E.M. Forster – A New Life
London: Bloomsbury, 2010. 408 pages. £25.00 (Hardcover)
Reviewed by Laurent Mellet
Université de Bourgogne (Dijon)
Wendy Moffat’s new biography of E.M. Forster first appeared earlier in 2010 in its American edition entitled A Great Unrecorded History. After the less wide-ranging studies by Francis King (1978), Nicola Beauman (1993) and Mary Lago (1995), yet also after the authoritative biography by P.N. Furbank published in 1977, Moffat’s book aims at completing our knowledge of the man with new research based on documents and diaries which until recently were “locked” and hidden at King’s College, Cambridge (to be edited and published by Philip Gardner in February 2011). The new and unrecorded history she purports to tell is that of Forster as a homosexual novelist. Together with the Locked Journal and the Sex Diary, already known to the Forster scholar, she abundantly quotes the Locked Diary to provide new facts and plots to her history. Equally unrecorded are the many interviews that Moffat had these last three years to find new evidence for that “new life”. Yet many of the events and anecdotes she relates are not new¾what her study does add are more details and connections on key points in Forster’s life, for instance on his stay in Alexandria. The names of Forster’s previously secret lovers and the ins and outs of their sex lives will be of smaller interest. More generally the biography draws a complete picture of the network of gay friends and artists who surrounded Forster and, Moffat claims, interacted with his work as a writer.
The titles for the two parts of the book¾“Becoming a ‘Grown Up Man’” and “Happiness Can Come in One’s Natural Growth”¾surely read more like sections of a psychological guidebook than arguments for scientific research. One of the ambiguities of Moffat’s work lies in the gap between her subject and her publication strategy. Her biography is clearly for a wider audience than Furbank’s, which was and remains of prime value for any Forster scholar. It is therefore not surprising that she should use catchphrases resting on emotional ground (“Almost a century ago, Forster dedicated Maurice to a ‘happier year.’ Perhaps that time is now” ) or building up unnecessary suspense in her narrative (“It was just Lily and Morgan. This had not been the plan” ). Yet choosing Forster’s homosexuality and homosexual “new life” as the main focus of her book may not help her reach a wide audience. As some deplorable consequence of this hesitation between documented science and repetitive disclosure of Forster’s intimacy, the academic dimension of her study is sometimes considered of secondary importance¾let us mention the endnotes system based on the first words of unnumbered quotations. It is then anything but easy to find the reference of what is quoted, and the system does not allow for due recognition of Moffat’s research, as the unpublished material is never presented as such and the contribution of the author never made clear.
Forster’s new life is here to be construed as one of a homosexual writer. Contrary to what Furbank’s study also focused on, this biography says very little about the novels, their conception and the way they changed the man. Here is one of the main shortcomings of the book, all the more regrettable as Moffat definitely has very cogent remarks to make on Forster’s novels, as here:
Morgan had long resented the middle-class shibboleth of avoiding the topic of money. His novels are filled with occasions when a heartfelt offer of generosity is rebuffed as not the done thing. When Philip Herriton offers Agnes and Gerald some of his inheritance so that they may forgo a long engagement (in Where Angels Fear to Tread), the lovers treat his generosity as a rebuke. And Henry Wilcox is mystified by the Schlegels’ willingness to discuss their financial status openly, or to try to help Leonard Bast .
Unfortunately she offers few other similar insights, but when she does allude to the novels, it is only to insist on dubious similarities between their plots and Forster’s own life: “Just as Morgan began to imagine in an abstract way that Henry Wilcox’s sexual misconduct might set the story of the two families’ conflict on motion, a story of real sexual danger interjected into his life with horrifying force” . In such passages Moffat’s real objective is betrayed as she exaggerates those coincidences and uses the novels to shed light on Forster’s sexual life in quite an unscientific manner. The same logic is to be found about A Room with a View: “In revision he retained the arc of the plot¾Lucy Honeychurch’s choice between the intellectual aesthete Cecil Vyse and the impetuous romantic figure of George Emerson¾but began to insert private jokes to keep himself amused” . However unrecorded and new that may sound, it is far from obvious that Forster practised novel writing to amuse and entertain himself, or to embellish his life.
The prologue of the book takes Forster’s death and Christopher Isherwood’s role in the publication of Maurice as starting points. Such an acknowledgement of the significance of Maurice in Forster’s life and career is more than welcome. Nevertheless the ambiguity of Moffat’s project is also present from the outset as she concludes her prologue with those words by Isherwood: “Unless you start with the fact that he was homosexual, nothing’s any good at all” . This is just what many studies on Forster have been doing since this homosexuality was “revealed” after his death, in the wake of “gay and lesbian studies” (see for instance R.K. Martin and George Piggford, Queer Forster). Moffat’s will follow Isherwood’s advice throughout, convinced as she is that “Morgan began his Sex Diary to trace his origins as a man and a writer, certain that his homosexuality was the central fact of his being” . This assertion certainly needs to be qualified, as does the conviction that “he would try to live his life according to the ideals of his art” . In such passages Moffat again seems to be exaggerating so as to make Forster’s homosexuality central much more to her work than it was to the man himself, and to find some justification for giving details such as “And so for some weeks Morgan sodomised the boy, who punctually arrived to satiate his lust” . It is not certain the general reader or the Forster scholars will find such information illuminating or quite necessary.
Those convinced by the queer readings of Forster’s texts might find here fresh food for thought. This homosexual new life might have been lacking, yet as the back cover reads: “Her book is an original new portrait of this major novelist” [Michael Holroyd] and “A bold new re-imagining of Forster’s long career” [D.J. Taylor]. Re-imagined in an original way, this new life had to be biased and incomplete, including as regards the would-be central part of homosexuality in Forster’s creative process. Too little is advanced on the way Forster might have managed this trait (among others) of his personality through writing. What is more, Moffat clearly lays emphasis on the sexual dimension of homosexuality. Every stage in Forster’s life is accounted for through the sexual encounters that it eventually led to (such as the trip to the United States in 1947), so that the reader quickly grows weary of the way the book sticks to trivial details. Whatever one may think of Moffat’s argument, one has to admit that she fails to demonstrate “that his homosexuality was the central fact of his being” . We are given to read the sexual biography of a homosexual man much more than writer, and this probably is the main flaw of her study inasmuch as it does not honour its academic promises and distorts the true, complex part homosexuality played in Forster’s life and work as part of his identity.
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