Forster in Love: The Story

King’s College, Cambridge
E.M. Forster and Mohammed el-Adl, Alexandria, circa 1917

How many great writers of the last 150 years have turned out to be gay! In England they range from Oscar Wilde to Virginia Woolf to Christopher Isherwood to Alan Hollinghurst (though Wilde’s grandson once told me that Oscar should be considered “bisexual”); in France, from André Gide to Marcel Proust to Jean Genet to François Mauriac; in America, James Baldwin and Willa Cather and Hart Crane and Henry James and Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein; in Germany, Thomas Mann and Stefan George; in Russia, Mikhail Kuzmin; and in Belgium, Georges Eekhoud.

It used to be a familiar practice among the self-hating homosexuals of my youth in the 1950s to list the greats in history who were gay, which both promoted them and discredited them in our eyes, so low was our self-esteem (“Leonard Bernstein? Oh, her, I’ve had huh”). But the more we read the letters and diaries of the artistic geniuses of the past, the more we discover that they were often either practicing or repressed homosexuals, which isn’t so odd, since homosexuality, given a chance, is a natural choice of a large part of our species. But it was such shameful, even criminal behavior for so long that it could become an obsession, and obsessions focus powers of observation, as Proust argued.

In The Master Colm Tóibín brilliantly dramatized the inner life of a closet queen, Henry James, who arguably never passed to the act. Tóibín has his ringmaster of “supersubtle fry” never even think about his dreadful temptations; it’s fascinating to watch him veer away from any overly clear sexual impulse. E.M. Forster seems to have been much more conscious of his suppressed (rather than repressed) desires, though he was thirty-seven before he got laid. In Howards End a character famously declares, “Only connect,” and Forster seems to have tried to live by that creed. In several novels he also declared that love truly is eternal, a surprisingly optimistic idea from such a disabused man.

Forster came to the expression of his urges late and after much fretting, which is the subject of Damon Galgut’s beautifully written Arctic Summer (the name of a novel Forster started but never finished). In 1906 he had fallen in love with a handsome, tall Indian grand bourgeois, Syed Ross Masood, a seventeen-year-old future Oxford undergraduate whom he tutored in Latin. Masood had a romantic, poetic view of friendship and confused his tutor by making constant avowals of his love. Alas, the two men had very different notions about what these words meant. Finally Morgan, as we shall call Forster’s character in Galgut’s novel based on the writer’s life, wrote in his diary, “He is not that sort—no one whom I like seems to be.”

I remember once having an old Indian, a regional minister of education, to dinner.…

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