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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.4 (2001) 800-830

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"A Further Reservation in Favour of Strangeness": Isherwood's Queer Pastoral in The Mortmere Stories and "On Reugen Island"

Stuart Christie

On 2 January 1941, after reading Forster's Nordic Twilight (1940), Christopher Isherwood wrote in his diary that he believed Forster's public stance against Nazism, while sound in principle, was misguided. Writing from the perspective of Vedanta-inspired pacifism--and relatively removed, in California, from the European war--Isherwood claims in the entry: "You can't just plump for irresponsible, anarchic freedom of expression, and then sit back and say you are 'civilized' [. . .]. It is the classic fallacy of liberalism" (Diaries 136). Somewhat bitterly, with the disillusionment of a former protégé, Isherwood writes that he should like to remind Forster of a specific moment in Howards End: "when the boy [Leonard Bast] dies of heart failure and Miss Avery comes out of the house with the sword. It was you who taught us the futility of hate" (137).

Isherwood's private argument with Forster concerning Forster's public, albeit reluctant, endorsement of war as a legitimate means of [End Page 800] combating fascism had its roots in Isherwood's long-standing hostility toward English liberalism and its ready assimilation to nationalism in the years before the Second World War. A resident of Berlin as early as 1929, Isherwood had witnessed the rise of German totalitarianism constructed upon a platform of popular, nationalist awakening (Deutschland Erwache!). Based upon this precedent, Isherwood rejected what he perceived to be Forster's increasing domestication by a similarly nationalist culture industry--including his popular radio broadcasts with the BBC--as well as Forster's steady production of antifascist pamphlets and articles in praise of English liberties. Isherwood believed strongly that the best defense of the peace was pacifism, rather than antifascism. Even as Forster publicly defended Isherwood's emigration to America ("These 'Lost Leaders'"), Isherwood found it increasingly difficult to view Forster's acceptance of a military response to the crisis on the Continent as anything but the vitiation of Bloomsbury humanism, the fait d'accompli of a liberal civilization that, to Isherwood, seemed hardly worth saving (Furbank 2: 237).

By 1941, Isherwood had turned away not only from England, but also from the particular brand of neohellenist liberalism that Forster had made his trademark over a generation earlier with the publication, to popular acclaim, of Howards End (1910). An iteration of the Hellenist theory of elite culture expounded in Arnold's Culture and Anarchy (1869), Forster's neohellenism embraced home-grown essentials of Englishness in the form of a pastoralized text of English exceptionalism. The England represented in Howards End had been palatable to Isherwood--as well as to the late-Edwardian and Georgian upper class to which both men belonged--because of the tolerance, moderation, and incipient dissent with which the novel contested the spirit of inevitability surrounding events culminating in the outbreak of war in August 1914. And with the private circulation, among a select gay readership, of Forster's Maurice manuscript after 1914 (Isherwood read the manuscript on Forster's invitation in the spring of 1935), the neohellenist "greenwood" was established as an allegory for homosexual desire within the genre of the modern English pastoral novel. 1 Yet the homosexual variant of neohellenist pastoral evident in Maurice also served to constitute an imagined community for England's gay male writers who, like Forster and Isherwood, increasingly practiced their desire while traveling outside England. Beyond [End Page 801] national borders, these writers produced texts that exported homosexual values well beyond the scope of Benedict Anderson's print capitalism-nation formation thesis (37-46), as well as the specifically English confines of the "greenwood" allegory itself.

Yet the ability to travel "outside" the textual/sexual confines of Englishness comprised the doubled inheritance that gay writers experienced in the era following the Wilde trials of 1895--an inheritance comprised of sexual disinvestment as national subjects and continued phallic power as imperial subjects...


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