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E. M. Forster: The Longest Journey

Forster’s second novel is probably the work of his that has caused the most varied criticism. Some have seen it as a story of idealism versus materialism, while others have seen it as staid convention versus the forces of the earth. Some have said it is one of his most successful works, others his least successful. As is often the case all these views contain a kernel of truth.

The story concerns Rickie Elliot. Rickie is a naïve, simple man, not unlike Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. His parents were not happy together. His father was a bully while his mother loved her son but was not over-affectionate. The couple briefly split up and, while they did, Mrs. Elliot went off with an earthy son of the soil and had a brief affair, before the son of the soil showed that he was not a son of the sea and drowned, leaving Mrs. Elliot pregnant, though these latter details we do not learn till later. Mr. and Mrs. Elliot got back together, particularly after Mr. Elliot’s illness. When Mr. Elliot died, Mrs. Elliot planned to take Rickie out of the tough boarding school to which his father had sent him and where he was bullied and to the country, near to his half-brother (of whose existence he was completely unaware). Sadly she died eleven days after her husband. Rickie was left enough money to live on and drifted around various distant relatives, till he went to Cambridge, where this novel starts. The novel starts with the famous scene where three students are discussing the existence or non-existence of a cow if one cannot see it. They are interrupted by the arrival of Agnes and Herbert Pembroke, brother and sister and relatives of Rickie. Agnes is engaged to an athlete, Gerald, who soon dies while playing football. Two years later, Agnes returns to Cambridge and Rickie falls in love with her. In Forster’s view – and this is a key component of this novel – Rickie’s life is henceforth ruined. Instead of enjoying his life, his (male) friends and his varied interests, he is now under the sway of a woman. Because he is not rich enough to support a wife, he must endure a long engagement, while he makes his way as a writer.

Herbert Pembroke teaches at a minor public school. He is appointed a housemaster but only provisionally, as he has no wife. His proposal to a widow is firmly rejected. He then gets the idea that his sister can fill this role if Rickie comes to the school as a teacher, thereby enabling the couple to get married. This duly happens but Rickie’s career seems over and his life seems to be effectively ended. Things go from bad to worse when Agnes has a baby that dies soon after birth. Meanwhile, Rickie has found out that he has a half-brother, called Stephen Wonham, who lives with his aunt, though Stephen, an earthy, outspoken man like his father, does not know of this secret. The relationship between the two – the strong earthy man and the weak intellectual – is followed, till it all ends in tragedy. However, as Forster seems to make clear, Rickie has already been condemned to death long before his physical death and Forster leaves little doubt that it is the women to blame.

At times the novel rambles and seems to lose track. Loose ends drift. But Rickie and Stephen are interesting and, of course, opposite, with the various women behind them playing their own roles. Some of it depends on whether you believe the cow exists or not and some of it on whether you favour the strong son of the earth or the innocent intellectual.

Publishing history

First published 1907 by W. Blackwood