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, and the two men commenced an affair that, over a period of forty years, settled into a kind of cozy, unorthodox partnership. Bob eventually married a woman called May Hockey, but his relationship with the writer continued with her tacit permission, while she and Forster slowly developed a loving connection of their own. But despite the unusual arrangements—the mutually sustaining ones—that governed his private life, Forster’s public persona was resolutely conventional. It wasn’t until 1971, a year after his death, that his novel Maurice, featuring a homosexual affair, was published, sixty years after it was written.
For Forster’s artistic conscience, the novels succeeded where the voice sounded inwardly. He had his life, but his sexual activity was steeped in silence, or the kind of silence that opens up in diaries. With Forster you’re essentially dealing with a novelist who stopped writing novels in order to succeed as a man who could love without inflection. This, admittedly, is not the triumphant note sounded by queer studies, but it is nevertheless the best Forster could hope for, and perhaps the best Oscar Wilde or Siegfried Sassoon could hope for, too. Their writing was built for the perfect articulation of privacy, and one man’s imprisonment is another man’s freedom. The achievement of Wendy Moffat’s biography is that it shows us one kind of artist’s life as it goes about itself, drawing sweet, personal air from a certain social stagnancy. Forster’s life, so pitied by many, was on this account an admirable one: he moved through his times, breathing and loving and keeping his counsel, forever aware, I suspect, that literary talent might cleave to its mysteries.
Mind you, it didn’t always seem sweet to Forster, and this is a biography that knows how to dramatize the turmoil he felt. “I should have been a more famous writer if I had written or rather published more,” he wrote in his diary on December 31, 1964, “but sex has prevented the latter.” It is a nuance often overlooked in the story of a writer’s life that he will, in some cases, stop publishing in order to preserve the legend of his gifts. The matter goes to the heart of Forster, and we can find fresh evidence both for and against him in these books about his art.
It was D.H. Lawrence, of all people at the time, who spotted Forster’s trouble (and his opportunity). In a letter to Bertrand Russell quoted by Christopher Lane in his essay in the Cambridge Companion to E.M. Forster, Lawrence identifies the difference between the mind of Forster and that of others. Forster knows, he wrote, “that self-realisation is not his ultimate desire. His ultimate desire is for the continued action which has been called the social passion—the love for humanity—the desire to work for humanity.” As early as 1922, Forster was putting his “indecent” short stories into the fire, “as many as the fire will take. Not a moral repentance, but [because] they clogged me artistically. They…were a wrong channel for my pen.”
This will seem counterintuitive to many of the literary freedom fighters of today, and they may be right. There’s no question that Forster’s disavowal of sexual “content” eventually stopped him from writing novels. Yet there may be little to be gained in contemplating the novels he might have written, when there’s so much to be said about the ones he did write, and we can now begin to see the special forces that made them possible.
“What Forster wants to know about the human heart,” wrote Lionel Trilling in his critical study, “must be caught by surprise, by what he calls the ‘relaxed will’ [and] what is so caught cannot be caught in any other way.” It should probably interest us, as much as baffle us, that Maurice, the only one of Forster’s novels to deal explicitly with homosexuality, is by far his least successful novel. In a sense—a sense that may be purely literary—Maurice is a book that just isn’t personal enough. It wasn’t a product of the “relaxed will” but of some other province, the forced will, the need to produce something uninflected and to name the unnameable. Not only embarrassment or self-censorship, but self-knowledge, I believe, kept the book out of sight for sixty years.
Forster was anxious, no doubt, not to shame his mother, but more crucially, he may have been anxious not to shame the character of his art. For Forster, art was based, in his own words, “on an integrity in man’s nature which is deeper than moral integrity,” and—weirdly—it is that deeper integrity that is missing from Maurice. It is a novel that displays desire but does not inhabit it; a novel that “deals with” reality but does not increase upon it. The book is fine, but it has none of the metaphoric stamina of A Passage to India. It hasn’t the pattern, the subtlety, the authentic shadows of life and death, or the ascending power to be found in the best of his novels. (This must be what Forster means when he later said the story of Maurice and Alec, especially the happy ending with its note of salvation, was “fake.”)
Trilling, famously, managed to write a whole book about Forster without once mentioning his sexuality. In a letter he wrote to Cynthia Ozick many years later, he said that it wasn’t until he had finished writing his Forster book that he came to “the explicit realization that he was homosexual.” Trilling felt that it might have been due to a “particular obtuseness” on his part, but it didn’t at first seem to him of crucial importance. As he was writing the book, Trilling simply (or not so simply) believed that Forster’s mind was odd and unpredictable, his work drawing on political and moral questions bigger than the question of who he was sleeping with.
To some biographers, the estimable Wendy Moffat included, there is no question bigger or more haunting than that one, and she leads you further and deeper into the forests of possibility when it comes to Forster’s sexual motivations. He would conceal himself and reveal himself in unexpected ways. The codes of his Victorian childhood lay deep in him, Moffat proves, but she also shows how he could be queeny when he wanted to be, later on, when he was friends with Isherwood’s crowd. In 1933 we find him writing a startled, dubious, rebuking letter to Siegfried Sassoon, who, despite his past gayness, had just fallen in love with a woman and decided to marry her. Forster, like many artists motivated toward having more than one life, was not always so keen in tolerating the multiple lives of others.
As a novelist and critic, Forster was a little civilization unto himself, but it is not his view of himself that keeps his work alive, but his larger view of humanity. His very famous motto, “Only connect the prose and the passion,” did not apply in any straightforward way to himself. But it applies to our understanding of moral realism and the novel. As Trilling saw it, Forster was a product of the liberal imagination but also a writer “deeply at odds with the liberal mind, and while liberal readers can go a long way with Forster, they can seldom go all the way.” When you look again at the novels you see a map of compassion disclosing dark continents. There are seas of philosophy and peopled villages; there are home truths and foreign parts. And it is Forster’s genius that he can make us know each terrain intimately, without the impulse to turn each story too simply into a story about him.
Forster started early with the art of reticence. Monteriano, the Italian town in Where Angels Fear to Tread, floats “like some fantastic ship city of a dream.” It was a place, unlike England, where the exotic may hold sway, where brute passion might serve to upbraid the world of parasols and lace. But if this is honesty—if Gino is some gracious, hulking warning against human pretension—then the dominion of English civility is also shown to be relentless. “Foreigners are a filthy nation,” says Harriet Herriton, and the novel’s dramatic charm lies in the way Forster slowly reveals, via the horribly bungled attempt to steal Gino’s child, how the modern world has suffered greatly (as well as benefited) from England’s good intentions. Italy is a culture as sophisticated as any, and in this novel, Forster’s first, English arrogance begins to look like moral dullness.