Leo Colston is, like Steerpike, Mole and Charles Ryder, a middle-class observer of the English aristocrat in 20th-century decline. Of the three, Mole remains a naïve observer, whereas the other two follow the contemporary developments in quantum physics by causing, through their observing, great changes; they’re ways of showing the rise of the middle-classes, and this damage caused by observation is reflected in the urban and suburban hordes poking around the stately homes handed over in a bloodless revolution to the National Trust. It’s what Modernism is about: not the time-old critique of the aristocratically-peddled ideology that gentle birth = gentle manners (Euripides and Chaucer, at least, snipe at this), or the sentimental Romantic and Dickensian support for society’s underdogs, but a whole-heartedly sociological Marxist shift, which doesn’t deal with noble deeds from ignoble individuals, or with anecdotal criticisms of the high-ups behaving badly, but with a wholesale transfer of power from one class to another, in effect a series of novelistic cameos multiplied by real-life CGI to draw in casts of millions.
Similarly reflecting huge shifts of power, but on the world, not the island, stage, Forster shows the powerlessness of English society when faced with The Other. The unsuccessful, and ultimately disastrous attempts to retrieve Lilia’s baby, are initially like the warship in Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness” squatting offshore and aimlessly popping shell after shell into the huge African continent, and finally, when ineffectiveness slides into violent intervention, akin to the revelation of Kurtz’ Horror.
Both at home and abroad, these novels are part of the intelligentsia’s expression of early-20th-century political realignments.
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