A tall man, slightly portly, balding, with small round spectacles and a sober suit: decidedly Edwardian and middle-class. That is the figure known as E. M. Forster, or ‘Morgan’ to his friends. That’s the image that adorns the cover of this new biography by Wendy Moffat. Revealing insights from his previously unpublished diaries and letters make for important revelations about his life, social ambitions and artistic integrity in this work. He is something of an enigmatic figure from his Victorian/Edwardian upbringing into a long life during the 20th century, and this examination goes some way to unravelling his motives and objectives with his work and the professional and personal preoccupations that concerned him.
I will always remember that as an undergraduate student of English Literature, I had to produce a portfolio of reviews for a tutor who was bafflingly brilliant, yet very inspirational. I was so proud to have discovered an E. M. Forster short story to review called “The Machine Stops” (1908), a science fiction story, that my tutor admitted he never heard of!
Alongside the well-known Edwardian works, A Room With A View and Howard’s End, he experimented with other genres, as well. He was a brave author in many ways, but his resolve and bravery was never more on show than when he gave up the accolades and the security of being one of the most successful novelists of the 20th century and retreated from public life as a celebrated writer.
Influenced by the pioneering champion of sexual freedom and homosexual rights in the late 19th / early 20th century, Edward Carpenter, and the call for freedom for erotic expression in the work of Walt Whitman, Forster made an evaluation of his own work and resolved that he could no longer sustain what was for him the fraudulence of his narratives. The determinant of the heterosexual love and marriage plot of the novel form became too much of a falsehood around which to depict the lives of his characters. A Passage to India came out in 1924, and then ‘silence’: “One of the most prominent novelists of his time appeared to cease writing fiction at the relatively young age of forty-five. Though he had almost fifty more years to live, there would be no more novels from Morgan.” (Moffat 5)
Christopher Isherwood and his partner John Lehmann retrieved and reinstated Forster’s lost works, from those quiet years, after his death. Isherwood wanted Forster to be known as the voice of emerging homosexual identity in literature in the 20th century, and involved others in the reception of Forster’s most prominent work of gay male identity and love, Maurice. Such a personal exploration of true feelings and homoerotic desire had been suppressed by Forster throughout his own career and only circulated to a select audience, but along with The Longest Journey it remained his most beloved novel, and came to prominence after his death.
We know Forster mostly from the film adaptations of his work over the last 30years or so. His novelistic treatments of social and colonial disparity, injustice, frustration and oppression have been dramatised over and over, such as the Merchant/Ivory collaborations and David Lean’s directorial tour de force with A Passage to India (1984). This only offers a certain perspective of his outlook though, engaging and effective as these films are.
Moffat concerns herself with how Forster manifested certain sentiments through his characters: the social revolutionary vision of the Shlegel sisters in Howard’s End; the quiet working-class dignity of Stephen Wonham in The Longest Journey; the fateful self-deprecating eagerness and lack of judgment in the colonised figure of Dr Aziz and Mrs. Moore’s quiet championing of change in A Passage to India. Moffat is able to chart how the figures in his life, such as his working-class students in London, his younger lovers in India and Egypt, and his friend and mentor Florence Barger whose correspondence proffers such rich pickings here, influenced him and formulated his creative and social vision.
Forster’s fascination with the experience of the colonised and coloniser began with his first visit to India followed by a posting to Egypt with the Red Cross during the First World War. He engaged in furtive love affairs whilst there, finally able to fulfil his desire for ‘contact’ with male lovers. His experience epitomises that of the closeted homosexual. He could be the walking definition of the man with the Victorian upbringing who inhabits a dual existence – an image of exterior ‘R -’ (the shorthand in his diaries for ‘Respectability’) who then had to indulge in what was at the time still criminalised behaviour in secret.
His experiences are not without their bleak and more unpleasant side. The result of his time working as secretary to the maharajah of Dewas in India meant that he exploited a young male prostitute at the court, with whom he hoped he could have something like a real relationship.
Moffat defends Forster and the sometimes difficult and ambiguous situations in which he tried to function as a man desiring other men, but who as also seeking ‘normality’ within relationships. He wanted neither the extravagantly feminised version of the homosexual male, nor the aesthetic lifestyle favoured by Oscar Wilde. Rather, this biography tracks the experience of a man of great intellect and talent in the who was pursuing self-acceptance and wider social acceptance for loving committed relationships between men. Instead of the label of ‘homosexual’ (a scientific term adopted by activists in the early days of equality struggles) or ‘gay’ (again a later acquisition for political reasons) Moffat has discovered Forster, in his diaries, found the word ‘minority’ to be the most satisfactory descriptor for his position.
Thus, an affinity arose with other colonised and oppressed people, and enabled him to contribute to the emerging lexicon required for gay and gender equality politics in the 20th century. This book of his life shows his experiences involved with and parallel to the pursuit for intellectual, social, erotic and cultural expression of gay sensibilities for men of his era. Forster, amongst others, set about contributing to a new openness and also to uncovering the hidden and coded literary and cultural history of same sex relationships of all kinds, and the result is now widely accepted to be an element in the work of artists throughout the ages.