18 February 2011 by Published in: Features Tags:, No comments yet

The young E M Forster spent his formative years in Hertfordshire and it was a county for which he’d hold lifelong affection. As 2010 marks the fortieth anniversary of his death Amanda Hodges looks back at his childhood days.
‘ I was brought up as a boy in a district which I still think the loveliest in England..hedges full of clematis, primroses, bluebells, dog roses and nuts.’ These were E M Forster’s nostalgic sentiments in 1946, broadcast on radio when participating in the first campaign to save the countryside around his old childhood home from development.

Today the land north of St Nicholas Church, known as Forster Country, again faces imminent threat. It is the last remaining farmland within the boundary of Stevenage borough and its preservation was always important to Forster as he felt deeply connected to the area. He was unhappy with the development of new Stevenage, which he felt would potentially ‘fall out of the blue sky like a meteorite upon the ancient and delicate scenery of Hertfordshire’ and spoil its appeal.

For Forster the countryside was a place of regeneration and renewal and the powerful influence of a place upon people was something frequently explored in his novels, never more evocatively than in Howards End, the book often acclaimed as his masterpiece. The estate lending its name to the book was largely modelled on memories of his beloved childhood home at Rooksnest where he spent the formative years of four to fourteen.

Edward Morgan Forster- always known as Morgan- had been born in 1879 but after his father died when he was a small infant his mother Lily, perhaps seeking family independence, brought her son to live in the country in 1883. Part sixteenth-century, Rooksnest, situated slightly to the north of Stevenage, was a small and unpretentious house, without mains water or electricity but its simple, attractive charm was exactly what Forster loved, the quiet life one he would always prefer. Indeed the attachment to the house was profound, ‘I took it to my heart and hoped..that I would live and die there.’

He would later harshly describe himself as a ‘strange-looking youth, tall, prematurely aged, big blue eyes faded with anxiety, hair impoverished’ but the young Forster was a sweet-looking child with hair in ringlets for his first few years. As a boy his life at Rooksnest in many ways mirrored that of many of his contemporaries, with well-ordered meals, walks in the locality, perhaps a ride out in the pony trap into Stevenage and regular church attendance. The one big difference was the fact that his mother, wary of social indiscretion, did not mix much in the community and so his was a fairly isolated childhood.

For him Rooksnest (now known as Rooks Nest house and still standing today) was not just his home but a symbol of country values, a connection to place that seemed under increasing threat from the urbanisation encroaching upon England. His commitment to the house was unwavering and as an adult he expressed the firm if perhaps unsubstantiated opinion that his entire life would have followed a different course if his rural idyll had not been interrupted. ‘If I had been allowed to stop on there..I should have become a different person, married and fought in the war.’ His homosexuality would be a constant of frustration, the novel Maurice (posthumously published) the expression of a passion unfulfilled until later life. He would often feel like an outsider, a position which subsequently allowed him as an author to scrutinise the foibles of his peers with real perspicacity. His novels subtly and perceptively examined the self-delusions of the English middle classes and the way that class was often used as an insurmountable barrier to real connection.

In many ways Rooksnest, like many of the Forster’s subsequent homes, represented exactly the sort of place so skilfully deprecated in his later novels, the solid middle-class existence that gave Forster lifelong ambivalence for, whilst he could perceive its limitations, he knew its comfort and familiarity were necessary spurs to his creativity. His leisurely lifestyle as an adult was as the beneficiary of an inheritance from his father (who’d died young) and his great-aunt which effectively offered financial independence.

Howards End, published in 1910 when the Forsters had moved to Weybridge, would bring great success. Its richly drawn characters and the struggles they face, to find spiritual resonance, to maintain meaningful human connection in an increasingly depersonalised society, reflect Forster’s ’ As Virginia Woolf noted. Forster is a novelist..who sees his people in close contact with their surroundings.’ Poet Siegfried Sassoon called Forster ‘a man of exceptional distinction,’ but the author himself had a keen sense of self-deprecation, writing to a friend in 1905 that ‘my equipment is frightfully limited but so good in parts I want to do with it what I can’.

Only connect! That was the whole of her 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 (Howards End) Rooks Nest was a hamlet with a farm on the Weston Road just outside Stevenage. Since Forster’s childhood, Stevenage has grown to meet the house and has engulfed it. Forster is especially concerned with the dehumanizing effects of a capitalist society that degrades social responsibility and connection to the natural world

‘ The more people one know, the easier it is to replace them. It is one of the curses of London. I quite expect to end my life caring most for a place.‘ And indeed Rooksnest occupied an indelible position in his affection. Today a sculpture inscribed ‘Only Connect’ marks the entrance to Forster Country, a path leading from St Nicholas’church and past the sculpture emerges a panorama of fields, the last remaining farmland within Stevenage borough.

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