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  • E. M. Forster in Epistolary Mode:Beginning with the Letters
  • J. H. Stape

The disarmingly casual opening of Howards End—"One may as well begin with Helen's letters"—is a nod towards, and a snook cocked at, the epistolary novel and an immediate and disconcerting plunge into a personal world. If not quite a catchphrase like "Only connect," the words, not surprisingly, have been used to introduce various aspects of Forster. A review of Wendy Moffat's recent biography begins with "One may as well begin with the sex," and a scholarly article on "connecting" takes the same phrase as its opener.1

As it turns out, Forster scholarship has mainly been reluctant to "begin with" the letters or to pay much attention to them at all. They have been predictably raided for biographical details and, on occasion, yielded a telling snippet for a critical or popular essay. But regarding their general "neglect," one may as well note that of the some 15,000 written only a small fraction are readily available, and only lately have correspondent-specific collections amplified the two-volume selected edition of Mary Lago and P. N. Furbank published some twenty years ago.2 The aesthetic interests of Forster's correspondence—the light they shed on his voice (or rather voices), and their complex relationship to his fictional practice—remain to be explored. What is intended here is only a modest gesture in that direction. A secondary purpose is to show how essential the fullest possible context is for appreciating a given letter and its biographical moment.

Henson's Smudge

As Judith Scherer Herz has convincingly argued, Forster's short fiction and nonfiction are inherently cross-generic.3 The nonfiction strays over its ordinary concerns into the territory of the traditionally fictional, and the fictional yearns, in its turn, for means appropriate to documenting observed and felt reality. The origins of this flexibility are assuredly complex, but a similar generic slipperiness occurs in Forster's [End Page 32] earliest known compositions. The chameleon voice, the sharply observant eye, the carefully defined audience, and a sophisticated self-awareness as a writer are all on display. The following letter, reprinted in its entirety for the sake of convenience and fully annotated for the first time, serves to illustrate the variety of issues raised when taking into account Forster's letters, not only as part of his life, but also as a part of his writing life.

To Alice Clara Forster4

Text MS King's College, Cambridge

Kent House [Eastbourne, Kent]
[before 26 November 1890]

Dear Mother,

I will not neglect you again and promise to write twice in the week. I have letters pouring in from every side. One from Gran yesterday which I was very pleased to get, and one from Miss Lo[c]ke King, Miss Eleanor5 of course, with a long account about everything. She is now staying with Aunt Laura. A long description about the animals. Aunt Laura is better. Miss Eleanor has been staying with the Caliphrandses.6 Mr Head saw my arm on Friday and began working it up and down which hurt rather, but not so much as when Miss Wells does it.7 You and Gran will be enraged to hear that Mr Hatch8 has hurt my arm. I was lying in bed this morning waiting for my breakfast and he came in and tried to be funny, pinching me under the bedclothes, and he gave me my book and dropped it to be funny on me and the corners went on my arm. It did hurt but it is all right now. The swelling and bruise have gone down very much. Tell Gran that my arm does not pain much.

Love to Gran and thank her for her letter also to everyone else.

Morgan Excuse dirty smudge at end. It is Henson's9 dirty fingers.

The writer, a boy away at school approaching his twelfth birthday, knowingly performs for his audience, deferring the letter's real subject by gossipy preliminaries about family and friends. These remarks calculatedly aim to please in several ways: they demonstrate the writer performing the social duties to which his...


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