A helping hand from E.M. Forster
I don’t really remember what I was like at school. It is strange for me to listen to others who recall their school days because, for the most part, their recollections are vivid. Specific. I do not really have that many specific recollections. Mostly it is a blur punctuated by various schemes to avoid PE class, and the peaks of being an outsider reached in the Technical Drawing class.
And that was school up until the age of sixteen. When it came time to move onward to the sixth form, when school was an option and not a prescription, my experience of it changed. Then, by the time I was sixteen, my understanding of the world had changed and was constantly being changed. It was the year that Merchant-Ivory film Maurice was released.
The review I caught on the BBC led me to the EM Forster novel. I vividly remember going into WHSmith only to be disappointed to find that the only edition in stock was the film tie-in. I was too bookish and self-conscious to accept that. You know how it is at sixteen when one is all fringe and affectation. Plus it took some of the anonymity away from the process of buying the book. Still, it was all there was and so it is what I got.
It is odd, looking back, that I made no attempt to see the film. I don’t even remember thinking about it at all. Perhaps it is because that would have been too open a gesture, and rather unlike buying a book that could be read in private. Anyway, it would probably not have been shown in the part of the West Country in which I lived. Except perhaps at the Art’s Centre.
But I remember the book vividly. And there’s that word again. Vividly. I still have this copy of the book. It is a little battered. On the cover is James Whilby, who plays Maurice, and Hugh Grant, who plays Clive Durham. Had I not known that it was Whilby who played Maurice I would have assumed it was the other way around. Maurice has dark hair not blonde, whereas Clive is the blonde. Details, details. Nothing that would distract the “ruthless good taste of Merchant-Ivory”, to use Gore Vidal’s marvellous phrase.
Forster is one of the English Greats for a reason. His narrative takes you into the heads of his characters in a way that film never can. His books are living, breathing insight into the ideas and ideal of his characters, of the inner life and the outer life. The Merchant-Ivory adaptations are period dramas in which we can laugh at the two-dimensional mutterings of Reverend Bebe, and get all caught up in the two-dimensional romance of Lucy Honeychurch and that nice-looking blonde man. That said, who could forget that scene by the pond from A Room with a View?
The genius of Forster is how he teases out the complexities of the inner life through stories that are strong enough to lend themselves to adaptation. Howards End is, for myself, Forster at his best; critics tend toward A Passage to India, but that is because they like to tie things up neatly, which that book does. The film versions are but pale shadows.
Maurice is not a great film. It is not even as great a book as Forster’s others. Yet at the age of sixteen I found it to be revolutionary. The narrative follows Maurice from school to the cloistered world of Cambridge and then into the real world grind of work. This is paralleled with Maurice’s growing awareness of his sexuality, and how that put him at odds with the world. It is because Forster gets into the heads of his characters, and because of the artful way that he lays out their development, that Maurice proved to be the revolutionary book it was. Its insights were liberating.
As a boy of sixteen, unschooled in the ways of the world and brought up in a fairly traditional part of the country in which most people were the same, it gave me a language through which I could understand my sexuality.
Film simply cannot do this. Television cannot do this. The power that fiction has to delve into the inner life is what makes it a medium like no other.
I was re-reading Maurice for the first time in years last summer just before I wrote a story called ‘In The Life’. It was an historical story set in 1956, at the height of what was known as the Purge. The Establishment boys were getting their briefs in a twist about homosexuality and were persecuting homosexuals with the help of such shrill organs as the Daily Mail. (Not much change there.) I called the lead character Morris. I changed the spelling because the world from which Morris came was lower down the social order. But he was a Morris because there was a sadness to him that I always remember feeling when I first read the book. My story was also about the inner life, an area into which a lot of contemporary fiction does not venture as it navigates the surfaces of our lives.
Maurice also introduced me to the wonderful phrase “an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort”. I still use it to this day.