A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster by Wendy Moffat
Edward Morgan Forster was a homosexual, living at a time when Oscar Wilde was recently imprisoned for “gross indecency.” He wasn’t a handsome man -- in Lytton Strachey’s words Forster was nicknamed Taupe, French for “mole.” And somehow Forster managed to write six rather great novels, only to stop writing in the form when many argue he was reaching new powers. Forster, the quiet Modernist -- who was a friend to Virginia Woolf, who was an acquaintance and sometime literary enemy of D. H. Lawrence, who read James Joyce and Marcel Proust but who ended up writing with a different type of passion and subtlety than them -- led a rich and varied life that his novels and satires may not have suggested.
With the 2x4 of emphasis, these are the themes that Wendy Moffat’s new biography of Forster bashes the reader over the head with; but Moffat’s knack for storytelling, sharp investigatory skills, and keen look into the world of Forster’s interior life make this quite an enticing and page-turning read. A Great Unrecorded History illuminates the world of an author who kept to himself, whose output of work may have been much different if he lived in different times.
Moffat’s argument is simple: that Maurice -- the sole novel with an openly homosexual protagonist which Forster left unpublished until after his death -- was the centerpiece of his fiction, that it was the most true to his own self. He had composed it in 1913 and 1914, and apparently edited it continuously until his death in 1970. It’s the work that exemplifies and even acts as a metaphor for his own life: “Publishable, but worth it?” is what he wrote atop the manuscript when he sent it out to friends. Was it worth admitting that he was a homosexual to the world? Was it worth admitting that to his mother, the person he lived with for most of his adult life? And if he did come out and publish Maurice, would Forster have written more novels with this newfound freedom?
These are enticing questions that unfortunately we will never know the answers to. Forster’s published fictional productivity was small, like Jane Austen’s; but unlike Ms. Austen, it was due to his choice. And Maurice, perhaps because of this repression of sexuality, feels the most stilted and removed of his narratives, without the lightness and je ne sais quoi of the social commentary of his other novels. Would this have been different if homosexuality had been acceptable; would D. H. Lawrence’s thought that “if Morgan would only act, he could become ‘pregnant with his own soul’” have been realized if Forster would have been open about himself?
A Great Unrecorded History does a fine job describing the more traditional aspects known about Forster’s life: the early death of his father, the sexual molestation he experienced from a pedophile, his work at King’s College Cambridge with the Apostles where he befriends of Hugh Owen Meredith (his first post-pubescent gay love, who didn’t share the same emotions), his interaction with the Bloomsbury group and the Woolfs as his publishers. Moffat takes us into the world of Forster and Benjamin Britten’s collaboration on the opera Billy Budd, based on Melville’s novel, which they “redirected... into an allegory about the experience of being a homosexual.” There are descriptions of Forster’s volunteer work during the Great War, his interest in Alexandria where he met the poet Constantine Cavafy and learned more about homosexuality and homosexual metaphor: “Cavafy proved there was a different path: by exercising authorial control he forged a homosexual culture. Sublimely detached from the dictates of the public, he refused to encounter the world on any other than his own terms... Morgan had grown up in an English world where even to be seen looking exposed gay men to danger. Now he found a place where a writer shaped intimacy with steely determination.” We are invited to relook at his novels through the influence of Jane Austen and her light, satirical, and analytical touch:
Like Jane Austen sketching her moral vision on the “little bit of ivory” of provincial domestic life, Morgan discovered the richness and complexity of his entire oeuvre, his whole aesthetic enterprise in a single subject: the search of each person for an honest connection with another human being... He would anchor his plots in the domestic sphere that had been so richly explored by Austen and George Eliot. He would concern himself with their themes: the right choice for a marriage, the tug-of-war between propriety and personal freedom, the moral complexities of an interior life, the pressures of a small community upon an individual’s moral actions.
What is refreshing about this biography is that there is very little literary criticism of Forster’s own novels or stories; it is a look at his life through the lens of his life. When we usually approach a literary biography, we normally expect there to be a chapter devoted to the author’s magnum opus, a half chapter to the smaller works. Here, it’s merely a page or two on the plot summary. We get sharp literary commentary -- “Where Angels Fear to Tread is a novel Henry James might have written if he’d had a sense of humor” -- but more of her discussion about Morgan’s fiction is about how he approached his topic. When discussing The Longest Journey, his most uneven book, she states “Looking back... Morgan acknowledged that while it might be the strangest and ‘least popular of [his] novels’ it was ‘the one [he was] most glad to have written.’ It was cathartic for him to work through in fiction what a terrible idea it would have been for him to marry.” A Great Unrecorded History is a volume that will proudly sit in the realm of understanding a great Modernist writer and the genre of literary biography.
A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster by Wendy Moffat
Farrar, Straus and Giroux