Sunday, January 23, 2011

Wendy Moffat writes a new biography of E. M. Forster

I usually only write about novels here, but a new biography of a great novelist is always interesting, and this one is especially so.

A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster

Wendy Moffat’s new biography of Forster, A Great Unrecorded History (404 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $32.50) is an elegant rethinking of the biography of E. M. Forster. Forster, Morgan to his friends, was far more deeply engaged in issues that his sexual preference for men brought to his attention. Thinking about men, talking to them, dating them, and making love to them were all central in ways that other accounts have not made clear. But Moffat has looked at letters and contemporary materials to paint a more complete picture, one that makes Forster a man with desires and needs like other men. Even if he struck some people, like Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf, as a pathetic case, stumbling along and never achieving much, Moffat shows us how very much was happening at each stage of his career and in every decade of his life.

Her careful reconsideration of Forster’s gay writing, both his ground-breaking novel Maurice and some of the greatest short stories of the twentieth century, gives Moffat the opportunity to show us a more coherent figure, one who decided early in life what really mattered and kept himself to a high standard of behavior, both personal and professional. In Maurice, Forster told the story of a suburban hero who falls in love with a working class lad. Friendship fails Maurice, the hero, and when he and Alec go off together, they seem utterly alone. While Forster’s own sexual interest, in lower class and racially distinct young men, was as clearly stated as that in the novel, his life was as rich in deep abiding friendship as it was in romantic interest. Friendships with Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, Hugh Merideth, Malcolm Darling, Joe Ackerley, Sebastian Sprott, Christopher Isherwood, Paul Cadmus, and many, many others are discussed here interestingly, and each relationship is documented with quotes from an enormous selection of personal letters, which can be found in archives both here and abroad.

Moffat is deft at presenting Morgan’s obsessions, whether he is fretting about keeping something from his mother, worrying about a potential blackmail, or trying to figure out the correct ending for Maurice, and she has a deep feeling of sympathy for the man whose biography she is writing. This would seem to be the first qualification for a good biographer, but you’d be surprised at how often a very different feeling is revealed.

Moffat has also made clear and vivid Morgan’s many-decade involvement with the policeman Bob Buckingham. She shows how much the two men meant to each other, and she also shows with a lack of judgment that is remarkable, how these two men accommodated the younger man’s marrying a nurse and starting a family. What is most remarkable about this complex involvement is how close Morgan and May became in later years.

This biography is a great one to set beside the authorized two-volume biography of P. N. Furbank, which was published in 1977-78. In the last thirty-some years, it has become possible to talk about some things more openly, to be sure. But it also takes a great biographer to both find all the relevant material and to construct a compelling and very persuasive account. That is what Wendy Moffat has done.

Wendy Moffat

A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster
is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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