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A. S. Byatt’s “On the Day that E. M. Forster Died” and the Ambivalence of Connection

Peter D. Mathews
p. 203-220


Dans sa nouvelle “On the Day that E. M. Forster Died”, publiée pour la première fois en 1983 et incluse dans son recueil de 1987 Sugar and Other Stories, A. S. Byatt utilise sa narratrice, Mrs Smith, pour examiner les limites de la célèbre exhortation de Forster “only connect”. Les réserves de Byatt remontent à ses débuts en tant qu’écrivaine, du scepticisme qu’elle exprime à propos des restrictions formelles du roman moderniste dans son introduction de 1991 à The Shadow of the Sun à ses réflexions sur sa lutte de longue date avec les hypothèses de la critique leavisite qui ont d’abord façonné son état d’esprit en tant qu’érudit littéraire. Ce qui est particulièrement gênant pour elle dans cette philosophie, c’est qu’elle impose au lecteur (surtout à la lectrice) un impératif de connexion qui ne laisse aucune liberté de déconnecter, de choisir ou de développer un espace qui lui serait propre. En utilisant la nouvelle de Byatt comme point de départ, cet article examine comment l’écrivaine développe un contraste sans équivoque entre ce qui relève selon elle des impératifs conjonctifs de Forster et D. H. Lawrence, et, d’autre part, de l’espace de liberté et de déconnexion ouvert par George Eliot et Iris Murdoch.

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Antonia Susan Byatt
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1Originally published in 1983, A. S. Byatt’s “On the Day that E. M. Forster Died” is a work of metafiction that typifies her unorthodox approach to narrative fiction. There is no great depth of character on display, for instance, as signalled by the protagonist’s unimaginative name, Mrs Smith, and her hackneyed vocation as a writer, a cliché heightened by the fact that she is a thinly-veiled stand-in for Byatt herself. The story’s plot similarly veers strangely from a lack of action in the first half of the narrative—the narrator dwells at length on Mrs Smith’s literary preferences and how they frame her decision to write a long novel—to a burst of drama in its latter parts. This shift occurs with the introduction of the antagonist Conrad, his role in the story calling to mind Joseph Conrad’s spy novels The Secret Agent (1907) and Under Western Eyes (1911). Conrad draws Mrs Smith into a “plot of deathly music-machines and lethal umbrellas” (Byatt, Sugar 145), threatening to transform her into a political player of global importance. This bizarre turn of events is a calculated choice, with the narrator cautioning the reader that “the plotting and over-plotting” foreshadowed in the opening pages is “stalking Mrs Smith, a terror by noonday” (135). This narrative is thus a kind of “anti-story,” a literary text that pointedly refuses to provide a skilfully drawn plot or well-rounded characters, a work created in defiance of an implicitly prescribed set of aesthetic rules that Byatt sees as restricting her creative freedom as an author, and impeding the reader’s understanding of what fiction ought to be and do.

The Eliot/Lawrence Dichotomy

2To understand the full significance of this seminal text, it is necessary to look past its outward simulation of bad fiction and examine its deeper intentions, which are conveyed through a series of literary signposts. The story’s third sentence, for instance, is a quotation from T. S. Eliot’s “A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry” (1928): “Our art . . . is a substitute for religion and so is our religion” (Byatt, Sugar 129). Eliot is observing here how the narrower cultural contexts of earlier writers like Aristotle, Dryden, and Corneille caused them less anxiety about their beliefs. “As for us,” he notes, referring to the moderns, “we know too much, and are convinced of too little” (44). Mrs Smith, who was “brought up on art about art which saw art also as salvation” (Sugar 129), has followed Eliot’s observation to its logical conclusion by losing her faith completely. “She did not believe that life aspired to the condition of art, or that art could save the world from most of the things that threatened it, endemically or at moments of crisis,” observes Byatt’s narrator (129). Despite her lack of belief, Mrs Smith not only continues to be fascinated by literature, but also writes novels herself, “three brief and elegant black comedies about folly and misunderstanding in sexual relationships” (129).

3Although Mrs Smith’s ideas place her at odds with the early canonical works of literary modernism—James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912), and Marcel Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (1913-27) are singled out as examples—she finds that her greatest struggle is with the “more English and moral, more didactic, D. H. Lawrence” (Sugar 129). This reference is underscored with two consecutive quotes from Lawrence’s non-fiction: “‘The novel is the highest form of human expression yet attained.’ ‘The novel is the one bright book of life’” (129). The first, taken from Lawrence’s essay “The Novel” (1925), sees him arguing that this genre is a “great discovery” because “it is so incapable of the absolute,” thus undermining the novelist’s attempts at didactic morality (237); in the second, from “Why the Novel Matters” (1925), he claims that only the novelist is capable of grasping the wholeness of life in a way that “the saint, the scientist, the philosopher, and the poet, who are all great masters of different bits of man alive” cannot (255). Lawrence is singled out as the most problematic of authors because his ideas open the door to a peculiarly English, moral view of the novel.

4The introductory paragraph of “On the Day that E. M. Forster Died” thus orients the reader by establishing the dual poles of Mrs Smith’s mixed emotions, with the nagging doubt of Eliot about modern art operating alongside the passionate belief of Lawrence. There is no attempt to resolve this antagonism in Mrs Smith’s character—if anything, it is the liminal space between these two tendencies that seems to entice her the most.

Mrs Smith’s own life made no sense to her without art, but she was disinclined to believe in it as a cure, or a duty, or a general necessity. Nor did she see the achievement of the work of art as a paradigm for the struggle for life, or virtue. She had somehow been inoculated with it, in the form of the novel, before she as a moral being had had anything to say to it. It was an addiction. The bright books of life were the shots in the arm, the warm tots of whisky which kept her alive and conscious and lively. Life itself was related in complicated ways to this addiction. She often asked herself, without receiving any satisfactory answer, why she needed it, and why this form of it? (Sugar 129-30)

5Mrs Smith’s appreciation for literature springs from her scepticism about the Lawrencian idea of writing as “a paradigm of life” (Sugar 130), seeing it instead as having an uncertain, ambiguous relationship to her everyday existence. This relative detachment allows her to use art to provide “a temporary coherence to her perception of things,” to help her understand “about things that were not art; society, education, science, death” (130). Literature is removed from its pedestal to take up its rightful place among the heterogeneous practices of life.

6It is only possible to assess the crucial impression of these emerging ideas in “On the Day that E. M. Forster Died” by noting their enduring impact on Byatt’s subsequent writings. The quotation from Eliot, for instance, is cited again in the introduction to Passions of the Mind (1991), with Byatt recounting there how she was inspired by Eliot’s admiration for the metaphysical poets, his “elegant fiction of the undissociated sensibility” (Passions xiv) of an author like John Donne. It was her yearning for an imagined world of “unfallen” (xiv) religion, she relates, that led to her abandoned doctoral project on George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, Edmund Spenser, and John Milton, in which she intended to examine the machinations of religious allegory in seventeenth-century English poetry. Byatt’s grounding in the poetry of this period provides her with a sceptical eye when it comes to the more extravagant claims that Lawrence makes for the modern novel.

7In her essay “The One Bright Book of Life” (2002), Byatt further explains how her views were formed in reaction to the prevailing view during her time at Cambridge that Lawrence was “the great genius of our time,” a position reinforced, in particular, by F. R. Leavis’s D. H. Lawrence: Novelist (1955). “As a student, I resisted his preaching,” recounts Byatt, but “the art—the ambitious shaping of The Rainbow and Women in Love, the ferocious precision of the poems—was exhilarating” (Byatt, “One”). Lawrence’s descent from this hallowed position began in 1970 with the publication of Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics, in which she condemns him, alongside Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and Jean Genet, for advocating a misogynist worldview in their work. For all the obvious limitations of Millet’s critique, Byatt felt it was a necessary corrective at the time “because Lawrence had become a kind of literary-critical Holy Book” (“One”). Byatt’s relationship with Lawrence is thus deeply ambivalent—in her 1991 preface to her first novel whose original title, The Shadow of the Sun, she restored at the time, she professes that he is a writer “whom I cannot escape and cannot love” (xi). Lawrence scholar Jack Stewart similarly observes how, “[c]ompelled by Lawrence’s use of language and symbol, and by the scope of his ontological vision, Byatt conducts a dialectic in her novels between his ideology and diametrically opposing ideas” (50). The profound ambivalence that drives Mrs Smith’s character is very much a reflection of Byatt’s own thoughts and emotions, articulated across a number of her texts.

8Because it was published in 1983, the immediate context for reading “On the Day that E. M. Forster Died” is the early volumes of the Frederica Quartet, which begins with Byatt’s third novel, The Virgin in the Garden (1978). In that book, her ideas about Lawrence are articulated through Frederica’s mixed feelings while reading Women in Love: “‘I love Lawrence and I hate him,’ she tells Alexander Wedderburn, ‘I believe him and I reject him totally, all at the same time all the time’” (Byatt, Virgin 460). Frederica is so influenced by Lawrence that she starts to compare her own family to the Brangwens, thinking that her sister “Steph was Ursula, and then I got really put out because that only left Gudrun, and I don’t want to have to be her” (460). The evaluation of Lawrence continues in Still Life (1985), with Byatt repeating the quotations that are cited in “On the Day that E. M. Forster Died.” Indeed, the opening contrast between Eliot and Lawrence that frames this short story reappears as Frederica is described pondering her ambivalence about her intellectual allegiances at Cambridge: “Frederica found herself in the common and difficult position of disliking the parts of the culture to which she felt she belonged rather more than those to which she felt antagonistic. . . . she was happier with T. S. Eliot’s hierarchical certainties than the Scrutiny utopia where she belonged” (221). That “On the Day that E. M. Forster Died” shares these features in common with Still Life arises from the fact that Byatt was working on both texts at the time. In a 1993 interview with Jean-Louis Chevalier she thus reflects:

I took to writing short stories for the reasons given by the lady in “On the Day that E. M. Forster Died,” and I suddenly realised that there were more and more and more things in the world that I noticed, and that I haven’t got enough life to write already the novels I have thought of, without any more novels. And so I started seeing things in this very condensed clear way, as images, not necessarily to be strung together in a long narrative, but to be thought out from. (Byatt, “Entretien” 26)

9Mrs Smith’s parallel decision in 1970 to write a “long novel” that “acknowledged both the length and shortness of her time” (Sugar 134) is an echo of Byatt’s original decision to embark on the Quartet, while her drive to write shorter fiction that overcomes her at the end of the story reflects what Byatt says in the Chevalier interview.

The Emerging Importance of Forster

10Although the dual influences of Eliot and Lawrence are familiar from the outset of Byatt’s career, the new critical target that she marks out with this story is E. M. Forster. Forster is notably absent from Byatt’s early fiction: there is not a single mention of him in either The Game (1967) or The Virgin in the Garden, for instance. There is a passing comparison of Forster’s style to that of Henry Severell, the domineering, Lawrencian father in The Shadow of the Sun, with the protagonist, Anna, observing that “what he wrote had a power, a savagery, that Forster and Virginia Woolf were unaware of or could not communicate” (279). Beginning with “On the Day that E. M. Forster Died,” Byatt demonstrates an unprecedented concern with Forster that continues in Still Life, and reaches its zenith in Babel Tower (1996), the third instalment in the Frederica Quartet.

11As with Lawrence, the initial point of association with Forster is made by Byatt through an epigram about art, with Mrs Smith recalling the famous line from Howards End (1910): “‘Only connect,’ he had said, ‘the prose and the passion’” (Sugar 135). Mrs Smith then reflects upon the disjunction between this literary injunction and Forster’s decision to turn his back on fiction after the publication of A Passage to India in 1924:

He had been defeated apparently by the attenuation of the world he knew, the deep countryside, life in families in homes, a certain social order. Forster, much more than Lawrence, corresponded to Mrs Smith’s ideal of the English novel. He wrote civilized comedy about the value of the individual and his responsibilities: he was aware of the forces that threatened the individual, unreason, belief in causes, political fervour. He believed in tolerance, in the order of art, in recognizing the complicated energies of the world in which art didn’t matter. (135)

12Although Forster does not inspire quite the same passionate reaction as Lawrence, his presence in Mrs Smith’s imagination is characterised by an equally ambivalent response. The news of the author’s death inspires her, for instance, to write her long novel—“On the day that E. M. Forster died I decided to write a long novel” (136)—which is compared in its significance to the vision of the biblical prophet Isaiah. This newfound freedom to write stems from Mrs Smith’s perception that Forster’s death now makes it impossible for him to judge her work negatively. “Some obligation she had felt, which tugged both ways, to try to do as well as he did, and yet to do differently from him, had been allayed” (136). Mrs Smith thus regards Forster with an admiration that is tempered by the intuition that his worldview, for all its merits, is suffocating her creativity.

13The remainder of the story, beginning with the intrusion of Conrad into Mrs Smith’s life, is an implicit riposte to Forster’s thoughts on how fiction should be written and evaluated. He articulated these ideas in the Clark lectures at Cambridge in 1927, and published them later that year as Aspects of the Novel. One of the key disagreements between Mrs Smith and Conrad in “On the Day that E. M. Forster Died,” for instance, involves a debate about the artist’s relationship to time that echoes one of the most famous lines in Aspects of the Novel: “Time, all the way through, is to be our enemy” (9). Forster asks the reader to imagine the pantheon of English writers in a single, utopian space, detached from the peculiarities of their different historical periods: “We are to visualise the English novelists not as floating down that stream which bears all its sons away unless they are careful, but as seated together in a room, a circular room, a sort of British Museum reading-room—all writing their novels simultaneously” (9). In Byatt’s story, Conrad similarly advocates a vision of art removed from time, arguing that temporality is “an illusion,” and that the theories of Einstein have “destroyed the illusion of linear time,” so that all that remains is “the random, the chaotic” of the present moment (Sugar 142). Mrs Smith, by contrast, draws attention to her “grey hairs, a marked fan of lines in her eye-corners, a neck better covered, a body loosened by childbearing,” pointing out to Conrad that his philosophical ideas do not apply to “biological time” (142). In fact, she argues, “‘because I’m in time,’” she feels an urgency to write and create, “‘to write a long book—about my time, the time I’ve lived and won’t have again’” (142).

14After this theoretical discussion, the story suddenly adopts the tone of a thriller, with Conrad informing Mrs Smith that he is a spy working for British Intelligence. He also reveals that, using his expertise in music, he has developed a machine “‘that disintegrates solid bodies with sound waves’” (144), a lethal weapon he plans to pass on to the Israeli government. When Conrad charges Mrs Smith with safeguarding a set of duplicate plans for this machine, she refuses and leaves, horrified that the beauty of music has been put to such terrible use. From there, she heads to the London Library, “which, at its inception, at the behest of Thomas Carlyle, historian and founder member, stocked the fiction of only one writer, George Eliot, who he believed had so deep an insight into the thought and nature of the times that her work was classified, by him, as philosophy” (145). This bizarre sequence of events contains several subtle allusions to Forster, with Byatt using the character of Mrs Smith to question and examine his ideas about how fiction should work.

15Forster discusses music in the latter parts of Aspects of the Novel, praising Proust, for instance, for his masterful “use of rhythm in literature, and his use of something which is akin by nature to the effect it has to produce—namely a musical phrase” (167). Mrs Smith sees Proust as an important model for her “very long book” (Sugar 132), and so is horrified to see art thus deployed in the destructive service of the state. Her subsequent refusal to be drawn into Conrad’s plan follows the logic of what Julian Barnes calls “that other Forsterian dictum,” taken from Forster’s anti-Nazi essay “What I Believe” (1938): “I hate the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country” (66). Mrs Smith’s retreat to the London Library to weep “for the music” (Sugar 145), meanwhile, takes place in the shadow of the opposing views that Forster and Byatt hold about George Eliot. In Aspects of the Novel, Forster compares two passages, one from Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859), the other from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1879): “Now what is the difference in these passages—a difference that throbs in every phrase?” asks Forster. “It is that the first writer is a preacher, and the second a prophet” (132). For Forster, Eliot is the weaker author because her style comes across as moralistic and didactic in a way that Dostoevsky’s, despite being equally dedicated to his religion, does not. Later in the chapter, Forster argues that, while Lawrence “is a preacher also,” he is “the only prophetic novelist writing today—all the rest are fantasists or preachers: the only living novelist in whom the song predominates, who has the rapt bardic quality, and whom it is idle to criticise” (143). While downgrading Eliot’s work, therefore, Forster simultaneously elevates Lawrence, an assessment of these two authors that is diametrically opposed to Byatt’s.

16The importance of George Eliot to Byatt is complex. In the introduction to On Histories and Stories (2000), for instance, she contends that Eliot is one of the foundations of modern British literature: “[T]he 1950s novelists did nothing that had not already and more profoundly been done by D. H. Lawrence and Arnold Bennett. Who in turn learned from George Eliot, the Brontës and Elizabeth Gaskell” (3). In Passions of the Mind, Byatt conducts her own literary comparison by contrasting Eliot to Laurence Sterne, contending that it is an error to believe that the stylistic playfulness of the latter equates to greater freedom for the reader:

It is Sterne who manipulates, who teases the reader and demands total admiration and assent. Eliot lays out her evidence and conclusions, speaks sometimes as “I,” sometimes to “you” and sometimes as “we.” But despite her passionate morality, her reasonable proceedings leave room for dissent and qualification—indeed, she demonstrates and argues the case for independent thought, in reader as in characters and writer. Eliot, like Leavis, says “This is so, is it not?” and sometimes does not seem to envisage the possibility of real divergence from her vision. (xvi)

17The illusion of liberty offered by experimental writers like Sterne is closer to “the freedom of the judo player, or the magic slate-pencils of my childhood” than “the moral daydreamer who temporarily inhabits the world of Middlemarch, feeling out its spaces and limitations, knowing that daydreaming is indeed daydreaming and is also discovery” (xvi). Byatt thus concludes that this great Victorian novelist, far from being the didactic “preacher” that Forster characterises her to be, is actually a plain speaker who, when she presents the reader with an idea, is looking for a genuine response, complete with the freedom to disagree vehemently, rather than seeking an affirmation of what she already believes.

Degrees of Freedom

18Byatt often discovers such degrees of freedom through her unconventional revaluations of literary figures. In “Racine and the Tablecloth,” for instance, she makes the case for the classical French tragedian by having her protagonist, a young student named Emily Bray, fall unexpectedly in love with Jean Racine’s work. Emily achieves this connection despite the stultifying way this material is presented by her French teacher, who explains the principles of classical drama “as though the Greeks and the French were children who made unnecessary rules for themselves, did not see wider horizons” (Sugar 17). Although its conventions are unfamiliar to her, Emily recognises in Racine’s work “an austere and adult art” that permits her to see “with the pitiless clarity of Racine—and also with Racine’s impersonal sympathy—just how far human beings could go, what they were capable of” (17-18). Emily finds a degree of freedom in the rules of classic drama that are pointedly absent from the school for girls that she attends.

19In “A Lamia in the Cévennes” (1998), similarly, Bernard Lycett-Kean avoids the seductions of a lamia, a mythical half-woman, half-serpent featured in John Keats’s poem “Lamia” (1820). After the lamia departs in the company of his friend Raymond, Bernard rereads Keats’s poem and finds that he vehemently disagrees with the Romantic poet’s dismissal of “cold philosophy” (Elementals 109) in favour of art that is driven by emotion: “By philosophy Keats seems to mean natural science, and personally he, Bernard, would rather have the optical mysteries of waves and particles in the water and light of the rainbow than any old gnome or fay” (109-10). Byatt evaluates Eliot, Racine, and Keats against the grain by emphasizing the degrees of freedom that each author inspires in their readers. Whereas Keats’s rejection of rationality and science feels to Bernard like a repudiation of the rational beauty of the natural order, exemplified by the butterfly he starts to paint at the story’s end, Mrs Smith and Emily Bray find themselves inspired and empowered, in turn, by the fictional structures created by Eliot and Racine, respectively.

20The parameters of this philosophy of freedom are stated early in Byatt’s career, in Degrees of Freedom (1965), her study of Iris Murdoch. Byatt draws in particular from Murdoch’s essay “Against Dryness” (1961), in which the latter criticises the so-called “‘crystalline’ novel of the twentieth century,” in which character is subordinated to a kind of “journalistic story” that is meant to symbolise the human condition (Degrees 9): “It is an ideal, as she sees it, which admires the work of art in so far as it is whole and complete, containing its own terms of reference, not depending upon any resonance outside itself for its statement” (9). The result, for Murdoch, is a shallow, insular depiction of humanity in modern literature “as a ‘lonely, self-contained individual,’ who is seen as the analogue of the literary self-contained symbol” (10). The chief shortcoming of this “dry” literary model is its radical solipsism: since there is nothing meaningful outside the subjective boundaries of the individual’s universe, the values of the outside world are relegated to the realm of bad faith, and the protagonist’s inner journey toward sincerity is elevated above all else.

21In such a mindset, contends Murdoch, the concept of freedom, reduced to the limits of the individual, becomes incapable of reflecting the complexity of human existence. The result of such “dryness” is a mode of fiction that is problematic from both an ethical and an aesthetic point of view. “Against what she calls ‘this facile idea of sincerity,’ Miss Murdoch would put the ‘hard idea of truth’; that is, in her terms, we should see man, as we no longer do, ‘against a background of values, of realities, which transcend him,’” writes Byatt. “The concept of sincerity is ‘self-centred,’ the concept of truth ‘other-centred’” (10). To complement this “other-centred” ethical focus, Murdoch proposes a parallel rethinking of the literary imagination:

The pursuit of sincerity as opposed to truth leads . . . to what she calls fantasy, and it opposes to imagination a process which leads to myth-making, to a dry and facile ordering of experience into false and easily comprehended wholes whilst, as Miss Murdoch insists, “Reality is not a given whole.” . . . We need, she says, “a respect for the contingent,” for imagination as opposed to fantasy, and an essential part of the concept is seen to be an awareness of “the real impenetrable human person.” (10-11)

22Murdoch thus advocates for a revival of the notion of character, one that is “the literary equivalent of the moral idea of the real impenetrable human person” (11). Such characters should inhabit a fictional world “where there are degrees of freedom” due to its complex and unpredictable nature (11).

23Byatt takes particularly seriously the “other-centred” focus of this philosophy, which becomes a key source of the recurrent ambivalence in her work. In Still Life, for instance, Byatt has Frederica reflect on the shifting legacy of Milton, a poet whose reputation has followed a similar trajectory of ups and downs to Lawrence’s. Frederica’s thoughts are shaped by T. S. Eliot’s argument that there is a drastic “dissociation of sensibility that occurred between Shakespeare and Donne, who felt their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose, and Milton, who did not” (Still 345). Sharing her thoughts with her friend Raphael Faber, Frederica expresses doubts about Eliot’s influential reading, observing how Milton “had been cast as the villain in this century, but before that, he was the Master,” and that “people always seemed to go overboard when rejecting someone or something” (345-46). Staying true to this “other-centred” philosophy, Byatt shows herself willing to acknowledge what is valuable in other writers and thinkers, even when they are opposed to her own values in other respects. To do otherwise would be to fall back into the ideal of solipsistic freedom that Murdoch critiques with such urgency: to be “other-centred,” after all, means that there is a larger, collective freedom that is at stake, one that transcends the limits of the individual. That is why Byatt’s feelings toward such problematic antecedents as Milton, Lawrence, and Forster, are marked not by an unthinking, blanket hostility, but by a sense of rational ambivalence.

24In the overall timeline of the Quartet, Still Life deals mainly with Frederica’s time at university, and so Forster, once he has been introduced in “On the Day that E. M. Forster Died,” begins to intrude on the narrative in this context. Frederica’s initial mental images of Cambridge, for instance, are drawn from two sources: first, from the people in her circle she knows went there, including her sister Stephanie and her former lover, Edmund Wilkie, and second, from the pages of novels like Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer (1927) and Forster’s The Longest Journey (1907):

There was the Cambridge of Ansell in The Longest Journey in which thought and cows coexisted in harmony. . . . And there was the Cambridge of Dusty Answer, a place of violent, suppressed, hopeless female passion and carefree golden young men. It is a town thick with words, wrapped in shining folds of words, alive with the history of words, and she never walked past the cows across the Cam from King’s without hearing: “The cow is there. She is there, the cow. Whether I’m in Cambridge or Iceland or dead the cow will be there… It was philosophy. They were discussing the existence of objects.” And in the same way, going through Trinity Great Court, she heard “Trinity Great Court mourned in the sun for its young men.” (Still 135)

25Underlying both these references is Frederica’s expectation that Cambridge is a place where a vigorous life of the mind may be possible, but from which she, as a woman, will most likely be excluded. Such is the experience, after all, of her fictional predecessor in Judith Earle, the protagonist of Dusty Answer: “Farewell to Cambridge, to whom she was less than nothing. She had been deluded into imagining that it bore her some affection. Under its politeness, it had disliked and distrusted her and all other females; and now it ignored her” (Lehmann 321). The university lures and tantalises her into its orbit with promises of deep philosophical discussions, like the humorously trite anecdote about cows at the beginning of The Longest Journey, even as it repeatedly frustrates her intellectual needs.

26Byatt dramatically raises the stakes a few pages later by giving Forster a fictional cameo in her novel. Through some social connections, Frederica is invited to a tea party where the famous writer will be in attendance. Although she is uneasy about meeting Forster, she eventually accepts, with some reservations:

She was afraid it might spoil for her the sentences about the cow, or the opening of Passage to India, both of which she saw as in some way her property, because she had so exactly measured the verbal felicity with which they were put together. . . . She . . . [was] now living furiously in a world the novelist said had changed beyond recognition or discrimination in his fiction. What could she have to say to him? Or he to her? All the same, it would be interesting, if not to meet, to be able to say one had met, Morgan Forster. (Still 145)

27This encounter only reiterates Frederica’s sense at Cambridge of the limited degree of freedom she is afforded. The tea party unfolds in an anachronistic, formal style reminiscent of the vanished days Forster describes in The Longest Journey, but the lingering element from this time that Frederica finds truly alienating is the absence of women: “Frederica could not help remembering how the conversation about the cow had been destroyed by the interruption of the female sex. She drew back against the bookcase” (146). Frederica’s ambivalence toward Forster stems from how her admiration for his work is pitted against her sense that she is alienated from the male-oriented world he inhabits and from which she, despite having her own circle of male friends, is implicitly excluded.

The Freedom to Disconnect

28The culmination of Byatt’s critique of Forster occurs in Babel Tower, in which Byatt articulates her considered response to his shortcomings. Frederica, for instance, contrasts the mindset of her husband, Nigel Reiver, with how Forster imagines Mr Wilcox from Howards End: “He has nothing at all to do with Mr Wilcox,” she observes. “There is something to do with sex, which he is good at, and which Forster perhaps wanted Mr Wilcox to be good at, but couldn’t quite imagine, couldn’t give life to” (Babel 34). Byatt ties Forster’s failure to understand to his famous injunction about the primacy of human connection:

Only connect, she thinks contemptuously, only connect, the prose and the passion, the beast and the monk. It can’t be done and isn’t worth doing, she thinks on a long repetitive whine, she has been here so often before. She thinks of Mr Wilcox in Howards End, thinks of him with hatred, that stuffed man, that painted scarecrow. Margaret Schlegel was a fool in ways Forster had no idea of, because he wasn’t a woman, because he supposed connecting was desirable, because he had no idea what it meant. (33-34)

29Despite Frederica’s superior insight in this example, Byatt stays true to Murdoch’s insistence that fictional characters should ultimately remain opaque to themselves. Much like her impulsive decision to lose her virginity to Wilkie just when Alexander, the longstanding object of her desire, was finally within her grasp, so too her unexpected marriage to Nigel, “a stranger, a dark horse” (3), turns out to be a terrible mistake: what Frederica really wants is obscure even to her rigorous and analytical mind. Frederica eventually flees to London from the violence of her marriage with their son, Leo, where she takes a teaching job to support herself.

30Frederica’s preparation for her classes creates an opportunity for further self-reflection, interweaving her own experiences with love and her critical evaluation of Lawrence and Forster. Frederica has chosen as her texts Howards End and Women in Love, admitting to herself that her decision to marry “was partly a product of the power of these books” (310). “Part of Nigel’s attraction was Forster’s incantation ‘Only connect.’ . . . He had Mr Wilcox’s attraction of otherness, but was not, is not, obtuse” (310). What Forster and Lawrence have in common, Frederica realises, is that they both “so passionately desire connection” (310). As she considers their writings more closely, she notices how this reiterated desire for connection is rooted in an archaic language that not only implies the subordination of women, but also borrows extensively from Christian mysticism:

It is not so simple as supposing that sexual love replaced for the Moderns the mystical experience of the Christian religion. It is more that the narrative of the Novel, in its high days, was built on, out of, and in opposition to the narrative of the one Book, the source of all Books, the Bible. Both Forster and Lawrence use for the joining of lovers the old biblical symbol of God’s covenant between Heaven and Earth, the rainbow, even though Forster’s rainbow is also a simulacrum of the rainbow bridge built by Wagner’s all-too-human deities between earth and Walhalla. Why bring in the stars? Ursula asks. D. H. Lawrence said the novel is the one bright book of Life. In the one bright book you have to have it all, the Word made flesh, the rainbow, the stars, the One. (311)

31Frederica thus puts her finger on the ethical limitations of this imperative to connect, why it seems “so impossible, so far away, so finished, this Oneness, Love, the Novel” (311). The desire for connection may appear to be “other-centred,” but the “finished” quality that Frederica detects, together with the gendered hierarchy required to achieve this “harmony,” reveals that, on the contrary, it is a kind of tyranny in which the world is swallowed up by the ego of the novelist. The mystical unity of such a universe ultimately rests on the kind of narcissistic solipsism that Murdoch and Byatt both denounce in modern literature.

32Frederica formulates a rejoinder to this philosophy of connection by reflecting on “her own separateness, and the power that was possibly inherent in keeping things separate” (358). Her mind casts back to her high school days, when she was studying Racine’s play Phèdre (1677), recalling in particular two lines about Venus, the goddess of love, attacking Phaedra with her claws. These lines were previously cited in The Virgin in the Garden, and they are considered again in Byatt’s story “Arachne” (2000). In the latter text the narrative persona remembers how, in her childhood, she read the part in Racine “where Venus drives her claws and fangs into the woman’s flesh, when the woman dies in a fury of sun and blood and heat and terror with the gods in her veins” (137), a memory that later provided the basis for “Racine and the Tablecloth.”

33Seeing Racine with new eyes, Frederica notices how the two lines connect and separate through the playwright’s skilful use of language: “She remembers, and with it her delight in the balance of the lines, the way they pivot on the caesura and are both separated and joined by the rhyme” (Babel 359). Inspired, Frederica uses her poetic insight to articulate a new ethical idea that she calls “lamination”:

She thinks of Forster and Lawrence, only connect, the mystic Oneness, and her word comes back to her again, more insistently: laminations. Laminations. Keeping things separate. Not linked by metaphor or sex or desire, but separate objects of knowledge, systems of work, or discovery. . . . Laminations. Separation. I was thinking about the Virgin Queen, and the power of her solitude and her separation, the fact that her power and her intelligence were dependent upon her solitude and her separation. (359)

34Frederica puts this idea into practice when she has sex with her new lover, John Ottokar: “You might think, she thinks, as their bodies join, that here are two beings striving to lose themselves in each other, to become one. . . . But we both need to be separate, she thinks” (360). Their sexual union becomes, like Racine’s alexandrine, a dual process of connection and separation. In the aftermath of their lovemaking, therefore, Frederica feels overjoyed by the return to her own self while simultaneously experiencing a deepening passion for John, with his opacity preserved by the ongoing disconnection of his identity from hers: “His face, post coitum, is calm like an Apollonian statue. There is no clue to what is inside his brain-box. I love that, says Frederica’s chatty linguistic self, I love not knowing, I love it that I don’t know him” (360). Frederica continues to develop this idea in A Whistling Woman (2002), the final instalment in the Quartet, by assembling a “book of jottings, cut-ups, commonplaces and scraps of writing” (40) that she titles Laminations.

35The publication of “On the Day that E. M. Forster Died” thus represents a major turning point in Byatt’s critical journey, the text in which Forster first emerges alongside Lawrence as a key figure in the pantheon of her literary antagonists. For Byatt, Lawrence and Forster articulate a philosophy of connection that is problematic because of how, under the guise of cultivating intimacy, it justifies a bullying appropriation of the Other, exemplified in her story by Conrad’s attempt to draw Mrs Smith into his narrative of international espionage. Mrs Smith, by contrast, cultivates a healthy sense of separation, laminating herself from the things in her life that threaten to devour her identity while maintaining a connection to what she loves most—her husband, her children, her work as a writer. It is out of respect for her protagonist’s fierce guardianship of her own opacity, similarly, that Byatt ends the story with Mrs Smith’s future in a state of suspended uncertainty, thus avoiding her narrative becoming “finished” (in Frederica’s terms) or “dry” (in Murdoch’s). Byatt’s characters share a need for intimacy that Forster articulates in the principle of “only connect,” which springs from a genuine human impulse and therefore must be confronted. Her specific ambivalence toward Forster’s principle, expressed initially by Mrs Smith in “On the Day that E. M. Forster Died” and developed further throughout the Frederica Quartet, lies in its ultimate failure to detach itself from the lingering prejudices of gender and religion that drive this desire for unity—its failure, in short, to be an “other-centred” idea of intimacy that invites, rather than obligates, a connection.

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Peter D. Mathews, « A. S. Byatt’s “On the Day that E. M. Forster Died” and the Ambivalence of Connection »Journal of the Short Story in English, 76 | 2021, 203-220.

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Peter D. Mathews, « A. S. Byatt’s “On the Day that E. M. Forster Died” and the Ambivalence of Connection »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 76 | Spring 2021, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2023, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL :

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Peter D. Mathews

Peter D. Mathews is a Professor of English Literature at Hanyang University in Seoul, South Korea. He is also the Director of the Hanyang Australia/New Zealand Studies (HANZS) Center and an honorary Research Fellow at the Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS) in Dublin. His publications include Lacan the Charlatan (2020), English Magic and Imperial Madness (2021), and From Poet to Novelist: The Orphic Journey of John A. Scott (2022).

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