EM Forster: A New Life, By Wendy Moffat

The remarkable details of a literary giant's sex life
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Christopher Isherwood said of EM Forster that, "Unless you start with the fact he was homosexual, nothing's any good at all." Some admirers of A Room with a View, Howards End and A Passage to India, which have very little to do with homosexuality, may disagree, but in her engaging new biography, Wendy Moffat enthusiastically embraces Isherwood's advice and takes Forster's sex life, or lack of it, as the context of his work

The question of whether he would have wanted his private life made public was, happily, answered by Forster himself. Making plans for his biography in his eighties, he told a friend he "wanted it to be known that H[omosexuality] had worked" and "that none of his intimates had been eminent". He wanted posterity to know he had achieved closeness with ordinary people: he had lived by his own maxim, to "only connect".

Forster was born into possibly the worst generation to be gay: stifled in his youth by the shadow of late-Victorian mores, he would die only three years after the decriminalisation of homosexuality. How depressing it must have been, as an old man in the 1960s, to sift through a lifetime of stories and ideas, unpublished because of their homosexual themes, while the decade of free love unfolded around him.

As an only child raised in a stifling ménage a deux with his mother, Morgan (his middle name, by which Moffat likes to call him) was passive, weak and mollicoddled. He would live with his mother into his sixties, allowing her to cosset him even as an adult. At the end of a letter that he sent from abroad, aged 56, he signs off: "Will have some cocoa or an orange (not sure which!) and then go to bedy-by."

He was 38 when he experienced his first sexual encounter, an anonymous fumble on a beach, which Moffat helpfully speculates was "most likely a hurried sucking off". But he comes across as a sympathetic character: self-effacing, kind and exceedingly generous to friends and lovers.

The mystery is why, after A Passage to India in 1924, he would never publish another novel during his life. (Maurice, his homosexual novel, was published posthumously.) Moffat's thesis is that his early creativity was a product of his sexual frustration; once he had discovered sex, the instinct to write subsided. That he was able to live comfortably from an aunt's legacy no doubt also played its part.

The official two-volume biography by Forster's friend PN Furbank, published in 1977, remains the definitive account but, like Forster's own work, it tiptoed around the nitty-gritty of sex. Moffat, an American academic for whom this is her first book, has more than made up for it, tracing with at times startling detail what Forster got up to, where and with whom. Though the research is impressive, the sexploits come at the expense of what a conventional biography might care to dwell on: even the novels get only a cursory appreciation. And pedants will be annoyed by slips, such as saying that Windy Corner, the house in A Room with a View, is in Sussex rather than Surrey, or that Wilton lies south-east of Salisbury, when it is west of the city.

But the release in 2008 of previously unseen papers, including a sex diary Forster kept on and off, merits the exercise, and means that some episodes of his private life are told here for the first time. They are not for the squeamish: at one point he is so frustrated that he "masturbates thrice in one afternoon", and on another occasion a brush with a boy's wrist on a bus causes him to ejaculate into his trousers. Later we find him buggering servants in India and arranging daytime trysts with Reg, the married bus driver, at his mum's house in Weybridge. It's occasionally hard to reconcile this image with the creator of Charlotte Bartlett and Mr Beebe, the man Lytton Strachey nicknamed "taupe" for his tweedy, mole-like appearance. But even moles have sex lives, it seems.