Francis King

Not as sweet as he seemed

There are already three biographies of E. M. Forster: P. N. Furbank’s two- volume, authorised heavyweight; Nicola Beauman’s less compendious, more engaging middleweight; and my own bantamweight, little more than an extended essay.

Not as sweet as he seemed
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E. M. Forster: A New Life

Wendy Moffat

Bloomsbury, pp. 404, £

There are already three biographies of E. M. Forster: P. N. Furbank’s two- volume, authorised heavyweight; Nicola Beauman’s less compendious, more engaging middleweight; and my own bantamweight, little more than an extended essay.

There are already three biographies of E. M. Forster: P. N. Furbank’s two- volume, authorised heavyweight; Nicola Beauman’s less compendious, more engaging middleweight; and my own bantamweight, little more than an extended essay. For readers who want a coherent, psychologically penetrating, well-written account of the life, with a minimum of critical analysis, this new biography is the one that I now recommend.

Most people would regard the writing of his novels as the dominant preoccupation of Forster’s life. But to that, most convincingly, Moffat adds another one, his sexuality, dealing with this aspect far more lengthily and frankly than her predecessors have done. Forster had already passed the age of 40 when, working as a ‘Head Researcher’ for the British Red Cross in Alexandria during the first world war, he at last found total emotional and physical satisfaction with a young Egyptian tram-conductor. But before that, he had been always obsessed with sex, having unassisted orgasms when his thigh merely pressed accidentally against another male thigh on a bus or a train, and masturbating so frequently that, when he had to undergo an operation on his prostate, his consultant told him that too much self-abuse had been the cause of his problem. Among diaries at King’s College, Cambridge that have only recently been made available to scholars is one confined solely to his sexual experiences and day-dreaming.

There has always been debate as to why Forster did not have the courage to publish his openly homosexual Maurice when it still would have been ground-breaking, instead of leaving it to be published after his death, when the passage of the years made it seem fustily and sometimes sentimentally old-fashioned. By publishing the book in his lifetime he would hurt his loved ones, he would say in excuse. Sometimes there was a variation of this: he would alienate his admiring readership. When his close friend J. R. Ackerley took him to task, saying, ‘After all Gide has come clean’, Forster replied, ‘But Gide doesn’t have a mother.’ ‘No, but he has a wife,’ was Ackerley’s riposte.

Wendy Moffat takes an exalted view of her subject, describing him as ‘so great and honest a writer and so humane a man’. There was a time when I should have concurred in that judgment. But over the years I have become aware of flaws in both the writing and the character; which, oddly, for all the love and admiration with which she writes, Moffat’s narrative seems often to confirm.

A Passage to India contains so much that is superb; but increasingly I wonder whether all those ambiguities — what really happened in the caves, why did Mrs Moore have that sudden breakdown, were Fielding and Aziz in love with each other? — resulted not from intention but from a panicky inability to decide how to proceed to a satisfactory end.

As far as Forster’s character is concerned, I am reminded of what Kenneth Clark once said to me: ‘He’s a sweet old chap but I have a feeling that he’s not really quite as sweet as he seems.’ The older Forster grew, the more misogynistic he became and the more willing he was to sacrifice the company of his intellectual equals for that of young males usually of little account. In Egypt he poured out delirious confessions about his highly unorthodox love affair to a remarkable woman friend, Florence Barger. Subsequently he shifted her, gentle but ruthless nudge by nudge, towards the periphery of his life.

The war over, Forster left Alexandria and the young Egyptian, who was soon to die of the family tuberculosis. In 1930, he then struck up a friendship that was to last the rest of his life, with a manly, affable, sporty young policeman called Bob Buckingham. The relationship was a sexual one — though after Forster’s death, to the amusement of Forster’s cronies, Buckingham insisted that it had always been entirely chaste. This was the most important event of the second half of Forster’s life; but Moffat’s treatment of it, as of other events of that period, tends to be perfunctory, as though she were beginning to flag at her task.

Buckingham married a young nurse, who, when I met her for the purposes of my book, at once impressed me with her goodness, kindness and strength of character. She behaved impeccably, eventually nursing Forster in his last illnesses. Forster’s own behaviour now strikes me as far from impeccable, reminding me of Graham Greene’s short story ‘May We Borrow Your Husband?’ The two men would frequently take off on foreign holidays, leaving the wife behind to look after the often ailing children. In his defence people say, ‘Well, he did give them a lot of financial help.’ But that strikes me as no real excuse.