Wednesday, June 29, 2016

E M Forster’s gay fiction

Typescript of the 1932 version of Maurice by E M Forster,
with autograph manuscript alterations and additions made c. 1959.

A year after E M Forster's death, his novel about a relationship between two men, Maurice, was published. Kate Symondson explores how Forster's sexuality shaped his writing and the long period during which he didn't publish anything at all.

The last novel that E M Forster published in his lifetime was A Passage to India. That was in 1924. But Forster lived until 1970, so for the last 37 years of his life he published no more fiction, preferring to write essays instead. His creative silence both baffled and disappointed his readers: why had this popular, accomplished author (of five novels and numerous short stories) turned away from literature?
After his death, Forster’s reasons for reticence came into focus. In a diary entry of 1964, he reflected that ‘I should have been a more famous writer if I had written or rather published more, but sex has prevented the latter’. His wording here is key. At King’s College Cambridge, Forster had left behind a hoard of unpublished material, including a wealth of unseen fiction: a novel, two substantial fragments, stories, plays, poems. He might not have published any more fiction in the years since A Passage, but he had been writing. It is the subject of those stories, however, that kept them hidden. Forster hadn’t been writing about ‘sex’ in the broad sense of the word, but, more specifically, the ‘sex’ which meant something to him: sex and love between men.

In 1895, when Forster was 16, Oscar Wilde was sensationally sentenced to two years of hard labour (the maximum sentence) for homosexual acts. As well as cementing the unacceptability of homosexuality in the popular consciousness, the imprisonment of London’s most famous and loved author read like a cautionary tale to Forster, casting a long shadow over his sexual maturation and identity. He kept his sexuality as covert as possible and wrote novels and stories about (to borrow his words) ‘ordinary people’, and ‘the only subject that I can and may treat – the love of men for women and vice versa’. But by 1911, Forster recorded in his diary that he’d grown weary of that conventional, oh-so-English, halcyon-idyll that governed his stories, and a reluctance to romanticise about the familiar subject set in. Just before the publication of A Passage to India, he wrote to the poet Siegfried Sassoon declaring that ‘I shall never write another novel after it – my patience with ordinary people has given out. But I shall go on writing. I don’t feel any decline in my “powers”’. It was not that he could not write anymore; it was that he would not write about a subject that he could no longer connect to.

Source: The British Library, K. Symondson, Literature 1900–1950, Gender and sexuality.

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