Professor's Book Lauded by Critics
Acclaimed biography examines E.M. Forster's sexuality and career
by MaryAlice Bitts
May 18, 2010
Wendy Moffat, associate professor of English, in her office at Dickinson College. Photo by A. Pierce Bounds '71.
Professor of English Wendy Moffat garnered accolades in the New York Times, the London Telegraph, The New Statesman and other noteworthy publications for her new book, A Great Unrecorded History. In it, the author turns a keen and lively eye on E.M. Forster’s sexual orientation—and its influence on Forster's personal and professional lives.
What they're saying:
The best literary biography of the year. -Times Literary Supplement.
One of the Top 10 Books of 2010.—Janet Maslin, New York Times
“None of [Forster’s other] biographers have had either the will or the wherewithal to concentrate as closely on Forster’s sexuality as Wendy Moffat, an impressive first-time biographer who teaches at Dickinson College.” — New York Times
"This eminently readable, beautifully and often lyrically written biography by Wendy Moffat, an associate professor at Dickinson College, is gripping, mesmerizing, heartfelt and kind." — Providence Journal
"Moffat isn't gossipy or reductive — the Forster who emerges from her work is a more human and satisfying figure than we've known." — Time magazine
"The man who emerges from Ms Moffat’s biography is ineffably human." — The Economist
"This superbly illuminating biography ... provides the most plausible explanation yet for why such a successful novelist remained almost silent between A Passage to India in 1924 and his death in 1970. — London Telegraph
"This is an exemplary biography, its elegance and humour successfully concealing its erudition." — (London) Times Online
"This sympathetic, often touching biography will connect with literature lovers, gay and straight." — USA Today
“Moffat's spirited book placed Forster in a context that he would have approved of."— Sunday Times (London)
Forster, a gay man, is today well known both for his traditionally heterosexual romance novels (most notably, A Room With a View and Howard’s End), and for his posthumously published same-sex romance, Maurice. According to the New York Times review, Moffat’s book “casts intensive new light” on the monumental role that sexuality played in Forster's life and work, offering “an insightful, revelatory portrait of a man who deeply resented having to hide [his sexual orientation] but who deemed Maurice to be ‘unpublishable until my death and England’s.’ ”
The glowing review goes on to state that while the subject has been broached by prior biographers, none of them “have had either the will or the wherewithal to concentrate as closely on Forster’s sexuality as Wendy Moffat, an impressive first-time biographer who teaches at Dickinson College.”
Continental divides and illegible scrawlings
Moffat’s book paints Forster as a complicated literary figure, beginning with the constraints of his uncomfortable childhood and continuing through late-blooming midlife romances and vivified later-life sociability.
Moffat began her research in 1997, while working in Norwich, England, as director of Dickinson’s Norwich study-abroad programs. Fortuitously, the yearlong directorship at East Anglia University had placed her just an hour away from Cambridge University, where Forster’s archives were housed. Some of the archives’ personal diaries remain unpublished, and were opened for Moffat to read and use in 2008.
“The vast, unpublished holdings in the archive convinced me that there was a ‘Great Unrecorded History’ in writing Forster's life,” said Moffat, who read Forster’s writings for one half-day each week, persevering despite Forster’s nearly indecipherable handwriting and a will-stipulated ban against photocopying, scanning or photographing the resources.
Returning from England a year later, Moffat continued her work. “Dickinson supported my research with reassigned time, money to travel to collections and the opportunity to present the work-in-progress at professional meetings,” she noted, adding that praise is also due to Dickinson’s hardworking librarians, “who made Dickinson’s Waidner-Spahr Library feel like the Library of Congress as I pressed them for more and more arcane historical sources.”
Several research trips and countless research and writing hours later, Moffat’s book has inspired the New York Times to proclaim that the author “casts more light on [Forster’s homosexuality] than has any Forster biographer before her” in highly readable, colorful prose.
Read the New York Times review.
Read the London Telegraph review.
Listen to a BBC radio interview with the author.
Read the Times Online review.
Visit the author's Web site.