Aspects of the Novelist
How to keep E.M. Forster's sex life from eclipsing his sentences.
So he was queer, E.M. Forster. It wasn't his middle name (that would be "Morgan"), but it was his orientation, his romping pleasure, his half-secret, his romantic passion. In the long-suppressed novel Maurice the title character blurts out his truth, "I'm an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort." It must have felt that way when Forster came of sexual age in the last years of the 19th century: seriously risky and dangerously blurt-able. The public cry had caught Wilde, exposed and arrested him, broken him in prison. He was one face of anxiety to Forster; his mother was another. As long as she lived (and they lived together until she died, when he was 66), he couldn't let her know.
So: queer to his toes, but how queer is that? For Wendy Moffat, in her "new life" of Forster, it's a first and final truth, which has been, at best, a half-told story until now. "Unrecorded," boasts the title of Moffat's biography ( A Great Unrecorded History). "Revelatory," says the blurb, and we know what that means: more sex.
For a long time—really, until he died at 91 in 1970—Forster was the quiet Modernist, if he was a Modernist at all. He avoided the deep tangle with language and form that excited contemporaries like Woolf, Joyce, and Ford Madox Ford. He had no faith in cultural revolution. Instead he fiddled softly and subtly with his technique, working deft changes on voice and pace and the unsteady boundary between the seen and the unseen. The early novels from the century's first decade ( Where Angels Fear to Tread, The Longest Journey, A Room with a View) were one part Edwardian charm, two parts critical barb and romantic gleam. They showed the cramped English soul forced to collide with the world's beauty and its body (often in Italy). They cast their author as the bearer of Victorian liberal culture in 20th-century mass society. Forster resisted the chanting simplifications of the new age—from fast cars to Fascism—and famously vowed to betray his country before his friend.
Howards End (1910), a fourth novel published after he'd just turned 30, was a long step forward. It kept up the critique of coarse modern Englishness, complacent and commercial. But it also put in question the critics, the emancipated cosmopolitans who lived for "personal relations," new ideas, and bright talk. Against both groups, it set its quietly prophetic Mrs. Wilcox, who preserves an older, truer England, rooted in the land, sanctioned by a house (Howards End) and a tree (a wych-elm). Deeper than the reach of intellect and resistant to the press of modernity ("telegrams and anger"), a vision persists of life as hallowed by ancient daily rituals in a still green and pleasant land. Howards End secured Forster's reputation among readers and reviewers. It buoyed his confidence and supplemented the family capital.
It wasn't until 14 years later that the masterwork, A Passage to India,appeared, the great novel of love and muddle, friendship and empire that finally looks even beyond these urgencies to record "the search of the human race for a more lasting home." The gap between the books was one puzzle in the life; the other was the decision to stop writing novels altogether for his last 47 years. Then after Forster's death came the first surprise, the publication of Maurice. Of this novel of gay love across class—long known to friends like Christopher Isherwood and John Lehmann but unknown to other friends, like Virginia Woolf—Forster wrote that "I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows." Then as other papers were found and decoded, it became clear that Forster had continued writing fiction in secret, including stories of homosexual desire, unchained and unapologetic.
A Great Unrecorded History is brisk, pointed, well-paced, fluent. A sedulous Moffat has immersed herself in masses of material. Her research has fished up lost incidents and "revelatory" letters, stringing them together as beads of a life story. And now we know. Now we know how many partners Forster churned through, how much energy he gave to the questing and the keeping, how slow he was to start, and how fast when he caught on.
Narrow-eyed Moffat has retrieved new information, which she displays with clarity. But this is not a life of Forster; it's a sex life. Although the prose never pants, the book plays the sensational bits for all they're worth. The claim is that this history of Forster's sexuality will open a window onto the fiction, but (first of all) his orientation has been put to interpretative purposes for decades, and (secondly) if that's a task of this book, you'll excuse me for missing it. The most striking aspect of A Great Unrecorded History isn't the presence of all the sex—in Egypt, in India, and all over London—but the near total absence of Forster's writing. Novels are dispatched in a couple of paragraphs, while political, musical, meditative, and occasional essays, key aspects of the Forster legacy, are scanted. Moffat explains that reading through the "lens" of homosexuality will display a new view of his life. True. But not true enough. Isn't it time to retire this metaphor, the critical lens that justifies partial views—as if we're incapable of shifting perspectives, comparing views, shifting the focus?
When you set the Moffat biography next to Frank Kermode's Concerning E.M. Forster, the ground shifts; the lights change color. Kermode doesn't flare so much as a nostril when he nods at his subject's sexuality. Ranging over the career and its contexts, his concentration is absorbed by the labor of fiction-making, the words you choose, the patterns you make, the things you tell yourself about your work, the meanings you mean and the meanings you don't. When Kermode turns to the wider contexts, he uses many "lenses": social historical, literary cultural, personal, political.
Michael Levenson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia.
Portrait of E.M. Forster by Dora Carrington, in the public domain.