Novelist, critic and former resident of Weybridge and Abinger Hammer, Surrey
Written by Di Stiff, Surrey History Centre
Edward Morgan Forster is best known for his ironic novels examining hypocrisy and class difference and the attitudes towards gender and homosexuality in early-twentieth-century British society. His most famous works include A Room with a View (1908) and the homosexually-charged Maurice (1970).
Although never declared in his lifetime, he was himself homosexual, and a resident of Surrey for over 40 years.
Forster the pacifist
A pacifist, Forster worked for the Red Cross when war broke out. He thought he would be too old or deemed medically unfit for conscription to the British army but to his consternation, conscription regulations were widened in 1915 to include all men between the ages of 18 and 40. There had been an agreement whereby Red Cross personnel were excused from military service, but Forster found himself summoned for a medical and was furious about the whole matter. He refused to argue that he was a conscientious objector and he suffered psychologically from the stress of the episode.
Eventually he was deemed unfit military service and worked as a Red Cross ‘searcher’ in Alexandria, Egypt, in October 1915. His job was to interview the wounded in hospitals for information about fellow soldiers who were reported missing. Forster’s Voluntary Aid Detachment index card shows him resident at Harnham, Monument Green, Weybridge. He served from November 1915 to January 1919 and his rank on leaving was Searcher-in-Chief.
Love in Alexandria
Whilst in Alexandria, Forster wrote regularly to Edward Carpenter, regaling him of tales of the openly gay life there and his own encounters. He began a three year affair with a young Egyptian, Mohammed el Adl, confiding to his friend Florence Barger:
‘I have plunged into an anxious but very beautiful affair…if you pass life by it’s jolly well going to pass you by in the future. If you’re frightened it’s all right – there’s no harm; fear is an emotion. But by some trick of the nerves I happen not to be frightened’.
Florence sent a photograph of Mohammed to Carpenter, who followed their every move with vicarious delight:
‘…what a pleasure to see a real face after the milk and water mongrelly things ones sees here! It was literal refreshment to me. Those eyes – I know so well what they mean, and I think you do too, now! And that very charming mouth!’
The relationship came to an end, however, when Mohammed, a Muslim, was expected to marry, and did so in 1918. He and Forster parted and Mohammed’s first son was born a few months later, whom he named Morgan. Forster returned home in January 1919. Tragically, Mohammed died in 1922 from consumption, and his widow sent Forster her husband’s gold ring. Every day Forster walked alone through Chertsey Mead, the watermeadows a mile from his house in Weybridge, contemplating his former love and each night he slept with the ring under his pillow.
Forster declined a knighthood in 1949 but on his 90th birthday he received the Order of Merit. After failing health in old age he died of a stroke in Coventry in June 1970, aged 91.
Forster and Ackerley
Forster is linked to another Great War Surrey LGBT icon, the writer JR Ackerley. Foster and Ackerley exchanged hundreds of letters over the course of their friendship and Ackerley’s Portrait of E M Forster was published as a result in 1968. Read more about Ackerley and his experiences of the war here.
- Read more about Forster’s wartime work in the records of the Red Cross http://www.redcross.org.uk/en/About-us/Who-we-are/History-and-origin/First-World-War/E-M-Forster
- Wendy Moffat, A Great Unrecorded History: A new Life of E M Forster (2010) recounts Forster’s relationships in detail, including his time in Alexandria during the First World War. A copy is held in Surrey History Centre’s local studies library collection (SHC ref 920.FOR)
- The papers of E M Forster are held at King’s College Archives, Cambridge (reference EMF/-)
- Forster produced dozens of short stories, essays, travel diaries, broadcasts, pageants and even a film script. Many of his published works can be seen here at Surrey History Centre and at Surrey Libraries. The online Surrey Libraries Virtual Catalogue can be explored at http://www.surreylibraries.org/