Rooks Nest House, was a beloved home to both E M Forster and Elizabeth Poston. He lived there with his widowed mother during his young, formative years of four to fourteen and there, educated at home, he set deep roots, exploring the neighbouring countryside and developing an interest in gardening – including growing tall red poppies – especially enjoying identifying the local flora. In his earliest known teenage writings he said ‘the surroundings of the house were altogether very pretty, first and foremost the fine view’. His affection for his home was profound since it represented stability and security and so he was distraught when he had to leave it to be educated away, first in a boarding school at Eastbourne and finally as a day-boy at Tonbridge in 1893. His mother had socialised with the local gentry including Charles Poston and family, recently arrived at a nearby large Georgian Manor, called ‘Mallows’ but later renamed ‘Highfield’. The family made a lasting impression on the 7-year old Forster.
Charles’s wife died in 1900 and he remarried – the much younger Clementine – whose beauty and gentle personality captivated Forster when he travelled down from Cambridge and visited Highfield briefly in 1907. Clementine’s first-born, Elizabeth was just a year old at the time, but as a child she later had an indirect acquaintance with him through inheriting one of his dolls, christened ‘Morgan’! To be truthful the doll was not very popular and, when given away to a needy neighbouring child, involved a certain amount of tossing to and fro over the garden hedge!
Forster’s Howards End, published a few years later, in 1910, reflected very strongly his connection with the world of his childhood. In its first few pages he reiterates, ‘the views marvellous – views westwards to the high ground’. There is also a clear connection between his fictional characters and aspects of people he knew in his youth, including Clementine (who we can identify in Howards End as Ruth Wilcox, the first wife of Charles).
Charles himself died in 1913 and the widowed Clementine, having to economise, moved, quite by chance, as tenant of Rooks Nest House. Here, Elizabeth, after initial disappointment, became just as enchanted with the place as Forster had been and was as sad at leaving it when sent away to boarding school, even absconding on one occasion to return home.
In her mind the house was very much identified with Howards End, so much so that she often used the name as her address, often speaking of its charm and special atmosphere. In a letter to friends after they had organised an abridged performance of Howards End at the house she wrote of its mysterious secret,
‘fragile and yet so strong, a spell that is a sense and seems also to impart one ... too mysterious for description. Yet one can’t attribute it only to Forster, as he was conscious of it when he first trotted in [...]. All those 300 years odd of Howards perhaps, living and dying and going on again?* But, no more. It defies analysis. Feeling is enough.’
So, Forster and Elizabeth shared a deep love of Rooks Nest House and the garden and surrounding landscape but it was not until 1940 when she was an established musician that they actually met. It was the occasion of a Myra Hess wartime concert at the National Gallery at which she was performing, quite against the rules of the BBC for whom she was working as Director of Music for the European Service. Of course she invited him to see the house, and entries in her pocket diary, like ‘went to sleep in the cowslips’, show increasing contact with him until just before his death in 1970. He often brought presents for the house and even paid off the mortgage.
When the house and neighbouring land were threatened by the New Town development after World War II Forster responded to Elizabeth’s call for support, publicly questioning whether building houses were ‘man’s final triumph’ or whether ‘there [was] another England, green and eternal, which will outlast them?’
The longstanding threat to Forster Country has come to a head this year with a planning application to build 800 houses on it, though we may be grateful that at least Rooks Nest House has been saved from destruction. Also Elizabeth has preserved some of the local folk culture, in particular three Hertfordshire Folk Songs, Garland Gay, which Forster would have heard sung in his youth and which she arranged as a surprise to celebrate his 90th birthday as part of the concert given by King’s College Musical Society.
That same year Elizabeth composed the incidental music for the BBC TV production of Howards End, commenting that, ‘no one else knew the real story. A lifetime – several lifetimes – went into the music: not only the poignancy of the present, but an almost unbearable nostalgia for a past, which the book enshrines.’
Recalling shooting of the burial scene of the first Mrs. Wilcox, she said she could have wept. In even more reflective mood, she empathized not only with Margaret Schlegel’s marriage to a man so much her senior, likening it to that of her parents, but also with the youthful relationship between Leonard Bast and Helen Schlegel, speaking of Forster’s ‘amazingly penetrating perception and understanding of aspects of the other sex and of its relationships [...] I know of no other man who states with more uncompromising truth, aspects of life as I have known and lived it [...] it has been an almost symphonic experience to enter in as a part of the story – even to write the music for one’s own funeral, for Mrs Wilcox holds the key to the whole thing,’
Elizabeth had many friendships but none so closely connected to Rooks Nest House and its environs as the one she had with Forster.
*A royal grant of land was made to a George Howarde as early as 1558 (see Peter J. Harvey (1999) The Brotherhoof of the Holy Trinity in Ashby, Margaret (editor) St. Nicholas Church, Stevenage: Recent research. The Friends of St. Nicholas Trust in association with Cambridge University Board of Continuing Education).