- Morgan: A Biography of E.M. Forster by Nicola Beauman
Hodder, 404 pp, £20.00, May 1993, ISBN 0 340 52530 4
This biographer’s devotion to her subject is demonstrated by her indefatigable archival labours and her willingness to traverse the world in order to visit places of Forsterian interest, as well as by her enthusiastic endorsements of his greatness; and it seems fair to mention these admirable qualities before beginning what must, I’m afraid, be largely a catalogue of complaints.
The first, with which many of the others may seem to be related, concerns the title, and the fact that the subject is so named throughout the book. Even on the thousandth repetition it still seems embarrassing. P.N. Furbank, in his biography of 1977-8, uses the surname throughout. As a young man Furbank was quite a close friend of Forster’s, and undoubtedly called him ‘Morgan’; his book of course benefits greatly from his personal knowledge, but he was quite right to regard the familiarity implied by regular use of the first name as out of place in a biography written for those who had no claim to it. Of course he doesn’t himself make this point; he must have thought it self-evident.
To talk thus may be thought fuddy-duddy, but the question is not about manners, which have changed in matters of this kind, but about truth, or at any rate about accuracy. ‘Morgan’ gives a false impression of the relationship between the biographer and the subject. Worse still, whenever his mother is in the vicinity – she who dominated and in some ways horribly limited his life, if only by being for so long so much more important to him than anybody else – the novelist is actually referred to as ‘Morgie’. This is undoubtedly what his mother called him, at any rate some of the time, but he needed not to be ‘Morgie’ when writing novels, times when, as he remarked, there was a great difference of condition, so that one was almost another person, and an independent spirit, not somebody’s pet. And the books, products of this spirit, are, after all, ostensibly the main reason for the existence of this biography.
There is a slightly disagreeable implication that this biographer, in spite of the sharp things she says about ‘Lily’, is taking over her job. She is always seeking intimacy, and in her quest for it she shows herself over-fond of words like ‘empathy’ and ‘empathise’; by claiming these qualities she means to advertise her sympathetic understanding of Forster, but they carry false and irrelevantly maternal overtones. The last thing Forster ever needed, as Mrs Beauman would probably agree, was another mother.
The shape of the book confirms this suspicion. It devotes only eight pages to the 25 years by which Forster survived his mother. In fact the second half of his long life occupies less than a tenth of this biography, ruthlessly fast-forwarded by remarks like ‘the 1920s thus passed pleasantly by.’ Any idea that these years lacked interest, even to those primarily concerned with the novels, may be quickly dispelled by a reading of the 200 pages given them by Furbank, who has a wonderful eye for Forster’s faults and drolleries as well as his talents and virtues, and describes them with an easy candour which I at any rate prefer to the histrionic exclamations, self-questionings and self-generated conjectures of this later biographer. She expressly states that she has preferred to work with primary materials rather than ‘to draw on the work of Nick Furbank and Francis King’. An honourable but mistaken decision, if only because much of Furbank’s book is primary material, especially in relation to the later years.
A decent but I think inadequate response to my carping would be to cite the author’s own confession that for her the life after the novels is ‘a coda, a mere rounding off’. She will concentrate on the relations of the novels (the last of which was published nearly fifty years before Forster died) to the life, preferring ‘the intuitive approach to straight reportage’. The need for such an approach is clear, she suggests, from the fact that in spite of all the criticism he has had, ‘about Forster the novelist there has been a strange reticence.’ However peculiar we may find this remark, the method would certainly be justified if it indeed said anything very new or interesting about the novels or the novelist. But it doesn’t, and at first it isn’t easy to see what it provides instead, especially since it avoids gossip, or claims to. What then does it offer? The answer is that it offers lots of intuitions.
So far as I’ve seen it, pre-publication hype has concentrated on what the book says about Forster’s relation to Ernest Merz. Briefly, the story is this. Although they overlapped as undergraduates at King’s, Forster had never met Merz until one evening in July 1909, when he had dinner with him and his friend Malcolm Darling in a London restaurant. Merz and Forster liked each other well enough to take a stroll after dinner, parting about 9.40, whereupon Merz went to his club and Forster caught his train back home. The next morning Merz was found hanged in his rooms in Albany.
Forster guessed that the suicide was an escape from some homosexual crisis, perhaps brought on by blackmail. He was shocked and upset for a while, as most people would be in these circumstances, but he didn’t really know Merz and there is no indication that I can see of his having reacted very profoundly or lastingly to the incident. After his initial reaction he does not seem to have referred to Merz again, at any rate in any recognisable manner, even in his private journals. One is reminded of the comment on Fielding and Hamidullah in A Passage to India: they regretted the death of Mrs Moore, ‘but they were middle-aged men, who had invested their emotions elsewhere, and outbursts of grief could not be expected from them over a slight acquaintance.’
[*] Another description used here is ‘minorite’, and the usage is authorised by Forster himself. The latest OED does not acknowledge this sense of the word.
Vol. 15 No. 10 · 27 May 1993
From Miranda Seymour
Frank Kermode is not taken by Nicola Beauman’s decision to write of ‘Morgan’ and, on occasion, of ‘Morgie’ in her biography of E.M. Forster (LRB, 13 May) It is, he suggests, excessively intimate; her predecessor, P.N. Furbank, ‘was quite right to regard the familiarity implied by regular use of the first name as out of place in a biography written for those who had no claim to it’.
I write, not to protest, but to seek further elucidation on this vexing subject. Should Nicola Beauman have written of ‘Charteris’ and then of ‘Asquith’, or, in deferential tones, of ‘Lady Cynthia’ in her last book? Why did it seem quite acceptable for Victoria Glendinning to write about ‘Rebecca’, ‘Elizabeth’ and ‘Vita’, but less so to refer to ‘Anthony’ in her life of Trollope? Is it the case, as this would seem to suggest, that we are quite happy to have women written about in a more familiar way than men, or is our judgment guided by some invisible, unspoken rule of decorum? Michael Holroyd would surely have been mocked for writing of ‘George’, ‘Bernard’ or ‘GBS’, but ‘Lytton’ sounded a good deal better than ‘Strachey’ would have done in an earlier life. Should Nicola Beauman be rebuked for writing of ‘Morgan’ when nobody dreamt of querying Lord Skidelsky’s almost equally familiar ‘Maynard’? Why does the prospect of a life of ‘Woolf’ rather than ‘Virginia’ sound dauntingly severe, while nothing objectionable suggests itself in lives of ‘de Beauvoir’, ‘Riding’ or, in due course. ‘Sontag’? To bring self-interest to the fore, am I, in writing the life of a man who was ‘Robert’ to almost everybody (a striking exception was made in what was probably the rudest letter he ever wrote, to Bertrand Russell, signed icily, ‘Graves’), inviting derision if I do not choose to follow Professor Kermode’s injunction? Where does correctness end and pomposity begin?
Vol. 15 No. 11 · 10 June 1993
From Nicola Beauman
Frank Kermode (LRB, 13 May) objects to my biography of E.M. Forster principally because, in his words, ‘it offers lots of intuitions.’
One of his examples is that I dismiss P.N. Furbank’s ‘account of the long relationship between Forster and the policeman Bob Buckingham as a cover-up’. This is not an ‘intuition’ but is supported by evidence (on page 350 of my book) that their relationship was not ‘natural’; my account was subsequently confirmed by Francis King in the Evening Standard of 29 April when he frankly stated that he and Furbank had been ‘deliberately equivocal’ on this subject and that ‘Beauman comes out with the truth’.
There are, it is true, a number of ‘intuitions’ in my book unsupported, so far, by hard evidence. For example, I suggest that it was not coincidental that the Forsters’ only trip abroad in 21 years was during the month of the first Oscar Wilde trial. This particular suggestion may never be proved; but I expect some or all of the others to be confirmed eventually – in the Evening Standard or elsewhere.
Vol. 15 No. 12 · 24 June 1993
From Frank Kermode
I have been thinking about Miranda Seymour’s interesting letter (Letters, 27 May), and agree with her that there can be no general rule. How biographers name their subjects is up to them; all I would suggest is that they should, in making their choices, question themselves as to the reasons for their preference, as, so she implies, Michael Holroyd did in calling Strachey ‘Lytton’; and Shaw ‘Shaw’. I don’t quite see why ‘Strachey’ wouldn’t have worked just as well as ‘Lytton’, but it hardly matters since the result wasn’t mush.
One possible rule of thumb: Forster was known to the world as ‘E.M. Forster’, and ‘Morgan’ was reserved for intimates; Robert Graves was known to the world as ‘Robert Graves’, and Strachey as ‘Lytton Strachey’. So ‘Morgan’ and a fortiori ‘Morgie’ are unlike the others in that they make claims to an unjustified and incapacitating intimacy, claims that, in my view, are all too copiously insisted upon in the biography. Ms Seymour apparently feels ‘Simone’ for ‘de Beauvoir’ and ‘Susan’ for ‘Sontag’ would be equally embarrassing indications of what might be expected from the books in which they occur.
This also suggests that gender is not an issue, or at least not the main issue. However, I notice that N. John Hall and Richard Mullen, two recent and excellent male biographers of Trollope, call the novelist by his surname throughout. There is a limit to the number of biographies of Trollope one can be expected to read, so I cannot guess why Victoria Glendinning chose to call him by his Christian name. Anyway, I agree that we haven’t got to the bottom of this problem, which, with so much biography about, we ought perhaps to get to the bottom of.
From P.N. Furbank
With reference to Nicola Beauman’s letter (Letters, 10 June): I can’t think what can have possessed Francis King, usually a sensible man, to say (if he really did so) that I was ‘deliberately equivocal’ in my biography of E.M. Forster over Forster’s relationship with his friend Bob Buckingham.
Vol. 15 No. 13 · 8 July 1993
From Michael Holroyd
The naming of biographical subjects, which has been raised by Miranda Seymour and Frank Kermode (Letters, 27 May and Letters, 24 June), partly depends upon the context in which their names appear. I wrote about ‘Lytton’ because that was how all his friends referred to him, and I wanted to integrate their references into my narrative. ‘Lytton’ was also helpful in distinguishing him early on from his many brothers and sisters. For a time, when very young, he was ‘Giles’; occasionally, when seen more distantly in adult life or looked at professionally by some critic, he became ‘Strachey’.
As for Bernard Shaw, he was ‘Sonny’ at an early age; ‘George’ when seen through the eyes of his mother or sister; ‘Bernard Shaw’ professionally on title pages; ‘GBS’ to his wife and in the public imagination. Only in the mouths of the ignorant was he ‘George Bernard Shaw’. Such changes in name are useful for shifting the tone of a passage and alerting the reader to a change of viewpoint.
Vol. 15 No. 14 · 22 July 1993
From Robert Cawley
Use of first names, interestingly discussed by Miranda Seymour (Letters, 27 May) and Frank Kermode (Letters, 24 June), is not a problem restricted to biographers. Nurses, doctors, social workers and others in what are now called the caring professions face a similar predicament, often with even greater irritation, embarrassment or distress to those they serve. Some are trained dogmatically to believe that spontaneous use of the first name is an emblem of kindness and understanding. As a result, on a walk through our wards and consulting-rooms we may meet such absurdities as a man in his fifties just admitted to hospital suffering from the pain and anxiety of a heart attack being addressed as ‘Kenneth’ by a 20-year-old student nurse and others old enough to know better; and a young house physician shouting ‘Margaret’ at a deaf and dying lady who has never been known as anyone but ‘Meg’. Our colleagues who do this may never learn that routine use of first names with total strangers who have had the misfortune to become patients is as likely as not to be experienced as wretchedly patronising: a crude substitute for good manners and thoughtfulness.
Vol. 16 No. 14 · 21 July 1994
From Phyllis Irwin
This is a postscript to last year’s correspondence on the names biographers use for their subjects, necessitated by the publication in the US of Nicola Beauman’s E.M. Forster. That correspondence included Frank Kermode’s apt comment that ‘we haven’t got to the bottom of this problem, which, with so much biography about, we ought perhaps to get to the bottom of’ (Letters, 24 June 1993). Ms Beauman has used a name by which her subject is not generally known to the American reader: Morgan. In her introduction to Forster (originally published in London as Morgan) she explains: ‘I have opted for the more intimate Morgan rather than the more impersonal Forster.’ As a reader, I don’t feel I have the right to call him Morgan. To me, he’ll always be as he is in P.N. Furbank’s 1970 biography: Forster.
The pattern of varying a name has precedents, including Barbara Branden’s The Passion of Ayn Rand (1986) and Judith Thurman’s Isak Dinesen (1982). Ms Brandt writes that Alice Rosenbaum emigrated from Russia, Ayn Rosenbaum entered the US, and shortly thereafter Ayn Rand began. Thence this reader becomes comfortable.
Judith Thurman requires the reader to keep straight multiple names both others and Isak Dinesen herself used. Ms Thurman reveals that Dinesen was Karen Christenze at her christening, Tanne to her family, Tania and Jerie to African familiars. Isak (‘the one who laughs’) professionally, the Baroness von Blixen-Finecke after marriage, and Karen Blixen on her tombstone. The biographer does an admirable job of keeping the facts straight. Yet the reader’s attention must be fully committed when, within one paragraph, one is told that Karen Blixen deeply wanted a child with which she was pregnant, Tanne admired Eton (for the child’s schooling), and Tania cabled Denys Finch Hatton over the matter. In a chapter ironically entitled ‘Dramatis Personae’, one reads of Karen Blixen, Isak Dinesen, Tanne, one of the Blixens, Tania Blixen, Tanne Dinesen, Baroness Blixen, and lastly Tania.
As to which of the cited names Dinesen used for herself, Thurman provides this insight:
These names had their own etiquette, logic and geography. They were separate entrances to her presence … But the name Dinesen, unmodified either by a sexual or a Christian identity, was that idea of herself and her origins which the child carried with her into old age. It expressed what she considered essential in her life: the relation to her father, to his family, to a sense that they were a tribe – a stamme in Danish – a rootstock. When she reclaimed the name Dinesen [for her fiction], it was a gesture typical of her spiritual economy. It was also the storyteller’s love of fate.
Maybe, as Eliot tells us of the naming of cats, Dinesen had one ineffable name that absolutely no one else knew.
Parsippany, New Jersey