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Two Cheers for Democracy

by E M Forster
Persephone book no:

145 146 147

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ISBN 9781910263365


E M Forster, author of PB No. 146 Two Cheers for Democracy: a Selection was, in our opinion, the greatest novelist of the twentieth century. He wrote five novels published in his lifetime and a sixth (Maurice) published posthumously. Naturally, many Persephone readers would rate other novelists, Virginia Woolf perhaps or James Joyce, more highly, and if one included European writers then maybe Proust as well. But for us it’s Forster.

As well as novels, Forster wrote two biographies, a libretto, short stories, book reviews, literary criticism - and essays. These pieces were often about writers he admired, but many of them were about moral values, about what he believed. The originally sixty-nine essays in Two Cheers for Democracy – we have cut them down to twenty-five – date from 1925 to 1951 (an earlier volume of essays, Abinger Harvest, appeared in 1936). Hence the word 'Selection' in the subtitle of our volume: we have made our own selection because we felt that some of the essays are not particularly interesting nowadays. Our intention is to entice Persephone readers to read ‘Culture and Freedom’ or ‘What I Believe’ – and not to get bogged down in essays on William Arnold or Forrest Reid.

‘To give an idea of the extraordinary charm of these essays is impossible,' wrote Edwin Muir in the Observer in 1951. 'It seems to reside in a curious inconstancy or inconsistency. Mr Forster begins his operation upon us by bringing a tolerant and fair judgment to everything he touches, a balance; then the balance overturns, he is seized with a deeper apprehension, and throws everything over, for here is the real truth.’ That is why Forster’s style is so seductive and so unusual: he is thinking aloud and is not afraid to be distracted. And through it all he treats the reader as his equal.

Many of the 1939 and 1940 pieces were first read on the BBC Home Service and had a great influence. One of Forster's most famous utterances was: ‘If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country’, and what a provocative utterance it was. Yet it is simply an exaggerated echo of Isabella Thorpe’s remark in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey: ‘There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not my nature.’ So when Forster mentions why democracy deserves two cheers instead of three, he adds: ‘Only Love the Beloved Republic deserves that.’

In the preface to Two Cheers, Henry Mance of the Financial Times writes: ‘More than seven decades after the essays were written, they chime with me – indeed, they console me.’ He concludes: ‘One of my favourite phrases in Two Cheers is that we “have, in this age of unrest, to ferry much old stuff across the river”. Whatever horrors, whatever mistakes we encounter, we don’t just draw a line and write off the past. We are only here for a short while. We have a cultural responsibility. Forster concluded of Woolf: “It is as a novelist that she will be judged. But the rest of her work must be remembered.” The same is, of course, true of Forster himself. His essays speak to us because they invite us to be ourselves. We must ferry them across the river.’


'Coppice', a cotton furnishing fabric designed by Mary White (1930 - 2020) for Heal's in the early 1950s. In a private collection. E M Forster owned a small wood called Piney Copse; he left it to the National Trust. 

Picture Caption

Morgan and his bookcase at King's College, Cambridge. 

Read What Readers Say

Ed Smith, ‘New Statesman’

A selection of essays from the 1930s and 1940s, published by the reliably brilliant Persephone Books. In them Forster is conversational, concise and strikingly modern - and his apparent diffidence shields an elevated kind of confidence, assured of his ability to handle profound concepts with the lightest touch.

A Persephone reader in Argyll via email

I just wanted to write and thank you for publishing ‘Two Cheers for Democracy’. I doubt I would have ever come across it and, if I had, whether I would have picked it up. But thanks to you I have been able to read these marvellous essays. I find it hard to realise that they were written so long ago and are still so relevant and thought-provoking.

Categories: Gay and Lesbian History Men (books by) Politics

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