In 1910, the same year that saw the publication of Howards End , Forster wrote The Feminine Note in Literature, his meditation on women and writing. The first version was presented in October to the all-male Cambridge Apostles, a group that then included Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, and Virginia Woolf's future husband Leonard. In December, he revised the essay for a gathering of the Bloomsbury Group. Virginia Woolf (then Virginia Stephen), the art critic Roger Fry, and many others were present at that reading. Forster, at the height of his pre-war fame, chose to present his audiences with questions such as: Is there a distinctive "feminine note" in literature? Do women write differently from men? If so, how can one tell the difference? In his essay Forster thoroughly explores these issues with his characteristic style and wit, and in doing so he makes reference to many well known authors, including Fanny Burney, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Georges Sand, Christina Rossetti, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, and George Meredith. Finally, he puts forward at least a tentative definition of the feminine note in literature. While men are concerned in their writing with disembodied ideals, women are concerned with questions of "personal worthiness." Their writing is more embodied and relative and less authoritative than men's. Forster in The Feminine Note in Literature remains a man of his age but speaks as well to contemporary issues of women's identity and feminism, and to ideas of literary "greatness."
Forster's essay, in the form of 50 manuscript pages, heavily revised and corrected, sat for years in the Modern Archive Centre at King's College Cambridge. The Feminine Note in Literature is now available for the first time from Cecil Woolf Publishers, under the editorship of George Piggford. Prof Piggford has ordered the text, edited it, and provided all major variants and versions presented to both the Cambridge and the Bloomsbury audiences. It should find a wide audience among those drawn to British modernism and women's issues, in addition to those who remain enthusiastic about and fascinated by the enduring literary project of E.M. Forster.
Forster, E.M.. The Feminine Note in Literature. Ed. and Introd. George Piggford. The Bloomsbury Heritage Ser. 28. London: Cecil Woolf, 2001. (38-page booklet, price: £6.50)
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