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Forster and his Merry Men

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 by no means as extensive as is generally assumed.

The age of consent is twenty-one, which means that homosexual students are still liable to the penalties of the law. So are members of the armed forces if they make love on military premises, and so are merchant seamen if they do so on board ship (always a propitious place, as these stories indicate). The Act does not apply in Scotland, or in Northern Ireland (where they may not mind, preferring to make war). There were more convictions for buggery in 1970 than there were in 1967, the 1970 figures for indecency with males were nearly double those for 1967, and the 1971 figures nearly treble. Despite this, the Act has, I think, done much to alter what had survived of the social setting which governs the consents imagined in Forster’s homosexual writings, and it has contributed to the situation in which it has seemed possible to publish them.

Apart from some that were destroyed, these writings consist of the novel Maurice and most of the present book, though there may be some fragments still in store. Forster died in 1970, at the age of ninety-one, and after that it was decided to publish what was once unpublishable. Maurice has already appeared, and now The Life to Come has been brought out as the first volume in the projected Abinger edition of the collected works, to be edited by Oliver Stallybrass.

Maurice includes a “Terminal Note,” dated 1960, in which Forster expresses the view that the Wolfenden proposals on homosexuality would never find favor with Parliament: in fact, they were incorporated in the Act of a few years later. As far as public attitudes are concerned, he remarks, all that has happened is that “ignorance and terror” have been replaced by “familiarity and contempt.” It is as if familiarity with ignorance and terror had bred an undue pessimism. Since the Act has come into force, homosexuality has no longer been the reproach it once was, and it has even acquired a little of the old-world banality of Bigglesmouth museum. It is no longer glamorous, and seems to have become a less obtrusive feature of British life. The Homintern, as the international homosexual underground used to be called, has scarcely disbanded, but its secrets are common knowledge. Sir Noel Coward, once its Mephistopheles, died recently in Jamaica in the odor of respectability that used to surround the great governors-general.

The Act caused no commotion: there were no bonfires, and there was no backlash. And in responding to these changes, the British have managed to display themselves in a fairly good light: as sensible and equable and comparatively humane. England has done better than Forster expected. These changes, however, have provided an awkward climate for the publication of the revenges and sweet dreams of a deprived and embattled homosexual. What is painful in the stories is likely to look worse now than it must have looked in the heyday of blackmail and disgrace, when scandal and secrecy worked like a charm to gain converts to the cause, when camp could properly be regarded as involving a courageous and virtuous response to manifest injustice.

In 1935, at the age of fifty-six, Forster set down in a personal memorandum the kind of resolution which a young man might make with regard to his hopes for adult life: “I want to love a strong young man of the lower classes and be loved by him and even hurt by him. That is my ticket, and then I have wanted to write respectable novels.” In fact, it was already apparent to him many years before, when he embarked on his “indecent writings,” that this was his ticket. In 1922 he had this to say in his diary on the subject of these writings:

They were written not to express myself but to excite myself, and when first—15 years back?—I began them, I had a feeling that I was doing something positively dangerous to my career as a novelist. I am not ashamed of them….

Some of the indecent writings suggest, however, that he hadn’t had much personal experience of the indecencies which are celebrated there. Solitariness and dreaming are at the heart of several of the stories, which enact delirious consents and idyllic “sharings” in the long grass. “Come!” cries the tortured youth as he lies in bed, and the strong young man of the lower classes bounds obligingly through the open window. A discontented public-school boy ails and loiters in some country house, where a working-class pagan—reeking of the Greenwood and of Robin Hood and his merry men—arrives to rescue him.

What is striking is the extent to which the sexual program embodied in the stories—Forster’s ticket—was determined by the class system of Edwardian England. It is almost as if in a less hierarchical society, a kinder society, his lusts would have been at a loss. He hated the treatment his lads received from their betters, but he himself was one of these betters, perhaps unavoidably. He was better than his lads, too, in a more literal sense—in certain respects which he could not convincingly have claimed were unimportant: in respect of truthfulness, for example, though there’s an occasion in the stories when he does appear to claim that truthfulness is unimportant, in comparison with what a man looks like. His amorous dreams cherished and exaggerated the differences between himself and his lads: to that extent at least, the sadomasochistic element in these dreams entailed some submission to the class system he detested.

Noblesse not only obliges, and is obliged, in the indecent writings: it also makes its presence felt, at times, in a rather more familiar fashion. Maurice, Forster explains in a ruling-class voice, “was a mediocre member of a mediocre school.” Elsewhere, when Maurice and his lover Clive roar off on a motorbike into the countryside, throw the bike aside, and bathe joyfully together, it is not thought worthy of comment that they should then approach a farmer’s wife and ask for tea. The farmer’s wife proves “inhospitable and ungracious,” but she complies. Admittedly, Clive is a squire, and is soon shown to be highhanded: “Goodbye, we’re greatly obliged,” he says to her. Nevertheless, the incident is mildly disturbing. It is hard not to feel that if it had been a farmer’s boy, and if Maurice had been single at the time, there would have been more to record in the way of hospitality.

I admired and liked Forster very much, and I am sorry that I cannot be warmer about the clandestine productions. His own misgivings of 1922 were, in my opinion, justified. His indecent writings are special and partisan in a way that interfered with the exercise of his talents as a writer of fiction. He was exciting himself. Many good writers excite themselves and indulge in daydreams: there’s a lot of that about, and it’s perfectly safe to refer to it as literature, and not as anything disreputable. But Forster’s daydreams are severely constrained by the predicament from which they arose. He grew up a shy, proud man with a distinct pudeur—to use a word that Leavis has used to evoke with approval a quality that was frequently encountered in Englishmen of his own generation, which was also Forster’s—in a country which forbade him his sexual desires, which seems in effect to have enjoined celibacy on him for much of his life, and which locked him in visions of a quaint world largely populated by colonels and game-keepers, silly women and jolly sailors, giggling youths and those whom they are successfully deceiving.

Some of the stories have a school-boy naughtiness, and some appear to lack knowledge of the conduct they describe. The mischievous daydreams with which he comforted and beguiled himself cannot bear comparison with those works of his in which he knows rather than dreams his subject, in which he undertakes to address an audience not entirely composed of friends and fellow homosexuals, and in which he is not noticeably constrained by the difficulties which may come to someone who wishes to make forbidden love to his inferiors and to celebrate that love in fiction.

Perhaps the acid test of his indecent writings is the women in them. The author of A Passage to India and Howards End showed that he could create interesting, if not “exciting” women. But the women in his indecent writings tend to be resented and belittled stereotypes. These sisters and maters, like the sirs and sahibs to whom they belong, are introduced mainly in order to be humiliated: they are all of them seen as no more than the oppressors of his lads.

It is a measure of the restrictive character of the reveries that sprang from his imprisoned condition that in one of the stories where his dislike for his females is most marked the tone is closer to the stories of Somerset Maugham than it is to A Passage to India. “The Obelisk” has more than a taste of Maugham’s beady, worldly quality. “Ernest was an elementary schoolmaster, and very very small.” Hilda, his wife, for all her dissatisfaction with his size, is not much bigger herself. Both are mediocre. “She tried to steady herself by her modesty, which was considerable, and well-grounded.”

They set off to climb a hill to look at the obelisk which is the pride of the seaside town they’re visiting, and they meet two sailors, one large and endearingly uncouth, the other a suave Ronald Colman. On the way up, Ronald Colman and Hilda diverge from the others, and she yields to him in the bushes with the dreamlike rapidity which distinguishes many of the yieldings in the book. Presently the four of them foregather at the foot of the hill: reasons are given for the separation that has occurred, and they behave as if they have seen the obelisk. Hilda is stirred and edified by her seduction. Then she discovers that the obelisk is no longer there, that it has fallen from its rock during a spell of heavy rain (it must have been a very mediocre obelisk). She deduces that Ernest, too, has been sharing in the bushes, with the other, the uncouth matelot. What larks! She takes a peep at her husband: “He looked handsomer than usual, and happier, and his lips were parted in a natural smile.”

The British navy has often sailed to the rescue of the sexually oppressed. But on this occasion it is difficult to cheer. Hilda has been tricked, as Forster sometimes wanted his women to be tricked. She had much to be modest about: now she has a bit more, though perhaps she will benefit from Ernest’s ability to summon a natural smile…. The belittling of Hilda in this story is assisted by the scholarship of Mr. Stallybrass. “Her eyes filled with happy tears of happiness.” There may be a manuscript error here, Mr. Stallybrass concedes, “but it seems possible that the tautology is meant to match the banal, cliché-ridden quality of Hilda’s thoughts in this paragraph.” It seems more likely to have been a mistake. But there is nothing like casting the last stone, even if it means publishing a sentence that would make even a misogynist wince.

A better tale of stolen delights and the deception of the enemy is entitled “Arthur Snatchfold.” A tolerant, bisexual, middle-aged tycoon—of a kind that the writer, who spent some years as a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, must have dined with at high table—is enduring a dull country week-end at the house of a business associate. The editorial introduction speaks rather wildly of “the horrors of a vapid, pointless, sham-rural weekend in uncongenial company,” which are “enough to drive anyone to a roll in the bracken with the milkman.” This almost suggests that milkmen may be counted on to oblige an exasperated tycoon. And it’s true that golden-shirted Arthur (gold serves as an erotic signal in these stories) assents with a readiness which captivates Sir Richard Conway. “Thus, exactly thus, should the smaller pleasures of life be approached. They understood one another with a precision impossible for lovers. He laid his face on the warm skin over the clavicle….”

While it accords with the droll, clodhopping traits not uncommon in the Forsterian working class, Arthur Snatchfold is a funny name for the milkman, carrying as it does intimations of theft and of vaginas. Arthur, in fact, is very virile and no thief, and when he is brought before the local magistrate, Conway’s business associate, for an act of indecency in the bracken, he refuses to identify his male partner. The unidentified partner, Conway himself, is told about the case by the magistrate in a sharply handled scene in a London club, and he feels distressed and ashamed. These feelings are made all the more convincing for being seen as consistent with the knowledge that he will have no further dealings with the owner of that “obliging body.” Sir Richard is no martyr: he will not reveal his own role, or roll, and he will not be visiting Arthur in jail.

Like the golden lad he is, Arthur has trouble with the English language. Conway has no such trouble, nor does the author of these stories, who can write sentences which have a high-table ring, a magisterial confidence. Usually he does so in fun, or ironically: “Onto him thus desperately situated the Arbuthnots descended.” This is not one of his best sentences, but it occurs in what is perhaps the best story in the book, “The Other Boat,” which was written very late, in 1957-1958. It follows one of the book’s best effects: Captain Lionel March “showed the dash and decision that had so advantaged him in desert warfare: in other words he did not know what he was doing.”

The Other Boat” concerns a shipboard love affair between March and a supple Eurasian known as Cocoanut, wise in the ways of the flesh and of international finance. Cocoanut (again, the humble, absurd name, in polemical contrast with his lover’s grand one) is a reminder of Forster’s skepticism about the sexual capacities of the English, who need to be taught by such people. The love-making of the officer and the wog, the lion and the monkey, is very well done, and is passionate in a way that persuades. It travels far beyond a touching of the clavicle. The melodramatic and sticky end seems right, as do the closing ironies directed at March’s sahib mother, who has already figured in an earlier scene on board another ship, when the lovers first met as children, and whose irritable presence seems to hover over their Liebestod.

The book ends with a literary parlor game run by the magazine Wine and Food in 1944: practiced hands were invited to collaborate in the telling of a spy story set in a seaside resort which has been requisitioned by the army. Christopher Dilke starts the game off with a sprightly piece, and Forster enters into the spirit of the thing. An English Mata Hari contributes to the war effort. The resort lacks an obelisk, and there’s not a lad in sight. At this stage in the collection, their absence is hard to regret.

Some have claimed that the publication of these stories is a disservice to Forster, but I think, on balance, that the decision to publish them was correct. Together with Maurice, they are bound to inject doubts into the settled admiration which his work has long commanded, but to withhold them could hardly have helped seeming cowardly and untruthful. He is a good enough writer to bear the weight of his failures, and in any case these failures are interesting and explanatory.

The very weakness of his recourse to the invention of beguiling adventures and petty revenges testifies poignantly to the difficulties faced in his personal life and to the exactions of his society. These sweet, sadomasochistic dreams were an aspect of the Edwardian caste system: they were firmly roped to the British Raj, whose cruelties and snobberies he attached. In a sense, they were the Raj. I don’t believe, however, that the assault on the Raj in these stories is seriously compromised by the difficulties that attended it, or by any important measure of collusion with the enemy. The critique of Imperial England is neither fanciful nor unfair: there is plenty of supporting evidence for it.

Fresh evidence, also of a posthumous kind, has been provided by Evelyn Waugh’s diaries, which are currently being serialized in Britain. Here, too, homosexuality is the Raj—and the rage. At school and then at Oxford, Waugh found what Saint Augustine found at Carthage, where, according to the Confessions, “a whole frying-pan full of abominable loves crackled round about me.” Waugh lingered in the kitchen savoring and sneering, sneering hard at nearly everything: a spiritual exercise which continued in later life to appeal to the Blessed Evelyn, whose conversion could have gone a good deal further than it did.

At Oxford, friendships with women might almost appear to have been less socially acceptable than those between men: “Peter Quennell has been sent down for consorting with a woman called Cara.” In the bracken and elsewhere, the upper classes performed the great de haut en bas of l’entre deux guerres. The original of his Captain Grimes, Waugh reports, “seduced a garage boy in the hedge.” In varying proportions, these abominable loves united compassion and condescension. They made many people happy, exciting them, exalting them, giving them a life to lead, and helping them to put up with the heartlessness to which they were exposed. But buggery has very little to do with social justice, and these loves may be reckoned to have served, as well as subverted, an oppressive social system. Likely lads were required to lie low. That was what was so nice about them.

Waugh’s diaries are enough to make anyone feel affectionate toward Forster’s dreams, though Waugh is certainly the funnier of the two. Waugh yearned for privilege, while Forster yearned to escape from it. Waugh got what he wanted. But I am not sure that Forster did.

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