The tragedy of E. M. Forster’s concealed homosexuality

E.M. Forster’s fame rests on the acute observations of his most celebrated work: ‘A Passage to India’, ‘A Room with a View’ and ‘Howard’s End’ each depict the hostile repression of human connection in response to Edwardian convention; but left undeclared was Forster’s interminable conflict with his own sexuality, silenced by the confines of a selective society. It was only after his death in 1970, after 47 years of reticence, that a wealth of unseen material was discovered, followed by the posthumous publications of ‘Maurice’ and ‘The Life to Come’.

Forster’s compulsion to hide his gay literature from public judgment was conceivably provoked by Oscar Wilde’s conviction in 1895, when he was mercilessly condemned to two years of hard labour for homosexual acts. The imprisonment of London’s most renowned author reinforced the unacceptability of homosexuality in popular consciousness, and inevitably inculcated 16-year-old Forster with a dire sense of society’s intolerance, stifling his sexual maturation and identity. He therefore kept his sexuality as covert as possible, but by 1911 he had grown weary of the conventionality of ‘ordinary people’, and reluctant to romanticise about a subject he could no longer connect to. However, as a member of the Bloomsbury group, Forster was embraced in a culture of sexual equality and freedom, in spite of their rigid Victorian instruction. His many travels, particularly during the First World War, gave him an awareness of homosexual love which catalysed the writing of ‘A Passage to India’.

Obliquely encoded in each narrative of courtly love is a yearning to be emancipated from the normative boundaries of respectable ‘Englishness’ and unyielding social strictures, and so Forster challenged the limits of Edwardian romance, even in his illustration of heterosexual relationships. ‘Maurice’ argues for the preservation of a space, a physical or psychological ‘home’ for a homosexual relationship, beyond the scrutiny of a society where this was deemed illegal and ‘unspeakable’. The character of Maurice is tormented in the intangible state between his public and private life, though it is in this context that he finds the liberty to live ‘outside class’ and structure, in a saddening fulfilment of Forster’s desire.

By permeating his short stories with the fantastical and the mythical, Forster similarly makes homosexuality appear more attainable. The progression of attitudes towards homosexuality has given E.M. Forster the recognition he deserves as a pioneer and a demonstration of hope. However, the damage of his isolation will never be undone – as he later reflected, ‘how annoyed I am with society for wasting my time by making homosexuality criminal. The subterfuges, the self-consciousness that might have been avoided’.

Featured image: LGRichard Pierse on Flickr

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