Prisoner of Privilege

Prisoner of Privilege

A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster
by Wendy Moffat
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010, 386pp., $30

Concerning E.M. Forster
by Frank Kermode
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009, 170pp., $24

In 1953, when the first issue of the Paris Review appeared, the magazine’s editors ran a long interview with the English writer E.M. Forster. Prefaced with a description of the “Edwardian taste” of the furnishing in Forster’s room, the interview showcased what would become a signature element of the Paris Review—from the elaborate description of the writer’s surroundings to the inclusion of a manuscript page from a work in progress.

Yet Forster was an odd choice for the Review. The magazine was, in many ways, an expression of the exuberant, postwar sensibilities of a group of young American expatriates, who, along with their commitment to writing, were fascinated by the vigorous masculinity expressed in sports like boxing. Forster, who was over seventy years old at the time, could not have been further from their approach to writing and masculinity. Not only did he represent an empire some years past its expiry date, but he never seemed to have participated in the vigor of that empire even when it did exist. A pacifist, he had not fought in the First World War, and his work, although dealing with gender, class, and empire, never pushed him into the foreground of the larger struggles they represented.

Even as an artist, Forster’s stature in English letters was an odd one: while widely respected for the novels he had written in the early decades of the century, he was seen as being completely cut off from the literary innovations of his time—including the modernist experimentation with form, consciousness, and language that was pioneered by his contemporaries James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. In fact, by the time of his interview, Forster was no longer producing much fiction, and the first question his interviewers had for him was why he had not finished the novel Arctic Summer—a book he had been working on since 1909 and that he would, in spite of living for nearly two more decades, never complete.

This long silence, especially from someone who had produced five novels by the time he was thirty, may be the most interesting aspect of Forster’s career. It demands a response from those looking back at him, an interpretation of the before and after of Forster’s writing life. One way to approach this has been to suggest that the silence was merely a matter of appearance, and that Forster didn’t stop writing fiction but merely stopped publishing it, in great part because his later work dealt with homosexuality at a time when English laws were particularly repressive.

This is the view taken in a new biography by Wendy Moffat, who places the writer largely in the context of his homosexuality, beginning her account with Christop...