Re-orientating E. M. Forster



Texts, Contexts, Receptions

An international conference to be held in Cambridge

Thursday 2 to Saturday 4 April 2020

E. M. Forster died on 7 June 1970. One of the great British writers of the twentieth century, his continuing popularity in the years since his death is reflected in the numerous reprintings of his novels and many adaptations of his work for the cinema and television screen, while his influence on a host of living novelists is palpable and fully acknowledged. In the academic field, his work has become a central reference-point in areas of high contemporary interest, such as postcolonial and queer studies; in particular, the posthumous publication of Maurice in 1971, at a key time in the history of sexuality in the West, ensured his canonization as a pioneer of gay fiction. But how does the Forster that emerges in these various artistic and scholarly productions from 1970 to the present relate to the Forster of the years of literary creation? How far have contemporary receptions of Forster been shaped by our own cultural perspectives, agendas, and anxieties? To what extent and in what regards has E. M. Forster the man become E. M. Forster the myth?

The fiftieth anniversary of Forster’s death in 2020 affords an ideal opportunity for a comprehensive re-evaluation of his place and significance in the literary and wider culture of Britain and beyond. To this end, a major conference will be held in April 2020 in Cambridge, where Forster himself studied as an undergraduate and which was his home for the last twenty-four years of his life. The conference will invite a wide-ranging exploration of all aspects of Forster’s life and work, but the organizers wish in particular to encourage potential speakers to reflect critically on the questions posed above, in the interest of focusing attention on two broad areas of enquiry:

(a) Forster in his context. The recent (re)turn to contextual literary studies makes timely a reconsideration of the contexts of Forster’s formation as a writer and thinker and of the production of his work. In this connection, it may be noted that Cambridge University Press has recently given in-principle approval to a proposal for a new edition of Forster’s novels and short stories, with texts standardly based on the first published edition of the work concerned, and copious annotation explicating historical, literary, artistic, and other references, and features of contemporary life and language that may be unfamiliar to the 21st-century reader. In this spirit, speakers will be invited to consider the importance for Forster of (among other things):

  • social and geographical contexts, both narrower and wider (family and friendships, school, Cambridge, Bloomsbury; Edwardian and Georgian England, the Mediterranean, Alexandria, India);
  • literary influences and affiliations (Classics, the 19th-century realist novel, Pater and Symonds, modernisms);
  • political and cultural thought and change in a shifting world (imperialism and colonialism; liberalism and totalitarianism; war; class, gender, sexuality; music, art, mass culture).

In addition to the novels, which are plainly central to such an investigation, contributions will be invited on all aspects of Forster’s written work, including the short stories, unfinished novels, biographies, literary-critical writings, essays, radio scripts, pageants, and the libretto for Britten’s opera Billy Budd.

(b) Forster’s afterlife. To the above perspective, a close critical examination of the modes, contexts, and manner of the reception of Forster since 1970 will afford a constructive counterpoint. What relationships can be perceived between these receptions and the political, cultural, and intellectual climate(s) in which they were formed? How has the image of Forster in both the popular and the scholarly imagination been fashioned by the artistic uses to which his work has been put and the critical emphases that have been placed on it? To what extent has Forster himself become a sign, or a text which overwrites his own literary creations? Materials that might be thought central here include:

  • the big-screen adaptations of the 1980s and 1990s (Merchant/Ivory and others), as well as those made for television, most recently Hettie MacDonald’s BBC production of Howards End;
  • novels such as Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, and Damon Galgut’s biofiction Arctic Summer;
  • biographies of Forster across the period (Furbank, Beauman, Moffat);
  • influential works of criticism (for instance, Parry on postcolonialism, the Piggford and Martin collection Queer Forster).

Special regard will be paid to international receptions: to how (for example) Forster is read and understood in Italy, Egypt, and the Indian subcontinent, or translated for readers in cultural and linguistic contexts very different from his own.

A productive dialogue is envisaged between these two perspectives. In particular, it is hoped that, together, the work of historical recontextualization (however mediated by our own situatedness, as it must be) and the anatomization of artistic and scholarly receptions since Forster’s death will help to defamiliarize dominant perceptions of the man and his work, expose what has been occluded, and suggest new directions of travel in Forster studies. At the same time, the conference will properly invite consideration of the relevance of Forster’s Weltanschauung (itself inviting exploration and definition) to our own historical moment, perhaps above all posing this question: What, fifty years after his death, has Forster’s concern for ‘connection’ and for civil liberties to say to us in a period when narrow nationalisms and authoritarian ideologies have once again become prominent across the world?

A first call for papers will issue early in 2019. It is anticipated that an edited volume of papers selected from those delivered at the conference will subsequently be prepared for publication with a leading publisher.

The Steering Committee would welcome preliminary expressions of interest in participating in the conference, and will gladly consider all suggestions for making the event the best possible celebration of Forster’s life and work. Above all, we would ask you to make the conference known to colleagues, students, and anyone with a serious interest in Forster, and encourage them to attend.

Steering Committee

Dr Edward Allen, University of Cambridge (
Dr Howard Booth, University of Manchester (
Dr Santanu Das, King’s College London (
Dr Gemma Moss, Birmingham City University (
Dr Amber Regis, University of Sheffield (
Professor David Scourfield, Maynooth University ( (Chair)
Professor David Trotter, University of Cambridge (

With the support of

The Association for Forsterian Research (
The International E. M. Forster Society (

5 May 2018

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