A year before he died, EM Forster sent a parcel to Christopher Isherwood containing the manuscript of his novel, Maurice. The first draft of the novel, a story of homosexual love, had been completed almost 60 years earlier, but had remained unpublished. Homosexuality was still a criminal offence in England until 1967, and Forster had been an impressionable teenager during the trial of Oscar Wilde, his psych scarred deeply by the cruel sentence of two years’ imprisonment and hard labour meted out by the Old Bailey.
Forster had become weary, he wrote in his diary, of writing about “the only subject that I can and may treat – the love of men for women and vice versa”. In a moving letter to Siegfried Sassoon, he declared his intention never again to publish a novel after A Passage to India (1924): “My patience with ordinary people has given out. But I shall go on writing. I don’t feel any decline in my ‘powers’.” And go on writing he did, returning again and again to Maurice, redrafting, revising; writing not just against the odds, but against the strictures of his own plot, it sometimes seems, to give his eponymous character, in an act of intimate and private heroism, a happy ending.
In his memoir, Isherwood declared Maurice to be “both inferior and superior” to Forster’s previous novels: “Inferior as an artwork, superior because of its purer passion, its franker declaration of its author’s faith.” He, and others who had seen various drafts, had tried to convince Forster to publish it, but Forster was adamant that he could not. Now, in the knowledge that he was nearing the end of his life, Forster gave the book to his younger, openly gay mentee, to do with it what he would. Any royalties, he said, were Christopher’s.
I sat there by her qersu pleading silently for help, from her, from the universe, from anyone
Maurice was published posthumously a year later, in 1971, and in an act of generosity to equal Forster’s, Isherwood donated all royalties, then and in perpetuity, to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, to fund an annual award for a young British or Irish writer, in Forster’s name, for travel in the United States, in the spirit of broadening horizons. Early recipients included Margaret Drabble and Seamus Heaney; most recently Sally Rooney and Stephen Sexton have been beneficiaries. It is a wonderful award – there is no longlist, no shortlist, no sense of competition, just a letter that comes out of the blue, on an unexpected day.
The day I heard that I had been chosen as this year’s recipient began with another email, one not so welcome. It was from my editor at Faber about a story that I’d recently sent him – a story I’d been working on, off and on, for nearly five years. I had intended it as the final story of a collection before any of the rest of the collection existed. Now, it was the only missing part, and it still wasn’t working: it was, as Katherine Mansfield might have put it, “too made-up”, somehow not real – I could feel that, but I didn’t know why. It is not a long story, maybe about 5,000 words, but I must have written more than 50,000 words towards it, in draft after draft after draft that I quarantined in their own separate folder on my computer, with increasingly desperate filenames.
All I could feel was the failure, not just of that story, but of all the things I’d tried to write and couldn’t
I’ve worked with my editor at Faber, Angus Cargill, for well over a decade now, and consider it to be one of the most fortunate relationships a writer could be blessed to have. Angus has read all of my stories as I’ve written them, usually within days, sometimes within hours, and gives me his thoughts while the story is still quicksilver, still malleable. This time, his email was perceptive, as ever – the story was “reaching”, he thought, without quite getting there, which is exactly how it felt to me – but he could offer no immediate practical solution. He added a postscript that the names of the children (“sorry,” he said) were annoying. I felt momentarily plunged into such despondency. The fact that even the children’s names, innocuous enough in any objective sense, were irritating to him seemed a symptom of the extent to which the story just wasn’t working.
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I had abandoned work before. Most notably a whole novel, that I finished at 39 weeks pregnant, and went back to when my son was six months old, only to find that it had withered from neglect, ossified, or maybe that I had changed too much, could no longer care about it, or make it live. Stage plays, through lack of technical facility or, more often, a seizure of confidence. More stories than I can count. But this one, I don’t know why, felt particularly painful.
I happened to be in Belfast that day, speaking at a conference at Queen’s University, which is right by the Ulster Museum – whose ancient Egyptian room, and famous mummies, feature in the story. At lunchtime, I skipped the buffet and went to visit them. There is Takabuti, a perfectly-preserved mummy, and Tjesmutperet who, upon unwrapping, was found to have turned to black dust. The story had started when Tjesmutperet came to me in a dream – a strange dream whose spell I lingered in for days, obsessively walking the childhood corridors of the museum in my mind’s eye as I tried to go about my quotidian work – and so I sat there by her qersu pleading silently for help, from her, from the universe, from anyone. The case’s wide, vigilant, kohl-lined eyes stared back at me and I felt that particular loneliness of a writer who has attempted something and failed – has found themselves, in some mysterious, inarticulable way, not good enough in the attempt.
We were acknowledging the long afterglow a writing life can have – one that outlives the mortal span of its author
Returning to the conference, I felt ashamed of the version of myself the chairperson described – that smooth and shellacked success. All I could feel was the failure, not just of that story, but of all the things I’d tried to write and couldn’t, all the things I’d written that could have been truer.
It is a particular, lonely shame. How often do you wish yourself a different writer, with other stories to tell, or the capacity to tell yours better? Maybe most writers know it, Forster certainly did. Why write at all? It is that fundamentally, I think – whatever genetic, psychological, spiritual quirks might be at play – if you are a writer, to absent yourself from the world, to hold yourself at a remove from it in order to better distil it into words, is the way you feel most fully in the world, most fully connected. It’s an intensely private battle – to go deeper, to be truer. You can only tell the stories you have to tell, and only you can tell those stories. There are no shortcuts, and there is no one who can do it for you – no editor, no writer-friend, no long-dead mummy.
But on that day help came, in what felt like the most magical of ways. To know, at that particular moment, that my work had been read and deemed worthy of the EM Forster Award – it was as if Edward Morgan himself had appeared before me, and given a fairy-godfather blessing. It gave me such heart, at a moment when I was feeling that I had lost it. Failure, in my experience, is not usually the penultimate paragraph, the twist before success. That story was almost not even a story, but not an anecdote, either. I managed to go back to it – to go to the places I needed to in order to finish it, this story that was about childhood, about motherhood, about personhood, despair, and hope, in so many complicated ways.
A week later, I went to New York to receive the prize. Honoured alongside me this year – although in absentia, as her wonderful book Seven Steeples was being lauded by the Goldsmith’s Prize at the same time – was writer and artist Sara Baume. It felt a profound honour indeed to stand in that beautiful Upper West Side library, against a wall of signed portrait photographs of eminent writers (I made a particular pilgrimage to Willa Cather’s), to hear Paul Muldoon’s citation.
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But even more meaningful was to know that, although I stood there as that year’s recipient, what we were really celebrating was that fortitude can triumph over loneliness, courage over shame. We were celebrating the love story of Maurice, and the affection and generosity of two beautiful writers, beautiful men; the legacy of theirs that gives the most meaningful gift of all – that of time and space, and of broadening horizons. We were acknowledging the long afterglow a writing life can have – one that outlives the mortal span of its author. My heartfelt wish, as I raised a glass that night to Edward Morgan Forster and to Christopher Isherwood, was that wherever they might be now, they might somehow know that we were gathered to salute them, and that triumph of love over fear, in ways that lonely author writing Maurice might hardly have dared dream.