Updated: November 6, 2010 19:38 IST

Creative approach

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E. M. Forster: A New Life; Wendy Moffat, Bloomsbury, Rs. 999.
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E. M. Forster: A New Life; Wendy Moffat, Bloomsbury, Rs. 999.

A path-breaking literary biography on E.M. Forster that is a joy to read and re-read.

Unlike James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster was not one of the pioneering writers of his age. In his preference for linear story-telling and understatement, for toning down a climax instead of building up to it, he reverts to an older tradition recalling Jane Austen. His social satire is as subtle as hers but his vision is darker, more subversive, his narratives more full of surprises as he sets out to uncover the tragic consequences of British illiberalism and self-satisfaction. When his novels were first written these values, the very bedrock of Empire, were unquestioned.

In 1924 with the publication of A Passage to India he was acclaimed as the greatest novelist of his generation by Woolf, D. H. Lawrence and others. Yet his masterpiece was his swansong. Just 45 years old at the time, he never wrote fiction again though he lived to be 91, and this novel had taken a decade to complete. What could have been the reason for his hesitancy, his flagging inspiration? As his personal diaries and journals revealed after his death, having written five novels centred on heterosexual love, the only kind permissible at the time, he felt he could no longer mine a resource for which he had no imaginative affinity, nor could he publish fiction growing out of his own experience of love between men and men.

Wendy Moffat, therefore, is entirely right when she avers that to understand his life and work we must ‘Start with the Fact That He Was Homosexual', and, one could add, he was far too timid to be open about it and terrified that his straitlaced mother might find out. Having no other family the two were close, but he was constantly irked by the pretence and concealment her presence imposed on him.

Single theme

In Moffat's view, Forster's entire fictional output, including the homoerotic novel Maurice unpublished in his lifetime, is a variation on a single theme, honesty in human relationships. This was a time-honoured subject and, like the women writers who preceded him, he projected it against a domestic background with one essential difference. His central characters were atypical figures who made eccentric choices and connected with people totally unlike themselves as did Forster himself, whose great love was an Egyptian tram conductor Mohammed el Adl, and whose other liaisons paired him with working class types such as policemen, an Indian barber, a coolie and so on.

With a life and work so intertwined, it is one of Moffat's virtues as a biographer that she moves effortlessly from one to the other and brings out their inter-connectedness with witty asides, making symbolic use of the smallest details. At his muddled baptism ceremony he was meant to be Henry Morgan, but in the excitement of the moment his father had written his own name on the scrap of paper given to the verger. And so, ‘with the alchemy of absent-mindedness and fear of social ostracism that would fuel Forster's first comic novels' he became Edward Morgan, and used the latter name.

The author is a felt presence in his novels, particularly in The Longest Journey described by Moffat as an autobiographical fantasy. Rickie is his surrogate, moving through a lonely childhood to a less restrictive milieu at Cambridge. Later, when he rejects his vocation as a writer for a teaching post and gets married his life diverges from that of his creator, but he remains a useful instrument through which ideas are fictionalised. So his choice of a wife does not round off the story but is placed in the middle, for Forster felt that ‘marriage is most certainly not an end' for a couple, ‘but a prelude….The drama of their problems, their developments, their mutual interaction, is all to come'. Rickie's inordinate love for his illegitimate half-brother, a crude, drunken country bumpkin, is a transference of the erotic vision Forster had seen years earlier of a beautiful shepherd boy.

A Passage to India, like Howard's End earlier, is about human connectedness or its limitations. A comparison between the manuscripts of 1913 and of 1922 shows the maturing of Forster's art. Originally he intended to create a ‘bridge of sympathy between East and West', but later found that he had outgrown this naïve enterprise. ‘My sense of truth forbids anything so comfortable,' he declared, ‘…and I am not interested whether they sympathise with one another or not'.


The first draft was a standard courtroom drama with little thematic substance. Adela was molested in the Marabar Caves and Aziz was found guilty. But, in the final version, this facile resolution was replaced by something much darker, more profound for, as Moffat points out, Forster had succumbed to India's incomprehensibility.

Rejecting authorial omniscience he leaves the novel open-ended. Adela is never sure what really happened in the womblike darkness of the caves, and Mrs. Moore emerges psychologically shattered, abjuring her Christian faith for soul-destroying nihilism in which “Pathos, piety, courage…Everything exists, nothing has value'.

After A Passage… Forster turned to other forms of self-expression: radio talks, travel books, biography, short stories, librettos and two books of essays on civil liberties thought to be the most influential of the century. With surprising courage in one so timid he openly supported other gay men but never came out himself, being by nature unsuited to martyrdom. And, surprisingly again, this champion of liberalism had his blind spots. Temperamentally incapable of understanding women, he was suspicious of their power to the point of misogyny. To the Woolfs he confided that he found ‘lesbians disgusting, partly from conventions, partly because he disliked that women should be independent of men.' Well!

Moffat's approach to her subject is creative. A dedicated researcher, she is transparently truthful without being judgemental, never glossing over Forster's failings or sparing us the details of his liaisons, sometimes sordid, sometimes farcical. His first sexual encounter with el Adl was more like a boxing match, ending with Forster wiping the blood off his face while the beautiful boy nursed a black eye. With humour and imaginative sympathy, she presents a multi-faceted personality in the context of life in his times, capturing the ambience of a place, outlining a character in a couple of sentences.

Her canvas is panoramic as Morgan, the painfully shy, over-protected child, moves out of the ambit of his repressive mother to the more tolerant world of Cambridge, widening his horizons and making lasting friendships. From London and Italy he moves to Alexandria, that historic halfway house between East and West with its hybrid culture, its mixed population and meandering streets leading from the imposing official quarter to ‘the secret city of vice' where sex of a mind-boggling variety is available. Then on to mysterious India of multiple gods, Maharajahs and Ross Masoud; then New York, the West Coast and what have you.

Can such a meticulous researcher perpetrate a howler? Yes, she does (p.239), showing T. E. Lawrence just ‘returned from Pakistan' in 1935, when that country did not exist until 1947! No matter. Here is a path-breaking literary biography, the best in years, that is a joy to read and re-read.

E. M. Forster: A New Life; Wendy Moffat, Bloomsbury, Rs. 999.

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