Tuesday, 1 February 2011
Penguin no. 1470: The Longest Journey by E.M. Forster
The longest (and dreariest) journey referred to is marriage, or partnership with a single woman. The title is taken from a line of the poem Epipsychidion by Shelley, one of many echoes of Shelley's life that you come across in this book. Shelley's poem was inspired by his extra-marital love for Emilia Vivani, a love which Andre Maurois suggests was for an embodied ideal rather than for the real woman. Love for the ideal rather than the actual leads to the unsuccessful marriage at the centre of this book. And yet it seemed to me that the author was not discussing only this marriage and this woman, but marriage in general. Every marriage in this book leads to disappointment.
The essence of the story is foreshadowed in the first chapter. Ricky sits in his rooms in Cambridge discussing with his fellow students the abstract: the existence of objects. Do they exist only when someone is there is perceive them, or is their existence independent of being perceived? Is the unobserved cow in the field real or not? Ricky reflects on these ideas though he struggles to follow the arguments; his friend Ansell is clever, and much more certain. Nonetheless Ricky is happy; he feels at home. Agnes arrives unexpectedly and the discussion is broken up, and Ricky leaves the thing he enjoys to attend to her requirements. In essence, this is the plot of the book which follows. Ricky aspires to be a writer, but in marrying Agnes he falls in with her wishes, gives up everything he believes in, and his spirit slowly dies.
Throughout the book there is an argument in favour of the theoretical and the ideal, and the value of knowledge gained through abstract thought or philosophy, or through reading. But in this book these ideas are appreciated exclusively by a small group of individuals who are male, averse to women, and either weak or unusual. Individuals who are strong and manly are invariably vulgar, and inclined to bully. Women are inferior. And I found this infuriating. It seemed like a problem in sampling, and inevitably self-fulfilling. If the truth is revealed exclusively in books, and these books are written exclusively by men, what else do you expect to find? But this book was originally published in 1907, and these inherent assumptions, which appear to condemn all women and all strong men as insensitive, are not recognised.
It was interesting to read this after having read Ariel, the biography of Shelley. Shelley's problem with marriage, and his reference to it as the longest journey, derives from the concept of undertaking it with one woman, to the exclusion of all others, whereas the author here appears to have a problem not with fidelity, but with marriage itself. Having derived his theme from Shelley, he appears to use Shelley's life as inspiration. There is the tragic death and the posthumous literary success, and elements of the Godwin family's experience: the relative who writes socialist essays but finds it difficult to put the theory into practise, and the price to be paid for defying Society's conventions, which falls not only on the perpetrator, but also on their family and innocent offspring. It is an interesting book, although I thought the ideas were dated and extrapolated from a small experience.