A Great Unrecorded History

A New Life of E.M. Forster

by Wendy Moffat

14 July 2011


Maurice’s Place in Gay Patrimony

Despite the mess with Heinz, Christopher assured him that Maurice should be published, and that to do so would be inspiring to gay readers. But Forster wouldn’t budge. He was not at all sure that attitudes toward homosexuality had progressed since his youth.

The younger man took the lead. Isherwood pressed Morgan to relent—in 1938, 1948, 1952. Morgan was flattered, but he did not budge. He told Christopher, “I am ashamed at shirking publication but the objections are formidable.” He was chiefly concerned that the news of his homosexuality would hurt those he loved. As time passed, Morgan’s younger friends joined Christopher in making the case to publish. One friend pointed to the example of André Gide, whom Forster admired, and who had published explicitly homosexual memoirs. Forster retorted: “But Gide hasn’t got a mother!” Then, after the war, after his mother died, Morgan was worried that Bob Buckingham would be exposed to “bother or harm” if the book were published.

Christopher Isherwood felt the future of fiction, and the true meaning of Forster’s life, was in his hands.

Two decades of importuning won Isherwood a persuasive victory. As he grew older Forster became more comfortable with the idea of frankness about his sexual life. He imagined a posthumous biography “briefly and blazingly written.” By early 1952 he finally agreed that Maurice should be published after he died, and took steps to arrange that the cherished typescript should come into Isherwood’s hands for safekeeping.

But Morgan’s earlier skepticism about the progress of tolerance for homosexuality was well founded. In October 1952, Christopher’s first copy was shepherded by hand, from Cambridge to London to New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, by trustworthy friends, all gay men. They chose this method of delivery to protect both the book and its author. On both sides of the Atlantic, the cold war fueled anxiety about the loyalty and patriotism of homosexuals, and the machinery of the state was being used to gather evidence and entrap gay men. In the United States, the House Un-American Activities Committee had begun a “lavender scare” to root out homosexual men in government, who were deemed a security risk because their sex lives made them vulnerable to blackmail. The U.S. postmaster general revived the eighty-year-old Comstock laws to prosecute gay men who used the mail to convey “obscene, lewd, lascivious or filthy” materials. In London, police sting operations against gay men were intensifying, and men who were arrested often found their personal papers confiscated without a warrant. Morgan jocularly called the packet enclosing the typescript “the main goods” to emphasize their clandestine machinations. He dotted every i, composing a contract that expressly permitted Christopher to have the American rights, and formally requesting a special waiver from his literary executor.

The men who arranged this pony express were not being paranoid. Even very eminent men who were homosexual were being prosecuted and humiliated. The actor Sir John Gielgud was caught up in a sting operation in a public lavatory when he was at the height of his career on the London stage. Just months before the Maurice manuscript was spirited to California, the famous mathematician Alan Turing, whose solution to the Nazi Enigma code machine had materially helped the Allies win the war, was caught in the net. He was forcibly given female hormones to “cure” him of his homosexual desires as part of a plea bargain to avoid imprisonment under the same laws used to convict Oscar Wilde in 1895. Two years later, Turing killed himself. None of Morgan’s friends wished to risk the loss of Maurice or the liberty of its author in those perilous times. There were still plenty of “beasts and idiots who… prowl in the darkness, ready to gibber and devour.”

In Christopher’s study, late into the autumn night, Christopher and John Lehmann discussed the mechanics of publishing Maurice in America. The thought of Morgan’s death evoked a bit of black humor: John drily called the pages Forster’s “literary remains.” But the men shared a reverence for the novel’s place in gay patrimony. The typescript was weighed down by the care so many had taken to preserve it for so long. It was heavy with a history of stealth. For six decades Forster had nurtured it in secret, painstakingly revising and adding chapters. He commissioned two wondrously named lady typists—Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Snatchfold—to copy the contraband manuscript in pieces, to protect them from the novel’s secrets. He carefully kept track of each copy of the typescript, requesting that the chosen reader return it to a safely neutral location—usually the Reform Club. Late in old age, when he was almost eighty-five, Forster reflected on the cost of this lifetime of effort: “How annoyed I am with Society for wasting my time by making homosexuality criminal. The subterfuges, the self-consciousness that might have been avoided.”

There was great hope in Maurice. But even in 1960, when he penned an author’s note to the novel, Morgan was unsentimental about its future. On the face of it, conditions for gay men looked to be improving in England at long last. Six years before, a government committee led by Sir John Wolfenden had begun to deliberate on whether to revise or repeal the laws against “homosexual offenses.” In 1957, the Wolfenden Report recommended measures to partially decriminalize consensual sex between adult men. But while he had hoped as a young man that “knowledge would bring understanding” about homosexuality, late in life Forster realized that the change in public attitudes in his long lifetime had merely shifted from “ignorance and terror to familiarity and contempt…” Clear-eyed and somewhat bitter, too, Morgan could not imagine a world as utopian as his novel, even in the distant future. He lamented that homosexuality “can only be legalised by Parliament, and Members of Parliament are obliged to think or appear to think. Consequently the Wolfenden recommendations will be indefinitely rejected, police prosecutions will continue, and Clive on the bench will continue to sentence Alec in the dock. Maurice may get off.”

He was right that the legal changes came painfully slowly. In July 1967, when Morgan was eighty-eight, the Sexual Offenses Act was finally passed. Sex between men who desired each other, were alone in a house, and over twenty-one was legalized—provided that neither of the men was in the armed forces or the merchant navy. And, in a final fillip, the new law applied only to men living in England and Wales.

Isherwood and Lehmann knew they were breaking a magic circle of private readership. Sharing the manuscript of Maurice had been a kind of covenant among Forster’s closest friends for decades. Now this secret would be open for everyone. Like Prospero breaking his staff at the end of The Tempest, Isherwood hoped to shatter the spell that had kept the silence about Forster’s homosexuality for so long.

They knew they risked offending, even exposing, some of Forster’s surviving friends. But Isherwood also felt righteous, that his incautiousness was a badge of honor. He complained to Lehmann that Forster’s British literary executors were stymieing his work by giving him shoddy copies and quavering about giving permission to print Forster’s frank and reflective author’s note in the American edition. He made much of the contrast between his sincerity and what he perceived to be the stuffiness and reticence of Forster’s friends in England. For Isherwood, shepherding Forster’s gay fiction posthumously into print was both a sacred trust and a political adventure. He believed that publication would give Forster a second life as a pioneer of gay writing. Publishing Maurice was part of his long campaign to celebrate sexual freedom and repudiate homophobia and hypocrisy.

That Forster’s reputation as a giant of twentieth-century literature and the father of liberal humanism had accrued in part from decades of hiding his homosexuality was an irony not lost on Isherwood’s circle. They were only too happy to use this goodwill to legitimize what one friend called “a kind of pro-homosexual strategy.” The American writer Glenway Wescott—whose lover Monroe Wheeler carried the manuscript from London to New York—hoped that a “writer so socially acceptable” could lend “establishmentarian backing for the first homosexual love story with a happy ending.”

This abjuring of their special status marked a completion of Isherwood’s and Lehmann’s own journeys as well. Decades before, they were young gay men galvanized by the passion and honesty of Morgan’s declaration that “there can be real love, love without limits or excuse, between two men.” Forster—a generation older—had always seemed irredeemably older than they were. Now they were sixty-six and sixty-four. They had caught up with him; they, too, had become old. Christopher rose from the desk and gazed across the room at the opposite wall crammed with books. There were dozens of books about Morgan. He was thinking about the future. His expression triumphant, he turned back to John. “Of course all those books have got to be re-written,” he said. “Unless you start with the fact that he was homosexual, nothing’s any good at all.”

Even Christopher didn’t know how many more secret manuscripts there were than the few he leafed through on that November day almost thirty-five years ago. Though he burned great bonfires of ephemera, Morgan carefully preserved the record of his gay life. Thousands of unpublished pages of letters, diaries, essays, and photographs tell the story of the life he hid from public view. Some of the pages are scattered in archives. Some have been coaxed out into the world from remarkable hiding places—a vast oak cupboard in a London sitting room, a shoebox humbly nestled among mouse turds in a New England barn. Many of Morgan’s surviving friends have told their stories for the first time. Only in 2008 were the final entries in his private diary, restricted from view since his death, opened to readers. All his long life Morgan lived in a world imprisoned by prejudice against homosexuals. He was sixteen when Oscar Wilde was sent to prison, and he died the year after the Stonewall riots.

Almost a century ago, Forster dedicated Maurice to “a happier year.” Perhaps that time is now.

Photo by Pierce Bounds

Photo by Pierce Bounds

Wendy Moffat is a professor of English at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. This is her first book.

© Wendy Moffat

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