Channeling Forster

E.M. Forster was one of the first men I fell in love with. He was long dead at the time, but that just made it easier for us to get along.

When I came out of the closet, one of my priorities was to read as much as I could by and about gay people, and Forster was at the top of the list. Maurice, published posthumously in 1971, is actually one of the earliest extant openly gay novels, having been written in 1914. Forster shared the manuscript with only a select group of friends.

I read his novels in order of publication—one hungrily after the other—so Maurice was the last one I got to. But the gayness was as clear in his earliest work, the heterosexual romantic comedies, as it was in this story of a man consciously struggling with his love for other men.

Gay sensibility is rather difficult to pin down, but you know it when you see it. In Forster, it manifests in a number of ways—chief among them, the fact that his female characters seem even more vivid than the men, and the snarky camp before camp even had a name. What straight man could ever have penned the line, “Harriet with a smut in her eye was notorious” (Where Angels Fear to Tread)?

Mostly, what I found in Forster was an outsider’s viewpoint: his narrative voice was that of a person just on the edge of the world he was depicting. I had the image of a young man sitting with a notebook in a corner of the room, observing his friends and relatives—present but somehow not part of what was going on. As the observer, he could see more clearly what was happening, and he could project himself into the minds of everyone else—especially the women.

As I reread his work (Forster is the kind of writer I want to read again and again, like an old relative I must continually visit even if he tells the same story every time), I started paying attention to the marginal characters and speculating about them, wondering why he had set them on the side of his narratives rather than at the center.

I thought about A Room with a View’s Freddy Honeychurch, the rebellious boy always in his sister Lucy’s shadow. I imagined that Forster had split himself into these two, closely related characters: Lucy got his feminine sensibility; Freddy, his masculine body.

The most telling moment in A Room with a View—or is it just the most titillating?—is the swimming scene, when Freddy coaxes George and Mr. Beebe to strip naked and “have a bathe” in the woods. There’s something at once innocent and erotic about the scene, and I wondered: what if this were a love story not about George and Lucy, but about George and Freddy? What if Forster, in those early days of his career, had been able to write and publish a story that hit a bit closer to home?

Thus, Channeling Morgan was born.

As any fan of the master knows, Forster’s middle name—which was favored by his friends—was Morgan. So, while my hero, Derick the ghostwriter, channels the voice of his subject, Clive Morgan, the title also refers to my attempt to pay homage to my favorite author.

Channeling Morgan is full of inside jokes that will be clear to people who know Forster’s work, particularly A Room with a View. I hope it also reflects a bit of Forster’s tone and sensibility, but I can’t claim to come anywhere near his genius. Forster had a way of painting a world in just a few words. His characters jump off the page, and his cleverness lies in perfect harmony with his remarkable empathy. I don’t know of another novelist who can be as witty and profound in the same breath.

So this one’s for you, Morgan. With love.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s