Between 1905 and 1924, E M Forster published five novels, three of which – ‘A Room With a View’, ‘Howards End’ and ‘A Passage to India’ – are rightly regarded as classics. He also produced one of the most acclaimed gay historical novels. ‘Maurice’, finished in 1914, wasn’t published until after the author’s death, so it doesn’t come under my remit here. I want to explore if there were any indications of Forster’s sexuality in the books which appeared in his lifetime.
What I don’t want to do is play “hunt the closet gay character”. I once saw, in an introduction to ‘The Longest Journey’, the proposition that Rickie Elliot’s congenital lameness is perhaps a metaphor for homosexuality. Only Forster himself could answer that. What I’m looking for are little touches, scenes and characterisation, which reflect Forster’s inclinations, themselves largely unexplored at the time he was writing, according to his biographer. It was possible that the man was still sexually inexperienced when ‘Maurice’ was written.
There are the occasional touches of homoeroticism, instances of men sublimely happy in the company and contact of other men. For example, in ‘Where Angels Fear to Tread’, Philip Herriton is pulled up into a box at the opera, a box full of enthusiastic Italian men.
“Philip would have a spasm of terror at the muddle he had made. But the spasm would pass and again he would be enchanted by the kind, cheerful voices, the laughter that was never vapid, and the light caress of the arm across his back.”
Now, it’s hardly Alan Hollingshurst, is it, but this novel was published in the days when love really couldn’t speak its name, when Oscar Wilde’s trials were as close in the memory as George Michael’s coming out is in ours.
There are two instances in Forster’s books of a male friendship where one man takes umbrage at the other’s interest in women and subsequent marriage. Stuart Ansell in the ‘The Longest Journey’ even refuses to say that Rickie’s friend Agnes exists and when the pair marry, cuts himself off from them, not even answering Rickie’s letters. Similarly in ‘A Room with a View’, Mr Beebe is grieved and turns away from friendship with George Emerson when it’s plain he’s going to marry Lucy. “…he no longer interests me.” I wonder if Forster saw either of these characters as in the closet (as they would have had to be at the time) and suffering from unrequited, unrequitable, love.
When ‘Howard’s End’ was published in 1910, The Chicago Tribune thought the author was a woman. Forster was supposed to have no knowledge of sex between men and women at the time and may well have still been sexually inexperienced himself. Katherine Mansfield wrote that she was puzzled about how Helen Schlegel got pregnant, if it was “by Leonard Bast or by his fatal forgotten umbrella”. But eight years earlier he’d written the most remarkable – for our purposes – short story, ‘The Story of a Panic’.
Fourteen year old Eustace is holidaying with his aunts in Ravello. He gets lost in the woods and something (it’s never clear what – an encounter with Pan perhaps) happens to him which leaves him unnaturally happy, changed in character, and walking “with difficulty, almost with pain”. As they return to the hotel, he’s desperate to find Gennaro, one of the waiters, into whose arms he leaps, quite literally. I won’t spoil the rest of the story, there’s enough so far to be getting on with.
The interpretation which springs to mind, although Forster said he didn’t consciously mean anything like this, is a disturbing one. The waiter’s having a relationship with the boy, and they have an assignation, presumably sexual, in the woods. If the author was speaking the truth, then it seems an extraordinary working out of his sub-conscious, hidden desires. Could he really have been so naive that he couldn’t see what other people did? P N Furbank says that prior to writing Maurice, Forster ‘had been seeking relief by writing facetious stories on a homosexual theme’. The Story of a Panic must have been one of these – it’s certainly the most overtly suggestive of the short stories I’ve come across, although there’s said to be one I’ve yet to track down about a baby being created from two men’s seed.
Is there more? I’m sure there is, bits and pieces I’ve missed, stories I’ve yet to turn up. It’s certainly fascinating reading these books with the benefit of hindsight and with knowledge, that most of Forster’s readers lacked, of the man’s true nature.