Maurice - E. M. Forster
Everyone should read this book, not because it’s brilliant or going to change your life, but because it’s one of the seminal works of English literature that informs so much our modern gay literature.
Forster could not publish this in his lifetime, and when you read it you realise why—not because it has graphic gay sex, it most certainly doesn’t, but because of the attitudes of the establishment portrayed in it.
I read this book yonks ago, and liked it because it was my first “gay” novel. It was kind of revelatory for me, in that I sort of went “uh huh, I liked that” and the love affair with slash/gay literature was born. However, I’ve read so much since then (that is frankly loads better) that this didn’t have the same effect on me this time at all.
Maurice is taken from prep-school boy to man of twenty-four in this novel. He goes from utterly naive about sex (it’s actually hard to believe just how innocent these people were – no novels with sex in, no magazines, no internet, no television….) to having his first “sharing” with a man in the course of the novel.
The biggest even of his life, and the major part of the book, is his relationship with Clive, a fellow student at Cambridge. Clive is all ideal love and thought, and although he is the one that turns their intense friendship into something more by declaring one night that he loves Maurice, he keeps it all very ethereal. Their idea of hot is to lean against a knee whilst reading. They share one kiss and one day out together, and that’s about the extent of the relationship, except in the mind, where it is passionate and all-encompassing (for Maurice, anyway).
Then Clive has something of a road to Damascus conversion – in reverse. He decides he’s heterosexual after all. He breaks the news to Maurice who has, in effect, a mini-nervous breakdown. He doesn’t want to feel as he does and seeks help, and in one painful scene confesses that he’s “of the Oscar Wilde variety” to his family doctor. It’s indicative of the times they live in that even the doctor has never read anything on the subject and dismisses him with “Rubbish, Rubbish”.
Maurice falls into an uneasy friendship with Clive, who marries and invites him to stay at Penge, his family home with him and his new wife.
Maurice meets the gamekeeper, Scudder.
There are so many interesting things in this book about Edwardian attitudes to sex of any kind let alone homosexual sex that it’s worth reading for research alone. It’s also amusing to read the attitudes to servants displayed in the novel.
I have major problems with the ending. I think it’s contrived and unrealistic. The novel seemed unbalanced to me; far too long being spent on nothing happening with Clive, when something could be shown happening with Scudder. Alec Scudder is a complete mystery to me. Maybe Forster knew DH Lawrence and they swapped ideas on ideal lovers (Lawrence wrote the famous Lady Chatterley’s Lover, where Mellors, her lover, is a gamekeeper).
This book was made into a film by Merchant Ivory, staring James Wilby as Maurice, Huge Grant as Clive and Rupert Graves as Scudder. I find it hard to read the book now without these characters in my mind, which is unfair to the book really. The film was badly miscast (who on earth could possible cast Rupert Graves as a tough, unpleasant gamekeeper?).
The language is indicative of the time it was written and not particularly accessible to modern audiences unless you’ve read quite a lot of literature from that time. For example, you’ll have a scene where you’re told: “Maurice made violent love to Clive all afternoon”. It DOESN’T mean they got physical in anyway; it means they had a nice chat over tea. These things are kind of important when you’re trying to understand this novel!
Important gay novel, lots of interest to say, but don’t read it if you’re looking for gay action!!
You might have seen the Merchant Ivory adaptation of Forster’s renowned novel of repressed homosexuality. Basically the plot concerns a triangle, one man’s love for two very different men from opposite ends of the social spectrum.
The book is a period piece, finished in 1914 though it remained unpublished until Forster’s death in 1970 for fear of adverse reaction. Relationships between men of any age, consensual or not, remained illegal in Britain until 1967. The novel flies in the face of convention: criminals should be punished, and transgressing lower orders especially. Forster had a different agenda. He shows homosexual love as it should be, not as perversion or degrading, but every bit as ennobling as the hetero kind. Amazing now to think this meant it was kept hidden away.
Forster explains the novel’s origins. Following a series of visits to a friend who believed in what he euphemistically called Love of Comrades, this man’s particular comrade touched Forster’s backside. The resulting tingle was like a conception, and this book, the baby. Isn’t that lovely?
Maurice, the narrator, is innocent in carnal matters yet troubled by a yearning dream of a perfect male friend. In an early comical scene, a silly prep school master confuses him about sex with line drawings scratched in the sand. He goes to Cambridge, where he meets Clive, a country gentleman who reveres the ancient Greeks, despite a professor’s injunction against their ‘unspeakable vice’.
I enjoyed the section of the book set in idyllic Cambridge, showing their intense relationship. There’s an erotic moment when Clive kneels at Maurice’s feet, face just touching his trouser leg, feeling the heat. During vacations, Maurice carries Clive’s letters in his pocket, sleeping with them pinned to his PJs, stroking the paper for comfort. You have to make do with these tit-bits, for the book contains no sex; but a gathering undercurrent of deep-seated longing is palpable.
It’s Clive who declares his feelings first. Maurice is slower to understand what he wants. But Clive is tormented by his homosexuality, repressing lust to avoid Hellfire. Clive sees platonic love as the solution, and Maurice is willing to remain celibate.
Clive gets cold feet as Maurice’s love blossoms. He has a crisis of conscience. Clive represents a landed family with political and social responsibilities. Duty calls, and love for Maurice must be sublimated. Clive’s fear of damnation and social ostracism has won. A character we’ve loved becomes a figure of contempt. I fear for his long-term happiness, living a lie and deeply repressed in the English way.
Devastated, Maurice makes a last bid for conventional life, and turns to hypnotism, but he’s made of sterner stuff than Clive. Respectability isn’t for him. The novel takes off romantically when Maurice goes to Clive’s decaying estate and meets an earthy gamekeeper (this was written before Lady Chatterley) who’s open to male friendship of the non-platonic kind. And so we heave a deep sigh of relief, because it’s obvious all Morrie ever needed was the love of a real man to show him the way.
Non-English readers might struggle with the novel’s appalling class snobbery. The different social standing of Maurice, respectable stockbroker, and Alec, humble gamekeeper, would probably have shocked contemporaries as much if not more than their sexual orientation. Men lived and loved together discreetly long before their act of union was decriminalised. Meanwhile those in charge of the lower orders, like Clive’s family, could barely function without the servants they treated with disdain. Maurice, too, is guilty of rudeness and nasty prejudice. Yet he sets himself free by falling in love with Alec.
Far from perfect, the book deservedly remains a classic of gay literature. Though dated, its heartfelt message shines through. Now I want to see that movie version, with those gorgeous chaps.
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics. ISBN: 0141185201
Buy Maurice (Penguin Modern Classics) here from Amazon UK
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