The Longest Journey (published in 1907) is the novel that E.M. Forster said was the novel he was most glad he had written, exposing his deep-held love of Wiltshire and some of Forster's philosophies on the human condition. It is also his most autobiographical novel.
Rickie Elliot is at Cambridge. He has intelligent and philosophical friends, with whom he is slightly out of his depth, but whose company he nonetheless enjoys. Rickie is of middle class extraction, and is comfortably off. He meets the beautiful Agnes Pembroke, who is engaged to be married to Gerald Dawes. Dawes is poor, and Ricky offers him money as he doesn't need it, not appreciating, naive as he is, how patronising a gesture it is. Gerald refuses to accept Rickie's Â£100 a year.
Rickie is a romantic and an aspiring author. When Gerald is killed in a freak accident, he encourages Agnes to weep and not to shut up her grief. Eventually, Agnes gets engaged to Rickie. She is desperately shallow, and fears the unknown, which includes Rickie's fiction. She is unable to understand it, and so discourages him from practicising his art. When he is turned down by publishers, Agnes is secretly delighted, and persuades him that he'd be far better off in a second-rate public school.
Here begins Rickie's true decline under the watchful supervision of his wife and her father, in whose boarding house Rickie is now living and working. Agnes turns Rickie into a staid, shallow, deceitful, authoritarian and unthinking character, where previously he was open to thought, had aspirations, and was full of hope. The Pembroke family destroyed him.
Rickie has a half-brother (his mother's infidelity) whom Agnes has conspired to keep out of his life. Stephen Wonham is dangerous as far as Agnes is concerned: his is a pure, raw, elemental life. He drinks, he is irresponsible, he is independant, he is unaffected. He finds Rickie, and fires in him again all those traits Agnes has worked so hard to quell. Together they run away from the Pembroke family.
The pair bum around Wiltshire together, staying with old Cambridge friends of Rickie's, or with his eccentric, intelligent and contrary aunt, Ms. Failing, with whom Stephen used to live. Rickie is content for the first time since Cambridge: he is writing again and is amassing a portfolio of work. He goes to dine with his aunt one evening, instructing Stephen to stay home and sober for a change, as he and the aunt had just fallen out. Over dinner, it transpires that Ms. Failing is a fraud, and just as conformist as Rickie's estranged wife. She urges him to return to Agnes, and tries to bewitch him with all society's lies again. He storms out, and elects to walk home, through the town. Crossing the railway tracks, he sees Stephen lying, drunk, across them, and a train approaching. He rushes to him and saves him, but not himself; the train cuts off his legs. He dies, disconsolate, in his aunt's arms, whispering 'You have been right': his own way of life having been responsible for his death.
This is only a superficial synopsis; the book is worth reading for so many more things than the plot, though. The wit, the tragedy, the masterful characterisation. There is no chracter in literature I loathe more than Agnes. Bleak but gripping, The Longest Journey is a manual for thinking and integrity while you live. It bears re-reading upon re-reading. So read it.