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.
Yet the good thing about the English, as viewed by Forster anyhow, is that looking down on foreigners is only a small part of the picture when it comes to the rites of superiority. They must also look down on each other. Forster always tries to resolve this snobbery in favor of true love, but the general impossibility of sex is seen mired in Forster’s novels around questions of English class. No one is free to love and assume a place in the world, so long as latent aggression (and defensiveness) about one’s true station is allowed at every turn to foul the air of liberty. The ringing note in Forster, thankfully, is one of social comedy. Look at this passage from early in A Room with a View, where the forthright Mr. Emerson and his son George attempt the (one would have thought) simple business of offering the ladies their nicer rooms at the Pension Bertolini:
“It’s so obvious they should have the rooms,” said the son. “There’s nothing else to say.”
He did not look at the ladies as he spoke, but his voice was perplexed and sorrowful. Lucy, too, was perplexed; but she saw that they were in for what is known as “quite a scene,” and she had an odd feeling that whenever these ill-bred tourists spoke the contest widened and deepened till it dealt, not with rooms and views, but with—well, with something quite different, whose existence she had not realized before. Now the old man attacked Miss Bartlett almost violently: Why should she not change? What possible objection had she? They would clear out in half an hour.
Miss Bartlett, though skilled in the delicacies of conversation, was powerless in the presence of brutality. It was impossible to snub anyone so gross. Her face reddened with displeasure. She looked around as much as to say, “Are you all like this?”
By “you all” she means, of course, the lower middle class, the say-as-I-find, commonsense, not quite delicate English. None of the foreigners in the book can deploy the almost mechanical disdain that Forster gives to these ladies. As characters, they have become perfectly solid in the public mind, not least because of Maggie Smith and Judi Dench’s punctilious embodiment of their little peccadilloes in the film adaptation. These are ladies who fear the violence of plain speaking even more than they fear the oily encroachments of the Italians, the snide intellections of the French, or the dark opportunism of the Indians, as experienced or imagined by Adela Quested, to terrible effect, in A Passage to India. But it is really the English who undo each other with their narrow versions of life, and in his keen observation of this, with his comic gaze and his captivating prose, Forster is a lightning conductor.
Wendy Moffat is a lively and suggestive companion, alert, in her own ways, to what makes a writer’s history and mentality. Concerning E.M. Forster by Frank Kermode, who died this August, consists of the Clark Lectures he delivered at Cambridge in 2007, plus a spirited “causerie.” It is a book that engages our hero at the level of the sentence. Kermode had what is sometimes called a perfect ear—not least, one suspects, for balancing praise with admonishment—and eight decades of reading made him English literature’s perfect sonar, a sounding device for what is possible in the language. But a good critic must have a fruitful imagination as well as a sensitive ear, and in this capacity Kermode was among the very best. When it comes to Forster, he not only detects the pulse of the author’s secrets, but the persistent music of his creative understanding, and while he can be tough on Forster’s snobberies and on his occasionally prideful stupidity—his disgust at the very poor, his dislike of study—Kermode knows how to read Forster in such a way as to give him, and us, the benefit of all his doubts.
Our attention is drawn to Forster’s love of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. The novelist, by his own admission, was not a good player, but he kept returning to the music, believing that “they teach me a little about construction. I see what becomes of a phrase, how it is transformed or returned, sometimes bottom upward, and get some notion of the relation of keys.” It is the Fifth Symphony that makes Helen Schlegel so rapturous in Howards End—“Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness!”—and one of the sonatas, Opus 111, is played by Lucy Honeychurch in A Room with a View.
Kermode pursues single words and phrases from their social redoubts, chasing them through the stories and across the novels like an electrician following wires, leading from the source of power to the facts of connection. He does this with the word “faking”: tracing its use in a critical passage of Forster’s back to its musical meaning as a sort of improvisation, then on from there to its application in the plotting of A Room with a View. He hears the rhythms of Forster’s mind, he identifies the struggles of his thinking, and, at all times, he seems to perceive some basic, possibly transferred need in Forster to address the question of authenticity. He sees how Forster is “playing.” He hears the music and the silence, too:
An inspired passage may be followed by one for which no claim to inspiration may be made, but it is unlikely that anybody will detect the seam where the inspired and the uninspired meet. “All a writer’s faculties, including the valuable faculty of faking, do conspire together thus for the creative act, and often do contrive an even surface, one putting in a word here, another there.” Among those words lurk the rhythms.
By the time he wrote the sentence quoted, Forster was already twenty-three years into his period of stagnation as a novelist, a period that would last until his death. And as Kermode suggests, it was clearly a musical understanding that lay behind Forster’s notion of spiritual abundance and of silence. Beethoven’s sonata Opus 111 was described by Alfred Brendel as “a last word leading into silence forever.” We might say that silence was a creative act for Forster, allowing him to transfer his literary duty and let the music resound, while he tried to live. The “faculty of faking,” so essential to his kind of art, had run into trouble with his wish to love.
In Kermode’s “causerie,” a welcome peroration on Forster’s creative life, the critic discusses Edward Carpenter, the socialist, anarchist, free-living homosexual whom Forster would always admire and always know he could never be like.1 “Carpenter,” writes Kermode,
pretty exactly fits Forster’s idea of one kind of creative person. He or she must be making something; it needn’t be something of great value or beauty—his writing in both prose and verse was poor, but the point is that the work has involved the person concerned in a disinterested exercise of creative power, an achievement that has nothing to do with success.
For Forster, art was a state as much as a pursuit, a place where someone
is taken out of himself. He lets down as it were a bucket into his subconscious, and draws up something which is normally beyond his reach. He mixes this thing with his normal experiences, and out of the mixture he makes a work of art. [It] is a blend of realism and “magic.”
Forster was a supreme noticer, a quiet lord of the social nuance and the moral detail, but to deepen that, he was a king of the unseen. The mystic element positions his novels above himself and above the world in a way that makes them nicely celestial. (He chose a perfect title for his short stories, The Celestial Omnibus.) A great many novels, flat with accomplishment, are too much about what they’re about, but A Passage to India and Howards End are also about something else, the hunt for metaphysical significance in the modern world, a significance that barely knows itself. We have to look again at Moffat’s biography to see how the right stuff, the abundance of the faculty of faking, allowed Forster to write like that, and how the loss of that abundance, and the turn toward the possibilities of everyday experience, ended his willingness to sit down and write novels. Here is a man who spent the last forty years of his life not doing the thing he seemed born to do, and it was a silence born of choice, a cessation of music that now seems essential to his substance.
The refusal was knitted into his conscience. He could either write novels and make it his life, or have sex and make that his great “unrecorded history,” but the two would never marry. Moffat reminds us that “when he was only four, he spent days earnestly studying an etiquette book for children. The book was titled Don’t!” At school he was both Mousie and Cissy, and later, among the Cambridge Apostles, he joined his fellows in having an “idealistic attitude towards homosexual love.” He yearned, like everyone, for “an honest connection with another human being,” but knew that the soul of his writing might not wear it. It would wear the yearning, but not its gratification.
Moffat shrewdly makes note of his conviction “that passion was the key to redeeming the English soul,” but she offsets that conviction with a quotation from Forster’s diary, a part written as he set out to be a novelist, in which he captures in three sentences the entire matter of himself and his gifts:
I’d better eat my soul for I certainly shan’t have it. I’m going to be a minority, if not a solitary, and I’d best make copy out of my position. There is nothing contemptible or cynical in this. I too have sweet waters though I shall never drink them. So I can understand the drought of others, though they will not understand my abstinence.
The sweet waters, of course, would have their day, but in consequence the novels dried up. After the warmth he enjoyed with his Indian lovers and the comfort of his policeman Bob Buckingham—a comfort that would last to the end of his life, despite and because of Buckingham’s marriage—he could no longer dwell in the house of art as Henry James understood it. Forster couldn’t stand James’s novels—“disembodied” and “fastidious in their emotional control,” with no carnality, reports Moffat. There is, of course, something self-defensive in this estimation. Forster wanted love more than he wanted fame as a novelist, and we must take it as an aspect of his kind of seriousness that he felt there was no chance of him having both.
Leonard Bast, the clerk in Howards End whose “cause” is taken up by the Schlegel sisters, is, consequently, a failed creation, and possibly an educative one for the man who made him. I think the key to Forster’s later silence as a novelist may lie with Bast, the kind of lower-order man chasing after literacy and self-improvement whom Forster would happily have slept with but whom he could only fail to embody on the page.2 The schism lies there, and it would lie, for difference reasons, in D.H. Lawrence, and for several English novelists who could only mock up the workingman. They could support the underdog, many of them, love him, some of them, but none could render him in literature.
Leonard Bast was not possible for Forster because he loved his type, only knew him as a type, and such knowledge repulsed him. (Kermode: “To make a success of Bast and represent not the poor of the ‘abyss’ but the genteel squalor of the city-bound upper working class, Forster needed to know that culture and to be careful with it.”) Life had intruded, at last, and this novelist could no more write well about Bast than he could write well about gay men in Maurice. They sailed toward his desire and blotted out the sun. When his bodily experience began to take precedence, the novel-writing was essentially over and the music was gone. Leonard Bast’s death, for me, is the true advent of Forster’s silence, the scene where a young, poor, self-educated half-man suffers heart failure and is crushed under the weight of a falling bookcase.
His talent as a novelist had one more shout, and we hear its echo in the Marabar Caves, where desire is finally encoded as a dark enigma. Looking back on his trip to India, he said, “I didn’t go there to govern…or to make money or to improve people. I went there to see a friend.” And he wrote a novel that would put the past—and England’s colonial past, perhaps—behind him, opening up the possibility of newness for himself. In A Passage to India Forster says goodbye to all that, offering, near the end, a passage to himself as he might choose to live in the future, no longer the great excavator of human connection, his own passion transferred in the effort, but a man who can finally let beauty exist ephemerally. It is a description of sexuality among the lower orders:
The Court was crowded and of course very hot, and the first person Adela noticed in it was the humblest of all who were present, a person who had no bearing officially upon the trial: the man who pulled the punkah. Almost naked, and splendidly formed, he sat on a raised platform near the back, in the middle of the central gangway, and he caught her attention as she came in, and he seemed to control the proceedings. He had the strength and beauty that sometimes come to flower in Indians of low birth. When that strange race nears the dust and is condemned as untouchable, then nature remembers the physical perfection that she accomplished elsewhere, and throws out a god—not many, but one here and there, to prove to society how little its categories impress her.
Not only society’s categories, but Forster’s, too, would be found unimpressive and open to change. Beauty will have its day. It will all pass on, and the beauty of the novel, his kind of novel, will rest there, pulsing with life and with Forster’s particular sense of an ending. He would never love better than he wrote, but this connoisseur of the cautious arts, this protector of talent’s wellsprings, very much wanted to believe that “happiness can come in one’s natural growth.” In January 1939, when Auden and Isherwood departed England for America, Forster was the only person there to wave them off at Waterloo Station. “I have myself to face a world which is tragic,” wrote the one-time novelist, “without becoming tragic myself.”
October 14, 2010
“Carpenter practiced a type of high-minded, fuzzy, ecumenical radicalism,” according to Julian Bell (“[The Elegant Optimist](/articles/archives/2009/oct/22/the-elegant-optimist/),” The New York Review, October 22, 2009), and this was exactly the sort of selfhood Forster could scarcely imagine for himself. ↩
Several contemporary reviewers of Howards End spotted the failure. “We venture to say,” reports an unsigned review in the Daily Telegraph, “that Bart [sic], the most fascinating of all the characters, does not ring true.” To the Manchester Guardian, it was “a novel of high quality written with what appears to be a feminine brilliance of perception.” The World considered Leonard to be “too shadowy.” Frank Kermode brings the matter up to date, going further: “D.H. Lawrence thought Forster’s effort with Leonard was ‘a brave try’—a generous comment, but Forster thought he had done better than that and was ready to say he was satisfied with his rendering of the domestic life of Bast and his mistress. It would no longer be easy to find admirers devoted enough to agree with him.” ↩