Bloomsbury £25 (416pp) £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

E M Forster: A New Life by Wendy Moffat

The longest journey

When EM Forster – "Morgan" to friends, and to his latest biographer - died in 1970, aged 91, the novel which had cemented his literary reputation among the first rank of 20th-century writers, A Passage to India (1924), was almost a half century old. Moreover, it had been his last. In the intervening years, Forster had not so much renounced fiction as found himself incapable of writing it. He once told the public simply: "I somehow dried up." Privately, he admitted he had run out of sympathy with heterosexual characters and storylines. Believing that, for a man of letters, it was "better to dribble than to dry up" (Frank Kermode's phrase), he devoted himself to criticism and non-fiction.

Forster lived with, and somewhat in the shadow of, his mother Lily until her death in 1945, when he was 66. Wealthy, but homeless and domestically incapable, he was offered rooms and - more importantly - a context in which to live by his alma mater, Kings College, Cambridge. Much of his estate ended up going to Kings (if indirectly), along with most of his papers.

Wendy Moffat knows her subject well, even if her access to Kings' archive is less "exclusive" than her publishers imply. She includes plenty of unfamiliar detail, and shapes a life strikingly unlike those published to date. She is, as the closing pages concede, heavily in debt - as are all Forsterians - to Nick Furbank, a young Cambridge don when he befriended Forster in 1947.

It fell to Furbank to put in the exceptional labour required for a first biography of this complex and enduring figure. Furbank's copious life –still in print – has rightly been praised as a masterpiece. It is also somewhat orthodox; characterised by intellect, inquisitiveness, but also discretion. Many of Forster's queer fellow-travellers were still alive in 1979, and wanted nothing blatant revealed about sexual histories which had been liable to prosecution in England until 1967.

Still, Moffat's attempts at redefining Forster as a trail-blazing gay figure do not, at first sight, look too promising. She documents carefully how his homosexuality – and the bitterness which his often unanswered erotic and romantic needs provoked – proved central to his self-understanding.

Nevertheless, Forster was not only contradictory on the subject; he was capable of hypocrisy. In 1924 - asked to lie to Joe Ackerley's parents about his young friend's sexual pursuits in Italy – he countered: "Is a lie necessary?" Yet he knew that it was. A dedication from the same year in his Pharos and Parillon to a deceased Egyptian lover, Mohammed el Adl, was changed to the innocuous: "To Hermes, leader of souls". Forster admitted to a close friend: "All his life I hushed him up and I feel I ought to put his name in full. Yet I don't want questions from outsiders as to who Mohammed is."

Latterly, Forster found love in an unlikely form: a formerly heterosexual, married policeman called Bob Buckingham. He led an unimpeachably dull suburban life with his wife May and their son, while engaging in weekend trysts and trips abroad with Forster. Awkwardly for Furbank, on Forster's death, May insisted that she was astonished to discover that he was gay, and initially refused to concede that she suspected anything concerning her husband's relations with him. To preserve the unwieldy triangle, Forster had censored his own airing of homosexual themes, and carefully restricted the circulation of his gay-themed erotic stories in order to "protect" Bob, May and the young boy, whose middle name was Morgan.

Forster had long argued valiantly against censorship in relation to sexually marginal themes. With a novel like James Hanley's seafaring tale of teenage rape, Boy (1931), he meant what he said. His involvement, however, in the obscenity trial facing Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928) was less straightforward. To Forster's credit, he alone - of many defending the wretched book - risked informing the overbearing Hall that he thought it badly written. The wider context here though was Forster's discomfort with women, lesbians in particular. He apparently told the Woolfs he found lesbians "disgusting".

Moffat sketches an arc of increasing misogyny in Forster – who had been brought up only by women, and lived with one almost all his life. Mostly this is persuasive. But we should remember that sources may be unreliable. The comment about "disgusting" lesbians survives only in Virginia Woolf's diaries. Woolf herself – with her patronising take on Forster's erotic disappointments - had an axe to grind, as when she pitied him during a depressive period, since "the middle age of buggers is not to be contemplated without horror". Nevertheless, misogyny is perhaps not putting it too strongly. By 1930, Forster's private "Commonplace Book" announced: "Women have got out of hand."

The irony of Forster's interventions in support of sexually transgressive writings lay in one fact. He had written a novel on gay themes in 1917 which was groundbreaking – particularly in its happy ending. But Maurice went unpublished while Forster lived. When it did appear, in 1971, the faint praise he had accorded it after his last revisions accorded with the awkward truth. Maurice contained Forster's finest sentiments, but some of his least convincing writing. Moffat, to her credit, concedes the point.

It was not in such "honesty" that Forster's fictional gift resided. Rather, it was when he dramatically transposed the urgency of his personal desires into another context that his novels took wing - such as the cross-cultural, deep but platonic friendship between Fielding and Aziz in A Passage to India. Perversely, Forster's artistic "coming out" occurred through someone else's creative vision, when commissioned by Benjamin Britten to write a libretto from Melville's homoerotic story Billy Budd in 1948.

When writing my own "brief life" of Forster, I found it hard to write enthusiastically about the quarter century which followed that opera's triumphant premiere. Nannyish even at 30, he passed an increasingly anachronistic existence at King's. Forster abjured the telephone, and railed against "modern" inventions, including the bicycle.

Yet Moffat argues winningly for the contentment and vigour of Forster's last decades. Not only did he find true romantic love with Buckingham; he continued to meet, support, and flirt with much younger apostles. He was feted in America by a set including Lincoln Kirstein, George Platt Lynes, Glenway Wescott and painter Paul Cadmus.

Moffat is particularly good on Forster's American travels, including his encounter with Alfred Kinsey, a more sympathetic documenter of sexuality, Forster felt, than Freud had been. Aged 82, he experienced orgasm (alone), confiding with satisfaction to his "Locked Diary" that "the worm that never dies must have given its last wriggle this morning".

This is a rich, well-honed biography, filled with vivid character sketches, and convincing concerning Forster's inner struggle. A few things, inevitably, are overlooked, such as the degree to which Forster invited himself to accompany Auden and Isherwood in 1939, fleeing war-torn Europe. The prospect of abandoning Lily was unlikely. Still, he certainly entertained the possibility. We can only speculate whether "a new life" in America might have unblocked Forster the novelist.

Richard Canning is the author of 'Brief Lives: EM Forster' (Hesperus)

Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea

film

In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops

film

Arts and Entertainment
Full circle: Wu-Tang’s Method Man Getty

Music review

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game