Is there ANYTHING worse than a book that is absolutely perfect in every way…until something happens that ruins everything??
That’s what happened to me this week.
I was totally into this week’s book. Totally. The author had me by the heart…until, without warning, he shattered my trust completely.
In the space of just one paragraph, everything about this book changed. Leaving me, dear readers, a blubbering, inconsolable wreck.
Before I begin this week’s review, a word of warning. I’m not going to hold back on any details this week. My review contains some great big whopping spoilers, so, if you ever intend to pick up this book, I’d strongly advise you to skip this week’s Book to the Future and click here instead.
Okay. Anyone still reading? On with the show…
The Longest Journey
by E. M. Forster
Published in 1907
Confused young writers are often advised to “write about what you know”. This is why there are so many books about confused young writers.
More often than not, these characters bear a striking resemblance to the author. Edward Morgan Forster’s The Longest Journey is no exception.
Our main character is Rickie Elliot, an Arts student at Cambridge, who – surprise! – wants to be a writer. Rickie is kind, caring, intelligent and popular. But he has a disability – a club foot – and walks with a limp.
During the University holidays, Rickie goes to stay with his friends, the Pembrokes. Agnes Pembroke is engaged to be married to Gerald, a total oaf. Rickie accidentally walks in on them “embracing” in the garden – and is strangely fascinated. Then, only moments later, in a football game, Gerald is killed (those soccer players! So fragile!) and Agnes is distraught.
Back to Uni goes Rickie, where he continues his studies…and forms a very special bond with his best friend, Stewart Ansell. They laugh. They talk about their relationship. They roll around on the grass…hang on – they’re flirting with each other!
Which is why Rickie’s sudden engagement to Agnes Pembroke comes as quite a surprise. Stewart is not impressed.
The two lovers go to stay with Rickie’s loopy Aunt Emily, who, during the course of her stay, drops the news that Rickie has an illegitimate brother – Stephen, a wild, uneducated young man who lives with Aunt Emily. Much scandal ensues, and the two storm off. Rickie assumes that Stephen is the son of the father he hated, and thus, wants nothing to do with him.
Cut to a few years in the future, and Rickie and Agnes are married. But Agnes didn’t turn out to be quite the darling dreamboat Rickie took her for – she’s conniving and heartless. In order to obtain permission to marry Agnes, Rickie has taken on a teaching position at the family’s school. Rickie’s dream of writing looks to be gone forever.
Also gone is the lovely, gentle Rickie we met at the beginning of the book. Life has twisted Rickie, turning him into an ignorant, bitter man, who is completely unable to stand up to his wife and her brother.
Out of the blue, Stewart re-enters Rickie’s life, and, from him, Rickie learns that his brother isn’t his father’s illegitimate child – he’s his mother’s child. This changes everything, and, despite the fact that Stephen has become an alcoholic, Rickie accepts his brother. Finally, Rickie gathers the courage to leave his wife, and moves out of their house.
At this point, I was practically jumping up and down, cheering Rickie on. Finally, he’s standing up for himself! I knew he could do it!
But then, on page 282, Rickie is suddenly violently killed rescuing his brother, who has fallen down drunk across the train tracks.
Forster devotes only one paragraph to the death of his main character; a paragraph I had to read and re-read while blinking back tears, in order for Rickie’s death to actually sink in. It was so sudden, I was reeling with disbelief.
The final chapter shows the heartless Stephen and Agnes’ brother squabbling over Rickie’s unpublished manuscripts. Since his death, Rickie’s work has been published, and he’s now a famous author. Woot?
The sheer injustice of this ending; the way Forster disposed of Rickie so casually is something I simply can’t excuse. Normally, I’m a sucker for unhappy endings (try finding a happy ending in a Thomas Hardy book) but this was just too tragic for words. Why didn’t Forster feel the need to further explain Rickie’s death? I’m still struggling to come to terms with it…
There’s a whole level of symbolism going on in The Longest Journey – and it’s a facet of the book that was a little lost on me. There are classical references I can’t begin to understand. I admire symbolism – like in Heart of Darkness, for example – but when symbolism and cleverness come at the expense of plot? That’s not a good thing, Mr. Forster.
Rickie spent his entire life following the rules of society rather than the desires of his own heart. He rescued his brother heroically because it was “a man’s duty”. The tragedy of The Longest Journey is that Rickie did what was expected of him. He wanted to write, but was railroaded into a career. He was in love with another man, but followed the more acceptable course of action, and married a woman instead.
There’s a lot of autobiographical stuff going on in The Longest Journey. E. M. Forster was gay. He always maintained that The Longest Journey, despite being the least-known of his books, was his favourite of them all – perhaps this is because it was the closest he could get in his own lifetime to writing about his own sexuality?
Rickie describes himself as “crooked”, due to his dodgy foot. These days, we refer to heterosexual people as “straight”. Rickie’s disability symbolises what Forster couldn’t write about in 1907 – his own homosexuality. Early on in the book, Rickie happily accepts that his condition means that he will never marry, or have a child. But he eventually does both – his marriage is a failure, and his frail, crippled daughter lives only a few days. Thus, Rickie has to accept that, after his death, there will be no child to pass on his legacy.
Stephen, at the book’s ending, is married with a daughter of his own – which further compounds the book’s impact. Why is it that Stephen, the least likable of the two brothers, is allowed to live on?
However, Rickie is allowed a kind of immortality. His books, published after his death, are finally being appreciated. It’s just unfortunate this couldn’t have happened while Rickie was alive.
For the most part, I enjoyed The Longest Journey, I honestly did. The writing is brilliant, especially when Forster describes nature. The part where Rickie and Agnes disappear into a lovely, green dell…and emerge as an engaged couple – that’s one of the most perfect passages I’ve ever read. I was tempted to type it out in full for this review, to show you what makes this book so special, but you’ll just have to read it for yourself. Trust me, it’s worthwhile.
But, unfortunately, whenever I think of The Longest Journey, it’s the injustice of the ending I’m going to remember the most. Maybe, in time, I’ll get over it. I’d have given this book my top rating – if only Rickie’s death hadn’t been written in such a careless, offhand manner. That’s seriously not cool.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should I read it?
Yes. Just stop reading at page 281, and make up your own ending to the story. There are many brilliant moments before that, but the needless death of the main character could have been written in a manner that’s not quite so jarring…
In a word: Heartbreaking.