I never was attached to that great sect, Whose doctrine is that each one should select Out of the crowd a mistress or a friend, And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend, To cold oblivion, though it is the code Of modern morals, and the beaten road Which those poor slaves with weary footsteps tread Who travel to their home among the dead By the broad highway of the world, and so With one chained friend, perhaps a jealous foe, The dreariest and the longest journey go.
So wrote Shelley, defending his own fondness for marital infidelity, or at least serial monogamy. It's worth knowing that this is the source of Forster's title - the longest journey in Shelley's poem is life, but one blighted by an unhappy marriage, an important theme of this great, though oddly neglected, novel. I seized upon it after being bowled over by the recent BBC adaptation of Howards End, which I thought was superb. It had left me hungry for more Forster - I've read all his novels, but strangely enough this was the first I encountered. I read it when I was a teenager, and coming back to it I wondered what it was that had so grabbed me about it, because grabbed I certainly had been. This time it was an audiobook, and at first I wasn't sure why I'd liked it so much, but I soon got the hang of it and was very glad I'd chosen it.
This is the story of Rickie Elliot, the only son of an unhappy marriage. His unpleasant, controlling father moved out when Rickie was quite young, and he was brought up by his adored mother until both parents died within a short space of time. Money was not a problem, and Rickie lived with relatives until he was old enough to go to Cambridge. This we actually discover a way into the novel, which starts with Rickie's university days - he's a member of a group of young men who meet to discuss philosophy and morality, things about which he feel quite ambivalent (the group is based on Forster's own membership of the Cambridge Apostles). Rickie is thoughtful and imaginative, and longs to be a writer. He spends a vacation with Herbert and Agnes Pembroke, a brother and sister, childhood friends, and witnesses a moment of intense physical passion between Agnes and her fiancé Gerald. Gerald is killed in an accident and Rickie comforts Agnes, urging her to give in to her grief.
Next time we meet Rickie, he and Agnes are engaged, and they pay a visit to Rickie's aunt, Mrs Failing. Wealthy and rather eccentric, she is bringing up her unruly 19-year-old ward, Stephen. She deliberately throws the young men together and they quarrel, after which she reveals to Rickie that Stephen is his illegitimate half-brother. Agnes is particularly shocked by this, and urges Rickie to have nothing to do with Stephen.
Rickie and Agnes soon marry and move into a school where Herbert is a master. Rickie starts teaching, which he does not particularly enjoy. To survive, he abandons all his previous values and aspirations. His Cambridge friend Ansell cuts him off and refuses to answer his letters. Finally, though, Ansell does visit, coincidentally at the same time as Stephen, who has turned up unannounced, having been disinherited by Mrs Failing, partly on the strength of some damaging information given to her by Agnes. Stephen has discovered that he is Rickie's brother, and expects to be welcomed with open arms, but this is not the case. He is accused of wanting to blackmail them, but when Agnes offers him money he refuses, horrified. Ansell then reveals that Stephen is not the son of Rickie's hated father, as he assumed, but of his beloved mother. Realising his marriage is over, Rickie leaves with Stephen and the two forge a brotherly relationship, before tragedy strikes. The ending, however, is optimistic.
Like Forster's other novels, this one is at heart as critique of middle-class hypocritical values. Sensitive gentle Rickie is for a while sucked into his wife's and brother-in-law's prudish, repressive morality, a process which is painful to read about, but is saved in the end by his relationship with his honest, open brother. Stephen - apparently the character was inspired by a young shepherd Forster met on a country walk - though he likes getting drunk, is fundamentally a good man with a keen appreciation of nature and the natural things of life. I suspect there's a touch of the influence of DH Lawrence in his character, but handled so much more lightly and credibly than DHL would have done, for my money anyway. Though the ending is sad, it manages to be also heartwarming. I'm really glad to have read it. I wish Forster had written more novels - he seems to me to be a really important novelist and observer of the skewed morality and class consciousness of his own day.