Poor Dear, How She Figures!

Alan Hollinghurst

  • The Journals and Diaries of E.M. Forster Volumes I-III edited by Philip Gardner
    Pickering and Chatto, 813 pp, £275.00, February 2011, ISBN 978 1 84893 114 5

In 1929 E.M. Forster accompanied his close friend Florence Barger and her husband to a conference in South Africa, and kept a detailed journal of the two-month round trip. After the conference they left Pretoria to join a ship at the port of Beira in Mozambique:

Levant at last – those trudging squares and triangles between houses that I remember from Port Said in 1912, a plank missing from the footbridge, natives grading into Portuguese without shame, a grilling sea-wall, its pavement burst up by the waves, houses built on white piles, with chickens ducks cookery and washing sharing the basement, a desolate and grilling public garden, and the sea full of floating brown pennies of oil.

This short passage shows a spontaneous poetic flair rarely equalled in Forster’s fiction, or elsewhere in the diaries: ‘those trudging squares and triangles’, both exact and subjective, the complex social irony of the ‘natives grading into Portuguese without shame’ (whose shame is anticipated here by a writer always alert to the forms of racial prejudice?), and then ‘the sea full of floating brown pennies of oil’, an image and a phrase Elizabeth Bishop might not have disdained, with its quiet metaphorical swell.

The rhythms and play of sounds, the subtle presence of things remembered in things seen, convey a genius for observation that one doesn’t think of as Forsterian. The Bishop-like effacement of self in the presence of the thing described wasn’t natural to Forster, who prefers to stand in front of the picture with his pointer, half-obscuring the image with his amusing conceits on it. In Virginia Woolf’s words, ‘Mr Forster has been apt to pervade his books like a careful hostess who is anxious to introduce, to explain, to warn her guests of a step here, of a draught there.’ From one or two remarks in his diaries, it seems Forster regretted his own lack of ‘the pictorial outlook’. Reading Hopkins’s poems in 1924, he sees himself by contrast as always ‘engaged in carnality, intellect, humour, kindness: never bothering to record the aesthetic’. In his seventies he was still taking up an old worry about his own powers of seeing. In a note ‘inspired’ by Woolf’s posthumous A Writer’s Diary, he laments: ‘The beauties the beauties the things I let go by.’

No one should approach Forster’s diaries, now published in full for the first time, with any expectation of the riches of Woolf’s. For Forster the diary was of far more spasmodic usefulness, and for long stretches of his long and oddly shaped life might well not be a writer’s diary at all. As he acknowledged, ‘unfortunately I only open this book when my heart aches’; and even then there can be passages as stoically minimal as the diary of A.E. Housman (‘I spoke,’ and ‘Non respondit’ are disproportionately momentous remarks). In all the most intimate matters the entries are mere cryptic memoranda, and on a few occasions happiness writes white: ‘After which Bob and I      .’ The type for these provoking blanks may be a boyhood diary he recalled keeping; a strange incident had occurred when he was sent for a walk on the Downs near Eastbourne by his prep-school headmaster, and had been induced to masturbate a middle-aged man behind some gorse bushes (‘Dear little fellow … play with it … pull it about’): ‘I made an entry in my diary <<<Nothing>>> to remind me it had been something.’

There in a concise formulation is the speaking silence of so many gay lives of that era. But far less problematic scenes and social encounters are rarely described in much detail, and Forster has little interest in the diary as a sustained narrative. The occasions when he makes the hardest effort are seldom the most interesting; the South African journal is one of the few travel journals after his childhood that he kept with anything like childhood thoroughness; a number of others peter out like abandoned resolutions or with a characteristic Forsterian admission that he knew too much about a place in advance to be able to experience it. In Italy in 1901, ‘I have got it up so well that nothing comes as a surprise’; on a first Greek cruise two years later: ‘So well drilled by school books that nothing surprised me.’ The exception, and rather different in genre, is ‘Incidents of War’, a sort of scrapbook memoir of soldiers’ written and spoken words in the years 1915-17, when Forster was in Alexandria as a Red Cross searcher; it shows a reach into areas of experience he was not to touch on elsewhere in his writings.

Altogether 28 diaries are collected here, separate initiatives covering 72 years, but the core of interest lies in Volume II, given up entirely to a transcript of the ‘Locked Diary’, to which Forster confided his most unspeakable thoughts – ‘unspeakable’ in the sense adopted by his fictional Maurice Hall (‘I’m an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort’) – but also his worries and rages (‘Last night, alone, I had a satanic fit of rage against mother for her grumbling and fault-finding, and figured a scene in which I swept the mantelpiece with my arm and then rushed out of doors or cut my throat’), and his nurtured private sarcasms in later life on bêtes noires such as Noël Annan (‘He really is a shit’). The lockable volume had been given to a cousin of Forster’s father in the mid-19th century, and already contained a few pages written by him on ‘Directions for taking care of guns’. Forster adopted it in 1909, turned it on its head in every sense, and wrote in it from the other end, marking his first page ‘PRIVATE’. Forty-seven years later it was showing ‘signs of wear in the binding and of recalcitrancy in the lock’, and as time ran on, he started to wonder if the lock was really necessary. ‘The older one grows, the less one values secrecy perhaps, anyhow there is little of me I feel worthwhile to lock up.’ Even so the book continued to seem useful, and a third of it was filled after he was 70; at the age of 86, Forster wonders whether ‘ghouls nosing in my remains may be disappointed.’ In fact he was very lucky: many of the key moments in the diary, its most revealing formulations about his earlier life, were to be deployed by P.N. Furbank in his marvellous biography of 1977-78, where they are balanced by a subtle portrait of Forster as Furbank knew him in his last two decades. They have become axiomatic in our understanding of Forster, and Wendy Moffat’s recent biography, A Great Unrecorded History (2010), makes further use of them in a fascinating reading of Forster’s life focused more strictly on his homosexuality.

But Forster didn’t turn to the silent confessional of this diary until he was thirty, and it is painfully evident how slow he was to emerge into an adult sense of himself. The first thing in Volume I is the almost unreadably boring schoolboy journal of his visit to Normandy with his mother in 1895, in which he assimilates himself as far as possible to the language and point of view of the guidebook – a type he would ironise repeatedly in his adult fiction. The relative heights of church spires are listed, cathedral chapels described in order, and the incessant adjectives of praise are ‘splendid’ and ‘fine’ (‘The tower is fine, but modern,’ he notes sagely of Saint-Maclou in Rouen). Baedeker-type stars are awarded in a summing-up of the tour. Any note of dissent is clearly one sanctioned by mother, for whom this record was being kept: a number of things are found ‘nasty’ or ‘hideous’ – ‘the choir chapels … are too hideous for words.’ We can see Morgan and Lily, he 16 and she a very senior 40, friends with a huge gap of age, respect and responsibility between them, nodding happily to each other as they came out with that verdict.

At Cambridge three years later the heart is still in hiding, and apparently fast asleep. We find him surprisingly determined to learn golf, and going on long solitary rounds attempting to reduce his score. ‘In afternoon played rotten golf; small boys jeered all round.’ His only other independent initiative is to learn about painting: ‘The lecture in the evening was on Titian. I am rather disappointed in him. He seems coarse & emotional.’ In the dearth of felt reactions to anything that is happening to him, you long for more such judgments, however priggish. At a concert in 1898 he likes ‘above all Tchsaikowski’s [sic] Pathetic Symphony’, a work then only five years old, which was soon to take on an esoteric prestige as knowledge of Tchaikovsky’s sexuality became more widespread, and which Forster was to use in such a light in Maurice 15 years later – the ‘Symphonie Pathique’ as Risley, a character based on Lytton Strachey, insists. The 19-year-old Forster, however, remarks only that ‘the 5/4 movement was very noticeable; also a theme in the first movement, a fine march.’ In the novel, Clive Durham plays this 5/4 movement – in effect a metrically odd waltz – on the pianola to Maurice at one of their early encounters. Much later, hearing the work in concert, Maurice is told by Risley that Tchaikovsky fell in love with his own nephew ‘and dedicated his masterpiece to him’. ‘Queer things you know,’ says Maurice, who is led to read a biography of the composer, and is ‘thrilled’ by the account of his failed marriage, which ‘conveys little to the normal reader’: ‘The book blew off the gathering dust and he respected it as the one literary work that had ever helped him.’

This is probably Rosa Newmarch’s condensation of Modest Tchaikovsky’s Life and Letters of his brother, published in 1905 and giving an unprecedentedly intimate picture of a private life which Modest, who was also gay, understood very well. In May 1912, a gloomy Forster is surely reading this book when he records in the Locked Diary: ‘Tchaikovsky’s life better & better … there is nothing to which my heart does not go out … Place him among those I long to meet.’ But all this lies in the future, for both novelist and character. Likewise, when Forster records in 1898, ‘Went for a short ride up Maddingley road. Walked into old chalk pit full of young trees,’ the flash of hindsight tells us that this is the origin of a key episode in The Longest Journey; but in the moment of its happening whatever thoughts or feelings it stirred in him remain hidden.

In the more revealing notebook diaries Forster started to keep in the years after Cambridge, and then in the Locked Diary itself, he began the practice of summing up each year on 31 December, which was also the eve of his birthday. These are handy for us, though it can be hard to see the line between clear thinking and gloomy simplification. The sense of life having passed him by, of being prematurely ‘done for’, is pervasive. In the ‘Review of 1904, & youth’ (he would be 25 in an hour), Forster has come to terms with some inescapable facts about himself. ‘Nothing more great will come out of me: I’ve made my two great discoveries – the religious about 4 years ago, the other in the winter of 1902 … I may sit year after year in my pretty sitting room, watching things grow more unreal, because I’m afraid of being remarked.’ ‘The other’ – that he was himself ‘other’ sexually – was not a happy recognition for someone timid, mother-dominated and, he felt sure, physically unattractive. His ‘bourgeois cuteness & desire to know where I am’ limited his options. ‘However gross my desires, I fear that I shall never satisfy them for fear of annoying others.’ At the end of 1911 he feels emotionally paralysed and unable to write. In 1912 he has a ‘shamed sense of unused strength’; in 1913, ‘I shall grow queer and unpopular if I go on as I am now.’

Forster certainly didn’t take a bright view of his sexual prospects. His knowledge of sexual matters in general may not have been great: as he admits in the fragmentary memoir called ‘Sex’, written in the Locked Diary but sadly excluded by Philip Gardner, ‘My instinct has never given me true information about sex’; ‘not till I was 30 did I know exactly how male and female joined’ – that is to say, when he was writing Howards End, with its extramarital pregnancy that ‘deeply shocked’ Forster’s mother when she read the book.[*] Writing Maurice three years later, with its unpublishable transgressions, he still kept things pretty chaste: to an implausibly high-minded degree, Lytton Strachey thought when he read the manuscript in 1915 (‘I really think the whole conception of male copulation in the book rather diseased’). Revealing elements of fantasy and inexperience colour the novel and shape its ending, a sense that Forster is merely speculating about what such illicit affairs might feel like, and how they might develop. The great love of this period of Forster’s life was Syed Ross Masood, the handsome and well-connected young Indian to whom he gave Latin lessons, and to whom he declared himself first in the diary (‘I love you, Syed Ross Masood: love’) and then, unavailingly, for real, having surely known all along that Masood ‘is not that sort – no one whom I like seems to be’. The joy of shared desires is markedly absent. ‘Masood here for an hour – a hearse hilarious in comparison.’

Most of the affairs that Forster would go on to have were with bisexual, generally married men: with Mohammed el-Adl, an Alexandrian tram conductor, in a period of the Great War for which he kept no intimate diary and, most important, with the policeman Bob Buckingham, whom he met in 1930 at J.R. Ackerley’s Hammersmith flat. He notes without dissent Edward Carpenter’s explanation of ‘why I like the Lower Classes. They are not self conscious. I am and therefore need them.’ When things get going with Bob, Forster is able to write: ‘I am happier now than ever in my life, and hope that if anyone reads this book he will get to this. Aged 55.’ Things were often less happy between them, but Forster forged a famously durable relationship with the Buckinghams, was godfather to their son Robin (who died of Hodgkin’s disease in 1962), and chose to die at their house in Coventry. ‘I have never so known anyone before,’ he writes in 1943, and marvels that Bob ‘has been living and moving against me for 13 years’. So he confounded his earlier predictions; and in a strange and touching private gesture, went back through the Locked Diary recording on the verso of the long since written pages what the man he was yet to meet had been doing at the time, such as ‘Bob, aged 19, goes to Engelbest Tyres’ in September 1923. It’s like Isherwood’s retrospective marvelling, as he sets off to America at the end of Christopher and His Kind, at the unknown future and the unknown life partner who await him: ‘He will be near you for many years without your meeting. But it would be no good if you did meet him now. At present, he is only four years old.’

Forster seems never to have expected or sought a lover from his own class, or who was as purely homosexual as he was. Love and sex were viewed as beautiful concessions from men whose lives were committed more fully elsewhere. Forster was a serial adulterer, if that can be said of a single man taking married lovers. And the diaries let one glimpse, in their minimal notations, a sprinkling of sexual episodes and one or two more persistent partners. In India in 1921 he notes: ‘Had K.,’ a barber. That relationship, with its various mishaps and misunderstandings, is not described here but in a remarkable short memoir, ‘Kanaya’, oddly franker and more exact than any of the sexual passages in the Locked Diary (it is included in the Abinger edition of Forster’s Indian memoir The Hill of Devi). In the ultra-laconic entries for 1924 he records: ‘Aug 19. Had B.S. at 46 Gordon Square. Aug 25. Had R.P. at Ham Spray’ (R.P. is Ralph Partridge, then married to Dora Carrington). What were these ‘havings’, one wonders? It’s a rakish term which discourages further questions. In Denmark in 1926, there was ‘the great escapade with Aage’, a newspaper seller; in 1934 there were ‘two happy nights with Achille at Forbach’. Achille, Gardner’s indefatigable notes inform us, was an ex-sailor and waiter whom Forster had met on the way back from South Africa.

Forster’s longest-lasting though very intermittent sexual partner seems to have been a bus driver in Weybridge first mentioned as Tom Palmer: ‘I think that is his name,’ Forster says, with wise caution, since he was actually called Arthur Barnet, and had a wife called Bess. (In his biography Furbank was obliged to call him Arthur B–– and her Madge; Wendy Moffat sets the record straight.) He was mixed-race (‘In his blood there is black,’ Forster noted) and had startlingly reminded him at first sighting of Mohammed el-Adl. ‘He is unintellectual. Sub-criminal type: so dangerous. But good.’ Their flirtation necessitated fooling both Bess and Forster’s mother, but Bess quickly got jealous and forbade ‘Tom’ to go to any more ‘French lessons’ at the Forsters’, timed while Lily was out shopping. The following year, though, Forster notes, ‘Tom came at last – but says his name is Dudley.’ Further encounters follow: ‘Tom 4 in all’; ‘Lust + goodwill – is anything more wanted?’ Before long, Arthur/Tom/Dudley has changed his name again, to ‘Reg’, but the attraction between the two men was to prove less mutable. When ‘Old Reg’ comes to see ‘older Morgan’ in 1966, Forster notes: ‘I can think of nothing which has lasted so long … a forty years’ prank.’ He wrote to Ackerley that without him and ‘old Arthur Barnet’, ‘I should have passed a much more uncertain and disquieted old age. So much nonsense has been cut away, and oh so much gaiety and spunk has been admitted.’

Forster’s attitude to his own sexual thoughts and fantasies was a perennially unsettled one. At the end of 1913, with much of Maurice written, he notes that ‘lustful thoughts & glances leave a terrible depression behind them. Acts would not – they involve the personal, however grossly.’ Here perhaps is a Lawrentian mistrust of ‘sex in the head’ awkwardly wedded to his recurrent personal sense of sexual acts as being ‘gross’. Seeing a man of his own age and class ‘watching rough across the river at Shepperton’, he is disgusted, but can’t work out whether through envy or shame. In Egypt in 1920, he wonders if, for lack of any creative notions, he should write his ‘sexual reminiscences’, a volume whose putative contents must remain shadowy to the modern reader. ‘My mind is now obsessed,’ he wrote, ‘by sexual fancies and hopes: wasting much time … Habits not orgies do the harm, though one can’t dodge this truth by saying “Very well – I’ll orge.”’ But it seems he never did. Furbank gives this detail from his own diary 33 years later: ‘4.1.53. M. to tea. He said: “Orgies are so important, and they are things one knows nothing about.”’ At the age of 77 he devotes a longish diary entry to the ‘unpleasant and disquieting experience’ of being ‘controlled by erotic thoughts instead of controlling them’ but concedes that this ‘masturbational eroticism has had its conveniences. At all events I don’t go hanging about urinals or showing my aged genitals to girls.’

It’s clear that sexual fantasies took literary form too, even before Maurice – though again we will never know what they were like. At the end of 1911 he notes: ‘Like writing erotic short stories, some of which may be good.’ He shows one to Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, who is ‘disgusted’ by it, just as his adored friend H.O. Meredith later ‘despised’ Maurice: ‘Reluctant to read, dismissed it at once from his mind.’ Such rebuffs would long be a peril of making anything about gay life explicit, even to another gay man, such as Dickinson. Returning in 1922 from India, after various sexual entanglements, Forster burned his

indecent writings, or as many as the fire will take … They were written not to express myself but to excite myself, and when first – 15 years back? – I began them, I had a feeling that I was doing something positively dangerous to my career as a novelist. I am not ashamed of them … It is just that they wore a wrong channel for my pen.

The destruction expresses the need for a purge, an escape from a ‘wrong channel’, though the stories are not said to be ‘dangerous’ to his soul or his mind but to his career; in practical terms perhaps because they are unprintable, a deliberate reaction to the frustration he famously, and surely too neatly, described as ‘weariness of the only subject that I both can and may treat – the love of men for women & vice versa’. Unpublishableness was from the start a subtly inherent quality of Maurice – and a guarantee of freedom in any other such works. As late as 1962 Forster, referring to another gay story, writes drily of his need to ‘prepare The Torque for non-publication’. And in fact it was in 1922, just after the burning, that he wrote the earliest of the gay stories collected posthumously in The Life to Come, so like many chastened impulses it seems quickly to have revived. Of these later stories he was rightly more confident, telling T.E. Lawrence that ‘Dr Woolacott’ was ‘the best thing I’ve done’.

At the end of the ‘Sex’ memoir Forster at nearly 85 felt the need to add: ‘How annoyed I am with Society for wasting my time by making homosexuality criminal. The subterfuges, the self-consciousness that might have been avoided.’ In the 1950s the longing and apprehension in a chance encounter with a young man were to be heightened by the ‘drive against male vice’ initiated in 1954 under David Maxwell Fyfe as home secretary, whose most notable victim was Lord Montagu, imprisoned for 12 months for homosexual offences. On the Tube, Forster closely observes an ‘enormous young foreigner’. Was he perhaps ‘a Cossack dancer? I would have asked him, but dared not in these tiresome times.’ This exacerbated timidity is overcome three months later, when he chats ‘efficiently’ on the Underground with a ‘most attractive boy’ who is reading The Caine Mutiny (then a huge bestseller), and Forster, leaving him at Oxford Circus, reflects: ‘I hope that the Moral Terror is waning. It has weighed on me more than I know.’ The erotic impulse sublimated even in a chat on the train between a 75-year-old man and a much younger one gives Forster cause for anxiety. Furbank noted Forster’s ‘timidity’, which was more than mere pusillanimity. Three days before his eightieth birthday Forster puts it quite knowingly in his diary: ‘Complacency. Fairly successful author, daring but never in jug.’

Forster was an only child whose father died when he was one, and he was raised by his mother in an atmosphere thick with aunts. It’s a milieu he turns to his advantage in his fiction, where the middle-class female world is observed with a tone that Cyril Connolly described as ‘demure malice’. Such a resource wasn’t available for his day to day dealings with Lily Forster, a figure whose presence permeates these volumes long after she is dead. There’s obviously much about their lives together that is not seen in the diary, where Forster generally mentions her only when she’s driving him mad. When he rapidly made a name for himself as a writer Lily seemed underwhelmed. ‘Mother bored by my literary successes,’ he notes after Howards End was published in 1910. ‘She turns everything to her disadvantage, & the sudden business of my life only makes her feel the emptiness of her own.’ When he summarised the reasons for his ‘sterility’ the following year, the ‘weariness of … the love of men for women and vice versa’ is followed by a less noticed clause: ‘My life’s work, if I have any, is to live with a person who thinks nothing worthwhile.’ Lily’s own mother had died five months earlier, and an immense period of guilt-inflected gloom began for her. ‘Mother prostrated with lumbago & morbidity,’ he writes.

Lily seemed instinctively to find ways of undermining her son, revealing that she didn’t think him ‘a strong character’. When, in 1914, he confesses to her that ‘I felt done up, & couldn’t work,’ this immediately makes her ‘happier … but [she] respects me less.’ On his return from Egypt after the war, his nerves are bad, and ‘I broke down at breakfast – very unwise as it puts me into mother’s power. She is very sweet but it is never safe to be seen in pieces.’ At the beginning of 1925, after the huge success of A Passage to India, his state of mind is revealed in a great paragraph of self-disgust – ‘Famous, wealthy, miserable, physically ugly – red nose enormous … face … toad-like and pallid … stoop must be appalling … am surprised I don’t repel more generally … would powder my nose if I wasn’t found out … great loss of sexual power’ – all underpinned by ‘My mother has never been more trying – Boxing Day and today were both hell. Hearing her booing and sobbing in her bedroom, I took some pennies out of my pocket and chucked them on the floor … This is the 8th or 9th time I have lost control in the last three months.’ When he gets together with Arthur Barnet and rents a room in Brunswick Square, his new independence is felt actively as independence from her, thus never fully got away from: ‘Poor dear, how she figures!’

When in March 1945 Lily dies at the age of ninety Morgan is overwhelmed with grief – ‘Broke down’, he notes repeatedly over the coming months. That summer he is prey to two thoughts: ‘I cannot go on, simply cannot’ and ‘surely she will give up being dead now.’ Three years later he is still ‘calling out “darling” as to my mother’, and travelling in America carries a framed photo of her as a girl: ‘She will not be forgotten as long as I live,’ he writes, with a nice ambivalence – he won’t forget her and no one else, once he’s gone, will bother to remember her. Is there also in this promise a just audible sense of a curse? Certainly he kept returning remorsefully to the question of her life and his relations with her: ‘I think often of my mistakes with mother … I considered her too much in a niggling way, and did not become the authoritative male who might have quietened her and cheered her up.’ Still, it was probably ‘inevitable’: ‘We were a classic case.’

For many years after this he marked her birthday with the buying of flowers, the writing of letters to others who had known her, and by submitting to strong and often unflattering thoughts of her. In 1958, aged 79, he woke on 22 January ‘hostile and humiliated’ from dreams of her, but went through the customary rituals before coming back to the same unresolved anger at both her and himself: ‘I have thought of her often in the past months, and generally critically. Had I treated her with more firmness, we would both have been happier.’ Immediately after her death he had destroyed what he summed up as ‘hundreds of letters in which one woman writes to another about the ill health of a third’; but he was still the guardian of twenty volumes of her diaries, which he dared not read. His close friend in Cambridge, E.K. Bennett, advised him to destroy them because reading them would make him too sad, but when three months later he set about tearing them up he clearly looked at a good deal of them, noting in them ‘affection for me, but no realisation that I was someone, and someone to live with, and no interest in my work’. More disturbing perhaps was to reread his own letters to her and find them ‘colourless. Impossible to believe they came from a competent writer who found life interesting.’ It is one of countless passages in the diaries that start you thinking about the wealth of insight and experience he might have poured into fiction had he carried on writing it.

As to the process of writing, in any genre, you will glean nothing but the barest hints about it here: Forster seems to have been modestly and perhaps superstitiously averse to talking about work in progress. In old age there was occasional rereading and reflection on his then forty or fifty-year-old productions, part of a larger process of reassurance and self-criticism. But at the time he put down little more than a phrase, often self-critical. In July 1904 ‘an idea for an entire novel – that of a man who discovers he has an illegitimate brother – took shape since Saturday.’ It was the start of The Longest Journey; of its writing two years later he records merely that it is ‘all ingenious symbols, little flesh & blood’. When A Room with a View is typed up, he remarks: ‘Feel it bilge.’ In 1908, a clear short paragraph outlines Howards End with the clarity of a Jamesian donnée, and there’s a reference six weeks later: ‘Written some of the new novel, Howards End. A deal too cultured, and from hand to mouth.’ At the end of 1909 he still takes a doubtful view of it: ‘Thought my novel very bad, but though it is pumped it is not quite as bad as I thought, for the characters are conceived sincerely.’ By ‘pumped’ I suppose he means forced; such claims for sincerity and other forms of moral worth over aesthetic value are made again as late as 1964: ‘I hope my books – that is to say such sense and warmth as there is in them – will not be forgotten.’

When Forster was 26 he made an unexplained list of names in his diary, which is clearly a private catalogue of the like-minded, including Howard Sturgis, Housman, J.A. Symonds, Pater, the always dependable Shakespeare and Michelangelo, Whitman, Marlowe and Henry Scott Tuke, the painter of bathing boys. Three or four are mere suspects, followed by question marks: Samuel Butler? Luca Signorelli? Forster had presumably seen those great paeans to the male buttocks, Signorelli’s frescoes in Orvieto cathedral, and come to an irresistible conclusion. A felt kinship with Whitman was fairly predictable for a gay writer at the time; in 1882, Gerard Manley Hopkins had been troubled by the idea that his experiments might seem too similar to Whitman’s, metrically and by implication sexually. ‘I always knew in my heart Walt Whitman’s mind to be more like my own than any other man’s living. As he is a very great scoundrel that is not a pleasant confession. And this also makes me the more desirous to read him and the more determined that I will not.’ Forster was less exercised by such scruples, recording in June 1908: ‘I opened Walt Whitman for a quotation, & he started speaking to me … He is not a book but an acquaintance, and if I may believe him, he is more … convincing me that he knows me personally.’ As is well known, the current that ran through Carpenter, a ‘Whitmannic poet’ and ‘believer in the Love of Comrades’, who was rumoured to have slept with Whitman, was to pass directly into Forster in 1913, when, drawn to him ‘in my loneliness’, he went to visit him at Millthorpe ‘as one approaches a saviour’ and was touched ‘just above the buttocks’ by Carpenter’s lover George Merrill. ‘The sensation was unusual … It was as much psychological as physical. It seemed to go straight through the small of my back into my ideas, without involving my thoughts.’

The sense of succession, not always so Whitmanically electric, would in due course put Forster himself firmly on the secret lists of later generations, a forebear who was still alive. He was sought out, revered, and in his seventies and eighties became a quasi-saintly figure, lent further mystique by age and the quiet tenacity of his views. The question of how widely he was known to be homosexual is now very hard to determine, but to many younger gay writers, artists and composers it was an evident part of his fascination. He showed the typescript of Maurice to Isherwood, and a feeling of the semi-secret tradition was shared by both men. ‘Christopher I’s arrival, happy and vigorous … has cheered and strengthened some of us, and has asserted “the faith” when it is being made ridiculous or scientific,’ Forster writes in 1952. In the ‘Terminal Note’ he wrote for Maurice eight years later he says: ‘There has been a change in the public attitude here: the change from ignorance and terror to familiarity and contempt.’

At the end of Forster’s extensive US trip in 1947, a court of gay and bisexual artists attends on him, the painter Paul Cadmus spends all day packing for him, Lincoln Kirstein shows ‘friendliness and goodness’, while ‘Christopher consecrated, a little religiously, Thursday to me’: a sharp but not unkindly noting of the mixture of devotion and self-denying duty shown by the younger novelist to the senior. There is a touching acknowledgment of this from the other side in Isherwood’s own diary, exactly twenty years later, when he is spending a month back in England:

The weekend with Forster and Ackerley was happy too, but I had to work hard to keep up the stimmung. It was strange and nurserylike, sharing a room with Morgan. He enjoyed it like a child, our talking in the morning from bed to bed. And he slept so peacefully – no grunts or groans or snores.

The stimmung – or mood – required work. The older Forster was a master of silences. When G.M. Trevelyan died in 1962, Forster noted, among other recollections, that he ‘was not afraid of him, and could out-silence him’; and Furbank, in the wonderful portrait of Forster in old age that comes near the end of his biography, describes his defensive taciturnity: ‘He could withdraw into himself, be evasive, be over-polite, be silent and let others flounder.’

Three years after this first American trip, Forster was collaborating on Britten’s opera Billy Budd. In the Locked Diary’s end-of-year summary for 1950, he records that he and Eric Crozier have finished the libretto and Britten has written ‘not quite two acts of the music’. But the ‘quick friendship’ between Britten, then 37, and the man he called ‘England’s greatest novelist’ had seen a ‘sad falling off’. ‘I am a rather fierce old man at moments … and he is rather a spoilt boy, and certainly a busy one’ – even when he had come to Cambridge specifically to see Forster, Britten kept dashing off to attend to something else. Forster then wrote a not easily forgivable letter to Britten criticising the ‘soggy depression’ of his setting of the Iago-like monologue he had written for Claggart, the master-at-arms. ‘Since then his letters drop from “dearest” to “dear”, and his invitations to revisit Aldeburgh lack fire and dates.’ ‘I was partly to blame,’ he admits without further elaboration. In a separate journal the self-accusation is sharper: ‘My offensiveness [with Ben] greatest in my queenified skittishness and self conscious charm. – Not a bad old man, but distasteful and undignified.’ Though cordial relations were recovered, Forster in his last years instances Britten as one of his friends who ‘no longer honour me’.

Forster was a wry observer of the rewards and hazards of being a sixty, seventy or eighty-year old smiling semi-public man. He’d begun to feel famous and relatively rich soon after the publication of A Passage to India in 1924, when he was 45. ‘Feeling the effects of fame, the retrospective smirch,’ he writes then, a little cryptically; did fame discredit what had gone before? (Or could it just be, in someone so alert to his own social performance, a retrospective smirk?) A six-year fellowship at King’s followed in 1927, but the return to Cambridge, which was to be lifelong, was never without its undercurrents of unease. Forster had a flat in Hammersmith at the time, and a sort of negative dichotomy was established – ‘I really don’t like either.’ And within a year of his subsequent honorary fellowship at King’s, which came after the war, he is lamenting his ‘worst trouble, which is that I have got tired of people and personal relationships.’ Apart from three close friends he wants to see no one, except ‘the young who are different’. A decade later he records a new ‘indifference to the young’ as well: ‘I have lost the quick warmth that used to accompany their approach or the expression of their opinions. They seem boring, intellectually fidgetty, physically ugly, or if handsome to show raddledness and stringiness ready close beneath their skins. They deteriorate in a couple of weeks.’

On several occasions he expresses the impatience as well as the mild misogyny of the old queen who requires young men to be dishy and amenable if they are to interest him. He had spent a happy two hours with the 19-year-old Brian Remnant, who had come up to King’s for an interview, but wonders if he will remain in his life two years on. ‘I may meet him again – coarsened, begirled, and lost.’ A famous 79-year-old gay novelist living in a college with several hundred young men is in an odd position; the fellowship is not without its ambiguities. There is a revealing incident when a group of undergraduates are drinking sherry outside on the grass:

One of them – pushful, I dislike him – called out Morgan, then asked me to join them, which I did and have forgiven him though not I hope permanently. Sat on my suitcase, very delightful and exciting, delighted and excited old man ran up to my room for another bottle. All over in ten minutes. The boys dispersed for Hall, revealing needless to say two young women on their outskirts. I ate an egg, gorgonzola, bread, butter, banana, cake, drank cheap white wine. So proud and flattered. And all caused by the energy and bumptiousness of a boy whom I don’t like and who was not providing the sherry.

One sees here Forster’s unsparing instinct for self-analysis, the role of grand old man unnervingly close to that of silly old fool.

At the end Forster became very vague, and weak of hearing and sight, and he made his last diary entry three years before his death. It’s an upbeat one: ‘I am probably close to the end of my own life, which has been a successful one and to the end a happy one. – And now for dinner!’ The portrait he gives of his old age in the diary is not depressing, for all his debilities, in part because of his being ‘unafraid of death as well as reconciled to it’, and because of the nice balance between his modesty and his confidence in his own worth. Not everyone in college cared for him. His status as a mere resident among working dons and students was unclear. ‘People like Dadie [Rylands] shun me. I am so distinguished yet so undistinguished,’ he writes. John Barton snubs him, showing ‘coltish contempt’; ‘I am so accustomed to being liked or at worst ignored, and my reputation awes people into civility – even if they think I don’t deserve it.’ In general, he says, ‘I like an evening where I talk a lot. It stops other rubbish from gathering momentum.’ He is as alert to his own failures of concentration as he is to his tendency to ‘licentious thoughts’: ‘I must compose myself and possess myself … Otherwise I go hoppitting about the whole day, tearing up little bits of paper or writing letters on other pieces of paper.’ ‘Made many little jokes as usual,’ he sums up one day. ‘Humble cheerful encouraging inattentive – it is thus that I now present myself and why I make a better impression at first than later.’

The diary is a succinct study in the truth and the performance of being old: as Forster puts it, ‘Note with pride I have not yet given up trying to get at the truth.’ Noël Annan, provost of King’s from 1956 to 1966, becomes a test case for his irritable curiosity. He never entertains Forster at the provost’s lodgings; gives him a ‘friendly and typical sneer’ about a letter he’s written to the Times; then comes a ‘Letter from Noel Annan beginning Dearest Morgan!’ ‘What a complicated character!’ Forster exclaims after he’s performed some unexpected kindness. ‘What a fascinating study of him could be written!’ On a later occasion, Forster says Annan is ‘certainly the person who has most interested me clinically during the last two years’ – ‘Proust could have done him,’ as, he feels, he himself could have in earlier days. The provost seems only interested in success, and in his ‘refusal to back a losing horse … slips so rapidly from the fine into the sly’. By the end he’s slipped much further. When Annan leaves King’s, Forster writes him off quite brutally as a ‘nonentity … a lively useless one’.

At the age of 83 there is a bleaker entry: ‘How few are left to be loved.’ Typically, at the end it is not the dons but the workers in the college who mean most to him. At 87, he is ‘almost sodden with gratitude for the kindness and consideration with which I am treated here, especially by the college staff’. When his bedmaker Mrs Richardson utters a spontaneous ‘cry of delight’ at seeing him he takes it as a ‘precious gift’ to set beside his ‘success in literature’: ‘Mrs Richardson ranks me with her mother almost. I shall never forget that cry of delight.’

Gardner knows who Mrs Richardson was, among hundreds of other nearly irretrievable figures. Over a third of Volume II, containing the Locked Diary, is taken up by his endnotes, mounting astronomically to number 1078, and the proportion in the other two volumes is not much smaller. These notes occasionally have odd emphases, and small errors; but without the enlightening information they provide, large tracts of the text would be next to impenetrable. At the end of the diaries’ eight hundred pages, it strikes one, as the unignorable correlative of his own sometimes self-conscious modesty, how much more notable, interesting and simply famous Forster was than the people he was close to, or that life happened to surround him with. Wary of claims of greatness and fame, Forster was all his life the opposite of a celebrity-chaser. A visit to Henry James in 1908 had hardly been a success, leading Forster to record: ‘First great man I’ve ever seen – not alarming; but that isn’t my road’ – his ‘road’ was described in a poem about a working man he’d seen in the lane on leaving Lamb House. He stays with Thomas Hardy in 1923, but blames himself for ‘snobbery’ in wanting to see him; the droll brief entry contrasts strongly with the six pages of Woolf’s diary describing a much shorter visit to the Hardys three years later, one of the most vivid impressions ever written of one major writer by another. When in later life Forster turned his hand to biography his subjects were two people far less famous than himself, G.L. Dickinson and Marianne Thornton, his great-aunt. Of course he knew great writers – Woolf, Lawrence, Cavafy – but he has nothing much to say about them here. This is not at all a criticism of Forster, or indeed of the friends, cousins and provosts, but its effect is to give a publication like these diaries an air of teeming semi-obscurity. We are not guests in a Bloomsbury Valhalla but eavesdroppers on a very unusual man’s preoccupations: ‘carnality, intellect, humour, kindness’ and the connections between them that always preoccupied him.

[*] ‘Sex’ is printed in full in Jeffrey Heath’s indispensable The Creator as Critic and Other Writings by E.M. Forster (2008).