In 1952, at the age of 73, the author E.M. Forster moved into a set of rooms in King’s College, Cambridge as an Honorary Fellow, where he enjoyed the life of a feted author with few college duties (see my TLS article here). He was offered a ‘Companion of Honour’ in Queen Elizabeth II’s first New Year’s Honours list. Although previously he had turned down a knighthood, he now decided to accept a ‘CH’, he explained, because he preferred honours that came after his name.
The investiture was held at Buckingham Palace in February 1953, and Forster enjoyed every minute of it. When the young Queen told him what a shame it was that he had not written a book since A Passage to India in 1924, he politely corrected her. His collection of reviews and essays Two Cheers for Democracy had been published to general acclaim in 1951, he told her, and he had recently collaborated with Eric Crozier on the libretto for Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd. (Alan Bennett imagines what the Queen might have thought of their meeting in his charming story, ‘The Uncommon Reader’ published in the London Review of Books here.)
Forster was unexpectedly moved by the occasion. He ‘returned to Cambridge in a glow of loyalty, declaring that if the Queen had been a boy, he would have fallen in love with her’ (Furbank, 289). Meeting the young Queen and thinking about all the royal duties she had inherited made Forster think again about the imaginative importance of tradition. As his biographer and friend P.N. Furbank writes, ‘though he rejected patriotism and had renounced ‘roots in the land’, he believed in tradition.’
Back in his college rooms, sorting through old family letters, Forster thought about his great-aunt Marianne Thornton and her posthumous influence. She had attended the newly crowned George III’s opening of Parliament as a child, something she never forgot, and lived through most of the nineteenth century. It was thanks to her legacy that Forster had been able to study at Cambridge, and later travel to Italy and become a full-time writer.
He decided to write about his great-aunt as a way of honouring her gift to him and exploring the historic links they shared. Marianne Thornton, published in 1956, connects and develops themes familiar from Forster’s fiction, including the loss of a beloved home, forbidden passions and second chances, and the final section is a moving account of his own young life, his only published memoir. It’s likely that, if she had ever managed to find the time to read E.M. Forster’s final book, Queen Elizabeth would have enjoyed it.
Ann Kennedy Smith, September 2022, all rights reserved.
Alan Bennett, ‘The Uncommon Reader’, London Review of Books, 8 March 2007
PN Furbank, EM Forster: A Life, 1978
Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Prayers Before Plenty’, Slightly Foxed, 88, Summer 2018; republished in my blog as ‘Marianne Thornton: EM Forster’s biography-memoir’