BOOK REVIEW / A flood-tide of passion for Morgan the sage: 'Morgan: A Biography of E M Forster' - Nicola Beauman: Hodder & Stoughton, 20 pounds

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AT A formal dinner in King's College, Cambridge, E M Forster made a speech. 'I do not belong here at all,' he said, 'I do nothing here whatsoever. I hold no college office, I attend no committee, I sit on no body . . . I co-opt not, neither am I co-opted, I teach not, neither do I think, and even the glory in which I am now arrayed was borrowed from another college for the occasion.'

It was 1952 and he was past 70. He had graduated half a century earlier and his novels had all been written decades ago. It was, says his latest biographer, by now, enough for him just to be. That is probably why she devotes 10 of her 400 pages to the last third of his life; yet it was those years in which he had become what she - 'privately, because it is an unappealing word' - thinks of as 'Morgan the sage'.

Nicola Beauman shares many of her private thoughts with her readers. Her book leaves one with the impression that she is truly, madly, deeply in love with her subject. All those adverbs apply. She searches desperately for the truth about him; she is quite dotty in some of her conclusions and she delves as deeply as imagination will allow - and that is deeper than some of us care to follow.

In fact, it is unlikely that Forster would have been thrilled by her book. (Sorry about that 'would have': it is the kind of locution she uses constantly, along with 'probably', 'must have' and 'couldn't but have been': it's catching.) His own biography of Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson omitted to mention his subject's fetishistic interest in shoes and young boys, because Forster considered them too intimate. Beauman revels in such things, wondering what it must have been like for him to enjoy, at nearly 40, his 'first orgasm that was not self-induced' and speculating about the mechanics of his homosexuality. It gets tedious.

That Forster was homosexual is well known. The only child of a woman widowed in her twenties, he never quite got away from home. But that was how he wanted it. When eventually he found lovers, he chose married men and in his very old age became an honorary grandfather to the child of Bob Buckingham, the policeman who won his heart. Mrs Buckingham, who must have been remarkably tolerant, grew to love him and held his hand as he died.

His great novels came before all this, when he was very young. Beauman is assiduous in tracking down their sources. She travelled to Alexandria, where he spent the First World War doing Red Cross work, and gazed out of Cavafy's window, imagining the young Forster 'making his diffident way' along the crowded streets. She went to India, where Forster worked as secretary to the Maharaja of Dewas. She went to Hertfordshire and found the original of Howard's End: 'When I visited it for the first time I felt as if I were meeting the Ideal Woman: Beatrice, Laura or Greta Garbo.'

She went to Weybridge, where he did most of his writing. Everywhere, she shares with her readers how it feels to be the reverent biographer, getting off a bus, confusedly eating her sandwiches, sitting 'pink among the plasterwork'. She admits to having a sense of 'overactive empathy'. She worked very hard.

Sometimes her conclusions are interesting. She speculates that the source of Maurice, his homosexual novel, is the suicide of a young man called Merz whom Forster met for two hours just before he killed himself. She hunts out a faint trace of Tiddy, a school friend of his at Tonbridge, killed in the war, whose name might have been behind Tibby in Howard's End. To illustrate the universality of Forster's novels, she draws a pleasing parallel between Mr Wilcox in that same book and Mrs Thatcher, whose values certainly seem to be similar.

This book is, in its way, inspiring. It could do with some severe pruning, but it is written on the high flood-tide of passion and that in itself is glorious. You find yourself, against your better judgement, accepting her ultimate critical comment: 'The novels always, every time I re-read them, make my heart leap and my spirits soar.'

Soar away, Madam, that's what fiction is all about.

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