Maurice • E.M. Forster – The Extended review
198 pages • Penguin • 1971
This novel, the first draft of which was written between 1913 and 1914, tells the story of Maurice Hall, and his struggles to come to terms with his homosexuality. Forster had shown the book to friends throughout his lifetime but deemed it unpublishable. In a note written in 1961, six years before the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England, he concluded that Maurice’s happy ending made this so. “If it ended unhappily, with a lad dangling from a noose or with a suicide pact, all would be well,” but it did not, “and consequently recommends crime”. Forster is of course being somewhat slippery in writing this, yet he does make a significant point about how homosexuality in generally featured in literature. What he is also is writing about is the fundamental significance of the book and the reason he wrote it in the first place. Maurice is about the possibility of what life can be if one is a homosexual male and, out of necessity, obligated to follow a path which is not that of heterosexual love and marriage.
Love, and its fulfilment in marriage, was a subject that underpinned Forster’s fiction. This is the tradition he inherited as an Edwardian novelist. It shaped A Room with a View (1908) and Howards End, and provided a framework for Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905) and The Longest Journey (1907). Nevertheless, in the latter pairing the core relationship is between two men – the mannered English Philip & the rugged Italian Gino in Where Angels Fear to Tread, and the half-brothers Rickie & Stephen in The Longest Journey. (Rickie’s lame foot is a cipher for his latent homosexuality, moreover.) The curious process of male bonding in Forster’s fiction went beyond the ‘homosocial’, as academics are wont to neatly call it, and hinted at an association that was outwith the heterosexual tradition.
In 1911 Forster wrote in his diary of his “weariness of the only subject that I both can and may treat – the love of men for women and vice versa”. He also recorded that he had been writing erotic homosexual short stories, penned for his own amusement. Writing about homosexuality was a private matter, and it would seem that, at this juncture, the only possibility Forster could conceive for a story about homosexuality was an erotic one. This is, interestingly, an unwritten assumption that still informs the contemporary idea of homosexuality as it is packaged, commodified, and then marketed as a lifestyle through the medium of sex. It ignores the somewhat plain fact that sexual attraction is a starting point which then has greater social implications. In Maurice Forster tackled this subject with all the seriousness of the novelist who wrote Howards End and assessed what it meant. Read in this way, Maurice is as pioneering a book now as it was then.
Maurice is, at heart, about finding a way in which the homosexual male experience can be understood. This is the essence of its importance in the realm of literature about the homosexual experience. The coming out process is, for Maurice himself, about understanding his place in the world. In the first chapter, the fourteen year-old fatherless Maurice is introduced to the mechanics of heterosexual sex by one of his schoolmasters, who etches diagrams into the sand on the beachfront. When the master sees some people approach, and remembers that he has not scratched out his illustrations, he panics. Shame is companion to sexuality, and “then darkness rolled up again, the darkness that is primeval and not eternal, and yields to its own painful dawn”. Forster is a little didactic in his handling of the scene; but the context is nevertheless set in this one image, and the mission of the book defined.
Forster’s preoccupation with the subject of English social mores, and how they both mask and preclude a sense of the truth, provides the backbone for the relationship between Maurice and the first man he falls in love with, Clive Durham. At Cambridge it is Clive who introduces Maurice to the idea of love between men. Yet for Clive this is a theoretical abstraction that raises such love to an ideal of Classical Platonic theory. This convenient and rather lofty social theory masks his sense of shame. When Clive then leaves university life behind, and assumes his social position, he also leaves Maurice behind.
Forster’s depiction of a man falling in love and then suffering the pains of rejection is harrowing. Maurice is driven to find a cure for his homosexuality after Clive’s marriage and subsequent disapproval of his former Platonic lover. What becomes apparent is that there is no language for Maurice’s experience. Both the psychiatrist, and the hypnotist who offers a potential ‘cure’, are both hacks. They can offer him nothing. When he does find a man who makes sense he is, significantly, outside Maurice’s class and in the form of Clive’s gamekeeper, Alec Scudder.
The potential for tragedy herein is great. This is what makes for a compelling and wholly believable narrative. Yet it is a tragedy that is not realised and this makes Maurice stand out. The tradition of homosexuality in literature inevitably ended either in death or a life of abjection. Even the first American novels to handle the subject head-on – Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar (1948), and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956) – ended up following that path. And recently the one mainstream film to handle the topic – Brokeback Mountain (2005) – was equally bleak. The story cannot end in the resolution of marriage and so it ends in death. The rule is, moreover, defined by the subconscious perception that because homosexuality does not equal reproduction it must equal death. (This is also why the transsexual in fiction is invariably done in. Even the most progressive inclusion of a trans woman on television, played by Candis Cayne in Dirty Sexy Money, ended with the character being shot.) This is the unwritten burden conferred by a heterosexual society on a homosexual one. To deny this is to not recognise the greater impact of homosexual attraction on the way that individual functions within any given society.
This is a question that Forster struggled with as a novelist. Following the success of Howards End it brought him to a creative crossroads. At the conclusion of Howards End it is the women who are triumphant over the imperial English male. With a cheer, and a nod to the English countryside, the heterosexual male capitalist beast, the paragon of the city, is defeated. Nevertheless, in Howards End Forster was still constrained by the “acceptable subject” and yearned to write a book about another kind of man. This lead to an abortive attempt to explore the social relationship between two men outside the framework of love and marriage. The result was Arctic Summer, the bulk of which was written in 1911. The problem with Arctic Summer was borne out of the fact that the two men were not homosexual, as Elizabeth Heine persuasively argues in the introduction to the Abinger edition. In Arctic Summer this was a platonic, publishable relationship; but in Maurice it was decidedly homosexual, and between Maurice and Alec it was decidedly sexual.
Forster was disturbed by the success of Howards End. It would seem that he had some fear of success, which is a subject that witnessed his biographers bid retreat to the little Freud they know and concoct Theories. That said, when puzzling over what to write next this leaning toward the “unpublishable” smacks as much of compulsion as it does conscious decision. Forster did write in his diary that it would be a cathartic experience conceived to leave him “free for more practical themes”, which is fair enough. He also described what he was up against rather caustically as the “sexual bias in literary criticism”: in other words, “what sort of person would the critic prefer to sleep with”? And so he turned to writing a work he described with dramatic air as “unpublishable until my death or England’s”. Maurice was then written, rewritten, passed around to friends, and rewritten some more. This led to much revision, a process which is described in detail in Philip Gardner’s excellent introduction to the 1999 Abinger edition.
Maurice is an important book for someone of Forster’s stature to have written because of his assured place in the canon of English literature. There is little that is more depressing than a literary canon, which is at best a teacher’s aid and at worst something that takes the pleasure out of reading. There is often little more depressing than a gay coming-out novel, if only because tragedy, pain and death are their defining characteristics. Such works invariably do not make it into the Mighty Syllabi. Yet Forster is impossible to exclude from the canon, and it is near-on impossible not to talk about homosexuality when discussing his major works unless one is terminally obtuse. His work ensures that the subject is addressed in a serious and significant manner.
The visibility of homosexuality in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and its legalisation, is more often than not about a commodified sexuality. The understanding that significant amounts of money could be made from a grouping with disposable income has resulted in a mainstream gay press that proclaims the main battles won and then moves on to recommend the latest greatest club night. It is only the subject of gay marriage, and how it has been addressed in the US, that has witnessed a small-scale political revival. To read the mainstream gay press is for the most part to read about a lifestyle. This is where the significance of Maurice, and the world in which it is set, is important to an understanding of social and political possibilities for a homosexual tradition.
As a writer, Forster gets under the hood of the wider social implications of homosexuality in Maurice, and to what he terms “the hidden life” in his guide to fiction, Aspects of the Novel. “The historian deals with actions, and with the characters of men only so far as he can deduce them from their actions,” he writes, which is a definition that can also be applied to the theatre and cinema. “The hidden life is, by definition, hidden. The hidden life that appears in external signs is hidden no longer, has entered the realm of action. And it is the function of the novelist to reveal the hidden life at its source.” Maurice is about the internal journey toward the acceptance of one’s homosexuality and the obstacles that it raises to one’s place in the greater social scheme.
Maurice is an important work in this respect as well as being an important one in an historical sense. If we do not know where we have been how can we understand where we are going and, crucially, what pitfalls to look out for? Otherwise we are more akin to the metaphorical ostrich, burying our collective heads in the sand of the ghetto.
In comparison with Forster’s other works, Maurice is a touch lighter. His objective in writing it was more single-minded, for a start; but it was also written as an act of catharsis rather than for publication. It is nevertheless an important and masterful novel from one of the greatest of England’s novelists.