Sunday, May 30, 2010

E. M. Forster’s gay classic can stand the test of time.

I have not read Maurice in some time. I have seen the Ivory-Merchant film, of course, and I thought I remembered the novel in detail. But on this reading, I recognized how much I misremembered. I also recognized what a truly great novel it is.


E. M. Forster wrote Maurice (255 pages, Norton, $13.95) in 1913-1914, but as many people are aware, it was not published until after his death in 1971. In his “Terminal Note,” Forster makes clear that he did not feel he could publish the work because he had insisted on a “happy ending.” “Unless the Wolfenden Report becomes law,” he said, “it will probably have to remain in manuscript. If it had ended unhappily, with a lad hanging from a noose or with a suicide pact, all would be well, for there is no pornography or seduction of minors. But the lovers get away unpunished and consequently recommend crime” (250). As it happens, the Wolfenden Report, England’s bill decriminalizing homosexuality, actually passed (after much debate) in 1967. But Forster makes an important point here. The very fact that he had decided in 1913 to write a novel of this kind means that this novel was almost a generation before its time.

Of course, there were heady days in the early twentieth century, with Edward Carpenter writing about the possibilities of male love, and private Englishmen and women, in Bloomsbury and elsewhere, exhibiting a “devil-may-care” attitude about same-sex love. If Maurice emerges from that context, as did Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (both published some fifteen years later), then we can perhaps understand how Forster was able to write such a novel, even if he was not able to publish it in his lifetime.

Several features of the novel make Maurice interesting historically. In the first place, Forster decided to make Maurice (pronounced “Morris”), the central character, nothing like himself. Maurice is handsome, athletic, and a little slow. Forster likes him, but he is also terribly condescending to this hero. But Forster wanted to make a hero who could feel and whose feelings were not bottled up because of some hyper-intelligence. The hyper-intelligent characters in the book, Maurice’s Cambridge friends Risley, who is loosely based on Lytton Strachey, and Clive Durham, are isolated from their own feelings, either by irony, in Risely’s case, or in carefully articulated Hellenism, in Clive’s.

Clive is Maurice’s first love, but because of what we would now call his internalized homophobia, Clive cannot allow himself to admit his love for Maurice. He feels it and acts on it for a while, but even when he does he insists on a Platonic relationship—in his Hellenism he thinks of this as the highest form of male love—but he is always unhappy about the relationship and finds a way to marry and distance himself from Maurice shortly after Cambridge.

Maurice is distraught about Clive’s turning to women, and he himself consults doctors and even a hypnotist to figure out what he can do. When he visits Clive and his wife, he feels so desperate that he makes up the fiction of a girl he is dating. There is such happiness in response to this lie that he realizes he can never be at home with these people.

While his increasing discomfort with his social world is intensifying, Maurice meets a lower-middle class fellow, Alec Scudder, who is working as gamekeeper at Clive’s estate. When they first meet, Maurice treats him as little more than a servant, but soon he is noticing Scudder and then finds himself in bed with him.

This is not a happy bond at first. Maurice is worried about what he has done—it seems an offense against Clive’s generosity to have slept with Alec in the guest bedroom—and he wonders how he could ever have a relationship with someone of Alec’s social position. He also imagines that he has put himself in an awkward position and Scudder might be able to blackmail him if he chooses.

When Maurice and Alec meet, seemingly to part, there is great tension at first. But after they have insulted one another a bit, they realize that they are enjoying one another’s company. Then they have to figure out what to do about their lives. That is not easy to be sure, and not everyone is pleased with the ending Forster chooses—Lytton Strachey gave the couple six weeks at most—but it could also be described as a great ending to a great novel. That's how I would describe it, anyway.

E. M. Forster

Available at Powell's, Amazon.

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