Only Disconnect

Selected Letters of E.M. Forster Vol. II, 1921–1970

edited by Mary Lago, edited by P.N. Furbank
Harvard University Press (Belknap Press), 365 pp., $20.00

When Lionel Trilling wrote a short book of criticism about Forster’s novels—one of the earliest and best—he did not know about Forster’s homosexuality. The novelist in any case was still alive and so the subject could not have been mentioned. Our sexual climate has changed so quickly that it seems odd to remember this. The thing was taken for granted, of course, in his circle and in these letters to his friends, and mentioned no more frequently than sex itself would have been at a slightly earlier date. (As Philip Larkin puts it in a poem, “Sexual intercourse began / In 1963.”) A year or two earlier than that, I happened to mention the subject without thinking, in a piece on Forster’s novels, and was instantly sent a very sharp missive by the great man, requiring me never to do so again.

Trilling’s book gains, if anything, from the omission. And Wilfred Stone’s study, The Cave and the Mountain, does not suffer either. Forster and Stone had a ceremonious correspondence (“We talked of your research-projects, and I am concerned to think that I may be incommoding them”) and a “compromise” was worked out in 1957 which left the novelist’s privacy wholly intact. A positive advantage to Stone, who concentrated instead on the inner significance of the Marabar caves and hills, and thus added an illuminating chapter to Forster studies. Certainly one of the most haunting things in A Passage to India is Mrs. Moore’s reaction to her Marabar experiences, and here Forster seems to be using the mother figure both to test a blank experience and to protect himself against it. Mrs. Moore’s vastation and death are a curiously subtle revenge against the mother who could never be told anything, but on whom his emotional security continued to depend.

His long diary letters to his mother from India in 1921 are not of great interest, because they are seeing India through his mother’s eyes, as it were, and telling her what she would like to hear from him about it. In the second half of his life Forster became increasingly chameleonlike as a correspondent, where his mother was concerned rather touchingly so. At times does he not overdo it? Can she have been taken in when he sends her an account of Hardy’s funeral at Westminster Abbey in January 1928, remarking demurely that “it was very wonderful standing close to such great people for so long.” True, he is appropriately feline the next moment, noting that Kipling had been “dumped” between Ramsay MacDonald and Bernard Shaw and “did not seem to appreciate his position.” The mother motif returns when Forster is writing to Christopher Isherwood about The Ascent of F6, and how to mount the climactic scene with the ice mother at the top of the mountain: “You want something easy for the spectator, and the easiest is mother in white on ice-throne.”

By then Forster had long ceased to write novels, though occasional essays and puckishly evangelical pamphlets…

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