A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster

Excerpted from “Prologue: ‘Start with the Fact That He Was Homosexual’” from A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster by Wendy Moffat. Copyright © 2010 by Wendy Moffat. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. A paperback edition was published in May 2011 by Picador. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

The wooden gate snapped shut behind him, and John Lehmann descended the steps carved into the canyon wall. Twenty feet below the road a small modern house nestled in the hillside. Entering the living room gave an uncanny feeling of going outdoors—the small house was bright and expansive, even on a misty November morning. Here at the north end of Santa Monica it was still possible to believe in the wildness and innocence of California. The room offered an extravagant, improbable view. Hardtop twisting below, a little house with a peaked Tudor roof almost hidden among the green of eucalyptus, live oak and pines, flat boxy roofs, down down down a cascade of curves and rectangles like a Cezanne landscape. Far off, a mirror image in the steep face of the opposite canyon. Over Lehmann’s left shoulder the gray glint of the Pacific Ocean shimmered in the mist. It was just before Thanksgiving 1970.

Christopher Isherwood had summoned him. He and Lehmann had been friends for almost forty years. They first met in the early 1930s, in the damp Bloomsbury office of Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press. Lehmann, then the Woolfs’ assistant, had persuaded them to publish Isherwood’s novel The Memorial. Isherwood and Lehmann made a striking pair—two gay British expatriates of distinctly opposite types. Small and still boyish though he was over sixty, Isherwood retained the seductive, irreverent charm that made it “impossible not to be drawn to him.” He had bright blue sparkling eyes, a flop of brown hair raked across his forehead, and a shelf of eyebrow that had grown wild and white with age. Lehmann was a different kind of attractive, a full head taller, leonine. He was three years younger than Isherwood, but seemed a generation older. Since his youth, he had projected an air of authority verging on pomposity. His mane had gone gray before he was thirty, and he spoke slowly in a commanding, precise baritone that “might have belonged to a Foreign Office expert.”

Lehmann’s “pale narrowed quizzing eyes” had discovered most of the crop of young political writers who revolutionized writing in the thirties. He brought Brecht and García Lorca to British audiences. Stephen Spender and C. Day Lewis became household names because of Lehmann’s promotion of their work. Auden’s poem “Lay Your Sleeping Head My Love” and George Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant” debuted in Lehmann’s anthology New Writing. And he nurtured adaptations of Isherwood’s Berlin stories from I Am a Camera to Cabaret. He had done more than anyone alive to capture the vitality and range of the British writers born in the first years of the twentieth century. But his sway had diminished. Lehmann had been a major force in publishing fiction and poetry, but the newest generation of angry writers were playwrights. Osborne, Pinter, and Orton owed nothing to Lehmann. Eventually even his eponymous imprint—once the arbiter of the best of the new—lost its cachet and the backing of the moneymen. When his publishing career collapsed, Lehmann turned to America by necessity. He began an itinerant life lecturing on campuses where he could hold forth on his long-lived and impressive literary connections. Each term, he embarked on a new tragic romance with a much younger American man who adored him for the few months it took for the patina to wear off. Despite living in Austin, San Diego, and Berkeley, he remained British to the core. Christopher Isherwood had given up on England long ago. With his friend and sometime lover W. H. Auden he emigrated to America in January 1939. Isherwood, the man who held “the future of the English novel in his hands,” was excoriated for abandoning his country in time of war. Auden stayed in New York but Isherwood pressed westward, settling in Los Angeles, his “sexual homeland.” He became a U.S. citizen in 1946. For three decades he had been happily ensconced in Southern California. On the beach below—within sight of the canyon house—he had met the great love of his life, the young artist Don Bachardy. He and Bachardy had lived together for almost twenty years. But this afternoon he consulted the old friend who had known him forever, a friend from the old world. Though sometimes he found Lehmann’s self-importance boring, Christopher valued his editorial instinct. He had a secret, and he wanted John’s advice.

A packet had arrived from King’s College, Cambridge. In death, Morgan Forster had brought them together again. The great architect of narrative surprise had unveiled a final turn of plot.

E. M. Forster, the “master” whom they called by his intimate name, Morgan, was the only writer of the previous generation they admired without reservation. On the face of it, he seemed like an odd literary mentor. Born in 1879, Forster was more than twenty years their senior. He made his name before the First World War. By the time he was thirty, he had published a collection of short stories and four well-received novels: Where Angels Fear to Tread, The Longest Journey, A Room with a View, and Howards End. Compared to the great experimenters Joyce or Woolf, Forster’s early novels seemed sedate. But to John and Christopher, these subtle satires of buttoned-up English life were revelatory and unpredictable. Christopher admired Morgan’s light touch, his razor balance of humor and wryness, insight and idealism. “Instead of trying to screw all his scenes up to the highest possible pitch, he tones them down until they sound like mothers’-meeting gossip… There’s actually less emphasis laid on the big scenes than on the unimportant ones.” The novels looked at life from a complicated position—finding a dark vein of social comedy in the tragic blindness of British self-satisfaction. In spite of their sensitivity, they had a sinewy wit.

After the first four novels, there was silence. Morgan struggled for more than a decade to produce his last novel. A Passage to India came out in 1924. It had all the hallmarks of his earlier novels, but Morgan’s insight was burnished into a tragic wisdom. Now he asked, in the voice of an Indian man, if it was “possible to be friends with an Englishman.” Despite their intentions to connect in spite of barriers of race and culture, Forster’s complex and enlightened characters—Mrs. Moore and Fielding, Dr. Aziz and Professor Godbole—faced a world that seemed destined to break their wills and their hearts. But after A Passage to India, a curious silence. One of the most prominent novelists of his time appeared to simply 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.

But Forster forged on as a journalist, reviewer, and advocate for writers’ freedom. Despite being “so shy it makes one feel embarrassed,” he became a pungent social critic. He argued that Western democracies deeply misunderstand the third world. And he believed that democracy can be sustained only through tolerance and openness, especially when these qualities seem to threaten national security. More than anyone Christopher knew, Morgan lived by his personal beliefs. Christopher admired Morgan’s integrity, his ability to apply his liberal beliefs in day-to-day ethical practice. He pronounced Morgan “saner than anyone else I know… He’s strong because he doesn’t try to be a stiff-lipped stoic like the rest of us, and so he’ll never crack.”

For more than fifty years Forster entered political fights from the position of the underdog. Almost every week one could read a pithy and pointed letter to the editor in his inimitable voice. He protested against fascism, against censorship, against communism, against “Jew-Consciousness,” against the British occupation of Egypt and India, against racism and jingoism and anything that smelled of John Bull. Morgan’s public voice wasn’t stentorian. He raised it, tremulously, often alone, against the edifice of conformity.

As self-proclaimed gay men, Isherwood and Lehmann adopted the American neologism adopted by the men who resisted police harassment at the Stonewall Inn in Sheridan Square, the men who embraced gay liberation, who eschewed the medical term homosexual, which had marked them for decades as a “species.” That they had lived through a sea change in attitudes and argot gave them fierce insight into the mystery of Morgan’s strange broken-backed career. They knew—or suspected—that by the time he published Howards End in 1910, Morgan had grown tired of the masquerade of propriety—the unspoiled-countryside settings, the oh-so-English people in their white linen suits, the clever repartée—that generated his plots. As early as June 1911, he confided in his diary his “weariness of the only subject that I both can and may treat—the love of men for women & vice versa.” After A Passage to India, published in 1924, he simply gave that task up.

Five months had passed since Morgan died in early June. The great old man was ninety-one. He had been a beacon to them both—a confidant, and a cultural father figure.

The brightness of the November day was transitory. With the mysterious package lurking in the book-lined study at the end of the hall, Lehmann allowed himself to be “dragged… off” to sit for a portrait. Isherwood’s partner, Don Bachardy, was a skilled draftsman with a distinctive, intimate style: he drew only from life, in real time and natural light, finishing the work in a single session as he sat close enough to his subject to feel his breath. When they had met almost twenty years before, Bachardy was barely eighteen and Isherwood forty-nine. It was a romance as dramatic and impossible—seemingly as sure to collapse—as Bachardy’s little studio perched on the hillside. But the couple, gay, out, defiant, had rewritten the familiar story in their long partnership. Looking back on their long life together, Bachardy couldn’t repress a mischievous gap-toothed grin. Isherwood, he said with glee, “took [a] young boy and warped him to his mold. It was exactly what the boy wanted, and he flourished.”

The light fading, the portrait still wet with wash, Bachardy discreetly slipped away to have dinner with friends. Lehmann and Isherwood settled into the two chairs in the living room, where David Hockney had famously posed Don and Christopher for a double portrait the year before. Before they could dig in to conversation, the Bride of Frankenstein appeared. Literally. The actress Elsa Lanchester, another British transplant in Hollywood, was Christopher’s nearest neighbor in the canyon. The lonely widow of Charles Laughton, she had an “unnerving habit of appearing uninvited through hedges.” Hearing of Lehmann’s visit, she had decided to pay a call.

Lanchester had lived alone for a decade. She was capable of drinking too much. Her large brown eyes could grow pathetic with storms of emotion. But that night, “very affectionate and gentle,” she reminisced about John’s sister Beatrix, a friend and fellow actress with whom she had worked in England long ago. The men delicately escorted Lanchester home, and finally settled in Isherwood’s study. The windows overlooking the ocean began to darken.

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.”

Life as a Novel

Forster conducted his life as if everyone lived in a novel, with the rich inner life of characters’ motives and feelings operating as the rules of the world. Every occasion was carefully observed, and even the most clear-cut matters subject to interpretation. His excessive insight made him seem hopeless about practicalities. One friend called him a “dreamer” and counseled that he should “face facts.” Morgan responded precisely: “It’s impossible to face facts. They’re like the walls of a room, all round you. If you face one wall, you must have your back to the other three.” His hyperprecision sometimes savored of the absurd: once when asked if it was raining, Forster slowly walked to the window and replied, “I will try to decide.”

The previous July, just after he arrived at King’s for his residency, Lancaster found himself alone in an octagonal room where a tiny black-and-white television had been installed on a tea cart before the fireplace as a begrudging acknowledgment of the wider world. Next door was the Fellows’ Senior Combination Room, on whose claret-colored walls the portraits of great Kingsmen—all friends of Morgan, all dead—gazed down: Rupert Brooke, a Roger Fry self-portrait, Duncan Grant’s painting of Maynard Keynes. In contrast, the little room had barely enough room for two armchairs and a couple of vitrines stuffed with ancient pottery that flanked the Gothic window. It was a nondescript time in the midmorning, and the BBC was broadcasting coverage of the first moon landing. Decades later, Lancaster still remembered the scene clearly. Morgan “shuffled in, asked me what it was, settled down to watch” on the armchair beside him. He leaned forward conspiratorially toward Mark. “I’m not sure they should be doing that,” he said quietly.

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.

When Christopher first met Morgan in September 1932, he was already yearning to be his “disciple.” Here was a gay mentor, a novelist who had found “the key to the whole art of writing.” Christopher admired Morgan’s technical skill, but he was awed by his humility. He reminded Christopher of a Zen master. For his part, Forster was attracted to the courage and clarity of the young man’s writing. The Memorial had caught his eye. It was published by his old friends the Woolfs, and came recommended by a congenial new friend, William Plomer, whose novel Sado centered on a homoerotic affair between an expatriate (much like Plomer) and a Japanese boy. The Woolfs had published Sado, too.

The Memorial was subtitled “Portrait of a Family” but Christopher’s working title had been “War and Peace.” Charting the wreckage of the Great War through the story of an upper-middle-class English family was precariously close to autobiography for Christopher. His father had been killed at Ypres in 1915 when the boy was only ten. All his life Christopher deeply resented his widowed mother’s psychic sway over him. But the dark character at the center of the novel resembled Christopher only slightly. Edward Blake was a galvanic creation: homosexual, bitterly funny, miserable, shell-shocked, a veteran of the war. In one scene, told from Edward’s point of view, he puts the muzzle of a gun into his mouth, pulls the trigger—and botches the suicide. The novel’s voice was a perfect blend of the attitude of the postwar generation: arresting, grim, and sardonic. Christopher’s writing was so lucid and matter-of-fact that people mistook it for journalism all his life.

He was masterful at writing about sex. The young people are refreshingly irreverent about this solemn subject. Edward proposes to sleep with Margaret, his putative girlfriend, by invoking “our duty to our neighbours.” Margaret complies, laughingly threatening him: “To think, Edward—I might cure you.”

“And so, one evening at the studio, after a particularly hectic party, they’d started—and it had been really very funny and not the least disgusting—but quite hopeless. They sat up in bed and laughed and laughed. “Oh Edward!” laughed Margaret—for she was pretty tight, too—“I shall never be able to sleep with a man again. At the critical moment I shall always think of you.”… “I might return the compliment,” said Edward.”

In the final scene of the novel, Edward Blake finds the place where he belongs: in Berlin, in bed with a venal if seductive German boy.

Anticipating his first meeting with Morgan, Christopher wrote Stephen Spender half-jokingly, “I shall spend the entire morning making up.” Not that he put on mascara. Rather, he polished his most precious currency: tantalizing tales of the boy bars in Berlin. And he had stories to tell of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld and his Institute for Sexual Science, with its museum crammed with sex toys and fantasy pictures. Hirschfeld came straight out of Central Casting for the figure of a German scientist; he was a “silly solemn old professor with [a] doggy mustache” and thick glasses. He lived over the shop with Karl Giese, his secretary and lover. There was something poignant and defiant about Hirschfeld’s resolute belief that sex was a legitimate object of study, and he had paid a price for his public campaign to decriminalize consensual sex between men. Twice he had been badly beaten in the street by Nazi thugs. To Christopher, Berlin was a place where there was no pretense to the “duty” of heterosexual affections. By going to Germany he thought he had escaped the hypocrisy, the puritanism, the portentous respectability of the prison he called England.

They met in the Brunswick Square flat that Morgan had rented a few years before as an occasional escape from the suburban surveillance of his mother. It was a plain set of rooms in a rather shabby Victorian row house. On the sitting-room wall hung a talisman of Morgan’s friendship with the exotic and dashing T. E. Lawrence—an original illustration of an Arab boy, knife unsheathed, which had been commissioned for the privately printed edition of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Christopher was so bowled over that he barely recalled their conversation. But the pleasurable sense of being invited into the circle of the elect was palpable. In a special token of intimacy, Forster lent Isherwood the precious copy of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom given to him by Lawrence himself. The book was a brilliant record of Lawrence’s campaign in the Middle East just after the war. The story of his disguising himself to fight alongside the Arabs was so colorful that some readers thought it was an Orientalist fantasy. It was by turns heroic and harrowing. In one horrifying scene, Lawrence describes his rape and torture as a prisoner of the Turks in Deraa. Christopher left the flat “clasping this magic volume,” aglow with excitement and awe.

If Christopher wanted to be a disciple, Morgan equally found himself in need of one just then. For him it was an especially vulnerable moment. His “lover and beloved,” Bob Buckingham, had recently married, and Morgan was just beginning to reconcile himself painfully to the fact. Meeting these new young friends, these gay intellectuals and writers, was a partial salve. He needed companionship, frank talk, and laughter, not sex. Expanding the circle of confidants and friends was a characteristic means for him to move past an emotional bottleneck.

Six months after his first meeting with Morgan, Christopher returned to London as the world of Berlin collapsed in ruins around him. The recently elected Nazi government was making a show of cleaning up vice, shutting down the boy bars and arresting gay men in roundups. Virulent mobs smashed windows and set fire to Hirschfeld’s institute, forcing him and Giese to flee. Christopher recognized that Germany was no longer the haven he once imagined it could be. Some homosexuals he knew had declared themselves Nazi sympathizers, believing it would protect them, but Christopher lamented the tragedy of “self-deceivers.” His burning concern was how to find a way for his lover, Heinz Neddermeyer, whom he had left behind, to escape to some shared safety.

On this second visit, in a gesture that became a ritual of intimacy, Morgan showed Christopher the typescript of Maurice. Like John Lehmann and Christopher almost forty years later, Morgan and Christopher sat side by side in the Brunswick Square boîte with the precious draft between them. What did he think, Morgan wanted to know? The master appealed to the pupil, and the pupil was overwhelmed. The truth was that to the younger man’s ear, Morgan’s writing about sex sounded “antique” and prudish. The scene when Maurice announces that he’s slept with Alec made him cringe with embarrassment. Morgan had concocted a ridiculous euphemism for making love—the word sharing.

“I have shared with Alec,” [Maurice] said after deep thought.

“Shared what?”

“All I have. Which includes my body.”

But the novel’s occasional solecisms were almost beside the point. Morgan came from a different time. The man who had penned the word sharing could hardly be expected to call himself gay. Morgan’s lifelong resistance to labeling had nothing to do with caution or cowardice. Whatever its locutions, Maurice was passionate and honest. Christopher was moved by the thought of Morgan so brave and alone, “imprisoned within the jungle of pre-war prejudice, putting these unthinkable thoughts into words.” He understood that being shown the novel was Morgan’s expression of a quasi-paternal connection with a gay man from the thirties generation. Morgan struck Christopher as immensely lonely, and Morgan was sensitive that the novel had lived in the hothouse for too long. Apprehensively, he asked Christopher: “Does it date?” Christopher’s response was a perfect blend of compassion and honesty. “Why shouldn’t it date?” he replied stoutly. “Eyes brimming with tears,” the young acolyte told Morgan that he admired the novel profoundly, that it was pioneering work, that he thought it was wonderful and brave. Hearing this, Forster leaned forward and gently kissed Christopher on the cheek. The moment cemented their friendship for life.

But acquiescing to Christopher’s desire that the novel should be published was another matter altogether. Here it was impossible to distinguish Morgan’s self-protectiveness from timidity. Christopher hammered away all summer long, in letters from abroad. Heinz had tried unsuccessfully to enter England, ostensibly to work for Christopher as a domestic servant, but he was interrogated at Harwich and deported. Auden, who was a witness to the event, guessed that the malevolent customs officer, a “bright-eyed little rat,” was “one of us.” So Christopher left England, “committed to wandering the world until he found somewhere they could both settle, unharried by immigration checks and customs officials.” For a time, that place was the Canary Islands.

Morgan’s letters to Christopher in this warm paradise led Morgan to speculate on his fictional lovers as if they were real people living in the world. Confiding in the young man, Morgan ruminated on the question, still quite raw after Bob’s marriage, of what he could expect in the way of fidelity and intimacy. He cast the discussion in terms of strategies to revise the novel, but the idea was clearly a proxy for his own emotional state.

“I think what might happen is a permanent relationship, but with all sorts of vagaries, fears, illnesses, distraction, fraying out at its edges, and this would take a long time to represent. One may shorten it, perhaps, if one made them take a vow, and Maurice could take it, but I doubt about Alec, as about myself. We are, both of us, more likely to look back and realise that we have, after all, sacrificed enough to bring the thing off.”

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

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

© Wendy Moffat

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