Friday 30 September 2016

Played on Squares (Bloomsbury and Chess) 8: Forster

Last year the BBC ran a TV drama series Life in Squares. It followed, in three episodes, the entangled lives of the Bloomsbury Group - the Bells, the Woolfs, Duncan Grant, Maynard Keynes, and Roger Fry et al. Dorothy Parker - not a member herself, obviously, though she might have gone down well - quipped that they "talked in circles, loved in triangles, lived in squares".

The TV series sparked our own blog series - Played on Squares - in which we tried to answer the straightforward question (one that nobody in the sprawling corpus of Bloomsbury archival analysis, informed commentary, and learned exegesis, had thought to ask), viz: did they play chess?

The answer, we discovered, was an unavoidable "yes". The Bloomsberries admitted to chess in their diaries, and their memoirs; they documented and commented on their obsessive playing of, and sometime brazen cheating at (Roger Fry was exposed as the culprit), our favourite game; one of them (Fry again) used it as a teaching aid in his lessons on aesthetics; two of them were portrayed in oils at the board (and another was sketched in situ), and several of them were photographed in flagrante. One - Leonard Woolf - almost joined a chess club, and another actually did - although this is stretching a point as she was only a Bloomsbury-sibling and not a Bloomsbury-proper. However, as she also played in tournaments and even turned up in the BCM - snapped playing in a simul. against Vera Menchik (result unknown) - she (Marjorie Strachey) was the star turn of our chess-in-Bloomsbury series.

Not that you would have found any of this on the TV. Shocking.

Just after the series closed, our good friend Richard James was kind enough to point out that it was unfinished: there was in fact a Bloomsberry with a well-documented chess interest who we had missed. Also shocking. So, before leaving it any longer, we had better repair this omission and report the chess doings of...

...Edward Morgan Forster, who is portrayed above by another Bloomsbury satellite, Dora Carrington in 1920, "without him sitting" (as the National Portrait Gallery's caption informs us, in apparent defiance of the evidence).

But, to be fair to others, including Richard, it wouldn't be Morgan's (as he was known) first outing in the chess literature: he has put in appearances in other places. But, for the sake of completeness, even if at the risk of some repetition, we will now attempt to document (in two parts) the involvement of E.M. Forster (1879-1970) in this favourite diversion of so many Bloomsberries. Some repetition there may be; but some new revelations (for chess readers) there will be as well - though here comes the usual caveat: I have not rigorously combed the extensive Forster archives for chess references. The online indexes of the Archive Centre at King's College Cambridge (where he spent many years of his life) are not flagged for "Chess", nor are the many books by, on, or about him. Thus, most of the references that I have turned up I have done so by chance in the course of skimming what has been published mainstream - inevitably this covers only that material which is the most conveniently accessible to a non-specialist reader such as myself.

But who was he, this Bloomsberry, so carelessly overlooked chess-wise?  He was in Leonard Woolf's (himself Bloomsbury royalty) list of 13 first-generation Bloomsberries - though others contest this inclusion, or accord him a more evanescent status: among them Bloomsbury original David Garnett who says that, on the contrary,
"Morgan Forster was on the periphery rather than the heart of this circle. I would not describe his visits as sudden or comet-like. He seemed to turn up when something interesting was occurring; and he himself was always interesting....He was more like a Cheshire Cat than a comet." (1969, see refs)
Forster had followed the well-worn track of public school (Tonbridge; unhappy), and then university (Cambridge; congenial) where he eventually fell in with some of the soon-to-be-Bloomsberries via the secretive "Apostles" discussion group. Although the philosopher G.E. Moore was the major influence on many of the Bloomsbury Apostles, it seems - according to Garnett again - that it was another "Kingsman" who was "far more formative" upon Forster. This was the once prominent, but now pretty much forgotten, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson (1862-1932). At Cambridge, and the LSE, he was a "political scientist, humanist, and reform thinker" - says the blurb to Forster's own book about him.

Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson by Roger Fry in 1893
National Portrait Gallery

"Goldie", by the way, also played - though we may suppose at an enthusiastic "social" level: we saw him taking on André Gide in a sketch by Roger "I'm Sorry, I'll Play That Again" Fry (fine artist, dodgy chesser) in episode 2 of this series. Forster wrote the biography of his friend a couple of years after his death in 1932. It was titled "Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson" as if to avoid any confusion, and it has a helpful reference (p.176) to Goldie playing chess in Lyme Regis in 1919, though "at the same level of badness" (an ambiguous turn of phrase that may imply a dose of Fry's disease) as Forster himself.

Dickinson was also "said to have been", wrote Forster, "the world's worst bridge player" even though Morgan himself could have made that assessment unaided as is evident from Forster's much-quoted The Game of Life essay first published in 1919 (and again in his Abinger Harvest collection of 1936). In it the author searches for the precise ludic equivalent of  "Life": that is to say, the game manifesting just the same proportions of luck and skill, fate and foot-work. Bridge won't do he says, nor football, where "the resemblance [to "Life"] cannot be grasped by an intellectual effort." In both these games, he argues, there is "the incalculable element of partners and sides" which renders them invalid for the purpose of his analysis (which is odd - you'd have thought that the partner thing would have strengthened the Bridge/Life analogy).

The one that finally suits Forster's pedagogic aim is...wait for it...the one-on-one card game Piquet.

Piquet: head to head, and no partners required.
Forster was fond of a hand of this fossil of a game. He learnt it at King's (on the 29 January 1898 to be precise - it says so in his diary) where they indulged in all manner of now extinct diversions, including puff-billiards, up-Jenkins, chumps, pass-a-penny - he recorded them all: without any apparent embarrassment. In The Game of Life he favourably invokes Piquet's balance of "the uncontrollable and that which we are supposed to control" as the right analogue for "Life". Better even than chess (not mentioned in his diary in the King's undergraduate years of 1897-1901) which Forster says "severely limits accident". We'll come back to The Game of Life in Part 2.

We should give another Goldie chess reference here, since we are tying up loose ends in what I hope will really be the final lap in this Bloomsbury marathon. You may remember from our first Fry episode that he and Goldie played chess in Montrésor in France in 1930. Fry said, in a letter of 15th September to Helen Anrep (his partner), that he "really must allow [Goldie] to win" for then "all seems well" (if Dickinson lost he would "threaten to rush back to Cambridge"). But Fry wasn't the only one complaining (if only affectionately) about Dickinson's grumps. In a pleasing piece of epistolic convergence Goldie himself fesses up to his grouch in a letter (21 September 1930) from Montrésor to his close friend Dennis Proctor: "I play a good deal of chess with Roger, who usually beats me and I get very sulky about it, having very bad chess manners. It's really very ridiculous."

In my humble opinion, such belated self-reproach in 1930 really doesn't excuse Dickinson's dilatory failure to improve his game since Lyme Regis in 1919: some conscientious study of the chess classics would have been time well spent. But we shouldn't judge him, or his chess, too harshly: he was knowledgeable enough about the game to employ a decent chess metaphor in one of his philosophical ruminations, first published in 1901. This was articulated by his fictitious characters in a Socratic dialogue on the Meaning of Good. To use one figure of speech to oil the wheels of another, two protagonists pass like ships in the night:  
"I was desirous to avoid a discussion between him and Leslie, for their types of mind and habits of thought were so radically opposed that it was as idle for them to engage in debate as for two bishops of opposite colour to attempt to capture one another upon a chess board.
So, to get back to E.M.Forster: he was networked with the Bloomsburys, and was later a member of their "Memoir Club" from 1920 and beyond. It was a select circle, meeting in their private residences, in which members read papers - Memoirs - based on their reminiscences, sometimes intimate, of personalities known to them: occasionally, and uncomfortably, other participants in the group. Vanessa Bell's sketch, below, shows Desmond McCarthy in action. E. M. Forster is reclining at the periphery, bottom right, where there is more than a hint of the Cheshire Cat about him.

The Memoir Club as painted by Vanessa Bell c 1943.
It is in the NPG - the above is cropped along the bottom,
but is otherwise clearer than most other reproductions.
Of course, Forster is best known as a novelist (A Room with a View, A Passage to India, etc.). But he was also a prodigious essayist and critic, and it is in these shorter pieces that we find the substantial chess references already alluded to above: he wrote about the game in a way that suggests a relatively sophisticated knowledge of it. However, in spite of Lyme Regis 1919, and unlike some of the other Bloomsberries, the documentation of him actually near a board is rather thin. Here is the earliest example that I have found.
Morgan age two holding a chess piece,
with his mother Alice Clara Foster (1881)
With thanks to © The Kings College Archive Centre.

Unfortunately, it reveals only an aptitude for playing with the pieces rather than any precocious talent for the actual game. The principal biography of Forster, by P.N. Furbank (1979) - the one that I have pored over extensively, even though, as I must confess, I found it pretty hard going: these blogs are indebted to his scholarship - is silent on his acquisition of the moves, nor is there any mention of him playing at school, though we may surmise that is where he picked it up. Otherwise, there are two engaging references to him and chess in Furbank, the most intimate of which  - in 1917 - we will examine in part 2 on the solid pretext of keeping good chronological order.

Thus, the other telling one - in 1916 - comes below, but only after a third, passing, chess reference a decade earlier, in 1904. Forster was a diarist as we know, and according to Furbank "one of its prime functions was regular self-appraisal". So he writes, frankly, on 12th July 1904:
"My faculty for noticing things certainly gets better...But I don't know whether I read people better. I am gong on the supposition that they live hand to mouth - don't mind being silly as long as they aren't checkmated that move. This attitude takes me a good way - but possibly not the right way." Furbank (1972) vol 1 p.114.     
Furbank doesn't offer an interpretation of this slight, but baffling, allusion. Me neither.

Moving on. At the beginning of the Great War, Forster, a conscientious objector, kept his head down in the National Gallery cataloguing paintings - as a "gesture towards war work" (Lago and Furbank (1985)). Eventually, a sense of duty, the chiding of colleagues, and the public mood got the better of him and he found himself - after some rebuffs - with the Red Cross, in Egypt, working as a "searcher". His job was to glean information from wounded soldiers about their comrades missing in action. He made quite a success of it:
"He found himself doing a good deal beside strict 'searching': he would play chess with patients, take their watches to be mended, write their  letters for them and act as unpaid solicitor." Furbank (1972) vol 2 p.23. 
...and once again we find chess coming to the rescue of broken men.

What started out for Forster as a three month posting to Egypt in December 1915 stretched out until the end of the war and into early 1919. Yet it proved to be a fruitful period for him: he enjoyed being "serviceable" (Furbank); he found raw material he would recycle later into his novels (e.g. the mud of the Nile washed up again in Chandrapore at the beginning of A Passage to India); he had a formative sexual experience; and, most importantly for our purposes, it provided the opportunity, in 1917, for some extremely friendly games of chess. We will explore this in part 2.

Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson by E.M.Forster (1934) and Harcourt New York (1973).
The Game of Life in Abinger Harvest by E.M. Forster (1936) Edward Arnold and Penguin (1967).    
E.M.Forster: A Life by P.N.Furbank (2 vols in 1977 and 1978 - combined in 1979) Oxford UP.
The Journals and Diaries of E.M.Forster edited by Phillip Gardner (2011) Pickering and Chatto London.
E.M. Forster by David Garnett (1969) reprinted in The Bloomsbury Group edited by S. P. Rosenbaum (1975) University of Toronto Press.
Selected Letters of E.M.Forster v1 1879-1970 edited by Lago and Furbank (1985) Arena London.

The previous episodes of Played on Squares are1.Keynes;  2: Fry;  3: Fry, part 2; 4. Woolf;  5. Strachey; 6. Empire Days; 7. Miss Strachey's Feeling For Snow.

Lost in History

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