by George Fitting
October 1, 2010
In early May, Wendy Moffat (left) debuted her book at Whistlestop Bookshop in Carlisle, signing books for students, colleagues and other patrons, among them Kaitlin Lilienthal ’12 and parents Theresa and John.
For a decade, Professor of English Wendy Moffat collected and collated research for her recent, critically acclaimed book, A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster, often relying on help from student research assistants to inform her biography of the British novelist. Well into the project, Moffat was caught off guard when a former student contacted her with an offer of significant primary resources.
After reading in the summer 2007 issue of Dickinson Magazine about a Beinecke Library Fellowship research grant that Moffat had received, Heather Thomson Sprague ’01 e-mailed her former professor about personal correspondence between Forster and Sprague’s great-aunt, the late drama critic Edith Oliver.
“It was a surprise to hear from her, although I vaguely remembered she’d told me years ago that she was related to Edith Oliver,” said Moffat. “She sent me this extraordinary cache of photocopies of the letters. Forster had amended the ending of one Christmas card—‘best wishes’—and written ‘love’ instead. It seemed like such an evocative example of his character.” The picture on the card, which shows Forster in his room at King’s College, University of Cambridge, appears in Moffat’s book.
“The material reinforced my sense of a really deep connection between Forster and a series of friends he’d had in New York,” Moffat said. “But it was really Heather’s initiative that made it quite sweet.”
While Moffat’s book is not the first biography of Forster, it brings to light largely ignored aspects of his private life, especially concerning his homosexuality and the time he spent in America. Moffat sifted through reams of Forster’s unpublished materials to gain insight into his life, including the reserved portions of his locked private diaries at King’s College that were only made available in 2008.
“Once you realize what an outsider Forster felt himself to be, the integration of his private and public life means that you look at all of his writing differently,” said Moffat. “In particular, I think that the early novels are very much about the use and abuse of social power. They’re funny but only the way someone who really doesn’t have any social power and understands the constraints of respectability would find funny.”
Even before she realized she had embarked on a biography, Moffat applied for a Mellon Foundation grant to fund student research assistance. Jason Murray ’98 helped her explore and organize a project on subjectivity in some of Forster’s nonfiction.
As her project expanded, Moffat enlisted Sara Hoover ’03 as a Dana research-grant-funded assistant. Together, they traveled through New England and New York, interviewing some of the friends and acquaintances Forster made in the United States.
Part of their work together involved a trip to the Berkshires in Massachusetts to speak with a family that had sheltered Forster in 1947.
“It was really invaluable to have that extra set of ears and to feel the power of Sara’s human understanding of what was going on,” Moffat said. “It showed me the kind of tunnel vision you can have when you’re conducting an interview. She saw connections I didn’t see, and having a dialogue afterward made the experience palpably better.”
Moffat also received bibliographical assistance through another Dana research grant that enabled her to hire George Fitting ’10. He helped her visualize the arc of what she’d accomplished and identify some remaining gaps.
“Working with students seemed like a natural extension of my impulse to teach, and frankly it’s much more difficult for our best students to get into grad schools without the opportunity to collaborate,” she said. “It’s becoming more and more essential, and we risk letting our students fall behind if we don’t do more of it.”