Forster and his Merry Men

E.M. Forster
E.M. Forster; drawing by David Levine

Despite what is said about literature’s power to shock, it is rare for a piece of writing to send a thrill of horror through those whose nerves are in reasonably good condition. Such a thrill, however, is administered by one of this collection of largely unknown stories by E. M. Forster: only two have hitherto appeared in print. The story is called “The Classical Annex.” The prissy curator of a dull museum in a boring town with the apt name of Bigglesmouth discovers that the objects in the Classical section have come to life and been damaged. The fig leaf falls from an inferior stone statue, which develops, mirabile dictu, an erection. By making the sign of the Cross, the curator stills his animated antiquities and sets off home, catching a tram.

His wife, who has pale blue Northern eyes, greets him with the news that their son Denis has gone to meet him: since he doesn’t usually take the tram, Denis is likely to have proceeded to the museum, with almost nothing on except his football shorts. The curator, alarmed, retraces his steps, and arrives at the museum to hear the sound of his son’s giggles as he accepts the Mediterranean embraces of the Priapus of the Classical section. The curator retires from his post. Denis dies in the act, or something, and his seduction magically endures in stone, supplying the museum with a new and acceptably gladiatorial statue. Applauding this sporting, rather than sportive, statue, and speaking in the extravagantly distinctive language which Forster often assigns to his working-class characters, a philistine local councilor says: “Look ‘ow the elder brother’s got the little chappie down. Look ‘ow well the little chappie’s taking it.”

I should explain that what I take to be objectionable in the story is not so much Denis’s rape as the violence done to his dad in the form of a kind of trick or practical joke. The story is in Forster’s fanciful vein, which was placed here at the service of the homosexual cause or interest, at a time when such a thing could confidently be supposed to exist in Britain. The trick played in the story is played for the same reason. The collection is full of such tricks. Why did this writer want to play them?

The answer must partly lie in homosexuality’s long history of proscription and clandestinity, which has engendered, among other things, tricks, revenges, a spiteful sense of grievance, and a robust chauvinism. In 1967 a Private Member’s Bill was passed in the House of Commons (the Labour government of the day did not promote it, and voting was on a non-party basis) which seemed to many to bring that history to an end by stating that homosexual behavior between consenting adults should no longer be accounted a criminal offense. But the liberating effects of the Sexual Offences Act are…

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