Abinger Harvest

by Sam Alexander

Abinger Harvest (1936) collects essays, reviews, poetry and a pageant play, written by E.M. Forster between the years 1903-1935. The volume is ordered not chronologically but “by subject,” and Forster groups the selections under five headings: “The Present,” “Books,” “The Past,” “The East,” and “The Abinger Pageant”—the play that gives the volume its title, which has a section to itself (iv).

“The Abinger Pageant”

“The Abinger Pageant” (1934), a pageant play written to aid a church in the Surrey parish in which Forster lived with his mother, gives the book its title and has the final section to itself. In the play, Forster uses Abinger as a space in which to view the phases of English history. Successive episodes represent the period “From Briton to Norman,” the middle ages,” the Elizabethan age, the seventeenth century (“The Days of John Evelyn,” the famous diarist and a local resident), the eighteenth century, and finally the “age of Victoria.”

While Abinger clearly stands in for England in a number of ways in the pageant, Forster stresses that the area is also a bounded world of its own that cannot be treated as entirely representative of the nation. At the outset of the pageant, the narrator (called simply “the Woodman”) reminds the audience of this limitation:

What shall we show you? History? Yes, but the history of a village lost in the woods. Do not expect great deeds and grand people here. Lords and ladies, warriors and priests will pass, but this is not their home, they will pass like the leaves in autumn but the trees remain. (350, italics are Forster’s)

Forster in these lines appears to subordinate character to setting, individual to landscape, in the tradition of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex novels. However, the Homeric simile (“As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity”) actually has the effect of equating the human and non-human elements of country life, representing personal identity as analogous and connected to the natural world.[1] In his emphasis on the local, Forster warns against understanding this organic identity as a national one— as the “English Character” that he calls, in the first essay in Abinger Harvest, “essentially middle-class” (3).

If that first essay, published fourteen years earlier, seeks to understand Englishness through the kind of Arnoldian type that appears throughout Forster’s early novels (“the national figure of England is Mr. Bull with his top hat, his comfortable clothes, his substantial stomach, and his substantial balance in the bank”), the pageant is notable for its refusal to generate any such composite figure (3). It obeys instead the logic of the collection (the genre of the book in which it appears), presenting specific events and characters as much for their local provenance as for their importance to national history.

The collection and listing of details coincides in the pageant with reminders of local autonomy, and while Forster stops short of the full-blown Spenserian (or, in its modernist reincarnation, Joycean) catalogue of trees, “The Abinger Pageant” does include a number of catalogues:

But before we begin, remember that we are only a village, and listen once more to some local names.[…] (A voice recites): Edser, Smallpiece, Longhurst, Overington, Etherington… (357)

Listen for a moment to some of our local names, the names of our fields and woods and roads.[…](Raises his hand; a voice recites as if calling a Roll): The nine acres, the ten acres, the thirteen acres … Shoulder of Mutton Field, Hogs Ham, Hellicon Ham… (352)

As Jed Esty points out, such “conspicuously verbless” passages aim to provide a basis for community without constructing artificial or exclusionary narratives of national identity like those endorsed by the Fascists. In Forster’s pageant, “the nation emerges in mystical and perpetual self-identity based on juxtaposed elements rather than on complex narratives and contradictory histories.”[2]

Collecting “The Past”

Juxtaposition is the organizing principle of Abinger Harvest itself, and while Forster certainly creates meaningful connections between the essays he gathers together (a book has been published on the “art of rearrangement” in this volume),[3] he also shows the collector’s delight in simply presenting, and so preserving, disparate items. One essay, “For the Museum’s Sake” (1920), reflects explicitly on the art of collecting. A review of a memoir by Sir Wallis Budge, former collector for the British Museum, the essay deprecates the petty smuggling undertaken in the nineteenth century as part of a nationalistic competition for artifacts (like the Papyrus of Ani, the Egyptian “Book of the Dead”) that were in fact of little use to the nations that filched them. “After all, what is the use of old objects,” Forster asks: “They breathe their dead words into too dead an ear. … Our age is industrial, and it is also musical, and one or two nice things; but its interest in the past is mainly faked” (294).

One gets the sense that Forster, who names one part of Abinger Harvest “The Past,” is trying to animate the historical fragments that museum collectors have simply counted and locked away in basements. He certainly shows a good deal of interest in “old objects.” “Macolnia Shops,” for example, is a thorough interpretation of an engraved toilet case preserved in the Kirchner Museum in Rome. In one characteristically whimsical passage, Forster uncovers a misleading inscription on the case’s handle that allowed a Roman buyer to pass it off as new when she presented it to her daughter as a gift (171).

Forster’s essays on “The Past” also include a number of short biographical sketches that resemble those in Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians. While the tone in this section at times approaches Stracheyan irony—see especially “Mrs. Hannah More”—Forster also urges sympathy toward his subjects, and issues frequent warnings about the temptation of “snubbing the dead,” judging them by the standards of the present (167).[4] He names one of the early essays in the volume “My Own Centenary,” and he pays particular attention to writers who might be forgotten or judged as failures: “[W]e have no difficulty listening to the message of Gemistus,” he writes, referring to the Greek Neoplatonist whose major religious treatise was deliberately suppressed and remains only in fragments that Forster himself considers mediocre, “if we choose to do so” (187). In the following essay, he warns against viewing the Italian mathematician Girolamo Cardano—whose medical practices he has shown to be fraudulent or at least misguided—as an “oddity”; instead, he recommends Cardano’s autobiography on the basis of its sheer enthusiasm: “To raise up a skeleton, and make it dance, brings indeed little credit to either the skeleton or to us. But those ghosts who are still clothed with passion or thought are profitable companions” (204).

The “little way” of “Books”

Forster’s attitude toward literary authors is similar: certain ones among them should be listened to and understood (made to “dance”) simply for the pleasure they offer. In the short essay that begins the “Books” section of Abinger Harvest, Forster claims that works of literature can “prop” their readers, helping them to endure, for example, the horrors of war. At the same time, he refuses to overstate the power of art and refrains from making any grandiose claims about the heroism of the artist:

[T]his propping quality is only a by-product of another quality in them: their power to give pleasure … They are so lovely in their little way, and they have helped toward that general belief in loveliness which is a part of our outfit against brutality. (75)

Throughout the reviews that follow, the “little way” of art is treated as a means of consolation in an age that seems, as he says in this essay, “so large and so frightening” (74). While he dislikes the later work of T.S. Eliot for its institutionalism, for example, he admires the mild, tea-party protests of J. Alfred Prufrock: “For what, in that world of gigantic horror, was tolerable except the slighter gestures of dissent?” (90).

This embrace of the “slight” in the face of the large, the praise for the miniature over the gigantic, has its roots in Forster’s resistance to colonialism (recall Mr. Schlegel’s admonition in Howards End that “it is the vice of a vulgar mind to be thrilled by bigness”) and it continues to play this role in an early essay in Abinger Harvest entitled “My Wood,” in which Forster jokingly uses himself as an example of the way in which property breeds in its owner a desire for enlargement.[5]

Over the course of the essays collected here, however, this discourse of scale develops into an aesthetic rather than a political philosophy. In an essay collected in Two Cheers for Democracy (1951), Forster will argue that art is valuable “because it has to do with order, and creates little worlds of its own, possessing internal harmony, in the bosom of this disordered planet.”[6] He makes a similar claim for the work of art as a microcosm in Abinger Harvest, as an aside in an essay entitled “The Game of Life”:

There are some curious features about games, moments of piercing reality when an unknown process is suddenly reflected like a star. Upon the simple little universes that have been created by the device of rules and by the convention of a beginning and an end, there sometimes descends an endorsement, as it were, from the actual universe. Similar endorsements descend upon works of art. (58)

Through the analogy of the game, Forster begins to outline a theory of artistic value based on the small-scale regulation of the contingent. This sets up the dialectic of order and chance, the rules and the “moments of piercing reality,” that is a major feature of modernist aesthetics—one that structures, in particular, the novels and criticism of Virginia Woolf. In his own study of Woolf’s early novels, my favorite of the essays in the “Books” section, Forster emphasizes the difficulty of mediating this dialectic, of building “permanent roads of love and hate” between characters while still capturing the disparate impressions (“life; London; this moment in June”) that make up their lives.[7]


  1. ↑ The “leaves” simile (which Forster applies to the Romans on the next page), appears in Virgil’s Aeneid and Milton’s Paradise Lost, but has its origin in The Iliad: “As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity. The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning. So one generation of men will grow while another dies” (6.146-49).
  2. ↑ Esty, A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England (Princeton UP, 2004), p. 82.
  3. ↑ David I. Joseph, The Art of Rearrangement: E.M. Forster’s Abinger Harvest (New Haven: Yale UP, 1964).
  4. ↑ For a comparison of Forster and Strachey, see Q.D. Leavis, “Mr. E.M. Forster,” in A Selection from Scrutiny, ed. F.R. Leavis (Cambridge UP Archive, 1968), pp. 134-140.
  5. ↑ Howards End, ed. Paul B. Armstrong (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), p. 23.
  6. ↑ Two Cheers for Democracy (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951) p. 59.
  7. ↑ I quote from Forster, not from the novel. It should be noted that Forster makes an error in transcription: the original reads, “life; London; this moment *of* June” (Harcourt, 1981, p. 4, emphasis added).