I suppose it’s tempting to credit E.M. Forster’s rather non-committal attitude towards his homosexuality for the querulousness and fussiness that make his fiction charming, daft, and, in the wrong mood, unwelcome, like a sweet old lady in the supermarket checkout lane who insists on talking to you; but that would be grotesquely reductive, yet so modern, drenched as our language and attitudes are with the offal of psychoanalysis and “grief management.” However, the forces that draw men and women together in his novels don’t begin as romantic impulses, although they often end as such. Think of Margaret Schlegel and Henry Wilcox in Howards End, both of whom abjure romance for the more trying labor of administering to Wilcox’s grown-up family and overseeing their respective properties. What love (in our smug early twentieth century understanding, that is) develops has the shape and texture of companionship: the sense in which a couple can accrue enjoyment from a sharing of horrors and memories. At the risk of imposing our societal innovations on poor Forster, the Wilcox-Schlegel marriage reminds me of a middle-aged homosexual couple.
Forster couldn’t know this in 1910; the tragedy of his life is that he wouldn’t know this in 1960 either, even as the legal system that had sentenced Oscar Wilde to two years of hard labor accepted certain inalienable tenets of human behavior not long before. Which is why Wendy Moffat’s new biography sounds pedantic and tiresome in the way that only a product of academe can. “Isn’t it time to retire this metaphor, the critical lens that justifies partial views—as if we’re incapable of shifting perspectives, comparing views, shifting the focus?” Michael Levenson sensibly wonders in his Slate review.