E. M. Forster: A New Life by Wendy Moffat

EMFANLThis is a well-researched book with a detailed bibliography. Forster’s character is filled out as the book progresses. Some thought it a little turgid and stodgy, dry and uninteresting. Though it offered new insights you didn’t get a strong feeling of what he was like.  It’s gossipy in places, which leaves a sour taste.

Moffat’s book is a timely reminder of the struggles that gay men – some remembered like Forster, many forgotten in the tide of civilisation – endured for us who came later, who must be thanked for the liberties we take for granted today.

However, the author focuses on his sexuality rather than is achievement There are so many other dimensions to his life and he was one of the greatest novelists of the early Twentieth Century.

His childhood was stifling, bought up in an all-women household and smothered with rules. As a sort of escape, he had a strong interior life and was reading by age four though never formally taught to do so.

He has an encounter with as paedophile which didn’t seem to do him any harm but which confirmed what he already knew about his sexual orientation.

Then, as now, there were very ‘out’ homosexuals who despised Morgan’s hesitant celibacy, regarding it as cowardice and who were not interested in the aetiology of homosexuality.

He wrote to A J. Ackerley 1,100 times in 50 years.

The author is more sympathetic to Morgan than is Damon Galgut, though the latter has an imaginative telling of his visit to the Barbarar caves compared with Moffat’s dull prose.

Forster was right not to assume that liberal Germany wouldn’t change tack. This should be a warning to all who think ‘things can only get better.’

I was surprised that a doctor blamed prostate trouble on frequent masturbation, though there is some modern research that backs this up – but if masturbation more than once a week by young men increases the likelihood of prostate cancer, it’s a surprise than more men don’t get it – though masturbation is good for the over 50s in this respect..

Reference is made to paintings by Cadmus which scandalised the US navy.

Cadmus The Fleet

Cadmus YMCA

And this painting includes a portrait of Forster:

Paul Cadmus, What I Believe

It’s interesting that so many people from the world of arts and literature knew each other – a small world. He met Edward carpenter, who was a prophetic figure while Forster didn’t have it in him to be such.

I had to look up bies = an evil spirit and bézique = literally “correspondence” or “association”, referring to a card game. Also ‘cleats’=  shoes.


 Within weeks of meeting Morgan, Hugh boldly announced he was an atheist, and proceeded to separate Morgan from the last remnants of his faith. To HOM it was clear that not only was church practice hypocrisy, but the very concept of Christ was humbug. Along with John Maynard Keynes, who would become perhaps the greatest economist of the century, HOM led a public attack under the banner of secularism on the college’s sponsorship of a Christian mission in the slums of East London. Like many undergradu­ate political protests, the atheists’ “sincere and bellicose” display verged on comedy. They sent a representative to present a petition of grievances timed to interrupt prayers at High Table. Just as the provost intoned, “In the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord,” there was a scuffle; the rude emissary was escorted out of the hall, and a don piped up loudly: “Would you mind pass­ing the potatoes?” The renegades won the day; it was decided that college work with the London poor could be done through a secular organization.

Under Hugh Meredith’s influence, Morgan lost his faith “quietly and quickly.”

The idea of a god becoming a man to help man is overwhelming to anyone possessed of a heart. Even at that age I was aware that this world needs help. But I had never much sense of sin, and when I real­ised that the main aim of the Incarnation was not to stop war or pain or poverty, I became less interested and ended by scrapping it.

“saner than anyone else I know … He’s strong because he doesn’t try to be a stiff-lipped stoic like the rest of us, and so he’ll never crack.”

 “When I am 85 how annoyed I am with Society for wasting my time by making homosexuality criminal. The subterfuges, the self-consciousness that might have been avoided.

He was right that the legal changes came painfully slowly. In July 1967, when Morgan was eighty-eight, the Sexual Offenses Act was finally passed. Sex between men who desired each other, were alone in a house, and over twenty-one was legalized—provided that neither of the men was in the armed forces or the merchant navy. And, in a final fillip, the new law applied only to men living in England and Wales.

 ‘He wanted intimacy, love, and domesticity akin to marriage’.

“He delicately ascertained the perfect needful thing, and made it occur with a minimum of fuss.” He had “a gift for friendship”

“began a campaign to have sex of some kind with someone”

For more than fifty years Forster entered political fights from the position of the underdog. Almost every week one could read a pithy and pointed letter to the editor in his inimitable voice. He protested against fascism, against censorship, against communism, against “Jew-Consciousness,” against the British occupation of Egypt and India, against racism and jingoism and anything that smelled of John Bull. Morgan’s public voice wasn’t stentorian. He raised it, tremulously, often alone, against the edifice of conformity. As self-proclaimed gay men, Isherwood and Lehmann adopted the American neologism adopted by the men who resisted police harassment at the Stonewall Inn in Sheridan Square, the men who embraced gay liberation, who eschewed the medical term homosexual, which had marked them for decades as a “species.”

The previous July, just after he arrived at King’s for his residency, Lancaster found himself alone in an octagonal room where a tiny black-and-white television had been installed on a tea cart before the fireplace as a begrudging acknowledgment of the wider world. Next door was the Fellows’ Senior Combination Room, on whose claret-colored walls the portraits of great Kingsmen—all friends of Morgan, all dead—gazed down: Rupert Brooke, a Roger Fry self-portrait, Duncan Grant’s painting of Maynard Keynes. In contrast, the little room had barely enough room for two armchairs and a couple of vitrines stuffed with ancient pottery that flanked the Gothic window. It was a nondescript time in the midmorning, and the BBC was broadcasting coverage of the first moon landing. Decades later, Lancaster still remembered the scene clearly. Morgan “shuffled in, asked me what it was, settled down to watch” on the armchair beside him. He leaned forward conspiratorially toward Mark. “I’m not sure they should be doing that,” he said quietly.

And so, one evening at the studio, after a particularly hectic party, they’d started—and it had been really very funny and not the least disgusting—but quite hopeless. They sat up in bed and laughed and laughed. “Oh Edward!” laughed Margaret—for she was pretty tight, too—“I shall never be able to sleep with a man again. At the critical moment I shall always think of you.” … “I might return the compliment,” said Edward.

“For Isherwood, shepherding Forster’s gay fiction posthumously into print was both a sacred trust and a political adventure. He believed that publication would give Forster a second life as a pioneer of gay writing. Publishing ‘Maurice’ was part of his long campaign to celebrate sexual freedom and repudiate homophobia and hypocrisy.”

“Though he burned great bonfires of ephemera, Morgan carefully preserved the record of his gay life. Thousands of unpublished pages of letters, diaries, essays, and photographs tell the story of the life he hid from public view. Some of the pages are scattered in archives. Some have been coaxed out into the world from remarkable hiding places — a vast oak cupboard in a London sitting room, a shoebox humbly nestled among mouse faeces in a New England barn. Many of Morgan’s surviving friends have told their stories for the first time. Only in 2008 were the final entries in his private diary, restricted from view since his death, opened to readers. All his long life Morgan lived in a world imprisoned by prejudice against homosexuals. He was sixteen when Oscar Wilde was sent to prison, and he died the year after the Stonewall riots.”

“I have plunged into an anxious but very beautiful affair. It seemed to me — and I proved right — that something precious was being offered me and that I was offering something that might be thought precious. . . . I should have been right to take the plunge, because if you pass life by it’s jolly well going to pass you by in the future. If you’re frightened it’s all right — that’s no harm; fear is an emotion. But by some trick of the nerves I happen not to be frightened.”

“Between them, Morgan and May deftly carved out an intimate space for their respective ‘marriages’ to their beloved Bob, with the long weekends for May and the short weekends for Morgan.”

“It was as much psychological as physical. It seemed to go straight through the small of my back into my ideas, without involving my thoughts.”

Like Jane Austen sketching her moral vision on the “little bit of ivory” of provincial domestic life, Morgan discovered the richness and complexity of his entire oeuvre, his whole aesthetic enterprise in a single subject: the search of each person for an honest connection with another human being… He would anchor his plots in the domestic sphere that had been so richly explored by Austen and George Eliot. He would concern himself with their themes: the right choice for a marriage, the tug-of-war between propriety and personal freedom, the moral complexities of an interior life, the pressures of a small community upon an individual’s moral actions.

It emerged that Lawrence’s diagnosis of Morgan’s problem was that he must “satisfy” his “implicit manhood” but “He tries to dodge himself—the sight is painful.” “Why can’t he take a woman and fight clear to his own basic, primal being?” Lawrence lectured Bertrand Russell. Because, he confidently concluded without pausing for an answer, Morgan “sucks his dummy—you know, those child’s comforters—long after his age.” If Morgan would only act, he could become “pregnant with his own soul.” Lawrence told a friend that he found Morgan “very nice.” But he wondered “if the grip has gone out of him.” For his own part, Morgan suspected a different problem in Law­rence’s psyche: suppressed homosexual tendencies.

Even when Morgan had been at Nassenheide, British anxiety about the Hun was palpable. In August 1914 war was declared against Germany. The shadow of war had lingered for so long that “up till the last moment it was impossible to believe that the thing was really going to happen.” The fact of war frayed Morgan’s friendships. Even Malcolm’s wife, Josie Darling, who was dear to his heart, became irritable. Stop dreaming, she told him, enlist in the army, and “face facts.” He gave her a sharp answer. “Don’t say ‘face facts’ to me, Josie. Everybody keeps saying it just now, but the fact is, it’s impossible to face facts. They’re like the walls of a room . . If you face one wall, you must have your back to the other three.”

He confessed to Goldie, “What’s to occupy me for the rest of my life, I can’t conceive.” It was impossible not to comprehend his predicament, and impossible to do anything about it. He told Florence, “I am leading the life of a little girl so long as I am tied to home.”

Policing purity was endless, maddening work. The vast majority of the occupants of Alexandria were beyond their reach, subject by default to the Egyptian Native Penal Code. Under these laws, inherited from the Napo­leonic Code, neither consensual homosexual acts nor male prostitution was illegal. To one administrator charged with developing new “offenses against morality” for a draft penal code, the native population’s blind eye to homo­sexual practices was particularly galling. It was “unthinkable,” he wrote, that young people, “the most precious asset of a State,” should be “exposed to the moral and physical corruption in the toleration of unnatural offenses.” Martial law allowed the British authorities to begin making the crooked straight and the rough places plain.

In his own routine tenderness, Morgan detected a parallel feeling to the love of the men for one another in the muddy trenches. Like them, he found his intimacy disguised by the shape of his duties. Gradually, without senti­mentalism, he came to feel that the greatest story of the war was to be found in compassion. And he heard beneath their words a truer story of gay love and friendship. The small notebook collated fragments, but to him the frag­ments glowed with meaning. Here was the deeper record of the meaning of the war: individual and human, not political. From the verbatim snippets of men in their most extreme trials he gleaned a hidden story that could not be erased. He named this section of the notebook “Friendship.” Under this ti­tle, he collected little tessellated fragments to recover its power

In 1938, Morgan told William Plomer he was “trying to construct a philoso­phy.” It was built out of the bricolage of the “liberalism crumbling beneath him.” Too secular to be a credo, the essay was titled “What I Believe.” It began startlingly.

I do not believe in Belief. But this is an age of faith, and there are so many militant creeds that, in self-defence, one has to formulate a creed of one’s own. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy are no longer enough in a world which is rent by religious and racial persecution, in a world where ignorance rules, and science, who ought to have ruled, plays the subservient pimp.

“Truly we live in strange times,” Morgan told him, “and the only thing which is really real in them is love.”

In vain Morgan had tried to counsel Joe against his attraction to venal guardsmen, thieves, and opportunists whom he routinely tried to “rescue”: “Joe—, you must give up looking for gold in coal-mines—it merely prevents you from getting amusement out of a nice piece of coal.”

The social climate, too, had to be cleansed. Sir Theobald Mathews, the new puritanical director of public prosecutions, was appalled by the lax enforcement of the laws against indecent acts. The provinces were holding up their end, but London was a den of vice. Arrests for homosexual acts were duly reported in the newspapers euphemistically as “grave” offenses, “serious” offenses, crimes too horrible to name. But the tabloids echoed the lament of Viscount Samuel in the House of Lords, who decried the “insidi­ous poisoning” of Britain’s “moral state,” complaining that juvenile crime and adultery were rampant, and “the vices of Sodom and Gomorrah, of the Cities of the Plain, appear to be rife among us.” To curb this scourge, police agents provocateurs were sent out to entrap homosexuals through solicita­tion; a special division of the Metropolitan Police was formed solely to patrol public urinals.

The home secretary, Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, had prosecuted Nazis at Nuremberg; now he undertook a crackdown on vice. The number of prosecu­tions for homosexual offenses skyrocketed. Even powerful and famous men were paraded as examples in the press—including the recently knighted actor Sir John Gielgud and the Labour MP William Field. In the most sensa­tional case, three prominent men were charged with conspiring to commit indecency: the young peer Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, his second cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers, and Peter Wildeblood, chief diplomatic correspondent for the Daily Mail. The press was tipped and the timing of the arrests was orchestrated by the police so the story could appear prominently on the front pages of the Sunday newspapers. The evidence used to convict the men came from love letters—seized in kit searches of the RAF airmen who were their working-class lovers—and a warrantless search of Wildeblood’s flat.

Newspapers were in a race to outdo one another in salacious reporting, spinning out contradictory stereotypes about sexual criminals with increas­ing certainty and fervor. In May 1952 the Sunday Pictorial devoted a full-page feature to ways to recognize these “Evil Men”; nine years later it helpfully explained “How to Spot a Homo.” Readers could discern a homo­sexual by his sedate tweed jacket, suede shoes, and pipe, or alternately be his telltale effeminate manner and mincing step. These “exposés” reflected the anxieties born of the paradox that homosexuals, forced to live a double life, proved to be quite successful at it.

Popular explanations for the causes of homosexuality, in psychology books and newspapers, sermons and speeches, oscillated between the idea of an alien class of humans, diabolical and separate from normal people, or natural and contagious consequence of men being in each other’s company and kept away from the company of women. War service had brought on an epidemic of this problem. Or excess mother love. Or absent fathers. Morgan sent a copy of a letter he had published asking for “less social stigma” toward homosexuals to Lord Samuel, as a kind of catnip. The viscount took the bait. “Incomprehensible and utterly disgusting as [homosexuality] appears to all normal people,” Lord Samuel replied to Morgan, “it seems to have the ca­pacity to form a habit as potent as alcohol or narcotics.”

The law that had sent Montagu and his friends to prison was the same law under which Oscar Wilde had been convicted in 1895. Goaded by concerns about public indecency on the streets, in 1954 the Home Office appointed a committee of mandarins—clergy and peers and respectable academics—to investigate the twin problems of female prostitution and male homosexual­ity. So it was that Sir John Wolfenden, former headmaster of a public school, now vice chancellor of Reading University, assembled a fifteen-person com­mittee that would bear his name In September 1957 the Wolfenden Report recommended that “homosexual activity between consenting adults over the age of twenty-one in private be no longer a criminal offense.” It took a de­cade more to enact these recommendations into law—and even then the statute was “mild and aetiolated.” It applied only to England and Wales, excepted members of the armed services, set the age of consent for homo­sexuals (at twenty-one) four years above that for heterosexuals, and denoted “private” space very narrowly. (Since anywhere a third person was likely to be present—whether present or not—was defined as public space, even the interior of one’s own home was not always deemed private for the application of the law.) After the Sexual Offenses Act went into effect in 1967, prosecu­tions of homosexual acts soared. The vaunted milestone in homosexual rights was largely symbolic.

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