Read A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster Online

Authors: Wendy Moffat

Tags: #Biography, #British, #Literary

A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster (9 page)

BOOK: A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster

The diary entries from Morgan’s second year at King’s read like the letters of the young Keats: absorbed in ideas, reading rapaciously, unaware that the whole world is not composed of art and literature. The Boer War had just begun, but Morgan was oblivious to political events. All his attention went to his widening circle of friends. There was Sydney Waterlow, who seemed preternaturally middle-aged—he had grown a huge mustache while at Eton, was a great talker, and would take any side of an argument, even both sides. (Later in life, he was embroiled in two simultaneous lawsuits: the first to annul his marriage on the grounds of impotence, the second a breach-of-promise case brought by his pregnant mistress.) And there was Waterlow’s
friend Edward Dent, who shared both an unrequited crush on HOM and a deep love of music with Morgan. A brilliant musicologist who followed all the latest European composers, Dent played piano with Morgan, and invited him to the university’s weekly chamber recitals. And Malcolm Darling, generous of spirit, who would soon serve in the Indian civil administration (and invite Morgan to come visit). Darling was sweet-natured, unworldly, and resolutely heterosexual. When two of his friends were expelled from Eton and left the college in the same car, Darling “could not make out why their friends should have pelted them with rice.”

There was always company, always music, always laughter in Morgan’s rooms in Bodley’s Building. Every day consisted of long walks through the city, a disquisition or a dispute on art with a friend. Morgan sublimated his love for HOM, watching him dominate passionate discussions. Daily life was a sort of modern symposium.

5 Nov. (Sunday) [1899] Spencer, Mounsey & Gardner to breakfast. Lunched with Meredith . . . Wilderness in the afternoon . . . 20th Nov. . . . Ainsworth came in & ate bacon; then he and Meredith argued about beauty. Enter MacMunn with whom I walked up Huntington Road . . . Tea with Miss Stephen [Virginia Woolf’s aunt]: talked of Tenn. & Browning. Coffee with Lubbock: beautiful rooms and books; admirer of R[obert] L[ouis] S[tevenson] . . . 27th Nov. . . . Debate going on: “Trinity is too big.” Worked. Meredith came in and discussed beauty again.


Morgan was fortunate to be assigned Nathaniel Wedd as his supervisor. Wedd balanced the bad news—that Morgan’s education at Tonbridge had not taught him how to
, and thus that he was likely to do poorly on the looming Tripos—with a wholehearted recognition that his student had a delicate, unusual, promising mind. “To him more than to anyone,” Morgan later wrote, “I owe such awakening as has befallen me.”

Wedd was a perfect mentor. Morgan’s first impression was of a young Mephistopheles. Wedd smoked excessively. He grew a huge walrus mustache and wore bright red ties. Only thirty-five, he was not far past his radical Fabian days. As a King’s undergraduate in 1882, Wedd had goaded the college elders by inviting G. B. Shaw to lecture at King’s, prompting the provost to object unless Shaw wrote to reassure him that he did not plan to
“dynamite” the college. Wedd was asked to query the incendiary speaker on his “moral basis” for coming to King’s. Shaw duly responded by mail that his moral basis was the same as Wedd’s, an equivocal response if a gentlemanly one.

As a don, Wedd remained steadfastly “cynical, aggressive,” and anticlerical. He would ostentatiously spit on the ground when he saw the procession lining up for chapel. He swore and blasphemed liberally, and even taught his colleague the mild-mannered Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson to swear too—which Morgan found “a desirable accomplishment for a high-minded young don.”

Wedd “gave all his time and energies to undergraduates, was at home to them at all hours of the night, stimulated, comforted, amused” them. He encouraged Morgan to write not only academic essays but small pieces for the
and other Cambridge undergraduate magazines. Morgan adopted the pseudonym of Peer Gynt, the Ibsen character whose dark search for identity ends in despair, burying his head in his mother’s lap. But despite the serious pen name, his incidental essays were light ephemera: “On Bicycling”; “On Grinds,” a whimsical skit based on
. In letters home to Lily he was already beginning to display a distinctive sensitivity to literature; he was reading Shaw’s plays, he told her, and they were “wonderfully clever & amusing, but they make me feel bad inside.” Alongside his syllabi for lectures and essays, Morgan was greedily reading for pleasure. He plowed through Milton and Shakespeare; Sophocles and Pindar; Robert Browning and Rosetti; Housman’s new book of poems,
A Shropshire Lad
; Tennyson, Maeterlinck, Pinero, and Ibsen; and all the great eighteenth-century English novels.

He developed a knack for pulling together a compelling essay, provided he could choose the subject. At the end of his second year, Morgan won a college prize for a stylish paper on the history of the novel. But he faced the unrelenting Tripos in his third year, and Wedd was not sanguine about his chances of doing well. His poor performance on the interim exams in May 1899 rendered him ineligible for the plum home civil service jobs, like the one his friend Leonard Woolf would take on in Ceylon. Morgan wrote Lily that Wedd “advises me to think of journalistic work as one of the things I might do . . . I don’t think I shall be good enough.” Though he could live frugally on the legacy from Aunt Monie, it began to be clear that he must choose some sort of profession. When the marks for the Tripos were announced,
Morgan was relieved to have earned a solid upper-second-class Honours. But still, what to do? He had little confidence and no vocation.

The better part of valor is discretion, Falstaff mutters as he tentatively pokes Hotspur’s corpse with his sword. In the absence of any solid idea about the future, Morgan decided to stay on at King’s for another year. He changed his subject to history. Though he hoped to work with Wedd, Oscar Browning buttonholed him instead, insisting he must supervise his reading. Browning was viewed by most students as entertaining but harmless, but as a tutor he was nugatory: “While his pupil read out his essay he would put a red spotted handkerchief over his face and go to sleep. Awakened by the cessation of the droning, he would exclaim ‘My boy, you’re a genius!’”

Morgan later wrote charitably, “I came towards the end of O. B.’s glory, nor was I ever part of its train.” Which is to say that by the time they encountered each other—when Browning was in his sixties and Morgan just twenty-one—Morgan was neither seductive enough for the old man nor callow enough to be seduced by Browning’s dodgy ideas of romantic boy-worship. In any case, Browning’s instruction was beside the point. For his birthday, Aunt Laura Forster had bought him a sensitive and fortuitous gift—a life membership in the London Library. In Morgan’s last year at King’s, Wedd and HOM opened new doors for him.

It was not so much
Wedd taught him as
Wedd encouraged his intellectual hunger that Morgan remembered in later years. He “had helped me” by casually observing “in a lecture that we all know more than we think. A cry of relief and endorsement arose from my mind, tortured so long by being told that it knew less than it pretended.” Gently, understatedly, Wedd encouraged Morgan:

He tells me that I might write, could write, might be a writer. I was amazed yet not overawed. Like other great teachers of the young, Wedd always pointed to something already existing. He brought not only help but happiness. Of course I could write—not that anyone would read me, but that didn’t signify . . . I had a special and unusual apparatus, to which Wedd called my attention . . .


This precise description, read aloud to friends thirty years later, records a moment of revelation. There is a special poignancy in the fact that even at the origin of his life as a writer, Morgan imagined, understood intuitively,
that his creative force might have to be cut off from sympathetic readers. There would come a time when what he wanted to write would be unpublishable. Morgan came to understand that homophobia had its source in a special kind of anxiety on the part of heterosexuals: “What the public really loathes in homosexuality,” he would write decades later, “is not the thing itself but having to think about it.” So Maurice would confess to his family doctor, using a circumlocution he hoped Dr. Barry would comprehend: “I’m an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort.” But the doctor, who has known the young man all his life, doesn’t want to hear about it. He recoils from Maurice: “Rubbish, rubbish! . . . Who put that lie into your head? You whom I see and know to be a decent fellow! We’ll never mention it again. No—I’ll not discuss. I’ll not discuss. The worst thing I could do for you is discuss it.”

Morgan’s “unspeakable” subject dominated the last fifty years of his writing life. Much of this writing would languish unpublished in archives. But the fact that no one would read it would “not signify.” He would continue to write anyway.

On February 9, 1901, Morgan was elected to the secret intellectual coterie known as the Apostles. Established in 1820, the Cambridge Converzatione Society—its proper name—was designed to bring older undergraduates and younger dons into informal social and intellectual comradeship. Only a dozen new members were elected from the entire university each year—hence the nickname—but those elected in previous years could attend the gatherings. Hugh Meredith, elected the year before, had urged his brethren to consider Morgan since the autumn, and formally sponsored him for election. It was a signal achievement.

Tennyson and his great friend Arthur Hallam, to whom
In Memoriam
was dedicated, had forged their friendship in the society. And the young men who welcomed Morgan to their circle would go on to great things too—Maynard Keynes, who devised the new economics that would lift Europe and America out of a great depression; Leonard Woolf, husband of Virginia, publisher and political writer; Roger Fry, the art critic, don, and painter who introduced Cézanne and Matisse to British eyes; and the philosophers Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore, still both in their late twenties. But the point of the Apostles was to unravel the concept of achievement itself. They
eschewed all external measurements of the good and the true, the whole Victorian bourgeois drooling over money and medals and fame, all utilitarian and worldly values, anything “associated with action or achievement or with consequences.”

And a good thing, too. Morgan certainly would not have merited membership in any other kind of fraternity. He had first met Lytton Strachey by tripping over an ottoman in the historian G. M. Trevelyan’s rooms at Trinity and landing on him sideways. Lytton, brilliant, sardonic, pale as a vampire, unfolded himself from under the heap. He was impressed.

Like all young people vibrating with passionate intensity, the Apostles could behave insufferably to those outside the group. Leonard Woolf’s friends at Trinity could not stand them, accusing Strachey, particularly, of being
toward the pious. Just so. Keynes, looking back, explained, “We were at an age when our beliefs influenced our behaviors, a characteristic of the young which it is easy for the middle-aged to forget.” The young men gathering in front of the coal fire took their shoes off and ate anchovies on toast. They applied a strict Socratic method, debating all aspects of Truth, however arcane: “Are crocodiles the best of animals?” “Is self-abuse bad as an end?” “Should things be real?” “Is anything as good as a person?” “Is the cow

They persuaded themselves that the method by which they reached their conclusions was entirely rational, secular, and determined only by individual “plain common sense”—a phrase they adopted from G. E. Moore’s analytic approach to ethics. For Woolf and Keynes, in particular, Moore’s 1902 book
Principia Ethica

suddenly lifted an obscure accumulation of scales, cobwebs and curtains, revealing for the first time, so it seemed, the nature of truth and reality, of good and evil and character and conduct, substituting for the religious and philosophical nightmares, delusions, hallucinations, in which Jehovah, Christ and St. Paul, Plato, Kant, and Hegel had entangled us.


The young men’s faith in themselves, in truth, and in beauty was in effect a kind of neo-Platonic religion. But Keynes later acknowledged, “We should have been very angry at the time with such a suggestion. We regarded all this as entirely rational and scientific.”

If Morgan seemed the wrong sort of young person to embrace this method, he was at home in the circle because his friends recognized that he understood the secrets of humanity by some means other than purely rational discourse. The Apostles’ belief that only an individual can determine ethical behavior emphasized scrupulous honesty and a willingness to listen to others’ views. In a room full of talkers, Morgan’s steadfast silence demarked him as a peculiar kind of genius. Lytton

nicknamed him the Taupe, partly because of his faint physical resemblance to a mole, but principally because he seemed intellectually and emotionally to travel unseen underground and every now and again pop up unexpectedly with some subtle observation or delicate quip which somehow or other he had found in the depths of the earth or of his own soul.


Maynard Keynes called Morgan “the elusive colt of a dark horse.” Leonard Woolf, too, was intrigued: “He was strange, elusive, evasive. You could be talking to him easily and intimately one moment, and suddenly he would seem to withdraw into himself; though he still was physically there, you had faded out of his mental vision, and so with a pang you found that he had faded out of yours.”

Woolf delighted in the elliptical way Morgan arrived at insights by employing “a streak of queer humour.” Just when the tone of high seriousness would reach its apogee, he would drop the trump card: an explosive bark of laughter like a sneeze, which veered off into uncontrollable high-pitched giggles.

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