A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster
By Wendy Moffat
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 404 pp., $32.50)
Concerning E.M. Forster
By Frank Kermode
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 180 pp., $24)
Whenever E.M. Forster is discussed, the phrase “only connect” is sure to come up sooner or later. The epigraph to Howards End, the book he described with typical modesty as “my best novel and approaching a good novel,” seems to capture the leading idea of all his work—the moral importance of connection between individuals, across the barriers of race, class, and nation. What is not as frequently remembered is that, when Forster uses the phrase in Howards End, he is not actually talking about this kind of social connection, but about something more elusive and private—the difficulty of connecting our ordinary, conventional personalities with our transgressive erotic desires.
“Only connect” makes its entrance shortly after Margaret Schlegel, the novel’s liberal intellectual heroine, is first kissed by Henry Wilcox, the conservative businessman whom she has rather surprisingly agreed to marry. Passion has played little part in their relationship, and though they have gotten engaged they have not yet touched. When Wilcox suddenly embraces her, then, Margaret “was startled and nearly screamed,” and though she tries to kiss “with genuine love the lips that were pressed against her own,” she feels afterwards that “on looking back, the incident displeased her. It was so isolated. Nothing in their previous conversation had heralded it, and, worse still, no tenderness had ensued ... he had hurried away as if ashamed.” A few pages later, Margaret’s reflections on this erotic incompetence lead, as often happens in Forster’s fiction, into an authorial homily:
Outwardly [Henry Wilcox] was cheerful, reliable, and brave; but within, all had reverted to chaos, ruled, so far as it was ruled at all, by an incomplete asceticism. Whether as boy, husband, or widower, he had always the sneaking belief that bodily passion is bad.... And it was here that Margaret hoped to help him.
It did not seem so difficult. She need trouble him with no gift of her own. She would only point out the salvation that was latent in his own soul, and in the soul of every man. Only connect! That was her whole sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.
It is not surprising that the specifically erotic dimension of “only connect” has been largely lost for today’s readers. For if there is one thing that separates us from Forster, it is the transformation in Western sexual mores between 1910, when Howards End was published, and 2010. If Forster strikes us as quaint, in a way that his contemporaries Joyce and Woolf do not, it is not simply because of his formal conservatism, but because he shows us, in Frank Kermode’s words, “a world in which what may now seem fairly trivial sexual gestures carry a freight of irreversible significance.” As Kermode goes on to note in his brief but illuminating new study, “two stolen kisses are sufficient to sustain the plot of A Room with a View.” That novel appeared in 1908, just fourteen years before Joyce would show Leopold Bloom masturbating on Sandymount Strand. World War I was clearly the dividing line between these sexual epochs, but even though Forster was not yet forty when the war ended, he published only one novel after it, A Passage to India. His fiction remains tethered to the Edwardian period, the twilight of the sexual ancien régime.
The less explicit Forster is about sex, the more sentimental he becomes, with results that are sometimes quite ludicrous. When Rickie Elliot, in The Longest Journey, stumbles upon Gerald and Agnes, an engaged couple, in an embrace, Forster describes the effect on him in terms borrowed from the overture to Das Rheingold:
It was a fragment of the Tune of tunes. Nobler instruments accepted it, the clarinet protected, the brass encouraged, and it rose to the surface to the whisper of violins. In full unison was Love born, flame of the flame, flushing the dark river beneath him and the virgin snows above. His wings were infinite, his youth eternal; the sun was a jewel on his finger as he passed it in benediction over the world. Creation, no longer monotonous, acclaimed him, in widening melody, in brighter radiances. Was Love a column of fire? Was he a torrent of song? Was he greater than either—the touch of a man on a woman?
Biography may have little to tell us about why a novelist writes well, but it can sometimes be helpful in understanding why a novelist writes badly. So it is not insignificant, in reading such a purple passage, to learn that at the time he wrote it—in his mid-twenties—Forster actually did not know how men and women had sexual intercourse. This is hard to credit, but Forster himself said so. In her new biography of Forster, Wendy Moffat quotes from what he called his “Sex Diary,” now in the library of King’s College, Cambridge, where the novelist reviewed the landmarks in his sexual development from childhood on. He recorded that as a boy he “learnt that there was queer stuff in Bible [sic], and thought that ‘lying together’ meant that a man placed his stomach against a woman’s and that it was a crisis when he warmed her—perhaps that a child was born, but of this I cannot be sure.... Never connected warming operation with my sexual premonitions. This chance guess, that came so near to the truth, never developed and not till I was 30 did I know exactly how male and female joined.”
Forster turned thirty in 1909, the year he began writing Howards End. Yet the emphasis on sexual sincerity in that book is only a development of a theme that had been present in his fiction since his first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread, which was published in 1905. In each of his first four books, Forster writes as a defender of sexual freedom and self-knowledge against the suffocating ignorance of conventional morality. Kermode writes that his fiction is almost “evangelical” in its obsession with “the choice to be made between winning salvation and backsliding,” and notes that critics often relate this quality to Forster’s descent from the Clapham Sect—a group of rich London evangelicals who were prominent in the early nineteenth-century campaign to abolish slavery.
Forster preserves his ancestors’ concern with salvation, but he reverses their definition of it. In his fiction, Christianity is always a force for damnation, because it keeps people mired in sexual hypocrisy. (One of the reasons given for Henry Wilcox’s failure to “connect” is that “the words that were read aloud on Sunday to him and to other respectable men were the words that had once kindled the souls of St. Catharine and St. Francis into a white-hot hatred of the carnal.”) Salvation means having the courage to be what one is, sexually speaking—to listen to the still small voice of attraction, which for Forster is not just a matter of appetite but of conscience. So, in A Room with a View, when Lucy Honeychurch breaks her engagement to Cecil Vyse in order to marry George Emerson, the man to whom she is attracted, she is not simply doing what she likes. Rather, she is heeding the moral imperative voiced by George’s father: “Yes, for we fight for more than Love or Pleasure; there is Truth. Truth counts, Truth does count.”
Forster speaks in the voice of Bunyan’s Valiant-for-Truth, and the truth he preaches is that of the body: “love is of the body; not the body, but of the body. Ah! the misery that would be saved if we confessed that! Ah! for a little directness to liberate the soul!” The problem, reading Forster today, is that we are no longer much in need of this kind of valor. Over the last hundred years, the primacy of the body and of sexual desire became an article of psychological, medical, and commercial faith. We have not entered paradise as a result—sexual abundance and familiarity have their discontents, though reading Forster convinces us that these are not to be compared with the discontents of scarcity and ignorance. But the sexual problems of our time are nearly as far from those of Forster’s as from those of Jane Austen’s. Indeed, precisely because Forster does begin to address sex openly, as Austen never does, he can seem the more dated of the two. It may be that Samuel Butler’s bold novelistic call for religious liberation, The Way of All Flesh (which was published posthumously in 1903, just two years before Forster’s debut), speaks more directly to readers today than do Forster’s comparatively timid calls for sexual liberation.
But what if the kind of sexual freedom that Forster championed, in these early novels, is not really what he cared about at all? That is the thesis of Moffat’s book, which can be read as an attempt to renew Forster’s pertinence by recasting him as a fighter in a different liberation struggle, one that has not yet won complete success. This is the fight for gay liberation, and the unrecorded history Moffat alludes to in her title is the history of Forster’s homosexuality. In her preface she quotes Christopher Isherwood, shortly after Forster’s death in 1970, saying that “all those books [about Forster] have got to be re-written. Unless you start with the fact that he was homosexual, nothing’s any good at all.”
But that was forty years ago. It has been a long time since Forster’s gayness was a secret. To his intimates, it never was: starting in the 1920s, Moffat shows, Forster was part of a thriving gay community, with friends and correspondents across England and America. From 1930 onwards he was in a devoted relationship with Bob Buckingham, a married policeman, and it seems that most people who knew Forster well enough to call him Morgan also knew Bob. Yet it is true that Forster never “came out” in the modern sense, and people who knew him only as a writer or public figure did not necessarily know he was gay. Only friends who had been welcomed into Forster’s full confidence were allowed to read the manuscript of Maurice, his only novel about homosexuality, which he finished in 1914 but never published. In 1933 Forster allowed the young Isherwood to read it as he sat by his side, and Moffat writes that “the moment cemented the friendship for life.”
Moffat implies that she is breaking the public silence about Forster’s sexuality. “All his long life Morgan lived in a world imprisoned by prejudice against homosexuals,” she writes. “Almost a century ago, Forster dedicated Maurice to ‘a happier year.’ Perhaps that time is now.” But Maurice was published in 1971, the year after Forster died, in accordance with his instructions; and in 1987 it was made into a movie, a clear sign that its subject matter had ceased to be taboo. The key episodes in Forster’s sexual life, as Moffat relates them in this book, were all disclosed in P.N. Furbank’s authorized E.M. Forster: A Life, in 1977. It was Furbank who revealed that Forster did not know “the facts of life” until he was thirty; that his first sexual experience came in October 1916, when he was thirty-seven, with a soldier in Alexandria, where he was doing war service at a British army hospital; that his first love was Mohammed El Adl, an Egyptian train conductor whom he met soon after; and that the love of his life was Bob Buckingham.
So Moffat’s “new life of E.M. Forster” is not exactly a revelation—though she does quote directly from sources, including the “Sex Diary,” that Furbank paraphrased. It is, rather, a re-interpretation, designed to draw the reader’s attention to Forster’s gayness and his gay legacy. Moffat is driven by a great personal fondness for Forster—she calls him Morgan throughout, as though insisting on retroactive intimacy, and puts herself on equally close terms with other figures in the story. (“Ben was slighter than the imposing Peter,” she remarks about Britten and Pears.) On the book’s last page, Moffat states her claim in still stronger terms: “copying out the relevant scraps [of Forster’s notebooks] by hand ... engenders a trance, a feeling of automatic writing, a fleeting fantasy of complete connection with Morgan’s remarkable mind and heart.”
Moffat’s possessiveness is colored by a strong moral earnestness, which leads her to want to make reparation to the novelist for all the repression and unhappiness that he suffered in his lifetime. This laudable impulse comes across, for instance, in the way Moffat adds an approving adjective to every sexual experience of Forster’s she has occasion to mention. So, when Forster visits New York and goes cruising in Central Park, Moffat writes that it was “a glorious night of casual sex,” and at another moment notes that Forster liked to “discover or arrange sexy flings on trips abroad.” Was the sex really glorious that night? Were the flings always satisfyingly sexy? There does not seem to be any evidence on such questions, and the reader is left feeling that Moffat so much wants Forster to have enjoyed himself that she simply asserts that he did.
This tendency becomes more problematic when Moffat interprets away the genuine ambiguity, and occasional darkness, that Forster himself acknowledged in some of his sexual feelings and relationships. In 1921, Forster spent several months in India working as secretary to Bapu Sahib, the ruler of a minor Hindu principality. One of the perquisites of his job was a sex slave, a boy named Kanaya, and Forster recorded how his total power over Kanaya corrupted him:
I resumed sexual intercourse with him, but it was now mixed with the desire to inflict pain. It didn’t hurt him to speak of, but it was bad for me, and new in me ... I’ve never had that desire with anyone else, before or after, and I wasn’t trying to punish him—I knew his silly little soul was incurable. I just felt he was a slave, without rights, and I a despot whom no one could call to account.
Yet Moffat, even as she cites this passage, hastens to palliate it: “On the other hand, it seemed grotesque to Morgan to deny consciousness or agency to Kanaya ... just because [he wasn’t] white. In the murky world of English-colonial relations wasn’t skepticism that a brown man could feel affection for him simply a different sort of bigotry?” Finally, Moffat writes, “Morgan concluded that he was ill-equipped to interpret the sexual lexicon of this strange world.” But there is no quotation to illustrate these anachronistic-sounding doubts about “consciousness or agency,” and one is left feeling that Moffat’s relativism is just a way of making Forster sound more admirable than he was or knew himself to be.
A similar thing happens when Forster confesses that living in Egypt, as a representative of the ruling race, bred racist habits of mind. “I came inclined to be pleased and quite free from racial prejudice,” he wrote, “but in 10 months I’ve acquired an instinctive dislike to the Arab voice, the Arab figure, the Arab way of looking or walking or pump shitting or eating or laughing or anythinging—exactly the emotion that I censured in the Anglo-Indian towards the native.... It’s damnable and disgraceful, and it’s in me.” It could not be clearer that Forster, with typical honesty, is using himself as a case study for the very evil he was to analyze in A Passage to India—the way that racial privilege corrupts, even if the man who enjoys it means well.
In the novel, Forster shows this process at work in Ronny Heaslop, the English magistrate in the Indian city of Chandrapore. When Ronny’s fiancée, Adela Quested, decides to break their engagement, Forster emphasizes that Ronny behaves admirably, humanely: “How decent he was! He might force his opinions down her throat, but did not press her to an ‘engagement,’ because he believed, like herself, in the sanctity of personal relationships.” Yet the whole novel is a demonstration of how the British Raj, with its racialized hierarchy, makes personal relationships impossible; and Ronny is shown to treat the Indian Dr. Aziz, a cultivated and kindly man, with brutal contempt. Goodness in one compartment of life can coexist with violence and cruelty in another—a lesson that makes A Passage to India prophetic of the complexity of the twentieth century’s many evildoers.
Yet Moffat does not want Forster to incriminate himself even to this extent. What he calls racist disgust toward Arabs, she insists, was really just suppressed sexual desire: “Far from instinctive, Morgan’s reaction came from careful, painful observation of these Arab men ... watching them laugh and be separate from him inflamed his desire, and his self-loathing.... He hated what he did not have the courage to touch.” Well, maybe—but that is not what Forster said, and not what he believed was important. He was able to sustain the difficult truth that being a victim of injustice, as a homosexual, did not make it impossible for him to practice injustice, as a white man in Egypt and India.
The important question, of course, is how Forster’s sexuality, and his struggles with it and with society on account of it, should affect the way we read his work. One way of coming to grips with this question is to address the place of Maurice in Forster’s oeuvre. For Kermode, this is not hard to do: he simply dismisses it as a bad book, beginning a discussion of Forster’s fiction with the words, “Leaving aside the posthumously published and inferior Maurice...” Conversely, to Moffat, who has almost nothing to say about Forster’s writing as literature, Maurice is absolutely central, because it is “his only truly honest novel”—that is, the only one from which the reader can easily deduce that the author is homosexual.
This is all-important, Moffat says, because Forster was “certain that his homosexuality was the central fact of his being.” This is reductive, but there is no need to quarrel with it too much. There can be no doubt that Forster’s sexuality was essential to his experience of life—everyone’s is. But that is exactly the problem: everyone is sexual, and everyone is different, and so it is impossible to deduce anything very profound about any particular person from the bald fact of his or her sexual orientation. Nor is it possible to deduce very much about any gay writer from the fact that he is gay. Consider that Forster belonged to the same generation as Proust, whom he admired very much, and Mann, whom he seems not to have read at all. (One of Kermode’s complaints is that in Aspects of the Novel Forster had “remarkably little to say” about his great contemporaries.) Both of these writers wrote much more explicitly about homosexuality than Forster did, although Mann concealed his homoerotic desires under his image as a bourgeois paterfamilias, and Proust turned his male lovers into women when he put them into his novel.
Forster never adopted this strategy, in part because, at the time he wrote his first five novels, he had not had any lovers. But there was also a principle at stake, as he wrote in his diary: “N.B. I have never tried to turn a man into a girl, as Proust did with Albertine, for this seemed derogatory to me as a writer.” So Forster himself shared Moffat’s sense that it was not “truly honest” for a gay writer to write in a way that could lead the reader to believe he was not gay. This did not mean, apparently, that he should not write about heterosexual characters and relationships—even A Passage to India, the only novel Forster wrote after Maurice, revolves around the potential marriage of Ronny and Adela. But it did mean that Forster became uncomfortable with strained rhapsodies about “the touch of a man on a woman.” As he grew older, he complained more than once that the impossibility of treating gay love openly in a novel had made novel-writing itself unappealing to him. After Howards End, he wrote of his “weariness of the only subject that I can and may treat—the love of men for women and vice versa.” Near the end of his life, he reflected, “I want to love a strong young man of the lower classes and be loved by him and even hurt by him. That is my ticket, and then I have wanted to write respectable novels. No wonder they have worked out rather queer.”
There is something “queer,” in both Forster’s sense and the contemporary sense, about Forster’s “respectable” novels. At times he said that The Longest Journey, his second book, was the one that gave him the most pleasure to have written, “a book to my own heart. I should have thought it impossible for a writer to look back and find his works so warm and beautiful.” Few readers have shared this judgment—it is probably the least read of Forster’s novels. But his affection for it is understandable if it is read as his first, half-conscious attempt to write about homosexuality.
The story of Rickie Elliot’s moral education, like that of Lucy Honeychurch, drives home the lesson that each person must listen to his actual desires, even at the price of violating convention. But while Lucy’s trial of conscience involves choosing one man over another as a husband, Rickie’s is a matter of learning to despise the institution of marriage itself, and to vindicate his natural preference for intimacy with men. The dedication Forster chose for the novel is Fratribus—“to the brothers”—and the man Rickie finally chooses above his cold, conventional wife is his half-brother, Stephen Wonham. But the passions and intensities of the novel only really make sense if Rickie’s attraction to men is sexual, and at moments Forster seems to say as much—so explicitly that it is surprising neither he nor his readers apparently noticed this subtext:
He was thinking of the irony of friendship—so strong it is, and so fragile. We fly together, like straws in an eddy, to part in the open stream. Nature has no use for us: she has cut her stuff differently. Dutiful sons, loving husbands, responsible fathers—these are what she wants, and if we are friends it must be in our spare time. Abram and Sarai were sorrowful, yet their seed became as sand of the sea, and distracts the politics of Europe at this moment. But a few verses of poetry is all that survives of David and Jonathan.
Rickie goes on to wish that “there was a society, a kind of friendship office, where the marriage of true minds could be registered”—as close to a call for gay marriage as one might find in a novel published in 1907.
For Moffat’s interpretation of Forster’s life to cohere, Maurice ought to be his masterpiece. After writing four “dishonest” novels, in 1913-1914 he finally wrote one that was “truly honest”: the story of Maurice Hall, a rather dull-witted son of the English bourgeoisie who learns to embrace his homosexuality, despite many social and emotional ordeals. Yet Maurice is actually, as Kermode says, Forster’s slightest novel—and it is not too much to say that it is his slightest artistically because it is his most admirable ethically. In writing it, Forster had a clear moral and political idea in mind: “To give these people a chance—to see ... whether their convictions of Sin are really more than the burrs in the social fabric that the heart and brain, working together, can pluck out—that’s why I wrote Maurice.” For the same reason, he wrote in a “terminal note” to the manuscript, “A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows.” And so Maurice is rewarded with the love of Alec Scudder, the gruff, handsome gamekeeper, who tells him, “And now we shan’t be parted no more, and that’s finished.”
Yet this determination to vindicate in art the injustices of life paralyzed the very qualities that we think of as most Forsterian: the relaxed irony of his plotting, the urbanity of his moralizing, the lyricism of his prose. Compare the moral balance of Howards End, where the reader’s sympathies are suspended between Schlegel and Wilcox until the very end, with Maurice’s uninflected indignation against “the middle-middle classes, whose highest desire seemed shelter—continuous shelter ... shelter everywhere and always, until the existence of earth and sky is forgotten, shelter from poverty and disease and violence and impoliteness; and consequently from joy; God slipped this retribution in.”
At the time Forster wrote Maurice, these were things that he urgently needed to say and that the world needed to hear. Of course, the world did not hear them—Forster said that the novel was “unpublishable until my death and England’s,” and until very close to his death he was right. Gide could write openly about his homosexuality in Corydon, in 1924, and Mann could publish Death in Venice in 1912, the year before Forster started Maurice; but France and even Germany were not England. Moffat reminds the reader that, as late as 1952, the great mathematician Alan Turing was sentenced to chemical castration after being found guilty of the crime of homosexuality, and committed suicide as a result. Forster lamented this extreme intolerance in Maurice itself: when Maurice finds that even a course of hypnotism cannot “cure” him, his doctor advises him “to live in some country that has adopted the Code Napoleon ... France or Italy, for instance. There homosexuality is no longer criminal.”
In 1914, Maurice really was a brave assault on respectability. (When Forster had sex with a man for the first time, the code phrase he used in a letter to a friend was “parting with respectability.”) But sexual mores have changed so dramatically and so quickly that today, while prejudice against gays has certainly not disappeared, that very prejudice is what is not respectable. A book such as A Great Unrecorded History, certainly, is unlikely to find many readers who would disagree with its premise that gay liberation is an unqualified good, or who would even find that idea controversial.
The great irony of Maurice, then, is that it consummates the sexual critique that animated all Forster’s earlier novels, and in doing so sets the seal on that critique’s obsolescence. In a world where sexuality was imprisoned by convention, Forster’s earnest attack on convention—including its extreme forms, repression and taboo—was liberating, as can be seen from the intense devotion he won from readers, especially gay readers, around the world. Moffat quotes the letter that the American painter Paul Cadmus wrote Forster after reading his essay “What I Believe”: “‘What I Believe’ is so much what I believe too that I always read it to potential friends.... I am afraid I [am] not able to live up to it, nor to you.” Isherwood declared, “My England is E.M.; the anti-heroic hero, with his straggly straw mustache, his light, gay, baby blue eyes and his elderly stoop.”
Does Forster have the same power to inspire today? Kermode, for one, takes a much drier view of “What I Believe,” which he dissects in one of the best passages of his book. Forster’s essay, collected in Two Cheers for Democracy, was written in 1939, and it is a defense of his vision of liberalism in an age of ideological total war, which he calls “an Age of Faith--the sort of epoch I used to hear praised when I was a boy.” In the face of huge warring collectivities like nation and class, Forster declares his belief in “personal relationships,” the only thing “comparatively solid in a world full of violence and cruelty.” He reiterates, in a dark moment, vital liberal truths: that the state exists for the individual, not vice versa; that love and loyalty are owed to individuals before abstractions; that tolerance and free speech are essential for human flourishing.
Yet there is something unsatisfactory about “What I Believe,” as Kermode suggests when he observes that “the ideal citizens of a Forsterian republic would not easily be recognized as democrats.” The problem is that, in elevating friendship over politics—this is the essay in which he famously writes that “if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country”—Forster is actually trying to make friendship the basis of a politics. And the result can only be a kind of aristocracy, as Forster affirms: “I believe in aristocracy.... Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet.”
But to associate the liberal virtues, as Forster does here, with aristocracy and the private life is to cede democracy and the public life to the opponents of liberalism. It is to condemn liberalism to a bad conscience—Forster describes the essay as “the reflections of an individualist and a liberal, who has found liberalism crumbling beneath him and at first felt ashamed.” It relegates liberalism to the status of an underground movement, whose members recognize each other through “secret” signs that are too dangerous to avow—a little like the French Resistance, which did form a kind of moral aristocracy in the midst of a defeated, demoralized society. And this is perhaps the source of the problem with “What I Believe”: in 1939, Forster is writing as though English liberalism were already defeated, as though he were addressing an occupied country. According to Furbank, “the outbreak of war in September 1939 left him calm though pessimistic, convinced that Britain would be defeated.”
The same pessimism afflicted Forster when he came to consider the future of the novel. Moffat argues, with support from Forster himself, that the reason he stopped writing fiction was his impatience with heterosexual romance as a subject. But Forster also gave other reasons—above all, his sense that the novel was intimately connected with a social order that was doomed in Europe. Speaking to the Communist-organized International Congress of Writers, held in Paris in 1935, Forster took a certain pained satisfaction in confessing to his own obsolescence: “They may say that if there is another war writers of the individualistic and liberalizing type, like myself ... will be swept away. I am sure that we shall be swept away, and I think ... that there may be another war.... This being so, my job ... is an interim job. We have just to go on tinkering with our old tools until the crash comes.... After it—if there is an after—the task of civilization will be carried on by people whose training has been different from my own.”
Why, in the 1930s, did Forster make such a limited, dispirited defense of the novel and of liberalism? Was it, at least in part, because he had long resigned himself to making similarly limited claims on behalf of homosexuals, and for himself as a homosexual? He could circulate Maurice in private, but not publish it; he could trust friends with the knowledge of his gayness, but he could not make it an element of his public literary identity. Even in Maurice itself, the happy ending consists of the lovers running away to “the greenwood,” a Shakespearean zone of imaginary freedom. The idea that they could demand public recognition—say, by setting up house together in London—was beyond literary possibility (though Forster knew a number of established gay couples). Indeed, Forster’s “aristocracy,” whose “members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet,” could with only the slightest alteration be a description of the way gay society functioned in his time—just as, in The Longest Journey, his “friendship office” for the “marriage of true minds” reads as a veiled description of gay partnership.
If, as Moffat says, Forster’s “homosexuality was the central fact of his being,” it would make sense that the burdens imposed on his sexuality took a toll on the confidence of his claims on behalf of his politics and his writing. In each of these realms, he clung to freedom as a privilege, rather than demanding it as a right; he spoke of goodness rather than justice. But this would be, once again, to commit the error of making Forster’s sexuality the sole determinant of his being. It is more accurate to reverse the proposition—to say that it was Forster’s being that determined the way he thought about sexuality, no less than politics and literature. Indeed, as Moffat shows, few gay men even in Edwardian England were as cautious, or as romantically naïve, as the young Forster. Lytton Strachey, his fellow Apostle in Cambridge, regarded the conclusion of Maurice as absurd: “I should have prophesied a rupture [between Maurice and Alec] after 6 months—chiefly as a result of ... class differences,” he told Forster. He also objected to its extremely high-minded treatment of sex, which Forster euphemizes as “sharing”: “I really think the whole conception of male copulation in the book rather diseased—in fact morbid and unnatural.”
If there is a biographical source for Forster’s bad conscience, his conviction that the civilization he cherished was doomed, it is more likely to lie in his social class than his sexuality. Like the Schlegels in Howards End, Forster was a rentier, living off a large bequest from his great-aunt. In an age when class tensions were rising and the Liberal Party was giving way to Labour, his feeling of guilt at being economically unproductive, a kind of bourgeois parasite, seems to have contaminated his view of the art he produced—as though literature and civilization, too, were bourgeois luxuries. If individualism and the novel were doomed, it was in the same way that the old country houses were doomed—they would be justly confiscated in the name of a more equitable future.
The passage that brings out this feeling most clearly is one of the most objectionable in all of Forster—the mockery of Leonard Bast’s literary aspirations in Howards End. Kermode, who is much more interested in Forster’s class feelings than his sexual feelings, writes that “to a surprising extent one’s attitude to Howards End depends ... on one’s response to Bast,” and he is angered by Forster’s condescension toward this self-improving clerk, who fatefully crosses paths with the Schlegels at a Beethoven concert. Forster treats Bast’s longing for art and culture as delusional, hopeless; he is “one of the thousands who have lost the life of the body and failed to reach the life of the spirit.” Kermode argues that this failure is not so much Bast’s as his creator’s: “The sordid scene that Forster sets in the Bast home ... is persuasively wretched. But it makes no provision for other possibilities, for relationships between men and women of this class that were not so hopeless and so wretched.” He points out that writers of the eminence of V.S. Pritchett and Edwin Muir started life in circumstances like Bast’s, as members of the “office-boy intelligentsia.”
This is all true, and Kermode persuasively shows that Forster had his thumb on the scale against Bast—even the character’s name is meant to hint at “bastard.” But Forster might have fairly responded that most office boys were not Muir or Pritchett, that thousands of men as intellectually thwarted as Bast did exist, and that in any case this story of failure was the story he wanted to tell. Forster’s really unforgivable error is not in making Bast a failure, but in saying that the nature of literature itself is opposed to Bast’s success. Here is Bast reading a page of Ruskin:
“Let us consider a little each of these characters in succession, and first (for of the shafts enough has been said already), what is very peculiar to this church—its luminousness.” Was there anything to be learnt from this fine sentence? Could he adapt it to the needs of daily life? Could he introduce it, with modifications, when he next wrote a letter to his brother, the lay reader? For example—“Let us consider a little each of these characters in succession, and first (for of the absence of ventilation enough has been said already), what is very peculiar to this flat—its obscurity.” Something told him that the modifications would not do; and that something, had he known it, was the spirit of English Prose. “My flat is dark as well as stuffy.” Those were the words for him.
If Forster really believed that “the spirit of English Prose” was against Leonard Bast, then he had no choice but to write with a bad conscience, and to offer at most two cheers for democracy. If literature is against hope, against enlightenment, against the spread of true civilization, then it is indeed a poisoned gift. But there is no basis for such a slander. Think of what the spirit of English prose meant for Dickens and Hardy and Lawrence—men who did not inherit a fortune as Forster did, but made their fortunes, and their names and souls, by their writing. They did not, of course, write like Ruskin, and in constructing this passage Forster chose his target well: there can indeed be something complacently poetic, something rhetorical and torrid, about Ruskin’s prose. But the problem is not that Ruskin’s spirit is the very spirit of English prose. It is that it is, all too often, the spirit of Forster’s own prose. Here is how Forster, later in Howards End, apostrophizes the English countryside:
So tremendous is the City’s trail! But the cliffs of Freshwater it shall never touch, and the island will guard the Island’s purity till the end of time. Seen from the west, the Wight is beautiful beyond all laws of beauty. It is as if a fragment of England floated forward to greet the foreigner—chalk of our chalk, turf of our turf, epitome of what will follow. And behind the fragment lies Southampton, hostess to the nations, and Portsmouth, a latent fire.
Prose does not have to sound this way, so lullingly and contentedly parochial. It is no accident that Forster’s best novel, A Passage to India, is the one that takes him far away from England, and puts the actual sources of England’s political and economic power under closest scrutiny. It is also the book in which Forster allows himself to wonder if “personal relationships,” the shibboleth of “What I Believe,” are not an ultimate value, but a penultimate one. “What is the use of personal relationships when everyone brings less and less to them?” Adela Quested asks. “I feel we ought all to go back into the desert for centuries and try and get good. I want to begin at the beginning.”
The metaphysical scope and urgency of this novel, the way it begins at the beginning—with the null echoes of the Marabar Caves, and the pantheist epiphanies of Professor Godbole—make it trustworthy in a way that even Howards End never quite is. Maybe the deepest reason Forster never wrote another novel has less to do with restrictions on what relationships he could portray than with a growing sense of the restriction inherent in all relationships. As Adela muses: “But it has made me remember that we all must die: all these personal relations we try to live by are temporary. I used to feel death selected people, it is a notion one gets from novels, because some of the characters are usually left talking at the end. Now ‘death spares no one’ begins to be real.”
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic.