The Classics Reclamation Project is my personal challenge to read and enjoy the classics. Each Wednesday, I post about the classic I’m reading at the moment.
This week I finished up The Hill of Devi by E.M. Forster, which is Forster’s account of his two trips to India during the early years of the twentieth century. First published in 1953, it’s told mainly through letters, which Forster edited and joined with narration into a cohesive account. The text also includes a couple of explanatory essays which complement the correspondence.
Forster’s first trip to India occurred from late 1912 to early 1913, when he was visiting. During the second and longer trip, in 1921, he served as Private Secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas, filling in a six-month gap during which the Maharajah’s usual Secretary was away on sick leave. The letters from which The Hill of Devi is assembled were written mainly to family and friends.
What struck me most as I read The Hill of Devi was how different Forster’s conversational tone was from that of his fiction. Though I’ve enjoyed the novels by Forster I’ve read (Howards End and A Passage to India to date), I’ve never felt swept away by them; it’s always seemed there was a bit of distance imposed by the narration that kept me from falling too deeply into the story. In The Hill of Devi, though, the letters and narrative are Forster’s voice as a man and a tourist of sorts, not as a novelist, and the change is delightful. The prose are wonderfully easy to read, and Forster clearly enjoys his visits, for the most part. He is, at times, even gently funny, turning mundane situations into entertaining anecdotes:
“It was in the midst of [my assistant’s] broken English (here a squirrel runs down the stairs) that I discovered the £1,000 motor batteries. The works of science are his–all the garages, which I inspected yesterday–imagine me inspecting garages! A monkey nearly bit me and rightly–all wells and cisterns, including the Krishna water works–and the “electric men” (here the squirrel runs back; it has gone to the state drawing room to sit inside a piano). I really must stop now.” (p. 88)
Throughout, Forster offers first-hand experiences of state affairs, religious ceremonies, and everyday life. He chronicles his clothing, the cuisine, the climate, and his opinions of the people he meets. It’s clear he’s quite fond of the Maharajah and gets along very well with most people he encounters, and there’s a willingness to go along for the ride that pervades his letters. I can see glimpses of how his time in India must have affected A Passage to India.
Speaking of which, Forster mentions this novel at the end of his 1921 letters. I love his description of how actually visiting the country where the novel is set affected his writing process:
“I began [A Passage to India] before my 1921 visit, and took out the opening chapters with me, with the intention of continuing them. But as soon as they were confronted with the country they purported to describe, they seemed to wilt and go dead and I could do nothing with them. I used to look at them of an evening in my room at Dewas, and felt only distaste and despair. The gap between India remembered and India experienced was too wide. When I got back to England the gap narrowed, and I was able to resume.” (p. 238)
Forster goes on to say that he most likely wouldn’t have finished the novel without Leonard Woolf’s encouragement. (Don’t you love it when literary worlds collide?)
I’m so happy I stumbled on The Hill of Devi. I only came across it because I was perusing the Wikipedia page for A Passage to India, which I read just before The Hill of Devi. I liked reading them back-to-back, as I do feel they provide two sides of one man’s experience, in a way. I ended up liking the nonfiction account a bit better than the novel, I think because of how simply and genuinely it conveyed Forster’s impressions of India. I’m glad I read them both, though!
Now I’d like to ask your help. I want my next classic to be one I can really get into, that I won’t want to put down. Any suggestions? What classics have you loved with your heart even more than your head?