A writer’s review of E.M. Forster’s The Life to Come.
IN THESE glimpses through the window into Edwardian and post-war restrictions on homosexuality, much of them still chillingly relevant to our times, E.M. Forster recreates his own inner life – and that of gay men everywhere.
Where his living, breathing gay protagonists meet allegorical endings in Classical juxtapositions, Forster was simply staying the hand of damnation he witnessed in the shadow of the Oscar Wilde trials, keeping these men safe in another place and time.
Any writer doing that, and in private – most of these works were not published in his lifetime – was likely to be calming his own rising sense of panic and anger at tired British fears about sexual diversity.
Other stories (such as ‘The Obelisk’ and ‘Arthur Snatchfold’) are gloriously lust-filled in and around taboo themes of male sex, yet always replete with Forster’s tempering wit.
My favourite is the collection’s first, ‘Ansell’, the story of an academic forced to eschew the life laid out for him in books and letters, which has undertones of Forster’s most complex novel The Longest Journey.
“Essential reading, particularly for conservatives who believe it’s ‘all good now’ for the LGBTIQ community.”
‘Ambergo Empedocle’, the story of a strapping young Britisher, honest to his bootstraps and set for a life of convention, is an Italian-set tragedy akin to Forster’s debut novel ‘Where Angels Fear To Tread’. It explores the state of closeting so accurately, and the desire for anything but inhabiting a life where the core restriction cuts to the soul.
Forster often sends his protagonists to other states instead of this world in the denouement of his stories. More often than not, author or protagonist label this a ‘dodge’, a kind of schoolboy’s mind game.
It’s a literary technique that comes straight out of classical mythology, but Forster’s use of it inspired generations of writers decades after he’d hung up his literary tools, including Joan Lindsay, the Australian author of Picnic at Hanging Rock.
While they blend myths and legends with a Sci-Fi edge, these moments reveal Forster capturing the genuine suicidal motivations experienced by a significant proportion of same sex-attracted people.
I have read and reread these stories all my adult life, and will continue to do so. They are essential reading, particularly for conservatives who believe it’s “all good now” for the LGBTIQ community.
In them, Forster is celebrating what he got away with sexually and emotionally, yet imagining what the risk could have cost him. Thank Jove he didn’t burn them, like he did some of his other gay-themed work.
Cue a fresh analysis of Lindsay’s engaging story, in the commanding hardback form of Janelle McCulloch’s Beyond the Rock: The Life of Joan Lindsay and the mystery of Picnic at Hanging Rock.
A biography of Joan Lindsay (1896-1984) is long overdue. The publication of her memoir preceded ‘Picnic’ by five years and she understandably shied away from the tsunami of publicity that rose in the wake of Peter Weir’s 1975 film adaptation of her only successful novel. Much of the unwelcome attention sought a solution to what became of her three fictitious women who disappeared on the monolith on Saint Valentine’s Day, 1900.
McCulloch’s journalistic approach lends her work an investigative air, and with her skilled eye for design and heritage she quickly places Lindsay in context as a young Australian writer and artist with an Edwardian soul.
But this book is a confection. Seriously padded into something akin to an Art Nouveau ladies’ journal, I almost expected to find pressed flowers between the parchment-thick pages.
It’s not just that most of the content is too light for the gravitas suggested by the format, the problem lies squarely in the author’s complicity in a case of mass denial orchestrated by the original publishers of Lindsay’s ‘mystery’ novel.
The fact is, we’ve known the dénouement of the story about the three schoolgirls and their governess who go missing on a monolith, ever since the publication of the controversial last chapter of Lindsay’s book in 1987.
Originally submitted as part of her manuscript, Lindsay built one of the first credible bridges between European and Dreamtime mythologies in this conclusion, but her publishers decided Australians were not ready to cross it.
The chapter was lopped off, allowing Miranda, Marion and Miss McGraw to disappear into thin air, a decision that firmly defined Joan Lindsay as a rather late-flowering Bloomsbury novelist akin to E.M. Forster instead of a modernist writer with the storytelling abilities of Janet Frame.
McCulloch does very little to analyse this critical decision, and nothing to place Lindsay in the era in which her book was written – the 1960s – a time when writers were experimenting in a similar manner across the world.
Instead, the supposition of Beyond the Rock rests on the same old sleuthing that has always seen news-hounds following the trail of purely fictional hints that Lindsay’s story was based on true events.
In lieu of evidence, McCulloch hypothesises around her conclusions and threatens that she could reveal something “when enough evidence is found to warrant publication”.
Despite acknowledging the Wurundjeri people, who were dispossessed of Hanging Rock in the 1840s, McCulloch is content to let the gossamer veil fall over her research with enough whimsy and flim-flam to satisfy those who would rather have their mysteries unsolved.
“Joan Lindsay should be credited with achieving what Forster never could in the novel form.”
I grew interested when she started to draw links between Joan Lindsay and the work of E.M. Forster, the English novelist often credited with inspiring Lindsay’s ‘mystery’ because he experimented much earlier with tales of people disappearing and being impacted by time slips.
McCulloch references his 1902 work The Story of a Panic,Forster’s first story, inspired by a walk into the hills near Ravello in Italy. In it, a boy encounters the full transformative force of classical mythology in his own time during an innocuous picnic.
In another of Forster’s short stories Other Kingdom a young woman disappears on a visit to a beech copse in an Edwardian remake of the Apollo and Daphne story. His Albergo Empedocle relates the encounter an upstanding young Britisher has with ancient forces in Sicily.
But Forster eschewed mythological plot twists in his long-form fiction, in fact he lampooned his own use of them in his novel The Longest Journey.
This is where Joan Lindsay should be credited with achieving what Forster never could in the novel form; but only if her last chapter gets reinstated with its courageous surrealism. Until then, she’ll be mistakenly labelled an impersonator of ‘Forsterian genius loci‘.
What McCulloch wisely frames for the first time in a mainstream format is the work of academic Terence O’Neill, a friend of Lindsay’s who researched where her story came from.
A real picnic to Hanging Rock by girls and teachers from the nearby Clyde School (Lindsay’s alma mater) was written up in the school magazine in 1919. All the picnickers returned, somewhat dishevelled, after a twilight ramble to take pictures of the moon, but their experience inspired the telling of plenty of ghost stories.
Forty-five years later Joan Lindsay wove this true tale into a credible Edwardian fable with a surreal conclusion, during the era that spawned a time-travelling Doctor Who and popular novels marrying ancient and postmodern themes, such as Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and Alan Garner’s The Owl Service.
“Despite her publisher’s reticence about the original last chapter of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Lady Lindsay ensured it saw the light of day.”
Beyond the Rock beautifully connects many of the dots about Lindsay’s hitherto unknown life and work. Particularly revealing are the number of times she and Daryl attempted to live long-term in England, yet were not able to settle emotionally, financially and culturally.
They never became ‘Bloomsbury’ in the way other antipodean artists such as Katherine Mansfield did, but they were able to recreate it in Australia.
It’s after that acceptance of her sense of place that I place Joan Lindsay, sometime in the mid-1960s, seeing her environment for what it was: truly Australian, with its own genius loci, not Forster’s.
But McCulloch looks back from this time, not into it, or forward, to address her subject’s most compelling escape: despite her publisher’s reticence about the original last chapter of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Lady Lindsay ensured it saw the light of day by entrusting it to her literary agent to be published posthumously.
She wanted the mystery solved, after all, and it’s probably past time Australia started looking.
It remains to be seen if the Foxtel-Fremantle Media adaptation is the catalyst. If it isn’t, the pathway to unravelling Joan Lindsay’s story lies not in chasing a schoolgirl adventure – that was done by O’Neill – but in finding the seeds of the Aboriginal mythology that must have inspired her.
A journey like that would take us further ‘beyond the rock’ than ever.
AFTER spending most of the 1990s living in England, I returned with my husband in the spring of 2014. As soon as we arrived, I navigated while Richard drove us across the Thames and out of London towards Surrey.
Once we crossed the M25, we were swallowed by the high hedgerows of the Hackhurst Downs, before dropping into the village of Abinger Hammer in search of one very hallowed place for this writer.
The region boasts two famous former residents: actor Prunella Scales (Sybil in Fawlty Towers) and the author Edward Morgan ‘E. M.’ Forster (1879-1970).
“Forster’s problem was not inspiration, but rather that he’d come to terms with his sexuality and had been putting it into practice.”
I first encountered his novels at school, although it took reaching the age of forty-four to fully understand him. My life had taken various ‘Forsterian’ turns in the interim, and I had a new appreciation of why he penned barely a word of fiction for the four decades after moving to Abinger Hammer in the wake of his bestselling 1924 publication A Passage to India.
Forster’s public explanation was that he’d had enough of writing politically-light novels like A Room with a View and Howard’s End, although after the private experiment of his gay romance Maurice – which crucial gay friends unfairly criticised – and several controversies of gay literature breaching the criminal code, none of his gay-themed writing saw the light of day until after his death in 1970, the year of my birth.
Moving to a genteel Surrey village ought to have been a source of inspiration, but it left Forster in a career limbo at the age of forty-four, living with his elderly mother Lily.
The pair found a hopeful new start to their codependency when they moved to an Abinger property – West Hackhurst – designed and built decades before by Forster’s architect father.
The Forsters already had connections in the region, notably the Farrers of Abinger Hall, an estate from which West Hackhurst had been hived off on a sixty-year lease, which allowed Forster’s Aunt Laura to see out her days there. The remainder of the tenancy she left to her nephew.
Before moving in, Forster made inquiries with Tom, Lord Farrer, who agreed that should Mrs Forster still be alive when the lease expired in 1937, an extension would be granted to cover the remainder of her life.
“My installation at West Hackhurst was indeed depressing. I had feelings of misgiving and imprisonment,” Forster wrote. “The Farrers apart, it was too female a house. I had always had to fit in there, and now I felt trapped in its ovary, and would climb to the top of the downs, and look longingly towards industrialism and London.”
Forster’s problem was not inspiration, but rather that he’d come to terms with his sexuality and had been putting it into practice. Surrey was altogether too straightlaced, and the threat of discovery – by Lily, or the police – was greater outside the city.
But he had rooms in London, and with the Gomshall railway station only minutes’ walk from West Hackhurst through a small forest and across an empty field, Forster was happy to compromise with ongoing maternal cohabitation.
Until this escape route of his came under threat.
The appearance of workmen digging in the forest alerted him, and he made immediate inquiries with the vendor, who revealed a potential housing development. So too did Lord Farrer, who honourably allowed Forster first refusal on the small block known as Piney Copse, slotted between farms, homes, and the railway.
The American royalties of A Passage to India gave Forster the purchasing power to cover the 450-pound settlement.
While ruminating on the practical and philosophical concerns of land ownership, he made a few attempts to beautify his forest, planting beech trees and discouraging oak seedlings, which he despised as too patriotically English, and settled into comfortable inter-war life in the village. Meanwhile, he secretly started the significant relationship of his life, with London policeman Bob Buckingham.
But around the same time as the threat of Nazism began to rise beyond Germany’s borders, another war was waged at Abinger Hammer. Forster inadvertently started it when he made inquiries with Lord Farrer about extending the lease.
“I got so fidgety that I could not wait the full time,” he wrote, “and it was in 1935 that I reminded him of his promise, and played my usual card about my mother’s age.”
Friendship had not flourished between the neighbours, and the Forsters stewed on it. Perhaps they were considered ‘staff’, since Lily had been a governess to Farrer children decades before? Or perhaps Lord Farrer was still piqued at missing out on purchasing Piney Copse?
It’s likely, since he made its future a stipulation of Mrs Forsters’ residence beyond 1937, when lawyers communicated she could stay for the duration of her life, but only in exchange for ownership of Forster’s forest.
“I was to give up my beloved wood, the one Surrey object that had roots in my heart,” Forster wrote.
He moved quickly to take Piney Copse out of the equation by leaving it to the National Trust in his will, purposely choosing an organisation the Farrers could not object to, since Lord Farrer sat on the committee.
These angry reactions were the opposite of Forster’s regular, more tempered appearances in BBC Radio broadcasts, which became the mainstay of his self expression and fame after 1929. His popular WWII talks on fear, identity and faith got him onto Hitler’s hit list at the same time as he was doing battle with the Farrers over land, leases and access.
Lily Forster died in the closing months of the war, and the Farrers moved quickly to reclaim West Hackhurst. Forster’s heart, and his home, were broken when he left in a painful separation we’d now call a mid-life crisis.
The first time I followed these stories to Piney Copse twenty years ago, there were no signposts and the whole block was so overgrown it was impossible to take a decent photograph.
I was there on a location recce, having started the process of producing a film of Forster’s 1909 short story Other Kingdom.
“It’s not Forster’s art that runs deepest at Piney Copse, it’s his life.”
The setting of his allegorical tale was a beech forest adjacent to a genteel home, with leases and fences and local battles over land ownership, and a pivotal escape route for a troubled protagonist. I had a suspicion Forster’s ownership of West Hackhurst and Piney Copse was a case of life imitating art.
The house was still visible from within the beech thicket. Walking the fence line, I got an up-close glimpse of the old place, which seemed uninhabited.
It would have served ideally as the location for a film. House and forest came in one package in a very quiet neighbourhood, and the building was just ramshackle enough to have benefitted from the attention of a film crew.
But art imitating life imitating art was all too hard to communicate to funding bodies, and my project fell over, although I could never quite shake the memory of Forster’s forest.
I started to read his non-fiction more widely, and with the publication of his diaries in 2011, including his searing account of the war over Piney Copse under the ironic title ‘West Hackhurst: A Surrey Ramble’, a clearer picture emerged of the deep hurt at his removal from Abinger Hammer, wrapped-up as it was in his mother’s death, his long-dead father’s memory, and his thwarted sense of place, at a time when it was impossible to live openly as a gay man.
I finally realised it’s not Forster’s art that runs deepest at Piney Copse, it’s his life.
He never wrote fiction again, and left his entire body of work to the place that took him in after his flight from his father’s house – King’s College Cambridge.
His forest of trees – unprocessed novels in their rawest, elemental form – was wired-up on his departure in 1946. I am not sure if he ever visited the place again.
On my return visit to Piney Copse in 2014, Richard and I parked at Abinger Hammer and navigated on foot. Away from the main road, which must have been perilous for pedestrians even in 1920s, we hit a muddy track that seemed to go in the right direction, and soon a National Trust sign showed itself on the western boundary.
A train slid by on its way to London, and we took shelter beneath the spreading beeches as heavy raindrops started to fall.
Transformed by care, Piney Copse is now closer to Forster’s vision of an egalitarian, shared England. Gates and stiles freely give way to a depth of greenery that shuts off the real world.
A shower closed in quickly, coating Forster’s beloved beech leaves. There was light enough that the tresses of foliage held that glow I had travelled the globe to experience in person, again. In a few minutes I had explored this tiny patch of England, heart filled with hope, as rich as a boy’s.
Foster’s forest grows on, exempt from the machinations of people and economies, just as he would have liked.
Richard was waiting for me on the other side of the gate, and we peered along the drive for a glimpse of West Hackhurst, now restored and inhabited, before tracing our way along farm roads, past ancient fields and the place where the ‘honourable’ Farrers’ Abinger Hall once stood, long since demolished in the wash-up of another of England’s old families.
Foreheads wet from the sun showers, and baptism over, we took tea back at Abinger Hammer, in a world changing faster for gay men than Forster could ever have imagined.