A Great Unrecorded History

A New Life of E.M. Forster

by Wendy Moffat

14 July 2011


He Could Disapper Into the Woodwork

Christopher had designed a massive blond wood worktable to stretch along the full window wall. Spread out upon it was a treasure. Pages and pages and pages. For hours, the two men sifted through them in stunned silence as the flat autumn light dimmed, then failed. The final typescript of Maurice, the homosexual novel Forster had suppressed for almost sixty years, lay before them.

Maurice was a revolutionary new genre—a gay love story that ended happily. It was Morgan’s cri de coeur. For him, “a happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise. 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.” Like its predecessor Howards End, Maurice was about the stranglehold of social class. Like Howards End, it was a plea to “only connect,” to find the courage to understand and to love people different from ourselves. The emotional power of the story was a reflection of Morgan’s sexual awakening, but the novel itself was a utopian fantasy.

Forster came of age sexually in the shadow of the 1895 Oscar Wilde trials, and he learned their lessons well.

Maurice Hall is a stockbroker, as different in character from Morgan as he could possibly be: “handsome, healthy, bodily attractive, mentally torpid, not a bad business man and rather a snob.” And Alec Scudder, the gamekeeper “senior in date to the prickly gamekeepers of D. H. Lawrence,” is bright, earthy, irreverent, and utterly stifled by his place in prewar England. Alec dispels the suburban nonsense that clouds Maurice’s heart and mind—the talk of platonic love from Maurice’s “former faithless lover” Clive Durham, all dutiful sacrifice and stiff upper lip. He grabs hold of Maurice, and makes him believe in a future together. “He knew what the call was, and what his answer must be. They must live outside class, without relations or money; they must work and stick to each other till death. But England belonged to them… Her air and sky were theirs, not the timorous millions’ who own stuffy little boxes, but never their own souls.”

Christopher and John pawed through the masses of new typescript. Throughout were new emendations, and marginal notes in Forster’s spidery hand. This version of Maurice was much more forthright than the draft Christopher had seen years before. Morgan had taken his advice: that gauzy, sexless version was invigorated with an entirely new, and frank, sex scene. And the resolution was firmer, too. In the draft Morgan showed Christopher years before, Alec emigrated to South America, leaving Maurice only to hope for a reunion. But in the new draft the lovers end up in each other’s arms—in England, of all places and, of all times, before the First World War. In this final draft, Alec tells Maurice decisively, “Now we shan’t be parted no more, and that’s finished.”

Looking down at the jumble of pages, Lehmann was “stunned” to see that the revised Maurice typescript was just the beginning. There were masses of new stories “on a homosexual theme, of quite extraordinary power and depth.” One—a terrifying love affair between a colonial master and his subaltern lover— could be read as a darker, sexier iteration of the unrealized friendship between Dr. Aziz and Mr. Fielding in A Passage to India. So Morgan had not stopped writing fiction. Indeed, he had composed stories into extreme old age. Christopher was gleeful; John “overwhelmed.” Morgan had kept his promise. Christopher felt the future of fiction, and the true meaning of Morgan’s life, was in his hands.

Only weeks before Morgan died, Christopher made a pilgrimage to see him at King’s College. Not that it seemed he would ever die. To be sure, he was over ninety, but he had been chugging along. The March visit began with a characteristic comic muddle. On the way up to Forster’s rooms, Christopher encountered him by chance in the stairwell. Morgan exclaimed, “That’s most extraordinary!” as if he had seen an apparition. Isherwood asked, “Have I changed so much?” to which Forster, recovering himself, replied firmly, “Thicker!” To prove his point, when they reached his rooms, Morgan made a studious examination of Christopher’s body, discerning special “thickness” in his neck.

Settled in front of the coal fire, with the pale spring light pouring through the Gothic windows, Morgan seemed to have retrenched into an Edwardian world. The enormous dark mantelpiece had been pried from the dining room of the house where he had lived with his mother until her death in 1945. The walls were hung with “portraits of ladies in bonnets and gentlemen in cravats”—to the left of the mantel, a faux Constable landscape painted by a distant cousin. A mahogany bookshelf wheezed under its load of leather-bound books. Threadbare rugs from India and Egypt were scattered on the floor. An adjustable chair, surrounded by a penumbra of books and papers on the carpet, formed the epicenter of his little universe. It was eons from California.

Though his spirit and sense of humor were intact, for the first time Morgan looked “stooped and feeble” to Christopher. He seemed to be imploding. When the two men ventured out into the forecourt near the chapel, Morgan stopped for a moment. Bent almost in two, sitting on a bench, he was a caricature—just a tweed cap, walking stick, brown shoes. But his rosy face still lit up when he heard a good piece of gossip. He remained cheerful, sensitive, and wily as a “raccoon.”

Christopher and Morgan accepted an invitation from the artist Mark Lancaster to come and see his studio in the great rotunda atop the eighteenth-century Gibbs Building across the courtyard. Mark recalled being “as ‘openly gay’ as people were in 1968.” In Britain, it was the first year that consensual homosexual acts were no longer a crime: the Labouchère Amendment, under which Oscar Wilde had been convicted of “gross indecency,” had finally been repealed. As the college’s first ever artist-in-residence, he brought a whiff of spice into the settled “half-in and half-out of the closet” tradition of homosexuality at King’s. In college, it was a semisecret that Forster was homosexual. There were even rumors of a secret manuscript. But week after week at High Table, Mark never breathed a word, never asked a question. And Morgan, ever courteous, kept to himself.

Not quite thirty, Lancaster was painting a series of big green-and-blue abstract canvases. He had come back to England from New York, where he had worked at the Factory with Andy Warhol. Work actually seemed the wrong word for entering that creative vortex. Andy was equally curious about everything. His detachment was liberating. Under his odd, watchful gaze experiences shook free from the strictures and stigmas that extrinsically accrued to them in the world outside the Factory. His gentle manner encouraged things to be without being labeled. In 1964 he filmed Lancaster and Gerard Malanga in a single endlessly long kiss. He called the movie Kiss. Warhol spliced it together with film of other couples kissing, couples of all configurations and stripes, eyes open, eyes closed, curious, passive, unerotic. The effect of this moral flatness was strange. It held a mirror up to the audience. The only thing pornographic about this depiction of sex on screen was the discomfiture of those in the audience who singled out—and reviled—the homosexual kissing scene. “In the atmosphere of the Warhol Factory” for the first time, Lancaster felt it was “normal,” even “superior, to be gay.” Compared to the Factory, Lancaster found English life class-bound and rigid, and English gay life “(necessarily) furtive and unspoken.”

Warhol radiated stillness and equanimity. Like an anthropologist from Mars, he watched impassively. Sometimes this unflappable manner revealed just how violent and atavistic the homophobia he and his friends faced actually was. Once, when Norman Mailer punched Mark in the stomach for wearing a pink shirt—“pansy, effete Englishman”—Andy acted out a little charade of plaintive envy. In his breathy voice he asked, “What do I have to do to get punched in the stomach by Norman Mailer?” Lancaster, too, was semi-comically incensed. There was nothing un-American about the shirt. He had bought it at Bloomingdale’s.

Lancaster had transformed the aerie atop King’s. His door was open whenever he was not “sporting the oak”—shutting the public outer door to his rooms to signal he was at work. The walls that had divided the room into a set had been dismantled to form a real studio, exposing an immense half-moon window that dominated the courtyard wall, opening onto a view of the green carpet of lawn and the lacy Gothic screen that cut off the college from the town. A painted mantel remained incongruously anchored to the wall. Christopher patiently walked beside Morgan as he teetered his way up the four flights of stairs to Lancaster’s studio. Dazzling light, somehow unfamiliar. Yes, for decades this room had housed one of Morgan’s dearest friends, the political philosopher Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson. But Morgan hadn’t been here since Goldie died in 1932. When Lancaster expressed surprise, Morgan replied that the historian F. E. Adcock, the room’s subsequent occupant, “was such a bore.”

Seated side by side, the grand old men of letters jovially reminisced for Lancaster’s benefit. Laughing and chatting amiably, they took tea and biscuits while he stole a quick snapshot to record the occasion. Morgan folded himself into a zigzag, his hands clasped awkwardly, his hair a cloud of white fuzz as delicate as a dandelion. Later, when the two had gone, Lancaster rested the picture on the mantel beside another informal photograph of a visitor sitting in the same chair that Morgan chose—a slender young man with huge blue eyes precisely matching the color of his denim shirt. Framed by dark hair, the melancholy face of Pete Townshend, the guitarist for the Who, looked like a Modigliani portrait.

On that spring morning, as always, Morgan looked impeccably ordinary, like “the man who comes to wind the clocks.” It was a canny disguise. In the 1920s, his college friend Lytton Strachey had nicknamed him the “Taupe,” the French word for “mole.” Though he was one of the great living men of letters, in a loose-fitting tweed suit and a cloth cap he slipped unnoticed into the crowd or sat quietly at the edge of the conversational circle. This mousy self-presentation was no accident. Forster came of age sexually in the shadow of the 1895 Wilde trials, and he learned their lessons well. Naturally quite shy, he consciously inverted Wilde’s boldly effeminate persona. Where Wilde—and Strachey after him—cut flamboyant and dandified figures, Forster disappeared into the woodwork. Wilde’s bons mots became famous epigrams, but Forster instead chose to draw people inward, to reveal themselves to him as he remained enigmatic. To speak with him was to be seduced by an inverse charisma, a sense of being listened to with such intensity that you had to be your most honest, sharpest, and best self. Morgan’s steadfast scrutiny tested his friends’ nerves. Siegfried Sassoon found it “always makes me into a chatterbox.” The attention made Christopher feel “false and tricky and embarrassed.” He always had to suppress an urge to act the clown, to “amuse” Morgan to dispel the moral weight of his stillness and empathy.

All his life Morgan’s friends struggled to put their finger on the ineffable quality that made him such an exceptional man. His pale blue eyes were terribly nearsighted, but everyone close to him noticed that they missed nothing. He had a “startlingly shrewd look of appraisal… behind the steel-framed spectacles… It was a curious feeling to be welcomed and judged at the same time.” To Christopher, Morgan’s eyes made him look like “a baby who remembers his previous incarnation and is more amused than dismayed to find himself reborn in new surroundings.” In life and in writing, Morgan preferred to plumb the depths and to leave himself open to surprise. Even the most ordinary conversation could “tip a sentence into an unexpected direction and deliver a jolt.”

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