The behavior of the English in their gardens, at their dining tables, in their train compartments, and in their bedrooms was to obsess E.M. Forster from the start of his vocation, at King’s College, Cambridge, when he was amazed to discover he had the “special and unusual apparatus” to be a writer. In our time, his genteel, often picturesque take on these English things would make his novels very filmable, and one simply has to say the words “Merchant Ivory” to conjure a world of literary Edwardiana, a twilight world where ruby-cheeked girls in bonnets sit among aunts and reverends, often in foreign places, enduring their “barbed civilities.” There is always a train, a few noble rustics, a nice young man, and a muddle, but standing behind it all are Forster’s vastly personal hopes for a binding of the realistic and the mystical.
Forster’s quest, from the beginning, was for self-transformation and magic, for a prose that would carry the secret yearning of the heart into the bustle of the everyday. He succeeded that way, up to a point, but the questions arising from Wendy Moffat’s meticulous new biography remain very powerful for those interested in Forster: To what extent did the man’s privacy make the novelist’s work possible, make it beautiful, and, conversely, to what extent did he feel that public avowals of desire might murder his talent? Even allowing for P.N. Furbank’s magisterial two- volume biography of 1978, Moffat’s is the first one to see the sex with an inviting degree of clarity. And what it sees is a man who was neither ashamed nor in hiding, but one, possibly, who understood that the mystery of literary creation, for him at least, was of a love that made a better choice in not speaking its name.
He early got into the habit of fully inhabiting his privacy, a fact that might seem strange today, or even underhand, but which was nevertheless a crucial engine of his imagination. Though as a teenager and young adult Forster was perfectly attuned to his desire for men, his romantic life consisted mostly of intense but chaste friendships with his cohorts at Cambridge, and of vivid homosexual fantasies. It wasn’t until the age of thirty-seven, with four novels behind him—Where Angels Fear to Tread, The Longest Journey, A Room with a View, and Howards End—that he entered into his first sexual relationship, and, even then, it was more of an encounter than a relationship, a lusty tryst on the beach in Egypt with a recuperating soldier. In middle age, Forster began to live an active gay life—cultivating numerous lovers and an affectionate circle of gay friends. He learned from Lytton Strachey, J.R. Ackerley, and W.H. Auden how to be more himself, joining a group that defied English rigidities about class, embracing men from differing backgrounds.
In 1930, he met Bob Buckingham, a solidly built, very gentle policeman …