'I was brought up as a boy ....... in a district which I still think the loveliest in England'.These were E M Forster’s nostalgic sentiments in 1946, broadcast on radio when participating in the first campaign to save the countryside around his old childhood home from development..
Today the land north of St Nicholas’ Church, known as Forster Country, again faces imminent threat. It is the last remaining farmland within the boundary of Stevenage borough and its preservation was always important to Forster as he felt deeply connected to the area. He was unhappy with the development of new Stevenage, which he felt would ‘fall out of the blue sky like a meteorite upon the ancient and delicate scenery of Hertfordshire’.
For Forster the countryside was a place of regeneration and renewal and the powerful influence of a place upon people was something frequently explored in fiction, never more evocatively than in Howards End, the book often acclaimed as his masterpiece.
A country childhood
The estate lending its name to the book was largely modelled on memories of his beloved childhood home at Rooksnest where he lived aged four to 14.
Edward Morgan Forster – always known as Morgan – had been born in 1879 but after his father died his mother Lily brought her son to live in the country in 1883.
Part 16th-century, Rooksnest, situated to the north of Stevenage, was a small and unpretentious house, without mains water or electricity but its simple, attractive charm was exactly what Forster loved, the quiet life one he’d always prefer. Indeed his attachment to the house was profound: ‘I took it to my heart and hoped...that I would live and die there’.
He would later harshly describe himself as a ‘strange-looking youth, prematurely aged, big blue eyes faded with anxiety, hair impoverished,’ but young Forster was a sweet-looking child with hair in ringlets as an infant.
His life at Rooksnest in many ways mirrored that of his contemporaries, with well-ordered meals, local walks, perhaps a ride out in the pony trap into Stevenage and regular church attendance. The one big difference was that his mother, wary of social indiscretion, did not mix much in the community and so his was a fairly isolated childhood.
For Forster, Rooksnest – now known as Rooks Nest house – was not just his home but a symbol of country values, a connection to a place that seemed under increasing threat from the urbanisation encroaching upon England.
His commitment to the house was unwavering and as an adult expressed the firm opinion that his life would have followed a different course if this rural idyll had not been interrupted. ‘If I had been allowed to stop on there...I should have become a different person, married and fought in the war.’
His homosexuality would provide constant discomfort, the novel Maurice (posthumously published) expressing passion unfulfilled until later life. He’d often feel like an outsider, an authorial position allowing him to scrutinise the foibles of his peers with perspicacity.
His novels examined the way that class was often used as an insurmountable barrier to real connection. Siegfried Sassoon called Forster ‘a man of exceptional distinction,’ but the author himself, with self-deprecation, wrote to a friend in 1905, ‘my equipment is frightfully limited but so good in parts I want to do with it what I can’.
Rooksnest was unique in offering Forster unequivocal nurture. Most of his subsequent suburban homes represented places skilfully fictionalised, the middle class existence inspiring life-long ambivalence for, whilst its limitations were obvious, its comfort and familiarity were necessary spurs to his creativity. His leisurely lifestyle as an adult was as the beneficiary of an inheritance from his father and his great-aunt which effectively offered financial independence.
Howards End, published in 1910 when in Weybridge, would bring great success. His richly drawn characters, their struggles to find spiritual resonance, to maintain meaningful human connection in a de-personalised society, reflect Forster’s concerns, his perspective coloured by an individual’s relation with their environment and with one another. ‘Only connect!...Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted..Live in fragments no longer.’ (Howards End)
In the summer of 1893 Lily decided that they should leave Hertfordshire and move to the newly fashionable suburb of Tonbridge where Forster would spend unhappy years before finding his niche at Cambridge University. For his mother it was just a matter of relocation, but for the teenage Forster it was a traumatic event, one that took him away from the tranquillity he’d so cherished.
Later in life he’d wryly reflect, ‘the more people one knows, the easier it is to replace them…I quite expect to end my life caring most for a place.’ And indeed Rooksnest would always occupy an indelible position in his affection. Today a sculpture inscribed ‘Only Connect’, the famous line from Howards End, marks the entrance to Forster Country, a path leading from St Nicholas’ Church to a panorama of fields and hedges, its preservation clearly of enduring importance.
With thanks to The Friends of Forster Country, Stevenage Museum and Nicola Beauman
First appeared in the magazine Hertfordshire Life see http://hertfordshire.greatbritishlife.co.uk/article/e-m-forster-a-tranquil-hertfordshire-life-23978/