Tag Archives: E.M. Forster

Oh England, my lying heart

ENGLISH ROSE Kate Bush, siren of English Romanticism.

A Writer’s pebble-dashed vision.

I first encountered England through her literature. Walking the moors with the Brontës and their wayward brother Branwell; inhaling the sea-spray of Whitby and digging the loamy earth of Bram Stoker’s London; and sporting on lawns, catching snippets of clandestine love in E.M. Forster’s Home Counties. I fooled myself into believing that world would be there waiting for me in England, and that it would be enough to fill my nascent heart.

Mine was the romantic, mythological ‘Olde Englande’ of Kate Bush lyrics, of Tolkien, and of gentle landscapes which gave up their mysteries for the order of rustic villages where Miss Marple had everything worked out, despite the cold edge of murder and the harsh years of The Blitz.

So, brimming with this promise of green pastures, after my flight out of Sydney collected travellers in Melbourne, we ascended above amazing views of the country of my birth. Literally the first thing I saw far below was Hanging Rock, site of Joan Lindsay’s infamous picnic at which three schoolgirls and their maths mistress disappeared into the ancient heart of the continent.

The volcanic spires sent up a bright late afternoon farewell to me as we swept towards the setting sun. How apt, for a literary fool.

The endless night of my flight ended with a grey dawn over London, a city waking to just another day of commuting.

An old school friend, born in England and now living there, had arranged for me to stay with his Aunt in Warwickshire for a few days. All I had to do was get myself to Leamington Spa, after taking a connecting bus from the airport to Reading railway station.

Thoughts filled with Oscar Wilde and his famous ballad of incarceration in that town, I caught only glimpses of heritage in Reading (a pub, I think) and felt absolutely no romance.

The train swept a few silent passengers northwards, and quite soon an unmistakable vision emerged out of the dissipating fog …

I recall making an audible comment, almost a question … did I have it right? Within this mirage, were those the Spires of Oxford?

The few grey commuters about me raised their copies of the Daily Mail a little bit higher, in unison. Welcome to England, Mike.

Nevertheless, my first few nights I slept in a home down the road from Shakespeare’s Mother’s farmhouse in Wilmcote. Within days I’d wandered through Stratford-upon-Avon and soaked up the atmosphere of England’s prettiest face. The daffodils were starting to bloom, and the country held a sense of promise.

CRUMBLING FACADE Pebble-dash, the surface of England for the last century.

I ignored all bad-weather warnings and cynicism, and, on foot, continued my search for the beating heart of English Romanticism.

Across six years I maintained my romantic denial, even when a ‘castle’, looming out of the Scottish mist proved to be nothing but an enormous power station; even when exploring the endless layers of pebble-dashed suburbs that showed the visible canker that wars had brought to the face of England, seeking the home where my maternal Grandfather was born in East Ham.

But one day, after a day pounding the steely pavements of Sheffield, I accepted that I would need to keep lying to myself to live in this ‘green and pleasant land’.

To be fair on England, I presented myself upon its green hills complete with my own facade. You’d think that flying to the other side of the world would have broken the closet door right open … but I remained an underwritten character in a play that was going nowhere. I was a cipher. Devonshire teas and English Heritage sites were not going to jolt me out of my asexual romance with myself.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

E. M. Forster – literature’s god of love

BARED IT ALL Edward Morgan Forster, 1911 portrait by Roger Fry.

A Writer’s first hero.

FROM the moment I saw the trailer for David Lean’s 1984 adaptation of his A Passage to India during an English class, I became a sucker for the literature of Edward Morgan Forster (1879-1970).

I’d been ambivalent about the drab Penguin Modern Classics edition, but the sight of Judy Davis as Adela Quested, scrambling down the dry slopes of the Marabar Caves, bloodied by thorns, pith helmet rolling in her wake, dislodging rocks (and an ensuing British panic) gripped me into attention.

We had our toes dipped into the ideas of Bloomsbury and the racial overtones and class structure of Empire.

Merchant Ivory did the rest, with their iconic production of A Room with a View in 1985. Through their lens Forster’s English hypocrites and heroes came to life.

“Forster had a greater vision of love between two men than his contemporaries. One or two of them may well have been jealous.”

The icing on the cake was the word which I spied in the blurb of the edition of Maurice that my enthusiasm for Forster had garnered me at Christmas. The word, of course, was inescapable when describing that work.

I wonder now if it was the first time I ever saw the word in print? Only whispered around the schoolyard, it had, by that time, been uttered louder at the peak of the AIDS crisis in the mid 1980s.

But here, on the reverse of Forster’s posthumously published story of Maurice Hall and his gay sexual awakening, it brought a wave of validation.

I recall waiting for my family to register the word. Had my mother seen it when she purchased the book? Had my brother sneered about it when she gave it to him to wrap up for me?

When nobody mentioned “homosexual”, I took that as tacit approval.

I subsequently devoured all Forster’s novels. My favourite moment was starting Where Angels Fear to Tread when alighting my train to university, only to be flawed by a classic Forsterian-surprise-death before reaching the next station, just six minutes down the track. What great ignition for a story!

On summer holiday, during my first year in the United Kingdom, I came across a collection of Forster’s short stories at a hostel in Cornwall.

The inclement weather saw me feast on them, immediately hit by one in particular – Other Kingdom. The Irish Home Rule theme of this story went right over my head, but the gusto of the young Irish protagonist (Evelyn Beaumont), brought my consciousness to a standstill, while I tried to capture her, as did all the other characters in this shining example of Forster’s storytelling skill.

I agreed with Iris Murdoch, in that “I loved Miss Beaumont, because she bamboozled a pack of bores.”

Being a film school student, I had big plans. The biggest became my obsession to bring Other Kingdom to the screen.

I adapted it into an approved screenplay at the behest of the owners of Forster’s work (King’s College Cambridge) and tried for some years to tout it around the funding bodies, to no avail.

The central mystery of what happens to Evelyn Beaumont when she escapes from an ill-fated marriage into a dour English family could not be explained even by Forster himself, let alone by a potential screenwriter in a pitching session.

It wasn’t for another decade that I really understood my attraction to the story, when I realised a deep-seated wish for a solution just like Evelyn’s. I admired her escape in the light of my own need to find a way out of the life I was leading.

In the wake of my coming out, Forster continued to deliver. My second reading of Maurice brought the searing grief and triumph of his gay protagonists back to haunt my recovery from the death of my partner five years later, because Maurice Hall and Alec Scudder loved, no less ordinarily than any other couple.

Forster’s long-unpublished epilogue to Maurice was the heartbreaker. Anyone seeking to understand this novel should read Forster’s exploration of what happened to his characters, for it is no elemental conundrum like that of Miss Beaumont in Other Kingdom.

Forster’s trusted friends who read the drafts prior to 1933 suggested the epilogue be cut from the final manuscript, but I get the distinct impression they were baffled by Forster’s unsullied vision of Maurice and Alec happily ensconced as woodsmen, living rough, fused by the heart, and happy, despite their accidental discovery by Maurice’s unsettled sister Kitty.

Forster had a greater vision of love between two men than his contemporaries. One or two of them may well have been jealous.

Forster left as much written material about his childhood, his career, and his relationships as any biographer would ever need. Trouble is, few have used this resource – the ‘sexuality issue’ undoubtedly the main obstacle.

The finest work on Forster is Wendy Moffat’s A Great Unrecorded History. This study has done more to debunk the myth of Forster as simply a class-conscious comic novelist who stopped writing in 1924, than anything which came before.

PERFECT PANIC Adela Quested (Judy Davis) flees in David Lean’s screen adaptation of Forster’s ‘A Passage to India’.

Forster earns hero status from this writer for protecting his great love, policeman Bob Buckingham, from the criminal courts while he, Bob and Bob’s wife May lived-out a three-way relationship from 1930 until Forster’s death in 1970.

He earns it for politely, and with humour, pointing out the hypocrisy of those in positions of power and privilege in his literature.

He earns it for writing himself onto Hitler’s ‘hit list’ of authors with his WWII broadcasts exploring the axe of Nazism as it threatened to fall onto the neck of civilisation.

He earns it for not killing himself, despite as much cause for depression, isolation and marginalisation as Virginia Woolf cited.

He earns it for creating the archetype of the lusty English Gamekeeper. Long before D.H. Lawrence’s Oliver Mellors’ trysts with Lady Chatterley, Forster’s Alec Scudder hunted his way into Maurice Hall’s bed, and his heart.

And he earns it for diarising himself as he was, warts and all, and sometimes that meant writing about actual bodily warts.

For gay men, Forster’s humanist document on the entire life of a homosexual man will endure as a record of emerging and practical homosexuality which may well come to eclipse his novels.

E.M. Forster might not have physically embodied a Love God, but with his pen, in the shadow of the Oscar Wilde trials, he carved a place in history as a Titan who turned from the affairs of men and women, to those between men and men. His publishers must have hated him for it.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.