Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Penguin no. 1470: The Longest Journey
by E.M. Forster

"People asked, 'Why did her husband leave her?' and the answer came, 'Oh, nothing particular; he only couldn't stand her; she lied and taught him to lie; she kept him from the work that suited him, from his friends, from his brother - in a word, she tried to run him, which a man won't pardon.'... But irony is a subtle teacher, and she was not the woman to learn from such lessons as these. Her suffering was more direct. Three men had wronged her; therefore she hated them, and, if she could, would do them harm."

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.


  1. I remember reading 'The Longest Journey' while studying 'Howards End' and 'Where Angel's Fear To Tread' and being surprised that it was by the same writer, although I suppose it does reflect the frustration that Forster apparently felt as a homosexual in that period. What i don't remember is being as bothered by it as you clearly are. I must find time to read it again and see how it takes me now.

  2. I also read this when I was younger and didn’t see it in the same light then. And it is very likely that my problem with this story is personal, and it may not affect someone else in the same way. Of course, it’s a book of its time; the idea that women would be considered as incapable of participating equally in philosophy or abstract reasoning is to be expected. I’m halfway through a PhD in Mathematics and Statistics, and forcing myself to think in the abstract goes with the territory. I’m probably fairly sensitive to suggestions (even from the past) that women aren’t as capable as men.

  3. I never read Forster without feeling like he's looking clearly into the human soul. His female characters here are unpleasant women, but fully recognisable to me as another woman. They're ñot as rounded as Margaret Schlegel, but they're believable. For some reason, this novel moved me more than his others, although I enjoyed reading the others more. What a great writer! Loved him forty years ago and stiĺl do.



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