Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Winter 1999-2000

EM. Forster: Passion and Prose, by Arthur Martland

reviewed by Jim Herrick

Martland’s aim, in this critical work on the novels of EM. Forster, is to demonstrate that his homosexuality was “the major factor in his personal and creative life”. (My emphasis.) He succeeds in giving a thorough and coherent picture of the importance of homosexuality to Forster’s writing, but he is not as original as he appears to think he is in ploughing this particular field.

It was clear to me when studying A Passage to India at school in 1962 that there was a strong homoerotic feeling between Aziz and Fielding. I hastily read other of his novels – detecting the tentative undisclosed homosexual feelings. Of course, my English mistress probably didn’t even know the word ‘homosexuality’ let alone what it was in that pre-Law Reform age. Many critics and writers have paid attention to this aspect of his works and Martland does this in a workmanlike way, but I think he falls into his own trap by wishing to determine that all of Forster’s novels were so dominated.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book lie in the background information about Edward Carpenter, Havelock Ellis, John Addington Symonds, TE. Lawrence, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson and other kindred spirits. It enhances our understanding of Forster to be aware of these friendships and influences. But a great writer – which Forster in my view is – is more than his friends and his influences.

Martland is surely right to point to his inability to write for publication anything openly gay as a cause of the writing blocks which led him to take ten years to complete A Passage to India, and then to cease writing novels at the age of 45. This view is reinforced by Martland’s sensible discussion of the never-completed work Arctic Summer, concentrating on a relationship between two men. The release which it was to write Maurice, his endearing, but flawed, novel of explicit homosexual relations, was tempered by his inability to publish it. He has been damned for his timidity by later gay activists – but it is worth remembering that censorship and prison could exist for the openly gay man of 1912. Martland is reasonably generous towards Forster in this respect.

But are the novels all essentially encoded gay tales? I don’t think so. Yes, there is in most of them some homoerotic charge – but that is not the summation of them. There are the repeated and attractive young men from Mediterranean, Indian or working class backgrounds who are Pan-like, virile, earthy. There is an attraction by Philip for Gino in Where Angels Fear to Tread, by Rickie for Stephen Wonham in The Longest Journey. But it is a mistake to reckon these are the all-consuming concern.

One of the enormous omissions of Martland is any discussion of the women in the novels. The best he can do is to point to the tendency of women to obstruct the relationships between the men. I would suggest that Forster is one of the outstanding male novelists able to portray women in depth. In Howard’s End the two Schlegel sisters are sympathetic portraits of two sensitive, intelligent women. Martland thinks the lack of covert homosexuality in this novel makes it a lesser novel. I would think that it is a finer novel than Maurice which is almost entirely about homosexuality. The older women, Mrs Moore and Mrs Wilcox are characters of great power and prescience. To omit almost all consideration of Adela Quested in A Passage to India is bizarre: Adela is awkward, asexual, determined to like India – there is some clumsiness in the portrayal – but she is central to our understanding of the novel. What is the gap in her, that leads to the gap in the novel at the heart of what happened in the Marabar caves? It is worth noting that Forster wrote as successful a biography of his great-aunt Marianne Thornton as he did of the gay classicist Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson.

In concentrating on one strand of Forster, Martland neglects other central concerns. Forster is concerned with the whole of society, with the relation between its parts, with social conflict and social amity – which is why Howard’s End is such a good book. He pays little attention to Forster’s irony and social satire – his satirical portrayal of the English rulers in India is essential to an understanding of his feeling for India. Martland refers lightly to his irony as a defensive gay characteristic, but many heterosexuals have also used irony. Forster was able to keep a sense of humour and balance within his work.

The critical acclaim for Forster has dipped during the last decade. Martland suggests this is because of the openness with which its homosexuality and homosexual themes are discussed. I think it is because of the decline in admiration for realistic novels in the liberal tradition in favour of the techniques of the magical realistic, the discourse, the multi-faceted admired by more recent critics.

Although some of Martland’s work is useful, I strongly disagree with his aim and conclusion to show that Forster is defined by his sexuality and that “no one is a universal writer.” I am happy with novels which possess Jane Austen’s sentiment: “It is a truth universally acknowledged...” It is not only that Forster is full of truth universally acknowledged, but also that homosexuality lies within the universal. Gays and lesbians are part of the spectrum of humanity; they are part of the whole. The gay minority is essential to society and society is central for gays. Forster – the gay writer – is offering a richness and diversity which is of universal understanding and appeal.

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