A Great Unrecorded History A New Life of E. M. Forster

Wendy Moffat




Trade Paperback

432 Pages



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A Finalist for the Randy Shilts Award for Gay Nonfiction

With the posthumous publication of his long-suppressed novel Maurice in 1970, E. M. Forster came out as a homosexual—though that revelation made barely a ripple in his literary reputation. As Wendy Moffat persuasively argues in A Great Unrecorded History, Forster’s homosexuality was the central fact of his life. Between Wilde’s imprisonment and the Stonewall riots, Forster led a long, strange, and imaginative life as a gay man. He preserved a vast archive of his private life—a history of gay experience he believed would find its audience in a happier time.

A Great Unrecorded History is a biography of the heart. Moffat’s decade of research—including first-time interviews with Forster’s friends—has resulted in the first book to integrate Forster’s public and private lives. Seeing his life through the lens of his sexuality offers a radically new view—revealing his astuteness as a social critic, his political bravery, and his prophetic vision of gay intimacy. A Great Unrecorded History invites us to see Forster—and modern gay history—from a completely new angle.


Praise for A Great Unrecorded History

“None of [Forster’s] biographers have had either the will or the wherewithal to concentrate as closely on Forster’s sexuality as Wendy Moffat . . . In A Great Unrecorded History, she offers an insightful, revelatory portrait of a man who deeply resented having to hide such an important side of himself . . . Ms. Moffat’s overarching interests are in tracing Forster’s attitudes about sex and hypocrisy and in placing this increasingly outspoken figure within the context of his changing times.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times

"A well-written, intelligent, and perceptive biography . . . Moffat, with considerable care and a sort of sympathy that Forster himself would have appreciated, makes the case for his life as an exemplary one."—Colm Tóibín, The New York Times Book Review

"This eminently readable, beautifully and often lyrically written biography is gripping, mesmerizing, heartfelt, and kind . . . Moffat has written a splendid, thoughtful, riveting biography of a man who was a revolutionary in his work, descended into his own sexual depths with aplomb, and left all of us the richer for it."—Sam Coale, The Providence Journal

"The Forster who emerges from Moffat's work is a more human and satisfying figure than we've known. She portrays a limited man in full, whose compromises between sense and sensuality parallel those of his most complex fictional characters."—Eric Banks, Time

"This sympathetic, often touching biography will connect with literature lovers, gay ad straight."—Jocelyn McClurg, USA Today

“Wendy Moffat’s reexamination of E.M. Forster identifies his homosexuality as the essence of his creative life. Using unpublished writings, she charts his gradual awakening to the moral, intellectual, and emotional significance of his homoerotic imagination. Her book is an astute and original new portrait of this major novelist.”—Michael Holroyd, author of A Strange Eventful History

A Great Unrecorded History explores the intimate life of E.M. Forster with sensitivity and scholarship. Wendy Moffat writes with profound insight about a great writer who believed in the vital significance of personal connection while being unable to openly express his sexual feelings for the men he desired. She also gives us an illuminating picture of gay sexual culture in the first half of the twentieth century. This biography is at once an engrossing read and a book to cherish and go back to. Essential for understanding E. M. Forster and the times in which he lived.”—Sheila Rowbotham, author of Edward Carpenter

“Wendy Moffat’s biography of E.M. Forster is splendid—beautifully researched and written, imaginatively structured, and deeply revealing. We finally have a life of Forster that foregrounds his homosexuality and skillfully traces its impact on his life and art. We’ve had a long wait for a fully honest book on Forster—but at last we have it.”—Martin Duberman, author of Paul Robeson

A Great Unrecorded History is a bold new re-imagining of Forster’s long career, which makes some striking connections between his life and work.”—D.J. Taylor, author of Bright Young People

“It will come as no surprise to readers of literary fiction that E.M. Forster (1879–1970), author of such classic novels as Howards End (1910) and Passage to India (1924), was gay. His sexual orientation has been noted since the 1970 publication of his posthumous novel, Maurice, which was about love and sex between men. But Moffat places, more firmly than has been done by previous biographers, Forster’s homosexuality at the core of his being, both as the lodestar by which he lived his life and as a source of intense frustration because of social prohibition against depicting it in fiction. He realized early on his attraction to his own gender, and we are given, with no hint of salaciousness, an honest account of his sex life over the years. At once powerful and sensitive, Moffat’s irresistibly compelling and responsible biography sees an unimpressive physical persona whose shyness reduced him to 'disappearing into the woodwork.' And his long public silence—silent in that he published no more novels while he lived, after Passage to India—can be attributed to his having 'grown tired of the masquerade of propriety.' Forster may have been regarded as mousy, but this treatment of his life is undeniably robust. In fact, it shines with the beauty its subject was made sad that he did not possess.”—Brad Hooper, Booklist (starred review)

"This biography—the first to focus on Forster's homosexuality—is the result of ten years of research by Moffat (English, Dickinson Coll.) that included interviews with the subject's friends. Forster (1879–1970) 'came out' only posthumously with the 1970 publication of Maurice, an openly gay novel written decades earlier but circulated only among chosen associates because of the prevailing prejudice and laws against homosexuality in Britain. Thus Forster kept his orientation under wraps, especially from his mother, by whom he was dominated until her death when he was 66. After A Passage to India, published in 1924, he produced no more novels but left a body of gay writing that remained unpublished during his lifetime, while publicly he turned to lecturing and journalism. Moffat's book details a succession of gay relationships as well as Forster's lifelong association with King's College (Cambridge) and his travels in Egypt and India, which revealed the racism prevalent among his contemporaries. This is a thorough, well-documented study of Forster's sexual orientation."—Denise J. Stankovics, Library Journal

"A buoyant, expressive biography of British novelist E.M. Forster (1879-1970), whose homosexuality had a profound effect on his literary output and career. In her first book, Moffat (English/Dickinson Coll.) leaves no doubt about her focus. The prologue takes its title from a quote: 'Start with the Fact That He Was Homosexual.' As does the first chapter: 'A Queer Moment.' Though the author examines the sex life of Forster, it isn't her intent to arouse prurient interest or to grind political axes. Exhaustively researched and engagingly written, this sexual-literary biography builds a convincing case that until one comes to terms with Forster's homosexuality, which he long had difficulty coming to terms with himself, it is impossible to come to terms with his work. Moffat's novelistic command of detail reinforces the sense of intimacy, though those more accustomed to academic convention might not be comfortable with her referring throughout to her subject as 'Morgan' (as his friends did), and with her use of first names and even nicknames for other principal characters. Yet such familiarity suits a narrative that illuminates the soul of a writer who suffered from such 'paralyzing shyness' that he feared through his mid-30s that he might never consummate a sexual relationship, who long considered the act of homosexual love 'unspeakable' and therefore unpublishable, yet 'to the end of his life . . . recognized the sexual force as a wellspring of his creative work.' The biography begins with and then builds to the posthumous publication of Maurice (1971), the homosexually themed work that had occupied his creativity for decades when the public thought he had retired from novel writing, and which underwent substantial revisions after Forster gained experience in not only sex but homosexual love. An empathic, highly informative celebration of the legacy of a profoundly decent but decidedly imperfect man who considered himself 'the outsidest of outsiders.'" —Kirkus Reviews

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“A Queer Moment”
It was just Lily and Morgan. This had not been the plan.
Alice Clara Whichelo, known as Lily, married a marvelous young architect after an eight-week engagement when she was twenty-one. Edward Morgan Forster was the son of a clergyman. Lily and Eddie settled near Dorset Square in London, a few blocks from the rose gardens of Regents Park—a fine place for a young couple to start a family, and far enough away from Eddie’s imposing relatives at Clapham to give them breathing space. It was January 1877. Eddie was twenty-nine, and a bit slow to get
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