E.M. Forster’s The Longest Journey (1907)

When I started reading The Longest Journey, I was reading Keith Oatley’s novel, Therefore Choose, which also opens with a scene at Cambridge.

He writes: “If one were to go back a hundred years, the clothing would no doubt be different but the young men would be much the same, the ritual much the same, as if this were a certain thing that people do in a certain society, as if this were the way it should be.”

The Longest Journey does take readers back that hundred years and one can certainly see the similarities between young men of today and Forster’s young men of long ago.

Rickie is treated cruelly by his father (partly because he is lame and that “weakness” reminds his father of his own weakness) and supported by his mother, but ultimately left to grow up alone, struggling to make sense of relationships though having been surrounded by unhappy ones.

“He was never told anything, but he discovered for himself that his father and mother did not love each other, and that his mother was lovable. He discovered that Mr. Elliot had dubbed him Rickie because he was rickety, that he took pleasure in alluding to his son’s deformity, and was sorry that it was not more serious than his own.”

It might just as well be set in today’s times, with our young hero determined to make his own way, despite the damaging experiences of his past and the disadvantages of his present. And yet Forster’s novel is very much of the early twentieth-century, stuffed with class conflicts, rigid sex roles, and philosophical ruminations.

One of the most intriguing relationships in the novel (and you’re introduced to it early so, so this is not a spoiler in any way) is that Rickie shares with Stewart Ansell, who determinedly challenges — and perpetuates — class prejudice. “To be born one thing and grow up another — Ansell had accomplished this without weakening one of the ties that bound him to his home.” And, ironically, it’s Stewart who most notably rebuffs Agnes, who has come to visit Rickie, but has been completely and entirely ignored by the draper’s son.

The Longest Journey is filled with such contradictions and injuries, and it contains more than its share of disappointments and tragedies. Nonetheless, Lionel Trilling considered it “perhaps the most brilliant, the most dramatic, and the most passionate” of Forster’s novels.

It’s also of interest to serious Forster readers for its autobiographical elements (the most obvious being Rickie’s desire to write) and although it took me many months to move beyond the novel’s first 100 pages (which does make this, of Forster’s novels, my Longest Journey through his fiction), I’m pleased to have read it.

What is your favourite Forster novel? Or have you always meant to read one? Have you read this one? Do you dream of a Merchant Ivory production of it?