I have been reading an account of Proust’s sexuality by J. E. Rivers called Proust and the Art of Love. One is thankful that today, unlike the period Rivers writes in, we can think about such matters without the oppressive weight of Freudianism, which, like Marxism, had ready answers for any and every human problem. I am no more interested in a theory of the nature of homosexuality than I am in a theory on the nature of heterosexuality. Not that I am immune from visceral reactions to strangeness of sex in others. Why, I ask, are so many characters in Search homosexual? But then I have to ask myself, why are so many characters in Tolstoy’s War and Peace heterosexual? Over a hundred talking characters and they’re ALL straight? And this is supposed to be a realist novel?
But if we no longer embrace homosexuality as a vice or disease, we have to acknowledge that it was so regarded when Proust wrote and that he himself seems to have agreed. I was reminded of this when reading now a piece on E. M. Forster. Proust differed from Forster (and virtually everyone else) in finding a way to create art from this tension. Although Forster was more clear-sighted than Proust on the healthiness of homosexuality, he ultimately failed to turn this insight into art.
The reason for E. M. Forster’s apparent abandonment of fiction after the publication of A Passage to India in 1924 is now well known: “Weariness of the only subject that I both can and may treat – the love of men for women & vice versa”. Forster had written down this explanation in June 1910 in what became known as “the Locked Diary”. This notebook, which could indeed be locked by a clasp and key (occasionally mislaid), was used by Forster between September 1909 and June 1967 to record those thoughts and observations he wanted to keep private. It now forms the “central column”, as he puts it, of Philip Gardner’s very welcome but problematic three-volume edition of Forster’s journals and diaries….
The days when a chance encounter could lead to fiction, as when meeting the lame shepherd at Figsbury Rings in September 1904 gave birth to The Longest Journey, are soon over. Recording a visit in 1935 by two West Hackhurst neighbours, a tenant farmer called Hughie Waterson and a Mrs Morgan, Forster writes: “Now if I could end with a note on the physical appearance of H. & Mrs M, and their clothes, they might begin to live in ink and become germs of fictitious characters. But except that I shouldn’t mind going to bed with the first and couldn’t with the second little occurs to me”. He adds that Somerset Maugham, whose stories he was reading, “could have got down the necessary for both”, and some years later, describing a slatternly woman on a train, he admits: “She might be someone’s material for a novel, and the greater novelists, amongst whom I have never been, would certainly include such a woman, instead of recoiling from her and being critical”. Even as a mere diarist of such encounters, Forster feels he does not measure up. After dwelling at some length on “an enormous young foreigner in the tube”, he concludes: “I stared at him for ¼ hour, and have put down every prosy scrap I could remember. Denton Welsh [sic] would have done him in a couple of lines”….
For men of Forster’s era and class, homosexuality often defied social as well as sexual conventions. In Forster’s case it also challenged imposed racial boundaries: several of his lovers were not only of a different (which is to say “lower”) class but also of a different (and, by the Imperial standards of the time, “inferior”) race. Forster’s Indian and Egyptian lovers are well documented, but Moffat additionally reveals that the married bus driver whom Forster picked up in Weybridge in 1924, and was still intermittently sleeping with in the late 1960s, was of mixed race. Gardner mysteriously states that “the friendship fairly soon evaporated”, whereas what is so interesting about it is that it persisted, as Forster himself notes in the Locked Diary in May 1966: “I can think of nothing which has lasted so long, and borne such odd fruit. Although so limited, he lies in the direction of my hopes”. These hopes Forster had outlined almost fifty years before when describing his affair with the Egyptian tram conductor Mohammed el Adl: “to be trusted across the barriers of income race and class”. The affair represented “such a triumph over nonsense and artificial difficulties”, Forster felt. “I see beyond my own happiness and intimacy, occasional glimpses of the happiness of 1000s of others whose names I shall never hear, and I know that there is a great unrecorded history”. Forster regarded himself as part of that history, and in “What I Believe” insisted that such relationships provided “something comparatively solid in a world full of violence and cruelty”.