Whenever E.M. Forster is discussed, the phrase “only connect” is sure to come up sooner or later. The epigraph to Howards End, the book he described with typical modesty as “my best novel and approaching a good novel,” seems to capture the leading idea of all his work—the moral importance of connection between individuals, across the barriers of race, class, and nation. What is not as frequently remembered is that, when Forster uses the phrase in Howards End, he is not actually talking about this kind of social connection, but about something more elusive and private—the difficulty of connecting our ordinary, conventional personalities with our transgressive erotic desires.
“Only connect” makes its entrance shortly after Margaret Schlegel, the novel’s liberal intellectual heroine, is first kissed by Henry Wilcox, the conservative businessman whom she has rather surprisingly agreed to marry. Passion has played little part in their relationship, and though they have gotten engaged they have not yet touched. When Wilcox suddenly embraces her, then, Margaret “was startled and nearly screamed,” and though she tries to kiss “with genuine love the lips that were pressed against her own,” she feels afterwards that “on looking back, the incident displeased her. It was so isolated. Nothing in their previous conversation had heralded it, and, worse still, no tenderness had ensued ... he had hurried away as if ashamed.” A few pages later, Margaret’s reflections on this erotic incompetence lead, as often happens in Forster’s fiction, into an authorial homily:
Outwardly [Henry Wilcox] was cheerful, reliable, and brave; but within, all had reverted to chaos, ruled, so far as it was ruled at all, by an incomplete asceticism. Whether as boy, husband, or widower, he had always the sneaking belief that bodily passion is bad.... And it was here that Margaret hoped to help him.
It did not seem so difficult. She need trouble him with no gift of her own. She would only point out the salvation that was latent in his own soul, and in the soul of every man. Only connect! That was her whole sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.
It is not surprising that the specifically erotic dimension of “only connect” has been largely lost for today’s readers. For if there is one thing that separates us from Forster, it is the transformation in Western sexual mores between 1910, when Howards End was published, and 2010. If Forster strikes us as quaint, in a way that his contemporaries Joyce and Woolf do not, it is not simply because of his formal conservatism, but because he shows us, in Frank Kermode’s words, “a world in which what may now seem fairly trivial sexual gestures carry a freight of irreversible significance.” As Kermode goes on to note in his brief but illuminating new study, “two stolen kisses are sufficient to sustain the plot of A Room with a View.” That novel appeared in 1908, just fourteen years before Joyce would show Leopold Bloom masturbating on Sandymount Strand. World War I was clearly the dividing line between these sexual epochs, but even though Forster was not yet forty when the war ended, he published only one novel after it, A Passage to India. His fiction remains tethered to the Edwardian period, the twilight of the sexual ancien régime.
The less explicit Forster is about sex, the more sentimental he becomes, with results that are sometimes quite ludicrous. When Rickie Elliot, in The Longest Journey, stumbles upon Gerald and Agnes, an engaged couple, in an embrace, Forster describes the effect on him in terms borrowed from the overture to Das Rheingold:
It was a fragment of the Tune of tunes. Nobler instruments accepted it, the clarinet protected, the brass encouraged, and it rose to the surface to the whisper of violins. In full unison was Love born, flame of the flame, flushing the dark river beneath him and the virgin snows above. His wings were infinite, his youth eternal; the sun was a jewel on his finger as he passed it in benediction over the world. Creation, no longer monotonous, acclaimed him, in widening melody, in brighter radiances. Was Love a column of fire? Was he a torrent of song? Was he greater than either—the touch of a man on a woman?
Biography may have little to tell us about why a novelist writes well, but it can sometimes be helpful in understanding why a novelist writes badly. So it is not insignificant, in reading such a purple passage, to learn that at the time he wrote it—in his mid-twenties—Forster actually did not know how men and women had sexual intercourse. This is hard to credit, but Forster himself said so. In her new biography of Forster, Wendy Moffat quotes from what he called his “Sex Diary,” now in the library of King’s College, Cambridge, where the novelist reviewed the landmarks in his sexual development from childhood on. He recorded that as a boy he “learnt that there was queer stuff in Bible [sic], and thought that ‘lying together’ meant that a man placed his stomach against a woman’s and that it was a crisis when he warmed her—perhaps that a child was born, but of this I cannot be sure.... Never connected warming operation with my sexual premonitions. This chance guess, that came so near to the truth, never developed and not till I was 30 did I know exactly how male and female joined.”