Thursday, October 12, 2017

E.M. Forster and His Relationships: A Counter to Wendy Moffat's Biography

I discuss Forster biographies/analyses on Votaries. Specifically, I critique Moffat's well-written biography The Unrecorded History. The problem is not the writing. The problem is that Moffat slides all available evidence into a single pattern. The result is a Forster who is neither as complex nor as interesting as the Forster revealed through P.N. Furbank's biography.

Among the many relationships that Moffat details, she presents two--with Mohammed and with Bob Buckingham--as absolutes. She more often than not "tells" the relationship story without "showing" quotes from either journals or letters. She is the equivalent of the good girlfriend who defends her best friend's relationships, even when he isn't so sure of them himself.

With Mohammed, she cannot withhold a slightly critical voice--but that is entirely due to Forster himself. Forster worried about the gap between him and his "lover" in terms of race, class, and philosophy (although there was a considerable age gap, I don't perceive age as an issue any more than did the men themselves). Forster worried that he was taking advantage and being taken advantage of. He also worried that he and Mohammed did not perceive "relationship" in the same light.

Moffat ignores these doubts, downplaying them whenever they rise to the fore. After Mohammed's death, Forster wrote out their history together. He was typically self-analytical and unswervingly truthful. In one of the most shearingly honest pieces ever written by a human being (other than C.S. Lewis), Forster writes to the dead Mohammed:
I wish I could distinguish more clearly between us, but it was always difficult, and now you are not here to correct me when I think of you not as you are but [as] I should like to think you . . . I am professionally a writer and want to pay you this last honour, although there is much that you will not understand, and some things that you will not agree with . . .
Moffat omits this letter. Whenever Forster questions his relationship with Mohammed, she argues that he is a man tortured by doubts, not a man reflecting honestly on a rather odd affair. While reading Moffat's account of Forster-Mohammed's relationship, I could never shake the uneasy impression that Forster made the entire thing up. Yet while reading Forster's letter (in Furbank's biography), Forster's very doubts led me to conclude, "Yes, this happened. It was real." It is Forster's astringent, self-aware voice that convinced me. In Moffat's hands, Forster turns into someone far more clueless about himself than every person connected with Forster understood him to be.

Moffat extends this same interpretation of Forster to his relationship with Bob Buckingham.

Forster was consistently cagey about Bob Buckingham, who would have had far more to lose than Mohammed if Forster had played out a romance in public (or through letters). Moffat works hard to maintain that the relationship was a great romance because . . . I'm not sure why. I have a feeling that the reason is connected to Moffat's desire to see Forster more as an angsty Heathcliff than an objective Darcy. Or to her need to sell Forster as a man thwarted by society's rules when, in fact, he was the beneficiary of his social class--and knew it. (Forster wasn't the type of man to turn life's imperfections into his raison d'etre and tended to avoid, or to sternly remonstrate with, people who did.) 

Bob Buckingham was a cop who was bisexual or open to any experience that would improve his lot in life or a warm-hearted, physical guy who never thought of himself as Forster's gay partner despite the equivalent of locker-room high jinks. He did marry after meeting Forster and by all accounts had a robust physical relationship with his wife. Although one of Forster's friends attempted to sabotage the Forster-Buckingham relationship by informing the wife, May, that Forster was undermining her marriage (by taking Bob about with him so much), the attempt went nowhere, mostly because May's attitude was that Bob hanging out with another man was better than Bob hanging out with another woman.

In his typically scrupulous manner, Furbank suggests that there may have been no ongoing physical relationship at all. Furbank is not being prissy or inhibited or homophobic. He is honest and non-judgmental about Forster's homosexuality as well as Forster's various relationships throughout his biography's 585 pages. He presents the option because he is a honest historian who cannot ignore the accumulated evidence, the lack of evidence, and Forster's personality.

And the evidence is that no one knows exactly what the relationship was between Forster and Bob Buckingham. Forster was highly self-analytical but also capable, as he admits, at creating scenarios that he wished to be true. He presented himself and Bob as partners to his Bohemian friends but so elliptically that one is left with the impression that Forster wanted his friends to believe that Bob and he were lovers, not that they actually were. (Or, rather, he wanted his friends to believe whatever they wanted to believe without Forster having to say anything at all, which seems most likely.)

Forster had the wonderful capacity to immerse
himself in experiences without judgment--
yet he was a shrewd judge of people and
events: not the kind of man to be conned.
When presented with outside evidence--Forster's wry self-analysis, for instance--that contradicts her pattern, Moffat fudges. When Forster had his first stroke and confessed his feelings to Bob Buckingham, Bob was shocked and denied (1) that he knew Forster was gay; (2) that he and Forster were lovers. Unlike Furbank (who deals with this event upfront), Moffat moves Bob's declaration to a side note at a later period of time, implying that Bob did not make such denials until AFTER Forster's death. But in fact, Bob made this denial several years earlier; six years later, he and his wife would care for Forster during his final days. Yet Moffat accuses both husband and wife of covering up the truth--so much so that they come across as low-life grifters out for Forster's money and prestige.

Those who knew and met the Buckinghams  including Furbank, found the possibility of their deliberately lying to protect themselves highly unlikely. From all accounts, including Forster's willingness to befriend the Buckinghams, they were honest, intelligent, unsophisticated people. Bob especially took things at face value. His wife May was more discerning though more likely to worry about Forster's increasing forgetfulness than his sexual orientation. 

Based on Forster's own droll assessment of himself and his various relationships, intimate and not, I rather think that he and Bob Buckingham did exchange some physical intimacies, the type that a highly physical good-old-boy like Buckingham would never define to himself as "gay" since he did not seem to think that he was. (A reality ignored in Moffat's biography is that people are far more varied in their responses to sex and sexual identity than a label. She also ignores that social expectations/attitudes towards male "bonding" have changed in the last fifty to sixty years; even the language has changed from "friendship" to "homosocial" to "bromance.")
Forster sitting next to May Buckingham

When Forster met Bob Buckingham, he was older, wiser, tired, happy with his circle of friends, happy to have a "consort" of sorts to take around with him when he visited his Bohemian friends (who strike me as far more naive than Buckingham's wife) and may have decided, "Hey, I'm a middle-class Englishman with no desire to be a rebel and a lessening sex drive. This works for me!"

And it did. The Buckinghams invited Forster into their home, and most of Forster's friends accepted the Buckinghams as "good sorts". The Buckinghams cared for Forster through various illnesses and broken bones. May Buckingham specifically was an extremely good friend to Forster. He was godfather to the Buckinghams' son; when the young man died, May and Forster consoled each other. One gets the impression that Forster preferred this middle-middle-class family to his Bohemian and upper-middle-class friends. At heart, the guy really liked the middle-class life, even as he critiqued it.

Forster fell in love; Masood didn't; they remained friends. By
his own assessment, this was one of Forster's most important
relationships--every relationship mattered to him.
There are ways to reconcile or at least explain the perspectives of all those involved. I attempted one reconciliation above. Moffat never tries to do this or allow for it--hers is a-one-size-fits-all pattern. If Forster stated something that fits the pattern, she accepts and reports it; if he later qualified or contradicted previous statements (as humans are wont to do), she ignores or downplays his equivocation. Her treatment extends past Forster to his friends: If what you're saying agrees with Forster having notable, dramatic so-called real romances, you must be speaking the truth. If you doubt or question those romances, you must be afraid of speaking out.

The problem is not that Moffat is selling Forster as a gay man. He was. And it informed his life and literature, as Furbank makes clear. The problem is that she doesn't accept that relationships are more complex than one-winner-takes-all. As mentioned above, after a few chapters with Moffat's book, I felt like I was reading a high school confessional: My best friend luved this guy in high school, and she was soooo into him, so it MUST have been, like, the biggest romance of the century.

People live on continuums, not absolutes. In the long-run, Moffat misses out on the objective, idealistic, sensitive, friendly, self-knowing, and wry E. M. Forster that others understood him to be--in and out of his intimate relationships.