My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Maurice is E. M. Forster’s fifth novel, written in 1913-14, following Howards End. Due to its content, however, Forster suppressed it until after his death; though it circulated privately in Forster’s literary circles, it was not published until 1971. A “Terminal Note” reveals Forster’s intention not only to treat the subject of gay male desire in the novel, but to treat it in a certain way: his gay hero, Maurice Hall, is a “normal” man, a suburban member of the English middle class without artistic or intellectual credentials, and he is moreover to be granted a happy ending with his lover. The point is to stress the normality and the naturalness of what was then identified as homosexuality (a word that today has a clinical or pathologizing ring to some). The dedication page gives the novel’s date of composition followed movingly by “To a Happier Year”—a year, in other words, when the novel will be able to circulate publicly. Forster famously wrote in his “Terminal Note”:
A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows, and in this sense Maurice and Alec still roam the greenwood.
The “greenwood” will prove to be the key to the novel’s meaning.
Maurice is divided into four sections. The first briefly narrates the hero’s childhood and early adolescence. He lives with his mother and two sisters after the early death of his father, and his eminently respectable mother expects him to live up to the paternal example, to become a solid businessman and paterfamilias. Maurice’s success at school and his preponderant averageness foretell such a future: “he was a mediocre member of a mediocre school,” the narrator tells us. But by adolescence Maurice is haunted by dreams: a voice directs him, mysteriously, to a “friend.” This exploration of his own mysterious interior in part turns him from the course of mediocrity. When at Cambridge, he becomes fascinated with the flagrantly gay Risley—whom Forster modeled on Lytton Strachey—and through Risley meets Clive Durham, an intellectual and Hellenist, with whom he falls into an intense flirtation. After a false start caused by Maurice’s own panic and diffidence, they fall into a relationship, which forms the basis of the novel’s second section. Clive, we learn, is unlike Maurice; naturally intellectual, he has since boyhood interpreted his sexuality through the classical tradition, as was common in late-Victorian Oxbridge for men like Pater or Wilde:
The boy had always been a scholar, awake to the printed word, and the horror the Bible evoked for him were to be laid by Plato. Never could he forget his emotion at first reading the Phaedrus. He saw there his malady described exquisitely, calmly, as a passion which we can direct, like any other, toward good or bad. Here was no invitation to license.
The Phaedrus ultimately recommends chastity for the male philosopher besotted with his ephebe, and a chaste relationship, pursued in the open among their families, who suspect nothing but masculine companionship, is what Clive and Maurice enjoy for two years. The difference between them is not only of temperament, but of class: unlike the suburban Halls, the Durhams are gentry, maintaining an estate called Penge. “Both were misogynists, Clive especially,” the narrator notes—in other words, his same-sex desire is a revolt against and a vacation from domestic expectation, associated in Victorian and Edwardian England with the female sphere. Clive’s desire, though, proves ephemeral: traveling in Greece, he writes to Maurice, “Against my will I have become normal”—he has begun to desire women exclusively. An intellectual or cultural passion, Forster implies, is not a lasting one. The novel intimates that Clive’s orientation has not changed, only his ability to hold out against the normative forces encouraging progeny and respectability that would press it out of him. This is Forster’s censure of intellectualized Hellenism as the basis for a queer identity.
In the third section of the novel, Maurice himself strives without success to become “normal.” After making a rebuffed pederastic overture to a young man, Maurice consults a doctor friend of the family who, when Maurice confesses that he is “an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort,” will only say, “Rubbish,” and refuse to discuss the matter at all.
He was an average man, and could have won an average fight, but Nature had pitted him against the extraordinary, which only saints can subdue unaided, and he began to lose ground.
The novel in the end will speak up for the average man, and it does not capitalize “Nature” in vain. At the end of the third section, Maurice sinks into despair when visiting Clive and his new family at Penge. To “cure” himself, he decides to consult a hypnotist, but this too fails. Then one night, standing at his window at the Durham estate, he cries into the night, and is miraculously answered when the gamekeeper, Alec Scudder, enters the window and then Maurice’s bed.
The novel’s fourth section narrates his fitful relationship with the working-man. Alec, wounded when Maurice stops reciprocating his affection, fabricates a blackmail plot; but then the two men meet in the British museum and, as the ancient statuary looks on, they fall in love. The triumph of the scene is crowned when the two men encounter Maurice’s old prep-school teacher who had tried to teach him the basics of normative sex and reproduction in the novel’s first chapter. Coming full circle, the novel and its hero reprove the normative. Maurice ends with the couple’s defiance of all convention—transgressing both sexual and class boundaries, they determine to go to “the greenwood” and live happily ever after—though not before, in the final scene, Maurice tells off Clive Durham for good.
As Forster observes in his “Terminal Note,” he anticipates English modernism’s great banned book: Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence. Connie Chatterley, like Maurice Hall, is liberated from stifling middle-class convention by a tumble in the hay with a working-man. Lawrence wanted to assert the rights of nature as against society. When Forster does the same for gay desire, however, he is making the more radical gesture. Maurice’s hypnotist, Lasker Jones, is without sympathy for gay men, but he nevertheless apprises Maurice of the facts of life after his hypnotic treatment fails to turn Maurice straight:
“I’m afraid I can only advise you to live in some country that has adopted the Code Napoléon,” he said.
“I don’t understand.”
“France or Italy, for instance. There homosexuality is no longer criminal.”
“You mean that a Frenchman could share with a friend and yet not go to prison?”
“Share? Do you mean unite? If both are of age and avoid public indecency, certainly.”
“Will that ever be the law in England?”
“I doubt it. England has always been disinclined to accept human nature.”
Maurice understood. He was an Englishman himself, and only his troubles had kept him awake. He smiled sadly. “It comes to this then: there always have been people like me and always will be, and generally they have been persecuted.”
“That is so, Mr Hall; or, as psychiatry prefers to put it, there has been, is, and always will be every conceivable type of person. And you must remember that your type was once put to death in England.”
“Was it really? On the other hand, they could get away. England wasn’t all built over and policed. Men of my sort could take to the greenwood.”
“Is that so? I was not aware.”
What a comfort the man was! Science is better than sympathy, if only it is science.
If only, that is, it is a correct representation of nature. And not only is science better than that watchword of high Victorian sentimentalism, “sympathy,” it is also better than the “culture” of late Victorian Aestheticism. By enlisting nature on the side of queer love, Forster dispatches the Wildean expedient of esoterically validating the queer by exoterically disqualifying the idea of nature entirely. Put more simply, Wilde defends his “unnatural” desire by saying that artifice is all and nature nothing; Forster, by contrast, declares a man’s desire for a man the most natural thing in the world, even a perennial feature of the “green world” that has always been a space of regeneration and redemption in English literature. The unfaithful Clive stands in for the Hellenic or Aestheticist Wildean position: too concerned with intellect and appearance to be true to feeling (to be fair, Wilde expresses the same fear about his own commitments in The Picture of Dorian Gray, whose Gothic plot shows that when appearance is severed from essence, appearance—Dorian—ceases to develop and essence—Dorian’s portrait—decays). That Wilde has, in the long run, won this argument—I think today we tend to view appeals to nature in morally reasoning about sexual desire or gender identity with political suspicion, and to regard human identity as the creation of discourse rather than as the manifestation of a natural essence—should not detract from the boldness of Forster’s argument in its own context.
Considered only as a novel, Maurice does suffer from being built around a thesis. Events and characters feel pre-determined rather than organic, which tends to work against the novel’s brief for organicism. Maurice is also not really believable as suburban businessman, not even one rattled by “unspeakable” desires; his consciousness seems about as sensitive and perceptive—in a word, artistic—as E. M. Forster’s. (This is not quite fair, but contrast Maurice with modernism’s grand everyman, Leopold Bloom.) Alec, too, is more an (anti-intellectual intellectual’s) idea of a working man, all bad grammar and frank sensuality, than a living character. Ironically, only Clive, the man of Forster’s own education and sensibility, comes fully to life. Luckily, Forster is a strong enough storyteller and eloquent enough narrator, not to mention that he is equipped with a genuinely fascinating thesis, to make Maurice a novel as readable and stirring as A Room with a View, if not as great as A Passage to India.