Another Mother

Frank Kermode

  • 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.’

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[*] 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.