E M Forster: a New Life

Wendy Moffat’s biography of E M Forster, though magnificent, is more interested in raking over the d

This is for the most part a magnificent biography, in which the author of A Room with a View, Howards End and A Passage to India is portrayed as a man of principle - "the father of liberal humanism", no less. Wendy Moffat, an American born to English parents, amply fulfils the biographer's boring duties, but she is also a fluent writer and at the many points where it would have been easier to simplify or judge, she displays a Forsterish combination of equanimity and magnanimity. She does not give up on Forster (1879-1970) when he gives up writing novels, in 1924 - the approach of his last biographer, Nicola Beauman (Morgan: a Biography of E M Forster, published in 1993) - though it must be conceded that Moffat does not seem especially interested in the novel-writing that did take place.

The concern here is not with Forster as, say, a misfit among the modernists, or an Edwardian Jane Austen, but as the bridge between Oscar Wilde and the Stonewall riots. Moffat is aware that Forster's friend P N Furbank wrote a two-volume biography that is in some respects unsurpassable. We have this "new life" because Moffat wants to fill in Furbank's gaps, most of them relating to Forster's homosexuality.

Researchers did not gain access to Forster's locked diaries until 2008, so Moffat is telling parts of this story for the first time. In a diary entry written in his mid-eighties, Forster softly alluded to the element of tragedy in his long life: "How annoyed I am with Society for wasting my time by making homosexuality criminal." The chapter entitled "A Great Unrecorded History" (the book's American title) is a patient account of Forster's relationship during the First World War with the young Egyptian Mohammed el-Adl, who receives, if not short, then at least shorter shrift in Furbank's longer biography. The book contains a great deal of information about Forster's 50-year relationship with the policeman Bob Buckingham, whom Forster described, in a letter to Dora Carrington, as "very charming and attractive to look at & 'easy to get on with', as they say". Buckingham's remarkably kind-hearted wife, May, is the female lead in the book's second half, a role occupied by Forster's mother, Lily, in the first.

We have not usually associated E M Forster with the kind of activities itemised by Warren Beatty's biographer Peter Biskind ("daytime quickies", "drive-bys", "casual gropings"), but the images of Forster gradually crossing the lawn of King's College, Cambridge and standing at a lectern in a three-piece suit are now joined by the image of him ejaculating on a beach at night-time with the help of a young soldier. Forster did not specify the sexual act in the letter he wrote to his friend Florence Barger, but Moffat speculates that it was "most likely a hurried sucking off". Well, a new biographer does not enter the fray in order to perpetuate illusions; and we now have the ammunition to face down Martin Amis's comment that Forster's "91 years were chiefly remarkable for being utterly devoid of incident".

The more familiar perception of Forster as an essentially good man is deepened in this book. Moffat writes about him as he wrote about his characters: "He delicately ascertained the perfect needful thing, and made it occur with a minimum of fuss." He had "a gift for friendship". He showed "no condescension". Moffat quotes Forster's opinion that the gangsters he met through his lover Harry Daley "spoke my language". As the novelist Christopher Isherwood saw it, Forster was "absolutely flexible": "my 'England' is EM", he wrote.

Forster was raised entirely by women, and spent the rest of his life compensating. In Moffat's account of his time studying at King's College, working for the International Red Cross in Alexandria and for the maharaja of Dewas Senior, travelling and lecturing in America, barely a woman is mentioned. The friends he most adored, with some exceptions, were homosexual men: the older don Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, the memoirist and literary editor J R Ackerley, the adventurer T E Lawrence and Isherwood. This last figure is accorded greater prominence than in previous biographies for his role in orchestrating the posthumous pub­lication of the book that Moffat calls Forster's "only truly honest novel", Maurice, a gay love story with a happy ending.

The now tediously familiar epigraph to Howards End, "Only connect . . .", was a succinct statement of Forster's convictions about how best to live. The liberal humanism he allegedly fathered was a sort of religious belief, retaining mysticism, but with the worship of a deity replaced by love for one's fellow man. The causes he advocated in public and private related either to love or to freedom: intimate siblings, in Forster's view. This was a personal philosophy, much of it laid down in the 1938 essay "What I Believe", with its call for "an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky", representatives of what Forster called "the true human tradition".

Moffat makes us feel the love in Forster's life very powerfully, and most of all when it is taken away. The short paragraph that ends with Forster receiving the "unreal" news of Dickinson's death is astonishing; similar feats of tact and tenderness are performed with the deaths of Lily Forster and Bob Buckingham's son. Forster's capacity for strong feeling and distaste for conformity are rightly insisted upon, and illustrated by dozens of examples.

In other, perhaps less important ways, this is a slightly frustrating book. Moffat has followed Beauman in referring to Forster as "Morgan", which she rightly identifies as his "intimate name" without justifying her decision to use it. But this is a small point, and sits with other pardonable eccentricities, such as Moffat's weakness for anachronism (C P Cavafy "had a Warhol-like detachment") and for exclamation marks ("Three eventful years!"), as well as her taste for out-of-the-way vocabulary ("bouleversement", "androcentric").

The existence of this book is justified, even necessitated, by its emphasis on Forster's homosexuality, but at times it is an overemphasis. Moffat takes as her starting point, though does not question, Isherwood's comment that all the books written about Forster needed to be rewritten: "Unless you start with the fact that he was homosexual, nothing's any good at all." This was a forgivable overstatement on Isherwood's part, but Moffat might have made a point of scotching the implication that, for instance, Lionel Trilling's book on Forster, published in 1943, isn't any good at all. And Furbank, though certainly aware of the fact, cannot be said to have started with it. In the normal course of things, it might be thought unfair to make much of a prologue - except that, in this case, it proves an accurate forecast. And it might be thought unfair to judge a book by its index, but this is the kind of E M Forster biography that mentions the Stonewall riots three times and Aspects of the Novel only once.

Moffat has a tendency, presumably unconscious, to shy away from virtually anything that smells of literary history. Often, when she does overcome this aversion, she gets things wrong: "The Waste Land" was not "accompanied by copious footnotes", Lady Chatterley's Lover was not "posthumously published". We are offered many of Forster's public utterances and private musings, but deprived of the maxims scattered across his fiction. These have often been criticised as intrusive or preachy; if Moffat shares this objection, she does not say so. When she gets near a comment of literary or philosophic interest, she stops just short. For instance, she quotes Forster's rather bland praise of D H Lawrence, but not his heroic response to T S Eliot's charge of imprecision: "Mr Eliot duly entangles me in his web. He asks me what exactly I mean by 'greatest', 'imaginative' and 'novelist' and I cannot say. Worse still, I cannot even say what 'exactly' means - only that there are occasions when I would rather feel like a fly than a spider, and that the death of D H Lawrence is one of these."

The social aspects of Forster's university career are confidently portrayed, the intellectual ones less so. Moffat offers a severely truncated version of his reading list, retaining the obvious writers (Milton, Shakespeare) while forgoing those less well known now, but of great importance to the young Forster, such as George Meredith. We might be interested to know that in 1899 Forster read three novels by Austen, Moffat's scant references to whom are purely incidental, not one of them touching on Forster's admiration. Furbank is much better on these matters, and this is why Moffat's book is its companion, not its replacement.

There is also the problem, sadly common in biographies of novelists, that the work itself receives brisk treatment. Forster's novels are identified mostly by means of analogies, at least one of them ludicrous: "Where Angels Fear to Tread is a novel Henry James might have written if he'd had a sense of humour." Moffat calls Forster the "greatest architect of narrative surprise", but only in the course of describing a surprise he rigged in real life. The handful of references to Howards End includes a misquotation of both its epigraph and its opening line. A novel that Forster started at Cambridge but did not finish or even title is wrongly identified as Nottingham Lace and despatched in a single sentence; Furbank gives it more than a page, quoting a 20-line passage and comparing its plot to that of A Room With a View and one of its proposed settings to that of Rickie's boarding school in The Longest Journey.

Although we could all live happily without biographical criticism of the Bob-is-Sam variety, there are other possibilities, and Moffat does not pursue them. This is odd, because the dangers of discussing the work alongside the life are fewer in Forster's case. His novels dramatise his personal views about the obstacles confronting human connection, that sense of "muddle", of living in "muddledom", about which he writes so often and so beautifully. And there is always Aspects of the Novel to consider. A lecture series delivered at Trinity College, Cambridge is more easily considered in a biography than a similar exercise undertaken behind closed doors. Moffat briefly mentions the awkwardness that arose from Forster's insistence on dining at King's throughout his stay, but writes almost nothing about what he actually said, though the resulting book continues to be of interest and exhibits some of Forster's habits in his life and work. This distinction is not always a sharp one; in both, human generosity was the touchstone.

We may feel the lack of such discussion in Moffat's biography, though we need not feel its lack in general because of Frank Kermode's 2009 study, Concerning E M Forster. The greatest achievements of Kermode's book are its luminous opening chapter, "Aspects of Aspects", and its long closing causerie, a sort of literary-critical stream of consciousness. Kermode's attitude towards Forster is one of love qualified by a sense of disappointment, a not uncommon mixture of feelings in relation to this writer's stubborn modesty. Kermode approvingly quotes Trilling's remark that Forster refused to be great while providing the counter that, in A Passage to India especially, "greatness refused to be refused". Concerning E M Forster performs many of the tasks neglected by the new biography, and vice versa. Between these two books, we may develop a new understanding of this exemplary man, and perhaps a new admiration, too, 40 years after his death.

E M Forster: a New Life
Wendy Moffat
Bloomsbury, 416pp, £25

Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer