The week has been happily spent reading Wendy Moffat's superb new biography of E.M. Forster, A Great Unrecorded History. It's a cliché to say that a book is revelatory, and it's a cliché that doesn't need to be used here, because although there are some new things in it (principally how many lovers Forster had from the mid-1920s: more than you'd probably thought), most of the detail is already known. There is, though, I think something fresh and inspiring about it.
Part of the freshness no doubt comes from how well written it is. Moffat writes very engagingly, with care, a good sense of pace, a feel for story-telling and, above all, a sense of human discrimination. (It's tempting to say that she's done her subject proud, although I suspect that her subject, who embodied all these values in his own writing, attracted her in the first place - Moffat's admiration for Forster, while never uncritical or cloying, is clear.)
And so although Moffat explores Forster from the potentially crass perspective of his sexuality, the result is believable and convincing. Indeed, instead of the situation described by Forster in A Passage to India - `There is always trouble when two people do not think of sex at the same moment, always mutual resentment and surprise' - Moffat is persuasive enough to make us believe that this is the sort of biography Forster would have wanted. In 1932 Forster wrote: `I wish I could get [a biography] written about me after I die, but I should want every thing told, everything.' P.N. Furbank's excellent 1977-78 biography was that biography, and it was upfront enough about Forster's homosexuality. Yet since then biographers have been increasingly insistent on exploring the significance of Forster's sexuality, and Moffat's is the most tell-all biography yet.
Forster's caveat that a tell-all biography should be published after his death is significant, and surely a key to understanding him. The flipside to the courage Forster displayed in his personal life, amounting at times almost to a sort of gay militancy (Moffat reminds us that Forster died the year after the Stonewall riots), is that he was super-sensitive to the opinion of others, even when he did not respect the moral or intellectual reasoning of those opinions. When a friend encouraged Forster to come out publicly, pointing to the example of André Gide, who had done so, Forster retorted: `But Gide hasn't got a mother!' Forster did have a mother, Lily, and even after she died in 1945 he remained cautious, resisting publication of Maurice for fear that it would lead to too much trouble. There's a passage in The Longest Journey which I think sums up this aspect of Forster well. `Rickie [Forster's most autobiographical hero] suffered from the Primal Curse, which is not - as the Authorised Version suggests - the knowledge of good and evil, but the knowledge of good-and-evil'; in other words, life, and other people, not in black and white terms, but in connections between people, in not taking sides, in not being left exposed or vulnerable.
Moffat handles both sides of Forster sensitively and well. Her biography feels natural because she is aware of the complexity of Forster's attitude towards his sexuality, and towards the people who surrounded him in life. She allows the contradictions, evasions and inconsistencies to exist without trying to smooth them away or harness them to some agenda.
A superb book.