- The Short Narratives of E. M. Forster, and: George Orwell
The cynical Somerset Maugham once declared that to become a grand old man of English letters it was necessary to do two things: live a long life and write, a huge number of books. E. M. Forster lived a long life, but he was hardly one of the most prolific English writers of his time. Asked why he wrote five novels (Maurice had not been published) in twenty years and never wrote another after 1924, Forster, who was both modest and evasive and also something of a jokester, replied that he had forgotten how to write them. But he had not forgotten how to write essays and short stories, criticism and biography, travel books and historical studies. As Judith Scherer Herz says, Forster was always writing. If he was not at work on something else, he was probably making entries in his Commonplace Book.
In The Short Narratives of E. M. Forster, Herz discusses almost all of these forms in a new way. In this study, she says at the start, "story and essay will be regarded less as distinct genres than as aspects of a single process—narrative." Her operations are nothing if not complex. In Forster's "Ferney" she finds personal and political essay, narrative, biography, dialogue. "Ferney" is comic and tragic. It is about Voltaire and also about World War Two. Herz may sound like another Polonius shuffling the "kinds" of literature, but the things she sees in "Ferney" are there, all right, and her discussion of their functions is worth noticing. "Both the essayistic story and the story-like essay" descend, she says, from the nineteenth-century sketch, a form practiced by Cunningham Graham and William Morris and especially by Walter Pater. It is strange that she has so little to say about Samuel Butler, a writer who, by Forster's own account, influenced him considerably.
Among twentieth-century writers with whom Forster has affinities, Herz names Proust and Lytton Strachey. What Forster says about Marcel at the end of Proust's [End Page 702] novel applies also to Forster: he is "the hero, starting out to be an author, rummaging in his own past, disinterring forgotten facts. . . . That instant is the artist's instant; he must simultaneously recollect and create." As to Strachey, the differences between Forster and him would seem to be greater than the resemblances. In much of his writing Strachey is an iconoclast and a wiseacre. Forster was not wont to bow down and burn incense before great public figures, but he would take no pleasure in setting off charges of dynamite under Cardinal Manning and Florence Nightingale.
Herz's prose is not always easy to navigate. But she has shown that Forster is not the lightweight D. H. Lawrence that some critics now consider him to be.
George Orwell is yet another collection of articles derived from papers on Orwell at scholarly meetings. Nine of the twenty-two articles compare him with other writers, and the freshest of these is probably Aaron Noland's "Orwell, Proudhon, and the Moral Order." An authority on Proudhon, Noland observes that in The Poverty of Philosophy (1847) Karl Marx dismissed Proudhon as a bourgeois and a very ignorant fellow to boot, and that in The Marxist Quarterly a hundred years later James Walsh dismissed Orwell on the same grounds. As Noland remarks, in both Orwell's and Proudhon's times political and social writers who saw visions and drew blueprints were widespread. "Systems abound," wrote Proudhon. "Schemes fall like rain." But Proudhon and Orwell found the means to a better future in the moral, ethical, and spiritual principles of the past. The first declared that history must be "interrogated," and the second that the past is never a closed book.
One must admit that the conservatism of both writers was sometimes wrong-headed. On the woman question Proudhon announced bluntly that confinement was...