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)

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