Neither E.M. Forster (1879-1970) nor W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) lacks biographers. But in Forster's case, the recent availability of his diaries requires re-examination of the man and his work. In Maugham's case, too, the biographer has had unprecedented access to private papers. In both instances, however, mysteries remain: Why did Forster, a very private, rather shy gay man, write so much about his sex life and pen an unsatisfactory novel dealing openly with homosexuality? Why did Maugham, a celebrated playwright and novelist, never write about his own life as a gay man or explore the lives of same-sex lovers? Why did Forster look to posterity to vindicate his homoeroticism, while Maugham attempted to destroy every vestige of his love affairs?
Such questions demonstrate why no biography can be definitive. Even so, certain biographies, like Boswell's Johnson, become classics because of their style and sensitivity to their subjects. Wendy Moffat's "Great Unrecorded History" may well be succeeded by other lives of Forster, yet in a vital sense never be superseded. She writes with engrossing care and elegance about Forster's evolving sexuality, about a man who did not have sex with another man until he was in his 30s, but who perfected lasting relationships with men across cultures and classes.
For the first time, Moffat fully explains why Forster stopped publishing novels in the 1920s, no longer able to explore the world of heterosexual love and conventional society because the subject matter seemed false to his own sensibilities. He turned instead to years of work on "Maurice," trying through countless revisions to explain what it meant to be gay. But here is the mystery: Why is "Maurice" his weakest novel? If Moffat's otherwise brilliant book is a disappointment, it is because she does not press this issue: What is the nexus between Forster's sexuality and his creativity? Perhaps there is no answer, but one must be essayed.
Surprisingly, Selina Hastings, a well-seasoned biographer, comes in second to first-time biographer Moffat. This despite much to recommend "The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham," Hastings' account of Maugham's bold forays into lower-class life and his daring work as an intelligence agent in both World Wars. Hastings' prose is pedestrian, with phrases like "the fact that" appearing all too frequently. Her biography is not so much a new Maugham biography as it is a book with news about Maugham not available to other reporters.
Read together, however, these biographies show what the genre has to offer us: a profound delving into the lives of writers who were almost exact contemporaries, yet who responded to their times in different and surprising ways.
Carl Rollyson is a biographer and professor of journalism at Baruch College, the City University of New York.