A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster
A GREAT UNRECORDED HISTORY: A NEW LIFE OF E.M. FORSTER
“Forster travelled the world, achieved fame and riches, met and knew generations of great gay artists and writers, had numerous lovers, and yet to all intents and purposes remained a bachelor living quietly with his mother until she died in 1945, when he was 66.” –Ian Sansom
Wendy Moffat's A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster is the first biography to treat E.M. Forster's homosexuality as central to his life and work. I suspect Forster would have approved. After years of friendship with the younger Christopher Isherwood, Forster embraced the idea of "a posthumous biography 'briefly and brazenly' written." He told J.R. Ackerley, "I wish I could get [a biography] written about me after I die, but I should want everything told, everything." At the time he was writing a biography of his own, about his dear friend Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, and was forced to skip over Goldies's homosexuality.
A Great Unrecorded History begins with Isherwood and John Lehman, after Forster's death, discovering the short stories Forster wrote long after he publicly claimed that his creative writing well had dried up. The stories treated homosexuality too frankly to have been publishable within Forster’s lifetime. Isherwood and Lehman worked together to ensure that Forster's queer canon was published.
Over and over again Moffat comes back to the incredible community of queer men who supported Forster. As a result, much of Forster's work is available to us that would have likely otherwise been destroyed or lost. Forster himself considered burning his great gay romance Maurice, one of the first queer English stories not to end in tragedy, because he wasn’t sure of its quality. The book was dappled with gentle euphemisms—calling sex, for instance, “sharing.” When he first showed it to Isherwood, he asked with some hesitancy, “Does it date?” Moffat writes that Isherwood’s “response was the perfect blend of compassion of honesty.” He said, “Why shouldn’t it date?” and teared up. It was astonishing and admirable that Forster, who had been alone in his queerness for so long, had dared to write these words, to imagine a loving relationship between two men before such a thing had ever become a reality for himself.
Isherwood, just as many other readers would, found Maurice to be a valuable addition to the gay canon. Following Forster's death, Christopher Isherwood's precious copy of Maurice "was shepherded by hand, from Cambridge to London to New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, by trustworthy friends, all gay men." At the time, the cold war was being used to exacerbate homophobia, as queer men were believed to be inherently disloyal to their nations. The Comstock laws allowed people to be persecuted for mailing queer materials within the U.S., and in the U.K. gay men were being rounded up by sting operations, their personal documents often searched without a warrant.
Moffat’s biography is at times wide-sweeping, offering mini-biographies on other gay writers and artists, as well as painting a clear picture of the general era, from public school life to colonial anxieties. At other times it is perhaps too focused on Forster's sex life, at the loss of delving much into his works. But I think Moffat felt justified in being utterly dedicated to this topic that had for decades been neglected by other biographers. Perhaps in the future a more well-balanced biography can be written, but this one needed to come first.
Biographies are spiritually nourishing to me: They reframe my anxieties, put history into perspective, and soothe my fear of mortality. Biographies assure me that people can achieve wonderful things while being deeply flawed. Our culture has turned likability into a virtue, suggesting bland virtual popularity as a path to wealth and fulfillment. But this was not a route followed by, say, the anxious and chronically gassy E.B. White or the unsocial and fairly snobby Virginia Woolf. (I read primarily writers' biographies.) Their flaws are a comfort to me. Biographies contain the undiluted stuff of life.
This biography was thus a joy to read. There is something very hopeful about the trajectory of E.M. Forster’s sex life. After years of all-consuming lust and loneliness, he first had sex at 37. After some one night stands with soldiers, he fell in love with the Egyptian man Mohammed El Adl. He wrote to his friend, "Oh, Florence, what a mean, truncated life if this [relationship] had never happened." After tragically losing Mohammed, he would have another great love years later, and spend decades in an unusual relationship with his lover Bob Buckingham and Bob’s wife May, with whom Forster would eventually form a deep friendship.
Outside of Forster’s personal life, broader topics made this biography sing. Forster lived through two world wars. He lived through the Indian independence movement. To see him fighting against the same things we’re fighting against now both made me feel spiritually connected to the past—and comforted by that—as well as sad and disheartened. He fought against “foreign policy as machismo,” nationalism and anti-Semitism, homophobia and censorship, the undervaluing of freedom in times of peril, anti-science rhetoric, and imperial exceptionalism. He wrote angry op-eds about human rights abuses in India but was continually frustrated by feelings of powerlessness.
In a historical moment that gave me chills, a junior magistrate in India, Abu Saeed Mirza, told Forster, “It may be fifty or one hundred years but we shall throw you [English] out.” Forster was so moved by this he put the words into one of his character’s mouths in A Passage to India. He had no idea how right Mirza would be, though.
What surprises me is that, despite being called A Great Unrecorded History, so much of it is recorded. It is a bit of a wake-up call to read about the masses of letters everyone seemed to have written each other during the Edwardian era. E.M. Forster wrote down the truths of his life with remarkable candor, albeit often coded to get past the mail censors. (He describes his first sexual encounter, for example, as a "parting with Respectability.")
One of the scary but heartwarming moments of his life is when he sends affectionate letters from Egypt to his dear friend Sir Syed Ross Masood in India. The letters' tone aroused the suspicion of a censor in Bombay, who sent them to his superiors, calling Forster a "sexual pervert." A British official, a friend of one of Forster's friends, stepped in, dismissing the censor and saying that there was no evidence that Forster had acted on his urges. Those letters could have potentially cost Forster his job (which kept him in Egypt, where he eventually met the great love of his life) and even his freedom. But another man saved him.
(And how this episode nails home the absolute callousness of homophobia: That a gay man should be as inwardly lonely as it is possible for a human soul to be, and this was preferable in the eyes of the law to any simple companionship.)
One of the most disappointing parts of the biography was Forster's misogyny, particularly later in life. It seems the younger generation of gay men, such as A.R. Ackerley, prided themselves on being estranged from womankind, and Forster absorbed some of their more violent views. By this time he had stopped writing novels, but I am curious as to whether his life-like women characters would have changed into something less than if he had still been writing.
He wrote things like, "Women have got out of hand... Twenty years ago I thought, 'It's unpleasing to me but it won't go further' and spoke with false enthusiasm for women's rights. ... But it has gone further. This, I begin to see, is sex war..."
It is also sad that, while he had obvious, infinite love in his heart for gay men, he once told Virginia Woolf he found lesbians "disgusting: partly from convention, partly because he disliked that women should be independent from men." Moffat suggests Forster's misogyny is something that came to him later in life. However, I am currently reading Virginia Woolf's A Writer's Diary, and in 1919 she wrote that she and Forster ran into each other at the library and, "We shook hands very cordially; and yet I always feel him shrinking sensitively from me, as a woman, a clever woman, an up to date woman." How I would love to know what her precise thoughts were the moment Forster told her he found lesbians disgusting.
It is very interesting to me that queer men and women saw themselves as belonging to such separate communities during his time. It makes me want to read more about queer history, because before reading about Forster’s abhorrence of lesbians, I never realized what a product I am of my own time. For example, I felt it natural to choose the name "Queerly Reads,” meant to encompass the entire not-straight spectrum. But this choice was not natural at all; I have absorbed the politics of my time, where we all (ideally) stand together. I am now interested in what must have been a political shift, queer people uniting under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. If you have any recommended reads for this, do let me know.
Moffat's biography was wonderfully interesting. I am now reading Forster's works chronologically. While Moffat may not have dived deeply into the content of Forster’s novels, I am able (perhaps wrongly) to see strands of autobiography in his stories. For example, Moffat writes that Forster, astonishingly, made it to the end of his grade school life without ever having a friend. It was Cambridge that transformed him and showed him true happiness, and the connections he made there would last a lifetime. In his second book, The Longest Journey, Forster writes,
"[Rickie] had crept cold and friendless and ignorant out of a great public school, preparing for a silent and solitary journey, and praying as a highest favour that he might be left alone. Cambridge had not answered his prayer. She had taken and soothed him, saying … his boyhood had been but a dusty corridor that led to the spacious halls of youth. In one year he had made many friends and learnt much."
It is impossible for me not to see the trajectory of Forster's own life in those sentences.
While reading, I realized that Forster lived long enough to have been filmed and recorded. Indeed you can see him talk and move on YouTube, and he sounds precisely as I imagined. It is also now impossible for me not to hear hidden references to his homosexuality even in this single clip.
“Anyone who’s cared to read my books will see what a high value I attach to personal relationships. And to tolerance. And to pleasure—pleasure one’s not supposed to talk about in public, however much one enjoys it privately.”
After reading the biography, his words sound even more suggestive than perhaps intended. So be it. I'm not sure Forster would object.
Forster’s life began cold and lonely, but once middle-age hit he was nourished by long and compassionate friendships and romances. While reading the biography—even the misogyny bits—I couldn’t help but think that I would be damn proud if someone could write a biography of me and if I could have so good a moral record as Forster seems to have. We all have our low points. He is remembered as the one who wrote, “Only connect,” but while writing that same book in which he wrote it, Howard’s End, he told his friend, “I think that most Indians, like most English, are shits, and I am not interested in whether they sympathize with one another or not.” He felt hopelessness; anger; disconnect; anguish. Still, he rose above his darkest thoughts and the politics that surrounded him. “Truly we live in strange times,” Forster told his lover Bob, during the blitzes, “and the only thing which is really real in them is love.”