Jonathan Yardley

Book World: 'A Great Unrecorded History,' by Wendy Moffat, reviewed by Jonathan Yardley

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, May 9, 2010


A New Life of E.M. Forster

By Wendy Moffat

Farrar Straus Giroux. 404 pp. $32.50

Like many other creative writers and artists who flourished in the early decades of the 20th century, Edward Morgan Forster was homosexual but confined his published work to stories about what were then considered "normal" -- which is to say heterosexual -- relationships. This was especially true in the best popular music, as composers and lyricists such as Cole Porter, No?l Coward and Lorenz Hart transformed the affection and ardor they felt for other men into songs that celebrated, and often romanticized, sexual attraction and love between men and women.

The result was a great deal of extraordinary literature and music but also a great deal of frustration and unhappiness on the part of those who created it. In order to reach the widest possible audience, these men had, in effect, to repress if not actually deny their true sexuality, creating relationships between men and women that often were masquerades. From time to time they dropped hints of their inner selves -- Coward's "Matelot," for example, a love song to a sailor -- but for the most part they kept those inner selves carefully hidden, known only to their most intimate friends and, in Forster's case, hidden even from his mother.

The difference between Forster and the rest of them is that while they continued to maintain what amounted to a charade, though they regarded it as a necessary one, he simply stopped writing fiction for public consumption. Following the publication in 1924 of his masterpiece, "A Passage to India," he went silent, publishing only essays and articles about literary and political subjects. He wrote -- "rapidly and avidly," according to Wendy Moffat -- short stories and one novel about homosexual relationships, but he did not publish them. It proved to be a long silence, for he lived until 1970, when he died at the age of 91.

The next year "Maurice," his "homosexual novel," at last was published, at the instigation of his friends Christopher Isherwood and John Lehmann. "For Isherwood," Moffat writes, "shepherding Forster's gay fiction posthumously into print was both a sacred trust and a political adventure. He believed that publication would give Forster a second life as a pioneer of gay writing. Publishing 'Maurice' was part of his long campaign to celebrate sexual freedom and repudiate homophobia and hypocrisy." It was more a political than a literary act, for the unhappy truth is that "Maurice" does not bear comparison with "A Passage to India" or "Howard's End," and neither do the short stories about gay life that eventually followed it into print.

Ever since the appearance of these works, the true nature of Forster's sexuality probably has been known by readers familiar with his work, and to the best of my knowledge has produced little in the way of negative reaction. It was discussed in detail in P.N. Furbank's definitive two-volume "E.M. Forster: A Life" (1977-78) and as recently as last year in "Concerning E.M. Forster," by Frank Kermode, who cites what Forster called his "weariness of the only subject that I both can and may treat -- the love of men for women & vice versa." Thus it is more than a little odd that in "A Great Unrecorded History" (the title is taken from a comment by Forster on homosexuality), Moffat treats the subject almost as if she were the first to discover it. An associate professor of English at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, Moffat has written an earnest, rather self-satisfied book that, in effect, carries on Isherwood's campaign to turn Forster into a "pioneer of gay writing."

The shaping event in Moffat's interpretation of Forster's life appears to have been her discovery that there were many more "secret manuscripts . . . than the few [Isherwood] leafed through" as he contemplated the publication of "Maurice." She continues:

"Though he burned great bonfires of ephemera, Morgan [Forster] carefully preserved the record of his gay life. Thousands of unpublished pages of letters, diaries, essays, and photographs tell the story of the life he hid from public view. Some of the pages are scattered in archives. Some have been coaxed out into the world from remarkable hiding places -- a vast oak cupboard in a London sitting room, a shoebox humbly nestled among mouse [feces] in a New England barn. Many of Morgan's surviving friends have told their stories for the first time. Only in 2008 were the final entries in his private diary, restricted from view since his death, opened to readers. All his long life Morgan lived in a world imprisoned by prejudice against homosexuals. He was sixteen when Oscar Wilde was sent to prison, and he died the year after the Stonewall riots."

What she has written, then, is not the biography of a writer, but the biography of a homosexual who happened to be a writer. No doubt this is a reflection of the times, when at last public tolerance for sexual differences is surprisingly high, and perhaps it is also the product of a desire to stand out from the crowd of academics who already have pummeled poor Forster's corpus beyond recognition. Whatever the explanation for it, Moffat has managed the not inconsiderable feat of allowing what matters most about Forster to the world at large -- his work -- to get lost amid nonstop discussion of his sexuality.

It would be most surprising if Forster could tell us, from the grave, that his deepest yearning was to be a poster boy for gay rights and liberation. Having sublimated his homosexuality into novels about heterosexual love, he wanted nothing so much as simply to be able to love as he wished and to write about that love freely, with honesty rather than shame. Though he had great interest in political matters, particularly in the second half of his life when he wrote only nonfiction for publication, he was an almost desperately shy man who surely would have been appalled at having his deepest secrets trotted out for public examination and, no doubt, titillation.

Of course, what goes into biography is not the fulfillment of the subject's wishes but what the biographer chooses, and Moffat is as entitled as any other biographer to interpret Forster's life as she prefers. Indeed, as one who has little taste for long exegeses within literary biographies of the subject's every work, I am relieved that Moffat has spared us such exercises. She goes much too far, though, in the opposite direction. Forster's novels don't really disappear at her hands, but they flit past so quickly that one scarcely knows they are there. Indeed "A Room With a View" might as well never have been published, so cursorily does Moffat dispose of it, and neither "Howard's End" nor "A Passage to India" fares much better. She tells us that after publication in 1907 of "The Longest Journey" Forster enjoyed "commercial and critical success," but she conveys almost no sense of the depth and breadth of that success, Forster's reaction to it or how it altered (or did not alter) his life.

Moffat has done a lot of work and unearthed some juicy little tidbits of gossip, but there is nothing "new" about this life of Forster except those tidbits. The essence of the man is to be found in Furbank and, of course, in those wonderful novels. They may deal with heterosexual rather than homosexual love, but the heart that beats so strongly in all of them is Forster's alone.

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