BOOK REVIEW / Mummy's boy to the end: The novels of E M Forster, with their glinting observations on love, money, property and death, continue to surprise. But can a new biography tell us anything we don't know?

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I used to spend my time here classifying remarks under boasting and complaining, but now there is a third kind, a kind of rambling natter . . . which makes me writhe. She waits for a reply, which I refuse to give. This is called 'being grumpy'. I'll say it is.

The speech more unbearable than the thing. No armour against it but cheerfulness, and that hardens one. Not to feel is part of courage . . . Mother freezes any depths in me. Alone, I can cling to beauty . . .

THE FIRST of these writers is Philip Larkin, the second is E M Forster. Inevitably, just as Eva Larkin held bothersome sway over Andrew Motion's recent biography of the poet, so Lily Forster dominates Nicola Beauman's new life of the novelist. Forster's dependency on his mother left friends aghast: in 1915, D H Lawrence described him to Bertrand Russell as still sucking his dummy, 'bound hand and foot bodily'. 'The middle age of b(ugger)s is not to be contemplated without horror,' wrote Virginia Woolf, watching Forster's wan return from India to 'an old, fussy, exacting mother'.

Once, Forster wrote an outline for the plot of a novel about a mother who drains the sap from her son, and re-establishes his childhood, 'with the difference that his subjection is conscious now and causes him humiliation and pain. Is her tyranny conscious? I think not. Could the same relationship exist between father and daughter? No.' Another time, in a 'Satanic fit of rage' at Lily's grumbling, he saw himself sweeping the mantlepiece with his arm, rushing from the house and cutting his throat: 'I was all red & trembling after. I write it down partly in the hope that I shall see its absurdity so refuse it admittance again.'

In later life Forster had a London pied-a-terre, handy both for work and for lower-class lovers. But 'home' was always with Lily: in Melcombe Place, Clapham; at Rooksnest, the model for Howards End; in Tonbridge, Tunbridge Wells, Weybridge and finally West Hackhurst. Lily was his prime confidante, the first person he told, at the of 10, of his encounter with a man on the Downs (' 'dear little fellow . . . play with it . . . dear little fellow . . . pull it about'. I obeyed with neither pleasure nor reluctance'). Did her worries about such 'dirtiness' lead to convenient blanks in Forster's memory, like the expunging of a schoolfriend, Reginald Tiddy, newly identified here, to whom Beauman believes, precisely because Forster never mentioned him, that he offered 'a passionate romantic friendship' of the kind he later described in his novel Maurice?

He wrote to Lily almost daily, again like Larkin. It is strange to see how much these two writers share, as well as claustrophobic relationships with their mothers: the sexual insecurity, the misogynistic jokes, the blend of arrogance and sweaty shyness; the yearning for yet angry dread of an entangling family life; the quasi-mystical celebration of England combined with a deep distaste for its institutions and humbug. In life, Forster was the luckier, settling into benign old age as the sage of Kings College, Cambridge, while gaining a surrogate family, and even grandchildren, through his last great love Bob Buckingham. Holding the hand of Bob's wife May, rival turned friend, he died peacefully at 91, in June 1970.

Born at the peak of mid-Victorian imperial prosperity, Edward Morgan Forster was a treasured only child, dubbed 'the Important One' by his formidable great-aunt Marianne Thornton. His father's family looked down on his mother's (who were artistic and impoverished), and their muscular, money-making morality cast long shadows over his life and work. So, Nicola Beauman speculates, did an unproven homosexual relationship between his father Eddie and his cousin Ted Streatfield.

At Kings, Forster met the future members of the Bloomsbury group, with whom he remains associated. But while Cambridge warmed him, as it does Rickie in The Longest Journey, he remained on the edge of the inner circle. It was with Lily, not these friends, that he journeyed to Italy in 1901. Here, like his heroine Lucy feeling glumly that she has crossed the channel in a gale only to sit 'with a party of English ladies who seemed even duller than ladies in England', he found his room with a view, and the Arno gurgling against the embankment. A few months later, in Naples and Ravello, while Lily wailed about fleas and 'the noise of people expectorating in the streets', her 'Morgie' poured out his stories 'Albergo Empedocle' and 'The Story of a Panic', refusing to acknowledge until much later, even to himself, their ecstatic sexual basis.

In the closely observed novels published in rapid succession between 1905 and 1910 - Where Angels Fear to Tread, A Room with a View, The Longest Journey and Howards End - whimsy and suburban 'tea- tabling' open suddenly on to un- English passion, launching a sharp assault on domestic and social complacency. Forster's elusiveness, in person as in prose, is neatly implied in Lytton Strachey's nickname for him, 'Taupe', expressing, said Leonard Woolf, not only his faint physical likeness to a mole but also his way of seeming, intellectually and emotionally, to 'travel unseen underground and every now and then pop up unexpectedly' with an observation or quip 'found in the depths of the earth or of his own soul'.

It was the First World War that gave Forster true, if temporary, freedom: working in Alexandria as a 'searcher' for missing soldiers, he finally and happily 'parted with respectability' from a tram-conductor, Mohammed el Adl. Forster saw him again en route to India in 1921. Here, as tutor to the Maharajah of Chatarpur, he found an arranged liaison with a barber, Kanaya, not loving but lustful, 'mixed with a desire to inflict pain'. Farce and despotism, expatriates' blunderings and the mystery of the caves hovered over the slowly gestating A Passage to India, eventually finished in 1923.

Beauman's real interest in Forster ends with this final novel. His second 45 years are covered in a mere 45 pages - a pity, since the later public statements of this timid mole were brave and show the fiction in a different light. But her research into the early years has unearthed some suggestive turning-points. One is the schoolboy friendship with Reginald Tiddy, another the shipboard meeting with a 'Byronic-looking' officer, Kenneth Searight, on the first voyage to India in 1912. She seems to think that Forster read Searight's detailed pederastic notebook (which surfaced in the Charing Cross Road in the 1950s), and that this would have been 'a revelation': it certainly still lingered behind his erotic story 'The Other Boat', written 50 years later.

Beauman's other principal 'discovery' concerns Maurice. Forster himself said in his vivid, if ludicrous 'Terminal Note' that the novel was 'conceived' in 1913 after Edward Carpenter's lover George Merrill touched his backside - 'gently and just above the buttocks. I believe he touched most people's' Beauman, however, asserts that the real point of conception was the unexplained suicide of Ernest Merz, who hanged himself in July 1909; Forster had met Merz at a dinner party with Malcolm Darling the night before and was the last person to talk to him. Beauman's argument (rationalised as being more plausible because of lack of evidence) rests on the names Maurice/Merz, and on her presumption that Merz was, 'we can be almost sure, miserably homosexual'. Shifting the date of composition back to 1910, she defines Maurice as an exorcism of Merz's death, on the grounds that 'their situation was indeed so similar. Darling would never know this, indeed no one would ever know this, but Morgan was guilt- stricken, miserable and confused'.

Tinkered with over the years, circulated among intimates almost as a test of friendship, Maurice remained unpublished even in the more liberal 1960s, thus fostering later accusations of sexual hypocrisy. (Francis King reminds us that when J R Ackerley challenged Forster's timidity, saying that Gide had 'come clean', Forster snapped: 'But Gide hasn't got a mother.') But while Forster can be seen as cowardly, and Maurice itself criticised as coy and masturbatory, it is hardly 'guilt- stricken'. Beauman falls back on a conventional assignment of the novel as a plea for sexual tolerance entwined with an exploration of pastoral and, 'by corollary, values such as love, sensitivity, kindness and spiritual freedom which, in society as most of us know it, come second, Morgan felt, to conventional suburban behaviour'. But this applies uncontroversially to most of Forster's work.

There's an air of missed opportunity about this diligent biography. Since it's 15 years since the publication of P N Furbank's superb Life, one might have hoped not only for new information, which Beauman does provide, but also for a re-appraisal of the writing. A fresh reading could combat, on the one side, the softening of Forster's message by the Raj-glamour and Merchant-Ivorising of the films, and on the other, the attacks of 'elitism', like John Carey's lambasting of the treatment of Leonard Bast as a working-class man with a 'cramped little mind', whose hubris in aspiring to learning is appropriately punished by death under a cascade of books.

Reading Beauman, though, you would think no new criticism was required. Forster's books are 'five of the greatest novels in our language' and that's quite enough for her. She aims, she says, to answer a question: where did E M Forster's novels come from? But the books are so forcibly shackled to the life that their informing ideas are almost lost. Thus Forster is treated pre-eminently as the writer searching for 'an ancestral home', because the houses he cherished were swept away by railways or redevelopments. Malcombe Place and Battersea Rise were indeed demolished, and Rooksnest was threatened. But the uglification of Britain and the 'stream of time' are prevalent themes in other writers of the epoch. What makes Forster different? Similarly, it lessens Forster to say that his passionate identification with the English countryside and 'the spirit of the place' derived from a single day's rural outing in 1904, which 'was to change his mode of thinking forever'.

Beauman's introduction tells us that she has 'tried to eschew gossip for its own sake' (ie, there are very few jokes) and has attempted, quoting Strachey, to 'shoot a sudden, revealing searchlight into obscure recesses, hitherto undivined'. She writes with a sort of sprightly sympathy, and lest we forget that intuition is backed by jolly hard research, cites graphologists, psychiatrists and even a solemn conversation on guilt with a gay couple living opposite the British Museum. We are granted numerous sightings of 'the biographer', as she styles herself: surveying the Nassenheide garden; sitting 'pinkly among the plasterwork' in Bombay; 'knowing that her sandwiches will be eaten confusedly' in Wiltshire.

Perhaps Beauman should be congratulated for entering the book so directly. But she does make rather a meal of it. She is excellent on dates, names, identifications, context, sex, places, finances (and sandwiches), but her analysis of the fiction is typified by her commentary on Where Angels Fear to Tread. Reluctant to spoil this 'perfect' book by quotation, she directs us to Chapter 6: 'For this is the chapter that makes clear that Morgan, aged 26, had nothing more to learn about prose style, narrative, characterisation, insight and all the other qualities that need to be part of a great novel.'

We should be glad, at least, to be sent back to the texts. However much we now question Forster's concept of the 'truth of relationships', his novels continue to surprise by their glinting observation, their strangeness, their patterning of money, love, landscape and death, their deft structures and evasions.

So should we, after all this time, be oddly grateful to Lily Forster? Was she monster or muse? Did she 'drain the sap' or, obscurely, feed her son's fiction? In 1938 Forster told Joe Ackerley: 'My mother has been intermittently tiresome for the last 30 years, cramped and warped my genius, hindered my career, blocked & buggered up my house & boycotted my beloved.' But, he added, 'I have to admit that she has provided the sort of rich subsoil where I have been able to rest and grow.'

'Morgan: A Biography of E M Forster' by Nicola Beauman is published by Hodder at pounds 20

(Photograph omitted)