The Importance of Being Decent

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In January 1939, as Europe was convulsing to the rhythms of what George Orwell would call ‘the tom-tom beat of a latter-day tribalism’, W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood and E. M. Forster were gathered at Waterloo Station. It was a solemn occasion. Auden and Isherwood were about to leave the country of their birth for the United States, where, several months later, Auden would compose ‘September 1, 1939’, the ominous poem in which he would look back on ‘the low dishonest decade’ he had just lived through, and tremble at the one to come. Auden and Isherwood attracted much criticism for their decision to leave England at so crucial an hour, yet Forster refused to abandon his friends. As he bade them farewell at Waterloo, he told them that it was now their duty to ‘keep away’ and ‘see us sink from a distance’. It would be his duty, he continued, ‘to face a world which is tragic without becoming tragic myself ’.

When Forster spoke those words he was in his sixties. He had published no fiction for over a decade, partly because of his ‘weariness of the only subject that I both can and may treat – the love of men for women & vice versa’. What he had wanted to publish was the kind of work in which ‘two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows’, yet he did not feel able to risk the obloquy that would have followed. He did, however, continue to write on that theme in private. There were numerous short stories, there was the novel Maurice, published posthumously in 1971, and dedicated ‘to a happier year’. And there were great swathes of criticism, essays and broadcasts. The first collection of these had been published in 1936 under the title Abinger Harvest; the second would not appear until 1951. Yet at the moment Forster stood in solidarity with his friends on that January day at Waterloo, he was already at work on the pieces of which the volume would be composed,

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About the contributor

Matthew Adams is a recovering academic and a freelance writer. He is working on his first novel.

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