When E.M. Forster died in June 1970, he left behind a vast body of unpublished work – two unfinished novels, many stories and fragments of stories, as well as essays and one complete novel, Maurice (1971). Written in 1913-1914, this story of a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality was passed amongst friends, yet it remained a secret, first because it would have been almost impossible to publish, and then because Forster guarded that secret, despite repeated attempts by Christopher Isherwood to have him publish.
Forster’s first four novels – Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), The Longest Journey (1907), A Room with a View (1908), and Howards End (1910) – established his reputation as one of England’s greatest writers. The next novel he started, Arctic Summer, faltered repeatedly and was never completed. In 1911 Forster recorded in his diary his “weariness of the only subject that I both can and may treat – the love of men for women and vice versa”. After he broke his writer’s block with Maurice, Forster again struggled with fiction, and started to write non-fiction. He proved an exceptional critic and essayist. He returned with A Passage to India (1924), his masterpiece, which is the story of the ill-starred friendship between Cyril Fielding and Dr Aziz. And that was the last novel he published in his lifetime.
Forster’s homosexuality became public knowledge at a time when the Western world was in the midst of great change. And what the publication of his homosexual writings did in the 1970s was to give that change a history and a context. At the same time as this hidden world came out into the open, the hidden history of one of the country’s foremost writers was revealed. Forster had prepared for this diligently. The publication of Maurice, and the work of Oliver Stallybrass in starting the Abinger Edition, a library of all Forster’s writings, was at the heart of this project. Although he did not publish this work in his lifetime, he knew what he would leave behind, and how important that was.
Until 2010, biographies of Forster were a dry affair. Wendy Moffat’s E.M. Forster: A New Life, is as exceptional as it is absorbing. If you want to understand the extent of Forster’s influence it is essential reading. Sadly, for many people, Forster now means period drama, and the films of Merchant-Ivory, which flatten his work, and do it a great disservice. His writing echoes in eternity, just as Aziz’s voice echoes through the Marabar Caves in A Passage to India. His is the calm voice of liberty standing against the bureaucratic mind that catalogues, judges, and separates. “Naked I came into the world,” Forster concluded his 1938 essay ‘What I Believe’, “naked I shall go out of it! And a very good thing too, for it reminds me I am naked under my shirt, whatever its colour.”