J. Kirkpatrick's Forster bibliography. Both Advani...


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