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

Wendy Moffat

All his life Morgan Forster lived in a world imprisoned by prejudice against homosexuals. He was 16 when Oscar Wilde was sent to prison, and he died the year after the Stonewall riots.

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.

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