E. M. Forster
by John Attridge


Born in Marylebone, London, in 1879, E. M. Forster had something of a nomadic childhood and adolescence, spending much of his time moving across the south and south-east of England. After his father died when he was just an infant, Forster was raised with family in both London and in Bournemouth, before moving in 1883 to Hertfordshire, to an old farmhouse (“Rooksnest”) that would prove the inspiration for the titular property in perhaps his most famous novel, Howards End (1910). Following a brief spell of being schooled in Eastbourne, in 1893 Forster and his mother moved to Kent, where he attended Tonbridge School as a day-boy; he then went up to King’s College, Cambridge in 1897, before returning to London (after some post-university travelling across Italy) in October 1902.

Only in September 1904, at the age of 25, did Forster finally settle in Surrey – after he and his mother bought a property at 19 Monument Green in Weybridge. Yet the author was already bound to the county and the rolling landscape of the Surrey Hills in various ways. His parents first met when his mother, Clara “Lily” Whichelo, lived as a companion to one of the daughters at (the now demolished) Abinger Hall, in the village of Abinger Hammer. His father (an architect) also designed and built the property of West Hackhurst there, which still survives to this day. Forster would inherit the lease in 1924 – a prospect which ‘repelled and intrigued’ him – and moved into the house with his mother until the latter’s death in 1945. Frequent childhood visits to his Aunt Laura (the original occupant of West Hackhurst) and the Ferrer family at Abinger Hall also saw Forster day-tripping to various local beauty spots, including Newlands Corner, Leith Hill, and Abinger Common. The author also recalls attending a cricket match in Cranleigh, hosted by Lord Alverstone, at some point in the mid-1890s.

abinger common

At Cambridge Forster became acquainted with the writer and poet Robert Trevelyan, who moved to the village of Holmbury St. Mary with his wife in 1905. Most critics agree that it was this area that formed the basis of the fictional village of Summer Street in A Room with a View (1908) – where the ‘woods had opened to leave space for a sloping triangular meadow, [and where] pretty cottages lined it on two sides, and [where] the upper and third side was occupied by a new stone church, extensively simple, [with] a charming shingled spire’. A small nearby pond (on the path to Holmbury Hill) likely inspired the famous ‘Sacred Lake’ bathing scene from the novel as well.

Forster’s official biographer, P. N. Furbank, insisted that after moving to Surrey, the young graduate ‘felt imprisoned among its genteel comedies and atrocities’ – a likely reference to Forster’s personal struggles with his own homosexuality – but the author’s continuous interest in the area and active engagement with local public affairs betrays a more complicated, intimate relationship with the county he could finally call his home. In 1924, for instance, after the huge commercial success of A Passage to India, Forster used the profits from sales of his novel to acquire the freehold on his first piece of land, Piney Copse – a four-acre woodland not far from the village of Shere which was at risk of potential destruction. Forster would go on to explore the psychological effects of owning this land in the essay ‘My Wood’ (1926), and donated the copse to the National Trust upon his death.

Although he retained a flat in London after the move to Weybridge, Forster’s attachment to Surrey remained evident into the 1930s. He co-wrote the pageant-plays Abinger Pageant (1934) and England’s Pleasant Land (1938) with fellow Surrey resident and composer Ralph Vaughan Williams; both plays protested the devastation of the English countryside and were performed by local residents. The first was performed in the grounds of Abinger Old Rectory, and the proceeds were donated to the nearby St. James Church – where today you can visit the graves of Forster’s mother and Aunt Laura. The second was written specifically for the Leith Hill and Dorking Preservation Society (today simply known as the Dorking Society).

Forster’s first collection of essays was published with the similar title Abinger Harvest (1936), and he also served on the Dorking Refugee Committee during the Second World War. While multiple places proved to have a profound impact on E. M. Forster (including the Figsbury Rings in Wiltshire, Cambridge, and various spots across Italy, Greece and India), this prolonged and recurring commitment to embed himself in Surrey life – not to mention his nostalgic recollections of childhood memories of the region – position the county as a site of lasting import to an author who always wrestled with the notion of “home”.

Further Reading: Furbank, P. N. E. M. Forster: A Life. London: Oxford University Press, 1978.

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