‘A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster’ by Wendy Moffat

At a 90th-birthday celebration for E. M. Forster, in 1969, William Plomer declared that Forster’s “greatest novel” was “his life.”  It is to Wendy Moffat’s credit that by the end of her biography of Forster, Plomer’s comment seems not just an affectionate tribute to a literary elder statesman, but also true.  The life that emerges from A Great Unrecorded History has been documented before—most importantly, by Lionel Trilling in the 1940s, and by P. N. Furbank, Forster’s authorized biographer, in the 1970s.  What makes this a truly “new life” comes from the archival sources Moffat has brought to bear on the project, and the seriousness with which she takes Christopher Isherwood’s comment, as he read over manuscripts of Maurice and the stories Forster had arranged to be published after his death:  “Unless you start with the fact that he was homosexual, nothing’s any good at all.”

When Plomer made his tribute, Forster was twice the age he had been in 1924, when his last novel, A Passage to India, had appeared. In the intervening years, he had published essays, reviews, travel writing, and biographies, done broadcasts for the BBC, spoken out for freedom of expression, and had lectured in Britain and abroad.  But his reputation rested on fiction from an era long past, his career as a novelist a casualty of his “weariness of the only subject that I both can and may treat—the love of men for women & vice versa.”

Of the love of men for men, Forster in fact had written a great deal, and it was not fear for himself but consideration for the living that led him to delay his literary coming out until after his death.  With the publication of Maurice—begun before the First World War—in 1971, as well as the new stories in The Life to Come and P. N. Furbank’s authorized biography, Forster entered the gay canon.

Moffat’s new life shows how early he had begun thinking in such terms.  Even as he was finishing A Room With a View (1908), he was inspired by Whitman’s Calamus poems to embark on a systematic reading of gay writing from Shakespeare and Michelangelo to J. A. Symonds and Edward Carpenter.  Within a few years, he had begun Maurice, which he knew to be unpublishable.  We have long known from the 1960 “Terminal Note” that Forster had determined that a happy ending was politically imperative, however unrealistic.  What Moffat shows is how thoroughly Forster’s work and life owed to his engagement with sexual politics in Britain and to his connection with successive generations of gay artists and writers:  from contemporaries like Joe Ackerley, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, and Cavafy, to younger figures like Isherwood, W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, and Paul Cadmus, and ultimately even the generation of Don Bachardy and Mark Lancaster, who had worked at Warhol’s Factory.

Far from a prim, repressed relic of the Edwardian Age, the Forster that emerges here is one whose public stands against censorship and oppression were natural outgrowths of a private life of emotional courage and sexual openness.  Thanks to Moffat’s vast archival work with unpublished letters, diaries, and other materials, we now have a picture of Forster whose personal and imaginative life were deeply shaped by eros from the start.  And to read of his decades-long relationship with his lover Bob Buckingham and Bob’s wife, May, who remained with him to the end, is to feel that, far from a figure from the past, Forster belongs to a gay future yet to come.
A New Life of E. M. Forster
by Wendy Moffat
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
ISBN: 9780374166786
Hardcover, 416pp