- E. M. Forster and the Unpublished "Scrapbook" of Gay History:"Lest We Forget Him!"
The approach of the Second World War left E. M. Forster isolated and increasingly lonely. By the midthirties, painstakingly, he had established some equilibrium between his public and his private lives. Effectively abandoning his role as a writer of fiction, Forster turned to radio broadcasts and essay writing, publishing Abinger Harvest in 1936.1 A close-knit circle of younger homosexual friends, including the Listener literary editor J. R. Ackerley, the South African poet William Plomer, and the novelist Christopher Isherwood, buoyed his entrance into a modern gay world. Most importantly, through this circle he had found the man he loved for the rest of his life, the sturdy policeman Bob Buckingham, and—despite the fact of Bob being married and having a son—established an occasional domestic intimacy with him that Forster described rapturously as "a little like being married."2 But by the end of the decade, Forster's world, like so many others', shattered and contracted. Isherwood fled with W. H. Auden to the United States, settling in Los Angeles, his "sexual homeland."3 Turning sixty in 1939, Forster remained tethered to his mother Lily, who approached ninety, taking care of her in the rambling Victorian house they shared in the village of Abinger Hammer.
It was not simply that he felt old, though that was increasingly true. It was instead the sense of déjà vu. Forster had been almost forty when the First World War began. Now he watched the long, slow "dégringolade" of European civilization for the second time in a generation.4 He began to see himself, ruefully, as being out of place or, more accurately, displaced from the values of his time.5 At the International Congress of Writers in June 1935, Forster had been excoriated by his audience while delivering a speech, "Liberty in England":
My colleagues may feel it is a waste of time to talk about freedom and tradition when the economic structure of society is unsatisfactory. They may say that if there is another war writers of the individualistic and liberalizing [End Page 19] type, like myself ... will be swept away. I am sure that we shall be swept away, and I think ... that there may be another war. [I]f nations keep on amassing armaments, they can no more help discharging their filth than an animal which keeps on eating can stop itself from excreting. This being so, my job ... is an interim job. We have just to go on tinkering with our old tools until the crash comes.... After it—if there is an after—the task of civilization will be carried on by people whose training has been different from my own.6
As war came, Forster's letters to Isherwood in the New World were valedictory: Forster advised his friend to "keep away and see us sink from a distance."7 Increasingly, he felt himself powerless.
Forster's complex sense of isolation was not merely political, but sexual. With Bob Buckingham caught up in nighttime blitz patrols, and William Plomer retreating to Naval Intelligence work, the fragile greenwood of his gay friendships was destroyed by the increasing call to war duties. The war put him in a contemplative, melancholy state of mind: "I have violent longings for fragments of my past ... and I reconstruct partings which I hadn't at the time known would be for so long."8 In case he should be killed, Forster recorded a valedictory list of pals and lovers: "Johnny, Reg, Charles Lovett, Charlie Day, Harry Digby, George Dowsing, Achille, Mohammed and Bob himself...."9 His mother's death in March 1945 fortified Forster's belief that his sense of solitude and his sexual identity were entwined. As an only child, childless, as a man for whom romantic friendships had not achieved the deep intimacy he hoped for them, Forster soberly considered his status as a gay man as a kind of extinction.
A sharp deracination compounded his gloom. In the wake of Lily Forster's death, Forster was obliged to leave the house at Abinger, which had been designed for his...