30 JUNE 2001, Page 32

Forsterian values

From Wendy Wilkins Sir: It was good to read Thomas Fleming's defence of E.M. Forster's 'betrayal' essay (loyalty oafs', 9 June). However, I cannot let him get away with two errors in his plot summary of Where Angels Fear to Tread. He has confused Caroline Abbott with Harriet Herriton. It is Harriet who had 'bolted all the cardinal virtues and couldn't digest them', but it is Caroline who watches Gino bathe his child and observes that 'wicked people are capable of love'. And it is not Caroline, but Harriet, who is Lilia's sister-in-law. Secondly, the baby's English stepsister is not 'a rabid Anglican ideologue'. Harriet is the rabid one; the baby's stepsister is a child, Irma, the daughter of Lilia's first marriage, to Charles Herriton.

Perhaps none of this matters, except to Forsterians and pedants. But what does need challenging is Fleming's astonishing assertion that Forster was 'a simple novelist who was not used to reflecting too deeply'. RR, Leavis once called Forster's novels 'spinsterish', but not even Leavisites

(are there any?) would now agree. In the past, Forster might have been thought of as providing nothing more than a passage from the Edwardian era to the Modern, but his work is now considered to be one of the primary sources of the Modernist experiment itself. Forster's work, including his deceptively light comedies of manners, represents a complex negotiation of the conflicts between life and art, between chaos and order, and his metaphysical search for reconciliation. The Italian novels that Fleming cites are precursors of the great celebration of cosmic mess in A Passage to India, surely one of the indispensable novels in English.

Wendy Wilkins

Mosrnan, New South Wales, Australia