Together, two books about E.M. Forster capture his writing life and his sex life.

Reading between the lines.
June 21 2010 7:07 AM

Aspects of the Novelist

How to keep E.M. Forster's sex life from eclipsing his sentences.

E.M. Forester.Click image to expand.
E.M. Forster 

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.

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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.

Kermode's book has the extra shine of beginning as the Clark Lectures at Cambridge, the very series in which, 83 years ago, Forster presented the talks that became Aspects of the Novel, his influential meditation on fiction: flat and round characters, story vs. plot, realism (George Eliot) vs. prophecy (Dostoyevsky). * Kermode was 7 at the time. Now he is an eminence, going on and going strong. Part of the appeal of his recent work—his memoir, his books on Shakespeare—has been just the pitch of his tone: unfailingly intelligent, curious, wry, ruminative, slightly repetitive.

In this, Kermode is heir to Forster, especially in the rare mix of ambition and modesty. He means to illuminate the novels while also throwing odd light on the nature of fiction, the course of the 20th century, and the mystery of creativity. But he reaches for no deep truth or total story. Each part of the book takes up a new perspective—e.g., music, spirituality, publishing—but nothing tries to hold everything together. What impels Kermode is his abiding admiration for Forster, an esteem complicated by irritation with the easier ironies and certainties, and a belief that only one of the six novels (A Passage to India) can lay claim to greatness.

But greatness isn't everything for Kermode. His book is most bracing, thrilling even, when it takes up Forster's resolve simply to "make something or discover something" in spite of all the difficulties within (desire, doubt) and without (insensitivity, ignorance, war), and in spite of feeling "caught between two worlds and loving the old one better." The book doesn't call itself a "study," much less a "life." "Concerning" is as far as Kermode is willing to go. Yet the 80-odd pages sketching Forster's biography (including the sex) give it more pith and color than Moffat's whole volume.

It would be wrong to see the difference between the books as between the old and new fashions in critical readings. It's a difference between ways of picturing the river of life. Does it mostly flow with the things we long for or with the things we make? Are we at bottom creatures of desire or work? Luckily, we know the answer. We're both, which is why Moffat's book gets first exasperating, then dull. All her new information is valuable; all the "revelatory" disclosures belong to a broadening portrait of the man. But what the synchronic publication of these two books makes clear is that Forster's life was about sex and sentences in roughly equal proportions.

Forster needed both to thrive. Why is it truer to find a stain on his trousers than a special rhythm in his participles? Biographies rarely add up to round portraits, but the least we can do is keep them un-flattened-out. Anyone who buys Wendy Moffat's book might do well to ask Farrar, Straus, and Giroux to throw in Frank Kermode's, too, for a reminder that even when we're twisted in the strange shapes of desire, we can still work out a few wiry phrases and try some new endings for our plots, our lives.

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Correction, June 22, 2010: This article originally stated that Forster delivered the Clark Lectures 90 years ago. He gave them in 1927. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

Michael Levenson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia.