By Krzysztof Fordoński,
E. M. Forster’s short story “The Eternal Moment” was conceived in Cortina d’Ampezzo (then Hayden in Austria-Hungary) in August 1902, written in the spring of 1904, and published in the summer of 1905. It deals with the issue of British tourists changing Italy rather than the other way round as it is in his other works. It is recognised as Forster’s “first large-scale work of fiction” (Land 33), the last major literary attempt before he moved on to work on Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905). The events of the story take place mostly in two hotels located in the area which represent the old and the new Italy, before and after the arrival of mass tourism.
The story starts with a visit that Miss Raby, lady novelist, pays in the mountain village of Vorta in Austria-Hungary, modelled after Hayden. Miss Raby has made it famous when she described her first visit there in her novel The Eternal Moment. Her second visit proves traumatic as she discovers that the novel and resulting popularity made Vorta a prosperous place and the owners of the best hotel rich people, but the change destroyed everything she once found valuable and important there. As Miss Raby puts it, Vorta fell victim “of the indefinable corruption which is produced by the passage of a large number of people” (169).
The change of Vorta is presented through several opposing images indicative of the conflict between the old and the new. Forster is far from idealising those representing the past, e.g., the new graceful Campanile is compared to churches visible in the valley, “tiny churches, ugly churches, churches painted pink with towers like pumpkins etc.” (159). However, any such criticism is quickly overshadowed by the garish show of multi-coloured lights lit up by hotels and pensions to welcome the arrival of the new tourists: Miss Raby sees the lights as “branded on the tranquil evening slopes” (165). The new world is ugly and tasteless.
It is the hotels – the Albergo Biscione and the Hotel des Alpes – that offer the most poignant contrast. Hotel des Alpes, the best hotel in the village, is “an enormous building . . . made of wood” which “suggests a distended chalet” (160). Forster’s use of the ambivalent word “distended”, meaning “blown up” or “swollen”, is quite peculiar in this context. The word is used in medical language to describe a distended stomach or bladder. Thus, the tourist change is linguistically represented as an illness.
Miss Raby gets curiously depressed at the sight of its splendour; the place does not remind her at all of her friend, Signora Cantu, to whose family it allegedly belongs. As Miss Raby learns from a waiter, the old Signora Cantu still lives in the old pensione, while the new hotel belongs to her son, who quarrelled with his parents. Miss Raby immediately decides that she must move to the Biscione.
The hotel has not changed much since her last visit. It is a place which was not spoiled, characterized by an antique spirit, “the great manner, only to be obtained without effort” (165). The rooms are furnished with beautiful objects and old paintings. In the morning Miss Raby sits opposite the most famous painting in the Albergo, a fresco variously attributed by the owner to Titian or Giotto, showing four Sybils, holding prophecies of the Nativity. However, she thinks that “she had never seen people more unattractive and more unworthy than her fellow-guests” (166).
Miss Raby learns at the breakfast table that tourists “co-operated and forced the hotel-keepers into action” (167), as a result of which priests only ring their bells for the evening mass. Even religion has apparently been sacrificed to please the visitors. The same co-operation was used to stop the local peasants from their weekend meetings and nightly singing. Miss Raby meets Signora Cantu. The meeting does not go well, as the discussion concentrates on the Signora’s misfortunes. She complains of her son, his wife, and the concierge of his hotel who, as she says, “take all her guests” and “mean to ruin her and want to see her die” (171). As Miss Raby learns, the concierge, Feo Ginori, is the man who confessed his love to her twenty years earlier and inspired her to write her famous novel. The discussion ends suddenly, and Miss Raby fails even to beg pardon as she originally intended. The third part of the story takes place in the lounge of Hotel des Alpes. Miss Raby comes to meet her travel companion Colonel Leyland who is out. Miss Raby is left alone with the concierge, a man once handsome now turning heavy. Miss Raby recognizes in Feo “one of the products of The Eternal Moment” (175). After several failed attempts she reminds Feo of their earlier meeting. He, however, remembers nothing and only when she insists recalls the encounter with alarm. The arrival of Colonel Leyland brings their unpleasant conversation to a halt. Miss Raby tries to make up for the harm she wrought by offering to bring up and finance the education of the youngest of Feo’s children, but her offer is rejected. Miss Raby leaves the gentlemen alone, accompanied by a, rather comforting in fact, vision of her solitary old age. The two most important men in her life, rather than try to listen and understand what she tries to suggest, conclude that she went mad.
The image of a small rural world destroyed by a book is quite obviously exaggerated. Miss Raby overestimates her own influence. Although she may rightly blame herself for triggering the changes, these were, indeed, caused by a much larger combination of conditions and influences. Her self-representation as a demiurge, unaware of possible effects of her creation, verges on ridiculous, and Forster had not yet sufficiently mastered the art of irony to get the balance right. He is still a twenty-four-year-old writer with a tendency for over-dramatized, emotional flights of fancy. It is quite striking that he sees the possible outcome of a writer’s work only as destructive. An additional question is whether Miss Raby’s views are shared by anyone and whether the inhabitants of Vorta, except Signora Cantu, would prefer to go back to their previous status.
It is interesting to seek the inspiration for the short story. Forster, who arrived in Hayden on July 25th, 1902 with his mother, to escape the heat of the Italian summer in the Alps, chose the nineteenth-century hotel Stella d’Oro located right next to the local church. It was clearly the hotel that inspired the description of the Biscione. He did not stay there for a long time. On July 31st, he left for Innsbruck with Dent for a week but returned dutifully and stayed in Hayden for a whole month (Stape 14). It is not possible to point out precisely which of the numerous new hotels built on the slopes surrounding Hayden at the turn of the twentieth century attracted Forster’s criticism. Pictures from the period show several possible candidates: hotels such as Cristallo, Majoni, and Vittoria; all large buildings from the first decade of the century located well away from the village. Forster did not stay in any of them, although he might have visited some during his stay. He “called on King’s Provost on holiday with his family” in late August (Stape, 14). The Provost was quite likely to have chosen one of the modern hotels in the valley. Stella d’Oro still stands in the centre of Cortina d’Ampezzo. However, it is no longer a hotel. In the 1960s it was sold and refurbished as the local branch of one of Italian banks. The modern, big hotels away from the old town have finally won.
 The character of Miss Raby is probably based on the two lady-writers Forster got to know in the period: “Snow” Wedgwood (1833-1913) and Emily Spender (1841-1922), who inspired also the character of Eleanor Lavish in A Room with a View (1908).
 The word “branded” should attract the reader’s attention: the hills are branded by the lights like cattle branded by their owners, or a criminal branded as a part of his punishment.
Forster, Edward Morgan. The Eternal Moment. In: Forster, Edward Morgan. The Machine Stops and Other Stories. London:
Andre Deutch Ltd, 1997.
Land, Stephen K. Challenge and Conventionality in the Fiction of E. M. Forster. New York: AMS Press, 1989.
Stape, J. H. An E. M. Forster Chronology. Houndmills: Palgrave, 1993.
The blog entry is largely based on the paper (published in English and Italian)
Fordoński, Krzysztof, “Tourism as a Destructive Force in E. M. Forster’s Early ‘Italian’ Fiction”, The Linguistic Academy
Journal of Interdisciplinary Language Studies, 2 (2012), pp. 21-34.
Fordoński, Krzysztof “The Eternal Moment – L’Italia nella produzione giovanile di Edward Morgan Forster”,
Kwartalnik Neofilologiczny, 59.2 (2012), pp. 263-274.
Krzysztof Fordonski studied at Adam Mickiewicz University Poznan. MA in English studies in 1994, PhD in 2002, and D.Litt. in 2013. Associate Professor at the Faculty of Applied Linguistics, University of Warsaw. Main fields of interest: English literature at the turn of 20th century, literary translation, and the history of England and Scotland. Chairman of the International E. M. Forster Society, editor-in-chief of the Polish Journal of English Studies.