Ann Kennedy Smith writes:
“A low line of hills, black at first, then starred with a lighthouse, and whitening snow clad under the dawn. We are steaming up Belfast Lough. I go on deck, and am surprised at the beauty of the approach; there could not be a worthier entrance into Ireland.”
So wrote the English writer EM Forster, aged thirty-three, in his journal on February 3rd, 1912. He had taken the overnight steamer from Liverpool to Belfast to see his friend Hugh Meredith, recently appointed professor of economics at Queen’s University. The previous year had not been a particularly happy one for Forster. His novel Howards End had been published to a fanfare of praise in 1910 and had made him a celebrity, but Forster was not enjoying his success. “I go about saying I like the money,” he told one friend, “but I don’t even like that very much … no, it is all insanity.”
Towards the end of 1911, Forster’s mood was lifted by reading The Bracknels (later revised as Denis Bracknel), a novel by the Belfast writer Forrest Reid. He enjoyed it so much that he wrote a fan letter to Reid and suggested a meeting. Reid was then thirty-seven and from an impoverished upper middle class Presbyterian background. After leaving school he had taken up an apprenticeship at a Belfast tea importers while writing his first stories and a novel, The Kingdom of Twilight (1904). He was delighted when Henry James wrote to him to praise it, and Reid asked if he could dedicate his next novel to him. The American writer was happy to agree, but when The Garden God was published in 1905 James was horrified by the book’s homoerotic overtones. He wrote a stern letter to the younger writer and then ceased all contact, much to Reid’s disappointment.
Belfast and the surrounding countryside provided much of Reid’s inspiration, and lyrical descriptions of the Lagan, mixed in with echoes of Greek classic poetry, fill his novels. In 1907 he came into a small legacy and decided to study at Cambridge, but he did not enjoy his time there and after three years returned to Belfast, where he lived at 13 Ormiston Crescent for most of his life. This might explain why, as his biographer Brian Taylor notes, Reid’s work has remained so little known despite being his being dubbed “the Proust of Belfast”.
In 1912 EM Forster sailed into that city at a moment of high drama in Irish and British history, with much talk of secession and civil war over the prospect of Irish Home Rule. On February 9th, Winston Churchill, the first lord of the admiralty, was due to speak about the new proposals for the bill, which the Ulster Unionists bitterly opposed. The meeting was originally to be held at the Ulster Hall but was moved to the Celtic Road football ground, in a Catholic area. It was rumoured that hostile Protestant workers would arrive en masse armed with ships’ rivets and wooden clubs, and four thousand troops were brought in by the city authorities to keep order. In the end the only trouble came from a vocal group of suffragettes. Forster stayed well away from the football field, but he did go to the Grand Central Hotel to see Churchill making his way through a booing, jostling crowd, looking “very pale, like some underground vegetable”.
On February 13th, the two writers met, and Forster later reported to his mother that Reid was “a nice and very ugly man”. They became firm friends, and Reid dedicated his next novel Following Darkness (1912) to “E.M.F.” Over the next thirty-five years they visited each other regularly and exchanged many letters (in 2008 Queen’s University acquired an archive of 217 of Forster’s unpublished letters to Reid). In 1915 Reid published his acclaimed critical study of WB Yeats, and Forster gathered up the courage to ask his friend to read a new novel he was working on. “It may get published someday, but scarcely in my lifetime or England’s,” Forster told him. Reid was the first person to whom Forster told the name of the new book – Maurice – even though he was fairly certain that the Belfast writer would disapprove of it. Reid disliked practising homosexuals and preferred the idea of an idealised Platonic love between two men, but even so it seems that Maurice met his approval.
Forster’s last letter to Reid was written in August 1946, when he was feeling disconsolate at the prospect of having to move house again and envious of his friend’s strong roots in his native city. Forster planned another trip to Northern Ireland, but did not know when that would be: “the future answers us uncertainly, does it not, dear F.R.,” he wrote. Reid died four months later, in January 1947, and in his affectionate tribute to him, Forster called him “the most important man in Belfast” though “Belfast knew him not”. The essay was included in Two Cheers for Democracy in 1952, the year that Forster travelled to Belfast once more to attend Reid’s memorial service and put up a plaque dedicated to the Northern Irish writer at 13 Ormiston Crescent.
Epilogue: John McGahern was a more recent champion of Forrest Reid’s novels. In 1977 he published an essay on his favourite, Brian Westby (1934), in which he compared its “beautiful, rhythmical prose” to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Henry James’s Washington Square. Although he was aware of the novel’s flaws, including a highly improbable plot, after his own novel The Dark (1965) was banned by the Irish state censor for obscenity McGahern spent ten years trying to get a new edition of Brian Westby published. He failed, but recently most of Forrest Reid’s novels have been reissued in fine new editions by an American publishing house, Valencourt Press, who specialise in rediscovering rare out-of-print fiction, “in particular gay titles and gothic and horror novels”.
Sources: The Journals and Diaries of E.M. Forster, edited by Philip Gardner (Pickering & Chatto, 3 vols, 2011); PN Furbank, E.M. Forster: A Life (OUP, 1979); Brian Taylor, The Green Avenue: The Life and Writings of Forrest Reid, 1875-1947 (CUP, 1980); Queen’s University MS44/1/22 Forster Correspondence; John McGahern, Love of the World: Essays (Faber, 2009); Forrest Reid, Brian Westby (Valencourt, 2013)