E.M. Forster’s Enlightened View
In 1923 a New York Times reviewer assessing E.M. Forster’s Room With a View suggested that all the British author’s novels should make use of that title, since they share “the most tolerant, penetrating, enlightened view possible.” Forster’s novels (and their literary and cinematic descendants) shine a progressive and compassionate beam on clashes of cultures, classes and values—and on the tragedy of a life lived in the shadow cast by the “undeveloped heart.”
John Sparrow (1906–1992), an English academic and warden of Oxford’s All Souls College, wrote that Edward Morgan Forster “deals with the interaction of two types of character, the intersection of two planes of living…the conflict of those who live by convention and those who live by instinct.” On March 7, 1986, American movie audiences met just such a pair of disparate yet seemingly quintessential British characters: an Edwardian pince-nez-wearing priss named Cecil Vyse in A Room With a View (based on Forster’s novel) and the working-class gay punk Johnny in My Beautiful Laundrette.
Both parts were played by a little-known actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, who was fortunate to land such finely drawn roles. Screenwriter Hanif Kureishi outlined a character in Laundrette who hides depths of tolerance and good sense beneath a nearly feral exterior. Forster’s Cecil is undeniably pompous, but the author had compassion even for his fools. Day-Lewis pulls off Forster’s trick and garners sympathy for Cecil when he loses his fiancée and realizes the consequences of his arrogance. The juxtaposition of these wildly different performances, Intelligent Life magazine reported, caused “copy about [Day-Lewis’s] versatility to spew from electric typewriters across the United States.”
E.M. Forster began writing A Passage to India after his first visit to the subcontinent, in 1912, and completed it after another sojourn in 1924, when Indian independence from British colonial rule was gaining ground. Although Forster insisted the story was not about “the incompatibility of East and West,” as one writer averred, it nonetheless examines areas of seeming irreconcilability. In Forster’s India, the locals’ resentment of their conquerors is cloaked in gentility until an unattractive English visitor accuses an Indian doctor of attempted rape. When a British attorney at the resulting trial asserts that “the darker races are physically attracted by the fairer, but not vice versa,” an Indian onlooker interrupts to ask, “Even when the lady is so uglier than the gentleman?”
My Beautiful Laundrette concerns an extended family of Pakistani immigrants and the working-class locals they are outclimbing on the ladder of success. Clashes between the two groups often erupt in violence, and race, class and sex are jumbled in ways Forster’s characters would find incomprehensible. The young “Paki” wheeler and dealer Omar, who opens the titular coin laundry, seems to relish subjugating his white employee, Johnny, as much as he enjoys being his lover.
English-Pakistani writer Hanif Kureishi invented South Asian characters for My Beautiful Laundrette, according to director Stephen Frears, “as funny, outrageous, rich, vivacious and corrupt as the rest of us.” The film’s protagonist, Omar (Gordon Warnecke), goes into the laundry business with his successful but vulgar uncle (Saeed Jaffrey), while his father, Hussein (Roshan Seth), lives in alcoholic squalor in a tenement with a view of commuter trains. A left-leaning journalist in Pakistan who has fallen on hard times in Thatcher’s London, Hussein maintains his sense of intellectual superiority, urging Omar to choose college rather than “underpants cleaning.”
“[Immigrant writers] have something to say,” Frears professed, “whereas many English writers have become more exhausted.” Japanese-born novelist Kazuo Ishiguro bears out Frears’s assertion. Ishiguro wrote The Remains of the Day, he explains, as “a reaction, I think, against a perceived parochialism in British fiction of the generation that preceded mine.” He appropriates a quintessentially English character, the butler, to chronicle the century-long decline of an aristocratic way of life the country no longer supports. Ishiguro’s protagonist, Mr. Stevens, wraps his denial in the snug knowledge that only an Englishman can be a successful butler; others, he maintains, are “incapable of…emotional restraint.”
The problem with a room with a view is that the viewer is inside looking out. The life only half lived is a recurring theme in Forster’s work. In A Room With a View, heroine Lucy Honeychurch plays the piano so spiritedly, she gives an acquaintance hope that “if Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting both for us and for her.” Lucy’s older cousin, “dreadful frozen” Charlotte Bartlett, represents the alternative: a heart closed to “passion and truth.”
Mr. Stevens, the butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, embodies the “benighted” life Forster warned against. He goes on a road trip to make sense of a changing world, but the landscape doesn’t seem to concern him; he approves only of its lack of the “unseemly demonstrativeness” of foreign scenery. The view that does concern Stevens is the backward glance—at a career devoted to a master who was labeled a Nazi appeaser and died in disgrace, and at the rejection of love, a refusal to feel, which Stevens mistakes for dignity. He is, Salman Rushdie writes, “a man destroyed by the ideas upon which he has built his life.”
E.M. Forster was critical of English emotional parsimony, blaming it on the “undeveloped heart,” which he considered “largely responsible for the difficulties of Englishmen abroad.” To people of the East, by contrast, Forster attributed a “kingly munificence and splendour” and a generosity born of the conviction that the resources of the heart are endless. These opposing qualities clash in A Passage to India, bringing about pain and bewilderment on both sides. But Forster’s message goes beyond Britain and India—he meant to convey, he once said, “the difficulty of living in the universe.”
The novel’s ill-fated meeting between a well-meaning Indian doctor and a female English tourist unfolds with heartbreaking inevitability. Once Dr. Aziz impulsively lends his collar button to a British friend, he seals his own fate. The tourist’s fiancé, a magistrate in the fictional British-Indian city, notes the doctor’s poorly attached collar and asserts, “Aziz was exquisitely dressed, from tie-pin to spats, but he had forgotten his back collar-stud, and there you have the Indian all over: inattention to detail; the fundamental slackness that reveals the race.”
American director James Ivory, Indian-born producer Ismail Merchant and German-born writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala have teamed up to produce period dramas based on novels by E.M. Forster and Henry James, among others. Merchant Ivory Productions adapted Forster’s Room With a View (1985), starring Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy Honeychurch, and Howards End (1992), with Bonham Carter and Emma Thompson as the progressive Schlegel sisters and Anthony Hopkins as Thompson’s eventual husband, Henry Wilcox.
In the 1993 Merchant Ivory version of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, Thompson and Hopkins costar again, this time as potential lovers thwarted by the latter’s rigid sense of propriety. The pair are Forsterian in temperament: He has the undeveloped heart, she wants to “only connect” (an imperative Thompson’s Margaret obeys in Howards End). Merchant Ivory also adapted Forster’s Maurice (1987), starring Rupert Graves, Simon Callow and Denholm Elliot, all of whom appeared in A Room With a View. Written in 1913 but published posthumously in 1971, Maurice may be called Forster’s coming-out novel. The title character gradually comes to accept his homosexuality and dares to cross class lines to, as Forster explains in his afterword, “fall in love and remain in it…forever and ever.”
Abraham Lincoln is the subject of two movies released in 2012: Lincoln (directed by Steven Spielberg) and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmambetov). Both films, ironically, have British roots. Vampire Hunter, which travels back in time to turn Honest Abe into a slayer of the undead, is based on the book by Seth Grahame-Smith, the English author who launched the monster mash-up novel craze with his (and Jane Austen’s) Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009). The film was coproduced by Tim Burton, who in a long career of exploring the creepy and the supernatural has often cast his romantic partner, Helena Bonham Carter. Her breakthrough role as Lucy Honeychurch in A Room With a View set her alongside Daniel Day-Lewis, who played the uptight twit Cecil Vyse—a “fatuous nincompoop,” to borrow from the script of Lincoln, of which Day-Lewis is the star. The London-born son of Irish-born poet Cecil Day-Lewis, the younger Day-Lewis adds the 16th president to his career-spanning list of American characters, including Hawkeye from The Last of the Mohicans (1992, Michael Mann), John Proctor from The Crucible (1996, Nicholas Hytner) and Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul Thomas Anderson).