- Forster’s Life
Wendy Moffat. A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. 408 pp. $32.50; E. M. Forster: A New Life. London: Bloomsbury, 2010. 416 pp. £25.00
Writing a biography these days is either a heroic or a foolhardy act: the market is boggy, the hoary genre is reinventing itself as it overtly flirts with fiction, and the womb-to-tomb approach seems increasingly passé, going the way of that Victorian dodo, the stately monument of life and letters. Undeterred by such omens of ill fortune, Wendy Moffat has produced the third full-length life since the death of E. M. Forster—whom she refers to as “Morgan”—in 1970. For the specialist, the book’s American title is unfortunate; a good part of the story here, at least in its general outline, is a twice-told tale: recounted first by P. N. Furbank in his two-volume life of 1978–1979 and then by Nicola Beauman in Morgan (1993), to say nothing of its more recent availability in Forster’s private papers and letters, wholly unpublished when Furbank’s biography appeared.
Furbank offered insider knowledge of a friend and his milieu; Beauman essayed, with mixed results, an “intuitive” approach; Moffat places Forster’s homosexual orientation at the centre of his life story. Or to put in the terms of Zadie Smith’s punning summation of Forster as “a tricky bugger,” Moffat hones in on the bugger and only occasionally captures the trickiness. This would arguably have been a more convincing, compelling and original work had it been a “portrait,” perhaps beginning with the writer’s stint in Egypt during the First World War, or with his hopeless, unrequited love for the dashing Syed Ross Masood, scion of a good Indian family, in England for an education at Oxford.
Up to those points, the book is mainly a rehash, a readable but not especially revealing account drawing heavily and inevitably, as do Moffat’s predecessors, on Forster’s autobiographical reminiscences and correspondence, both published and not. The early life passes mainly as a pageant, with its set pieces: the doting, young, widowed mother; the garden boys at Edenic Rooksnest, the Forsters’ home in Stevenage; the discovery of Forster’s “dirty” (as his mother referred to his sexual [End Page 101] organ); the pedophile in the deerstalker cap; the bullying at school; and the discovery of intellectual bliss and friendship at Cambridge. Thereafter, there are certainly new and good things, whatever the inevitable skewing of perspective to ride home the thesis—which is both true and not true. The fuller account of Masood’s family and cultural background, insights into Forster’s complex friendship with C. P. Cavafy, a delicately sensitive recreation of the friendship with the Egyptian tram conductor Mohammed el Adl, a good deal more about Bob Buckingham, the love of Forster’s life, are all welcome. Moffat’s research on these relationships has been painstaking, her presentation of them vivid, dramatic, and more often than not nicely nuanced.
She is never less than a sympathetic observer, attempting evenhandedness, arguing subtly and to effect. And yet there are biases and blind spots: she lashes out at Forster’s misogyny—mainly a phenomenon of his middle age and later years—but handles his mother with kid gloves. The monstrous Lily Forster spent her eighty-odd years on earth in rounds of domestic triviality, in the assiduous worship of convention, and in devouring her son, alternately adoring and bullying him, in the end crippling his self-confidence and hampering the growth of a separate identity. He never managed to escape her, and even when she died her influence persisted. That he sought refuge in the strong, masculine arms of the “lower classes,” as he unapologetically called and thought of them, should come as no surprise, although Moffat repeats Beauman’s little fantasy that Forster’s father “Eddy” was homosexual, and that it all began there. Both miss the obvious fact that a “muff” or “mollycoddle” needn’t inevitably find his way into other men’s beds.
Moffat also accepts the received version that Forster’s...