As the second of a new four-part adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End airs on the BBC on Sunday evening, Helen O’Neill, Archive, Heritage & Development Librarian considers E.M. Forster’s long association and lasting legacy to the London Library.
The works of E.M. Forster are part of our shared cultural heritage. When I re-read A Room With a View, Howards End or Maurice I see the Merchant Ivory films of the 1990s but Forster’s works continue to surface as cultural touchstones, as this new adaptation shows, because they are written on the fault lines of class, gender, sexuality and empire. Less well known than his novels and the Merchant Ivory films is Forster’s long association with The London Library. His connection to the Library lasted an astonishing 66 years and followed the trajectory of his writing life. He joined as a life member in 1904 at the age of 25; became a committee member over 30 years later, serving in the post for thirteen years and then lent the weight of his name to the Library by accepting an honorary position as Vice-President in 1960: a post he held for a decade until his death in 1970.
Forster was a dedicated committee member serving during the height of the London Blitz. He was in attendance at committee meetings directly after the devastation caused by a German bomb, which hit the Library in 1944, decimating five floors of book stacks and destroying 16,500 books. After the blast the committee met hurriedly in a room in the basement of the National Portrait Gallery to take stock and plan for a speedy return to normal service. Forster’s support of the Library never wavered. When the Library found itself in choppy financial waters in 1960 he donated his only manuscript of A Passage to India to a fundraising auction of manuscripts, books and art work held at Christie’s to raise funds for the Library. His manuscript realized £7,500: the highest price at that time, for any manuscript by a living author. Before the auction his voluminous manuscript was busily collated by a member of London Library staff, Oliver Stallybrass. A note to Stallybrass from Forster while he was attempting to collate the manuscript survives and is currently on display in the Library’s Reading Room. It opens with the words “I don’t envy you” and closes with a postscript “P.S. A last search has revealed masses more …”
Forster even paid for two life membership subscriptions as a way of shoring up his support of the Library. The Library turns up casually in his letters and diaries and in 1941 he penned a landmark article on the Library to mark its centenary. First published in The New Statesman and Nation in 1941 it was included in his post-war collection of essays Two Cheers for Democracy a decade later and contains some of the most eloquent writing on the Library’s purpose and character and more broadly on the role of libraries as knowledge repositories. Penned during the London Blitz, Forster’s wartime essay is as relevant and as potent today as it was in 1941. As bombs fell on London, Forster claimed the Library was a promise of sanity, a symbol of civilization which catered “for creatures who are trying to be human.” His essay was more than an endorsement of the Library; it was a reflection on the destructibility of knowledge. “Knowledge” he wrote “will perish if we do not stand up for it and testify. It is never safe, never harvested. It has to be protected.”