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A Passage to India ~ A Capsule Book Review

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A Passage to India ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

E. M. Forster’s 1925 novel, A Passage to India, is number 25 on the Modern Library’s list of the hundred greatest fiction books in English of the twentieth century. It is set in Chandrapour, India, in the 1920s, during the English occupation of India. As one might expect, India was eager to be free of English domination and declare its independence, which it eventually did.

Adela Quested is an English lady in her thirties who travels to India with an older woman, a widow named Mrs. Moore. Miss Quested is described as plain and physically unattractive. She is the nervous type, inclined to hysteria. She goes to India with the intention of marrying (maybe not) Mrs. Moore’s son, a British government official named Ronny Heaslop. Ronny is very British, lacking in warmth and spontaneity. He follows all the rules assiduously and is overly concerned with “appearances.” (A union between Adela and Ronny sounds like a recipe for misery.)

In India, Adela and Mrs. Moore meet Cyril Fielding and Dr. Aziz. Cyril Fielding is principal at a government-run English school. He is 45 years old and is cynical about the world, but especially cynical about the English occupation of India; he doesn’t like the way most English people treat the native Indians. Dr. Aziz is a young Moslem doctor (most Indians are Hindu), a widower with three small children. He lives modestly in a rundown bungalow because he sends most of his money home for the care of his children (they live with their grandmother). He and Cyril Fielding are good friends.

Having made the acquaintance of this small group of English people, Dr. Aziz wants to treat them to a picnic at the famous Marabar caves. At great expense, he arranges the food and train transport, and sees to all the details of the outing, including elephant transport from the train to the site of the picnic. After seeing one of the caves, Mrs. Moore becomes tired and decides to rest in the shade while the others see the other caves. That leaves Adela and Dr. Aziz alone in the caves, along with the guide.

A little while later, Adela runs out of the caves, disheveled and hysterical. She claims that Dr. Aziz assaulted and attacked (insulted or violated her) her in the caves, the details of which remain vague (not exactly attempted rape, but something less). This sets the stage for an ugly legal battle between the British and the native Indians, bringing to a boil all the ugly racial tensions that exist between the races. The English naturally believe in Dr. Aziz’s guilt, while his Indian friends all stand beside him and maintain his innocence. Alone among the English, Cyril Fielding believes in Dr. Aziz’s innocence.

A sensational trial follows, during which conflicting testimony is given. The question becomes one, not of guilt or innocence, but of racial allegiance: Who are you going to believe, based, not on the evidence brought out in the trial, but on the race of the two principal parties involved?

A Passage to India is a great classic novel that has stood the test of time. It is still relevant today, not at all dated or stale, nearly a hundred years after its publication. It’s a book I first read many years ago and find it well worth another look. The excellent 1985 movie version directed by David Lean captures the essence and the nuances of the novel.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

A Room With a View ~ A Capsule Book Review

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A Room With a View ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

E. M. Forster’s 1908 novel, A Room With a View, has as its heroine an upper-middle-class English girl named Lucy Honeychurch. Lucy is about twenty-two and is a product of her time. She has hairy armpits, plays the piano (too much Beethoven makes her cross), and is thoroughly conventional. She has a fussy mother and an obstreperous eighteen-year-old brother named Freddy.

Lucy is engaged to a fellow name Cecil Vyse. He is everything you might expect in a prospective match for Lucy: snobby, prissy, conventional, priggish. He has his own idea of the “feminine ideal” and expects Lucy to conform to it. He is constantly “correcting” Lucy to “make her better.” Lucy is all too willing to try to be what Cecil wants her to be. At first.

Lucy’s family, even though they’re not rich, have time and money to travel. When Lucy undertakes a trip to Florence, Italy, she takes as her “companion” and “chaperone” her cousin, Miss Charlotte Bartlett. Charlotte is described as a “nervous old maid.” She is annoyingly self-effacing and proper. When Lucy looks at Charlotte, she sees what she is likely to become herself in twenty or twenty-five years if she isn’t careful.

At their “pension” (small hotel) in Florence, Lucy and Charlotte encounter a problem with their room. They were promised a room with a view of the River Arno, but instead have only a view of a courtyard. Two “gentlemen” staying at the pension, Mr. Emerson and his son George, kindly offer to switch rooms with the two English ladies. Charlotte doesn’t think it’s “proper” to exchange rooms with two strange men, but she agrees in the end for Lucy’s sake.

Lucy doesn’t know what to make of the Emersons. Mr. Emerson is eccentric and seems to not have a full row of buttons; he is rumored to have murdered his wife. George is alarmingly uninterested in propriety or in what people might think of him. When he evinces a romantic interest in Lucy (culminating in a furtive kiss among a profusion of flowers on a hillside), she doesn’t know what to make of it. Her instinct is to run away.

Back in England, Lucy is preparing to marry Cecil Vyse, believing she has put the memory of George Emerson behind her. Wait a minute, though! George and his father are renting a “small villa” in the neighborhood where Lucy lives with her mother and brother. She and George will be neighbors and she’ll be running into him around every corner! Gasp! What’s a girl to do?

George and Freddy, Lucy’s brother, become friends. When Freddy invites George to the Honeychurch home for a round of Sunday tennis, George, cad that he is, steals another kiss from Lucy, this time on the “garden path” when he thinks nobody is looking. Now Lucy is completely thrown off-course! Can she go ahead and marry Cecil Vyse when she has such conflicting (hot and cold) feelings about George?

It seems that spending time in Italy has changed Lucy, made her look at life in a different way. She has “found her soul” and it’s all because of Italy. She is ready to slough off the stultifying convention of her age and upbringing. She is ready to step away from the straight-and-narrow course that has been laid out for her and step into a course of her own choosing.

E. M. Forster’s novels are gem-like, so carefully and precisely written; never pretentious or overly wordy. Every word has its place. There’s none of the extraneous claptrap and tortuously twisted sentences that you might find in the work of writers such as Virginia Woolf or Henry James. If you’ve never ready any books by E. M. Forster, you’re missing out on something good. If, on the other hand, you don’t give a rat’s ass about good writing or good fiction, you’re probably better off to have never heard the name.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Maurice ~ A Capsule Book Review

Maurice ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

E. M. Forster (1879-1970) was one of the best English novelists of the twentieth century. His novels are intelligent and literate, while also being entertaining and broadly appealing. He wrote the novel Maurice in 1913, but, because of its unconventional subject matter, it wasn’t published for decades, not until 1971.

The novel is set during the years before World War I. Maurice Hall is an upper middle-class youth from a conventional family; his father is dead; he has a mother and two sisters. He attends Cambridge University, where he meets and comes to know Clive Durham. These two “boys” (young men) are quite different from each other. Maurice doesn’t mind breaking the rules when it suits him, which eventually gets him “sent down” (expelled) from school. Clive is more mindful of convention.

As was common with English schoolboys living away from home, Maurice and Clive enter into a furtive homosexual relationship. For Maurice, his passion for Clive is all-consuming, all-important, and built to last a lifetime. He comes to care more for Clive than for anything else in the world.

The love affair (to others, it’s a very close friendship) between Maurice and Clive continues after school. Maurice works in the business his father worked in. Clive manages his family’s estate and gives dinner parties. Maurice spends as many evenings a week with Clive (and weekends) as he can manage.

A bad bout of influenza at age twenty-four leaves Clive weak and debilitated, but, more to the point, it leaves him preferring women. He and Maurice are finished as lovers but they can, of course, remain friends. Clive soon lands a woman named Anne, with whom he becomes besotted in a very short time. They soon marry, which is what every young man is supposed to do.

Maurice doesn’t really understand how Clive can suddenly prefer Anne over him, but he takes the news with apparent equanimity. As hurt as he is, he knows, logically, that turning to women is the exact right thing for men of his sort. He consults a medical doctor who instructs him to quit having morbid thoughts. A hypnotist advises him to move to Italy or France, where homosexuality is not recognized as a crime.

Enter Alec Scudder. He is an uncouth country lad, the gamekeeper on Clive’s estate. Even though Maurice and Alec are of separate classes, Alec recognizes in Maurice a fellow traveler. They come together when Maurice is visiting Clive’s estate and soon they are in love. As Maurice says, there is “one chance in a thousand” that he and Alec found each other. The only problem is that Alec is emigrating to the Argentine in about a week. Can Maurice persuade him to remain in England? Any kind of a longtime relationship between the two is by definition going to be fraught with difficulties. Not only are they of different classes, but they are outcasts from the world. (He was despise-ed, he was rejected, and acquainted with grief.)

The novel has a happy ending. How can that be? The happy ending is why the novel wasn’t publishable at the time it was written. Homosexuality was a criminal offense in England. Any novel, regardless of its literary merit, that allows two homosexual men to go on their merry way without destroying themselves or ending up in prison was an outrage against public morals. People wanted to see these people punished. Not happy. Never happy.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Where Angels Fear to Tread ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Where Angels Fear to Tread ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

E. M. Forster (1879-1970) was one of the best and most readable English writers of the twentieth century. His first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread, was published in 1905. It’s a story of a clash of cultures, in this case English and Italian. Stodgy, conventional, keeping-up-appearances, English middle-class morality goes head to head with emotional, hot-blooded Italian effusiveness. The English characters in Where Angels Fear to Tread are all fools who can’t see farther than the ends of their noses. The principal Italian character, Gino, is forgiving, kind and generous. Which would you rather be?

Lilia Herriton is an English widow, thirty-three years old. She lives with and is dominated by her late husband’s narrow-minded family in a small English town. She has a small daughter named Irma, who seems to prefer her grandmother and her aunt over her mother. When Lilia travels to Italy, she is captivated by its romance and beauty. Rebelling against the middle-class English morality to which she has long been captive, she meets, falls in love with, and marries a charming Italian fellow named Gino, ten years younger than she is. He has a handsome face and not much else in the way of prospects. When Lilia, early in her marriage, has a child, a boy, she dies in childbirth. Her first husband’s (the dead husband, if you will recall) family back in England believes they must go to Italy and “rescue” Lilia’s child and bring it back to England to give it a proper (English) upbringing.

Philip and Harriet Herriton, brother and sister of Lilia’s late husband, go to the little town of Monteriano, along with family friend, Caroline Abbott, ostensibly to get Lilia’s baby and bring it back to England. They fail to consider the father’s (Gino’s) feelings in the matter. Harriet is an unpleasant, bossy spinster who believes she can bully and bluff Gino into giving up the baby because it is the “right” thing to do. Philip is also of the same mind as Harriet, but when the trio arrives in Italy, Philip once again falls under Italy’s spell (partly as a result of the opera Lucia di Lammermoor) and is charmed by Gino into believing that he, Gino, is a loving and caring father and the baby is better off remaining where it is.

The Herritons don’t really give a hoot about Gino and Lilia’s baby. They want it only so they can assert their English superiority, keep up appearances, and make a point. They will do anything, including kidnapping, to get what they want. With pig-headed Harriet leading the way, they screw up monumentally, with tragic and unforeseen consequences.

Where Angels Fear to Tread was published when the author was only twenty-six. It is a meticulously written, intelligent English classic, accessible and easy to read, well worth another look. A faithful and memorable movie adaptation of the novel was made in 1991.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp