198 pages • Penguin • 1971
E.M. Forster is undeniably one of the greatest novelists in the canon of English literature. Howards End (1910) and A Passage to India (1924) are arguably two of the finest works in the language. Yet after the highly successful A Passage to India, Forster published no further novels, and only a scattering of short stories. “I should have been a more famous writer if I had written more or published more,” he confided to his diary in 1964, “but sex has prevented the latter.” When Forster died in 1970 he left behind a great deal of unpublished material, much of which featured homosexual content – short stories, diaries, essays, notes, unfinished novels, as well as one complete novel, Maurice.
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. 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. 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”. In Maurice Forster tackled the subject of homosexuality and assessed what it meant. 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. 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.
Following the success of Howards End, Forster wanted to retreat from the subject of love and marriage. This lead to the unfinished novel Arctic Summer, an abortive attempt to explore the social relationship between two men. When he could not make this work he started to write Maurice, which he described as “unpublishable until my death or England’s”. Forster wrote in his diary that it would be a cathartic experience conceived to leave him “free for more practical themes”.
As a writer, Forster gets under the hood of the wider social implications of homosexuality, 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.
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.