Where the wych elm grows

Country Life UK|June 24, 2020

Where the wych elm grows
Fifty years after his death, Jenny Bardwell reflects on the life of Howards End author and King’s College Honorary Fellow E. M. Forster
Jenny Bardwell

A SMALL boy stood beside a large, overhanging tree in a Hertfordshire garden in the 1880s. According to folklore, if pigs’ teeth were found in a tree’s trunk, chewing a small piece of its bark could cure toothache. This wych elm, with its few embedded teeth, held a deep fascination for the young boy as he played in the grounds of his home.

The lad grew into the novelist E. M. Forster (Morgan to his friends), who died 50 years ago this month. The wych elm was in the grounds of Rooksnest, where Forster lived for 10 impressionable years. Fans of Howards End will know that the tree carries a mystical weight, just like the character Mrs Wilcox, who was born in the fictional house. The eagle-eyed might even have noticed that it was changed to a chestnut tree for the film starring Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins.

Forster’s six published novels, from Where Angels Fear to Tread to A Passage to India, are still popular today for their social comedy and portrayal of emotional entanglements against the scenic backdrops of Italy, Cambridge, India and the Home Counties. Howards End, published in 1910, put a little district of Hertfordshire firmly on the literary map.

Edward Morgan Forster was born in 1879 and barely knew his architect father, who died from tuberculosis before Morgan was two.

An only child, he shared houses and holidays with his adored mother, Lily, for most of her life. Soon after the pair left Rooksnest in 1893, Forster made schoolboy jottings describing the house, grounds and neighbours. He noted the ‘oblong built of red brick that had long lost its crudeness of colour’, a vine creeping around the brickwork, exposed beams on ceilings, the nursery, the paddock for his pony and cherry and pear trees, and was fascinated by the working farm close by, where he played and collected eggs. The small family had various property troubles, including battles with their landlord, Col Wilkinson, over their ad hoc, costly water supply, and there was the occasional invasion of mice.

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June 24, 2020