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UCL Festival of the Arts: Queer Edwardians: E.M. Forster and D.H. Lawrence

By James L Russell, on 28 May 2015

As part of the UCL Festival of the Arts, which ran over five days last week, Dr Hugh Stevens from UCL English Language & Literature presented the lecture Queer Edwardians: E.M. Forster and D.H. Lawrence, on Tuesday 19th May. In this, he explored the representations of same-sex desire in the writings of these two authors in their work before World War One.

Dr Stevens examined a range of short stories and novels by both authors, in particular Forster’s novel ‘Maurice’ and Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. He placed these works within context of the authors’ own sexualities and romantic lives, and within that of wider society during the time they were both alive.

Forster’s novel ‘A Room with a View’, and the 1980s Merchant Ivory film of it starring Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham-Carter and Daniel Day-Lewis among other quintessential English actors, will forever remind me of studying for English Literature ‘A’ Level. With its tale of an upper class girl being encouraged to marry a repressed man she doesn’t love, the novel typifies Forster’s earlier writing and the age in which it was written, explained Dr Stevens. 

Boys bathing, Henry Scott-Tuke

Image by Henry Scott-Tuke

‘Maurice’ on the other hand, a novel that I myself later read (and only recently finally caught the film of starring a very young Hugh Grant), was apparently written after Forster had his first sexual experience with a man and was directly inspired by this; and as a result is much less typical of the time.

As homosexuality was of course illegal until 1967, Forster did not allow ‘Maurice’ to be published until after he died in 1970. He did however write a footnote to the novel in 1960, following the publication of the Wolfenden Report in 1957 which recommended that ‘homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence’. He wrote that a ‘happy ending was imperative’ for the novel, and that he was ‘determined, that in fiction anyway’ a love story between two men should end well.

It’s actually quite touching to see that Forster had managed to maintain such optimism despite homosexuality being illegal at the time, and the change in this being so far away. It’s also heartening that he did live long enough to see attitudes and the law begin to change.

Forster’s sexual development and experience didn’t happen until quite late in life, Dr Stevens explained.  What is most staggering is that he apparently didn’t know how “babies were conceived”; until the age of 31. This illustrates just how sexually naïve people may have been in the Edwardian era, and perhaps explains why their own sexual desires were something of a mystery even to themselves.

Dr Stevens talked about the “fascinating relationship” and dichotomy between Forster’s ignorance about sex, and his status as a kind of “prophet of love” which is demonstrated in the romantic and passionate undertones of his novels.

I wasn’t previously aware of the connection between the two authors, which was central to the theme of the lecture. We learnt that the two became friends when they met as part of the notorious Bloomsbury Set in 1914, and how Forster subsequently went to stay with Lawrence and his wife Frieda in 1915. However, following this visit relations between the two subsequently became more frosty.

Lawrence was made aware of Forster’s sexual preferences during the visit, which he viewed as being an illness of which he could be cured. He offered Forster therapy in the form of the ‘listening cure’. When he refused, Lawrence wrote to the philosopher Bertrand Russell, saying that he believed that Forster should sleep with a woman as a form of ‘sex-therapy’.

Meanwhile Forster wrote the Lawrences’ a rather pointed letter following his visit in which he tried to undermine their marriage and attacked Lawrence for his perceived reluctance to deal with his own sexuality.

There were we also plenty of references to forbidden sexuality in Lawrence’s work, as Dr Stevens explained the sexually explicit ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ featured the contrast between the protagonist’s relationship with her stifled upper-class lover Clifford, and the ‘unlocking’ of her sexuality with the gamekeeper Oliver Mellors. The theme of a lack of physical intimacy from the upper-class compared with a less inhibited lower-class, mirrors that of the story in ‘Maurice’ which also features a liaison between the main character and a gamekeeper.  

As with Forster, shifts in society from the 1950s onwards led to changes in attitudes to Lawrence’s work. In a celebrated obscenity trial in 1960, in which Forster appeared as a witness, Penguin won the right to publish ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. The ‘prologue’ to ‘Women in Love’, an abandoned first chapter, was finally published for the first time in 1963.

I think what really stands out for me from this lecture is just how fertile the repressed attitudes in the wider society of their time seemed to be for the creativity of writers such as Forster and Lawrence; and it does make you reflect on the contrast with the more liberated, but perhaps also more cynical and less romantic, age we live in now.

 

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