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.’

Furbank, who of course knew the Merz story, deals with it in half a page, but Mrs Beauman, or should one call her Nicola, is determined to make much more of it. ‘Morgan, quite clearly, never, ever got over this. A normally sensitive person never would; as for an abnormally sensitive person, it does not bear thinking about. And the explanation of what happened was not quite as clear to Morgan as it is, I think, to us.’ (This is far from the only occasion on which Forster’s understanding is augmented and corrected by a wiser intuition.) Her explanation is involved. A certain Hilda Garnett, member of a family greatly admired by Merz, was in love with him. He didn’t know this, and was probably homosexual anyway, but it is conjectured (or rather affirmed) that he was disturbed by the news that both Malcolm Darling and Hilda’s brother Max had got engaged. On the evening of their single meeting, so it is intuited, Merz, in distress, asked Forster for his advice, or even asked him to be ‘his special friend’, and was rejected; or perhaps Forster explained to him that he had intuited him as a fellow ‘invert’,[*] which recognition upset Merz so much that he went off and hanged himself. Other conjectures follow. Forster was ‘guilt-stricken, miserable and confused’ at this unhappy consequence of his plain speaking, and knew he had only one remedy, which was to write a novel. This was the origin of Maurice.

Although Beauman has found out some facts about Merz and seen his mother’s unpublished Diary and some privately printed letters by Merz himself, there is apparently no non-intuitive evidence to support this assertion. It contradicts Forster’s own perfectly plausible account of the origin of Maurice – the moment of conception when, in the house of Edward Carpenter, the sage’s friend George Merrill touched him on the backside. But, as we have already noticed, Mrs Beauman never hesitates to correct Forster if his version of the facts conflicts with her intuitions; he can always be represented as slyly covering something up. (So, for that matter, can Furbank; for example, she dismisses his account of the long relationship between Forster and the policeman Bob Buckingham, as a cover-up.) Since Forster was not telling the truth about it, Maurice can confidently be described as ‘a rewriting of Merz’s life’ with a happy ending.

Part of the evidence adduced to support this conclusion is Merz’s name, and the names of the Garnett sisters. Merz, anglicised, would be Maurice. ‘Ada and Hilda sound alike, as do Dolly and Kitty.’ Similar perceptions of resemblance are frequently recorded in this book, and since they seem to be characteristic of the author’s method I will mention some of them, noting only that they seem to me quite baffling, though persons of more acute phonetic intuitiveness many not find them so. The hero of Forster’s first attempt at a novel, Nottingham Lace, is called Carruthers, which is ‘not unlike’ Correnden, the name of the house of a friend and neighbour called Edgar Nicolas. Moreover Carruthers is called Edgar. Again, Correnden not only makes one think of Carruthers but also puts one in mind of ‘Nicolas’, since both words have ‘three syllables with a hard consonant, two soft consonants and a final “s”’. On the strength of this example we are offered a generalisation: ‘when Morgan identifies a fictional character with a real person he almost always gives the one a name which sounds at least rhythmically like the other, for example Whichelo/Honeychurch, Lily/Lilia and, in Maurice, Ernest Merz/Maurice Hall and Max Garnett/Clive Durham.’ Given these criteria of resemblance, the names of Augustus Hervey and Cecil Vyse are not ‘quite dissimilar’, so Morgan may have seen his tutor Mr Hervey, who, like Cecil Vyse, wore ‘eyeglasses and a moustache’, trying to kiss his mother.

Names also have an etymological importance. ‘Eustace = Lat. ustus = inflamed, also Gk “fruitful”.’ Moreover, ‘St Eustace was the patron saint of huntsmen.’ What is more, Eustace’s friend, the waiter Gennaro = Gennaio, ‘January, the beginning of things. Also Gene, the dim, of Eugene = Gk “noble, well-born”.’ Some characters do not have first names, but far from depriving them of hidden meanings this absence symbolises their generic roles as wife, mother or sage: Mrs Elliot, Mr Emerson, Miss Avery. George Emerson, however, needs his forename, which means ‘farmer/husband’ and dragon-slayer, while Lucy = Saint Lucia, patroness of those suffering from diseases of the eye; she needs to clear up her own problems of moral vision. The name of Adela Quested is a short story in itself. It is strongly linked to Merz’s tragedy, for ‘Adela is, phonetically, Hilda backwards, and Garnett is a two-syllable word with hard syllables like Quested. Adela = Ang. Sax. “filth”, “mud” ... but also Germ, “noble”. Thus the name has overtones of noble mud.’ (Does not it also suggest Gk ‘unseen’? Noble but invisible mud?) Most striking of all, Forster’s Alexandrian lover, el Adl, had a relation called Aziz; ‘the name’ not only turns up later in A Passage to India but ‘makes echoing reference to Gino in Where Angels Fear to Tread’. Thus are life and literature related.

The general outline of Forster’s life is well-known. People sometimes exaggerate his passivity; he could be very passionate and very active. In that neglected second half of his life he wrote an enormous amount and no doubt wasted some time taking tea, but he also performed many kinds of quite taxing public service. It is true that he always had enough money not to have to work, a condition less fortunate people often like to think debilitating. And after the arrival of fame he had much more than he needed, and gave it away very liberally. It is true that in some ways he remained a member of the class whose manners he deplored. His mother, who had been a governess, was a somewhat insecure snob, but he complied with her style of life, not altogether without complaint but for an incredibly long time, and long after he could have set up on his own without excuse. For ages he allowed her to believe he was so incompetent that he should not venture abroad alone, and only in his late forties obliged her to condone his having a London flat.

This may tempt one to wish he’d had less money, that he’d been less absorbed in contemplation of the family (the Forsters with their Thornton connections were more than a cut above his mother’s family, the Whichelos), that his father had not died when he was an infant. We entertain but don’t like the idea of a shy middle-aged homosexual shrinking in his mother’s house. But of course he didn’t; he wrote surreptitiously bold novels and stories, and also went off to India and to Egypt and did unfamiliar jobs in both countries. The myth of the perpetual tea-table was deceptive. Moreover, he did not share the rather low estimates of his personal force circulated by some of his friends, and still current; he knew perfectly well that he was exceptionally gifted as well as odd. He was quick to respond to a slight and had quite a hot temper. Sometimes he would hurl himself in frustration or rage against the furniture (choosing, he says, the softer and less fragile items). For decades he suffered, he records, agonies of lust, so he was probably not under par in that respect either.

His sexual record is all too likely, in the present biographical climate, to be thought more interesting than his books. It is indeed a strange story. According to his own statement he was nearly thirty before he found out exactly what occurred in sex between men and women. (This gives extra point to Katherine Mansfield’s joke about Howards End, written quite close to the time of the great discovery: ‘I can never be perfectly certain whether Helen was got with child by Leonard Bast or by his fatally forgotten umbrella.’) He had his first full homosexual experience when nearly forty, pointing out that it came at least twenty years late. Furbank’s account of his subject’s sexual history seems faithful and just; he is an excellent writer, with expert control of tone, and has real sympathy with his subject, which is better than empathy any day. Mrs Beauman’s is not scandalous but it does not come well out of the comparison she cannot help inviting.

Forster more than once referred to his first sexual adventure in Alexandria as the abandonment of ‘respectability’, but on this occasion he did not choose to go into detail about what is here called ‘the first orgasm that was not self-induced’. He did say it took place in ‘nearly a slum’ and evidently – establishing a norm – involved a working-class lover, and an Egyptian at that, to compound the necessary otherness. ‘I want to love a strong young man of the lower classes and be loved by him and even hurt by him,’ wrote Forster, who was himself capable of amorous hurting. Beauman has her say about all this, and about the novelist’s attitude to his lovers’ wives, and his interesting choice of a woman, Florence Barger, as confidante.

All this is fair enough; Forster, when he agreed first that William Plomer and then P.N. Furbank should write his biography, did not ask that matters of this kind should escape discussion. He lived the greater part of his life under a hated law that banned and might brutally punish his kind of sexuality; it long blighted his happiness, and he regarded Maurice as a justified if necessarily secret protest. It circulated for years in typescript, among the plucky, the considerate and the proud. I suspect that when he expressed passionate admiration for Auden’s ‘We must love one another or die’ he wasn’t forgetting that the final stanza of ‘September 1, 1939’ was pure Forster:

Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair
Show an affirming flame.

Maurice was an ironic point of light in the dark of an oppressive culture, a resistance, an affirmation, a confession of faith; all that could reasonably be done in such times.

Forster left behind him letters and journals which make it plain enough that he believed in giving, in private, more candid expression to his sexual tastes, which the culture was predisposed to find disgusting; and he often remarked, in relation to his Alexandrian lover, though also some more transient partners, that he felt not the least shame at his sexual encounters, only deploring the difficulties of rendezvous and concealment. Consequently no biographer need be thought prurient in speculating on these matters, or in remarking, as Mrs Beauman does, on the apparent inconsistency between this wholly committed approval of male homosexuality and an inability to accept what he called ‘Sapphism’.

Still, there are questions of tone, and of propriety of inference. For example, we are told that Mrs Forster took her 16-year-old son to France because she hoped ‘consciously or subconsciously’, to have him out of the country during the trial of Oscar Wilde. We may well be incredulous, especially when it is further conjectured that she might have stopped taking newspapers at the same period. It was a school holiday and the Forsters had a Whichelo relation in Rouen, perfectly ordinary reasons for the visit; but intuition can make more of it than that.

Making something more of things is what this book is always doing. One of the Beauman discoveries is Reginald Tiddy, a public school friend of Forster’s, recalled for her by a very old ex-master at Tonbridge. Forster said he had no friends at Tonbridge, so one may ask why he thought it important to suppress all allusions to Tiddy. ‘Because, I believe, Morgan offered him a passionate romantic friendship ... but for some reason this friendship foundered.’ This surmise is supported by the evidence of a modern graphologist that Forster’s handwriting at the time suggests that ‘he experienced bouts of depression,’ and also suggests ‘a sexual relationship with another man’. This man was presumably Tiddy. He could have been the model for Tibby in Howards End. And since he had as an extra Christian name ‘Elliott’, he can also be connected with The Longest Journey. ‘The pairing of Rickie Elliot with Steward Ansell,’ says Mrs Beauman characteristically, ‘has much the same rhythm and resonance as the pairing of Reggie Elliott with Morgan Forster.’ All that is needed to make an important figure of the forgotten schoolboy Tiddy is graphological hindsight, an imaginative approach to nomenclature and plenty of empathy. Consideration that the memory of a man in his late nineties is quite likely to be fallible, and that any way not all school friendships survive school, is not invited; what is intuited as possible takes precedence over the tedium of probability. The important thing seems to be to add another to the tale of the youthful Forster’s sexual distresses. They were real enough, and too often repeated, to need intuitive augmentation.

Occasionally this book offers what seems a good guess, pointing out, for instance, resemblances between Clough and Forster, who very likely knew, and might well have enjoyed, the Amours de Voyage: and there are resemblances of temperament. And one does occasionally come across a genuine perception about Forster’s work, and about his attitude to it. ‘He could tell if it was good or not, and could set to work correcting it, but he never quite knew where it had come from. Involvement, pride, possessiveness, intense feelings about reviews, belonged ... to lesser writers; the real writer looked at his work aloofly, almost ironically, and did not seem to connect the self who dined and answered letters ... with the self who wrote.’ This is a true gloss on several remarks of Forster himself, at least one of which comes close to eliminating the author altogether as a relevant or intelligible subject. The condition of writing was as remote from ordinary life as the condition of being in love; he knew what it was like, and that knowledge was related to the high value he quietly placed on his work, as well as to the shocks and disappointments that attended its making.

The trouble is that something as sensible as this remark can be followed at once by a piece of corrigible folly. ‘Only an accomplished pianist (as Morgan was) or someone with a great deal of knowledge of music would know that Opus 111 is a work that can be tackled by very few.’ We can take the point about Lucy Honeychurch being able to play it without the help of this transparently false remark; anybody who knows what Opus 111 is, which hardly calls for ‘a great deal of knowledge of music’, also knows that only good pianists can play it. Or, a page or two further on: ‘One of the reasons, I am sure, that so many people fail to recognise his greatness, and value him less than, say, James, Conrad, Lawrence or Virginia Woolf, is because they miss his depths, they cannot fathom them unless they present in a frontal, full-dress form.’ It is a matter for regret or possibly indignation that this sentence, absurd in almost every possible way, should have escaped the attention of the ‘impeccable’ editors at Hodder and Stoughton and the ‘ever-vigilant husband’ whose acumen is loyally celebrated on page 163, They might also have removed certain solecisms: ‘the potential is, in all its essentials, there’, for instance, or the remark that some quality or other had ‘become innate’.

The purpose of this book, as I noted earlier, was to throw light on Forster’s novels by intuitive examination of his life. It fails almost entirely to do so, not least because of a baseless conviction that the world has hitherto failed to understand their value, but also because the author’s notion of literary criticism is very elementary. This is a fundamental lack that cannot be supplied by what she herself, pursuing the tracks of Morgan to Bombay, describes as ‘overactive empathy’. As biography this belongs, in spite of the elaborate and enthusiastic researches that preceded its writing, to the school of ‘could it be that?’, ‘he would surely have thought’, ‘one can imagine ...’

On some aspects of Forster’s life the book does well enough: his consciousness of the Thornton inheritance, of the class differences between his father’s and his mother’s family, his attachments, always in the end severed, to various houses, his enmeshment in the upper class life and financial interests he so much disliked. On his relations with ‘gay’ friends, Ackerley, Plomer, Auden, Isherwood and others, as well as with the tram-drivers, chauffeurs, policemen and other working-class lovers who in later life satisfied his lusts and helped to form his mature notions of love, friendship and virtue, it also does well enough; though once again I have to say that this whole subject is much better treated in Furbank, who understood more easily the connection between Forster’s quietly anarchic attitude to sex and his exalted ideas of love. He also observed that there was sometimes a certain tendency to treat partners, especially hired ones, like his barber at Dewas in 1921, as servants or slaves.

This doesn’t sound like ‘Morgie’, and it may reflect a certain subdued imperiousness detected by other observers in other circumstances. There is a point at which Forster’s determination never to say the thing that is not turns into a sort of moral bullying, as in his relations with the D.H. Lawrences, who may be thought to have at least been a match for him. Because of his principles and his peculiarities his whole life was full of intellectual and moral incident. It is a life that calls for the calm, affectionate but even-handed treatment it had in the earlier biography. And, incidentally, although direct comment on the fiction is not expressly in Furbank’s brief, as it is in Mrs Beauman’s, what he says about it is subtly illuminating. It does seem a pity she decided to go it alone.

[*] 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.