Review: Maurice by E.M. Forster

Maurice by E.M. Forster

11099811Maurice by E. M. Forster
Published By: Hodder & Stoughton
Publication Date: September 1st, 2011 (first published 1971)
Genres: Classics, Fiction, LGBTQIA+
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 304
Rating: 5
Date Read: September 3rd, 2016
Links: Goodreads | Book Depository | Barnes & Noble | Amazon

Maurice Hall is a young man who grows up confident in his privileged status and well aware of his role in society. Modest and generally conformist, he nevertheless finds himself increasingly attracted to his own sex. Through Clive, whom he encounters at Cambridge, and through Alec, the gamekeeper on Clive’s country estate, Maurice gradually experiences a profound emotional and sexual awakening. A tale of passion, bravery and defiance, this intensely personal novel was completed in 1914 but remained unpublished until after Forster’s death in 1970. Compellingly honest and beautifully written, it offers a wonderful condemnation of the repressive attitudes of British society, and is at once a moving love story and an intimate tale of one man’s erotic and political self-discovery.

“Begun 1913
Finished 1914
Dedicated to a Happier Year”
 

E.M. Forster (Howards End, A Room With A View) finished this gay-themed novel in 1914, and though he showed it to some close friends, he didn’t publish it in his lifetime. It eventually came out after his death, in the early 1970s. What a gift to have a novel about same sex love written a century ago by a 20th century British author!

“They must live outside class, without relations or money; they must work and stick to each other till death. But England belonged to them. That, besides companionship, was their reward.”

When Forster wrote Maurice, homosexuality was so taboo that there was no name for it. For a man to be with another man was a criminal offense. One of the most touching things about this very moving book is seeing the protagonist – the closeted, very ordinary stockbroker Maurice – struggling to describe who he is and what he’s feeling.

But how triumphant for Forster to have written this book and dedicated it “to a happier year.” But it’s an invaluable document about a group of men who experience the love that dare not speak its name.

I appreciate the fact that Maurice, unlike Forster himself, is a very unremarkable man: he’s conservative, a bit of a snob, not very interested in music or philosophy and rather dull. But he’s living with this secret that affects his entire life. And the book shows how he deals with it, in his secretive relationship with his Cambridge friend Clive Durham, and later with gamekeeper Alec Scudder.

Maurice is probably the first literary work of fiction to deal with male homosexuality in such an open, sincere fashion. At the time it was written, men in the UK could still be imprisoned for ‘acts of gross indecency’, as in the Oscar Wilde trial. Publishing this book at that time would have destroyed the deeply admired English novelist.

Forster intriguingly describes Maurice Hall’s journey of self-discovery and his sexual awakening. Maurice comes from a conventional middle-class background with a lukewarm mentality. His being sexually different initially comes across as a hindrance to his plans to follow in his deceased father’s footsteps.

 

“Maurice was stepping into the niche that England had prepared for him.”

Nevertheless, early in the novel Forster gives hints that Maurice has always known he is ‘different’: Maurice remarks early on “I think I shall not marry”, and he is rather baffled when he realises that he is overwhelmed by the fact that his mother’s garden boy George – with whom he used to play in the ‘woodstack’ when he was a boy – gave notice and left. Maurice is, after all, a snob and he would never consider himself a friend of George. Nevertheless, George’s departure unsettles him and he does not really know why he has these feelings.

Feelings of this kind become clearer when he moves to Cambridge for his studies and meets Clive Durham, with whom he falls in love. Clive’s pedigree is more sophisticated: he descends from landed gentry. Clive is deeply torn about his sexuality, even though he makes the first step in admitting his feelings for Maurice. Foster does not shy away from describing romantic moments between the two and he shows perfectly his skills in evoking beauty:

I knew you read the ‘Symposium’ in the vac,’ he said in a low voice.
Maurice felt uneasy.
‘Then you understand – without me saying more –‘
‘How do you mean?’
Durham could not wait. People were all around them, but with eyes that had gone intensely blue he whispered, ‘I love you.’

He begins to doubt his own sexuality and increasingly feels lonely. Forster’s description of Maurice’s journey of self-loathing and loneliness gets directly under the reader’s skin. These are powerful passages which help enormously in empathising not only with Maurice, but with thousands of other men in real life who have had to go through a similar hell.

“One cannot write those words too often: Maurice’s loneliness: it increased.”

He eventually seeks advice from a doctor he has befriended, confessing that he is “an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort”. I don’t want to spoil the doctor’s answer.

“Yet he was doing a fine thing – proving on how little the soul can exist. Fed neither by Heaven nor by Earth he was going forward, a lamp that would have blown out, were materialism true. He hadn’t a God, he hadn’t a lover – the two usual incentives to virtue.”

It is in the peak of his crisis that he meets the third important character in the book: Alec Scudder, the gamekeeper at Penge, Clive’s estate. Alec Scudder, the gamekeeper, who everybody in Maurice’s circle simply calls ‘Scudder’, belongs to the ‘class of outdoors-men’. He is a man of nature with natural instincts.

The reader cannot really unravel his inner thoughts; Forster leaves us almost in the dark. This is certainly deliberate: Scudder remains the active, pushy, slightly aggressive and sexually attractive, almost mysterious ‘country lad’ for the reader.

Maurice is an important novel. E. M. Forster wrote it in 1913/14 and revised it in 1960. In his Terminal Note, written in 1960, he recognises a change in the public attitude towards homosexuality:

“the change from ignorance and terror to familiarity and contempt”.

A reader has to understand that Forster, writing when he did, could only imagine, only hope for, a better time when people were able to be who they are, without fear of social or legal repercussion.

“We had not realized that what the public really loathes in homosexuality is not the thing itself but having to think about it”.  

Whenever I read a classic, I prepare myself for the inevitable disappointment. In my experience, too many of the great works of literature only represent some form of change in the history of written words and the society that influenced them rather than being good books. If there is any true deeper meaning on the pages of a classic, it’s usually buried under too many decades or centuries of years passed for me to understand.

That wasn’t the case here. For every layer I discovered there were at least two I missed and there’s nothing I love better than subtle complexity, obvious to see for those who’d only look.

It wasn’t just the story describing and showing what life was like a hundred years ago for a young man, what it was like to fall in love and know it could cost him everything, it was the writing I fell in love with. The way Forster uses words to say exactly what he means to and more. How elegant it is.

The novel is about Maurice’s seemingly impossible search for happiness in a world where homosexuality is illegal and in an England which is still marred by a rigid view of class distinctions. It is a brave attempt to paint a possible utopia which, sadly, Forster himself never lived to see, and it is a touching portrait of two people’s ultimate refusal to bow to the expectations of the times.

His ideal of marriage was temperate and graceful, like all his ideals, and he found a fit helpmate in Anne, who had refinement herself, and admired it in others. They loved each other tenderly. Beautiful conventions received them — while beyond the barrier Maurice wandered, the wrong words on his lips and the wrong desires in his heart, and his arms full of air.

I am unapologetic in my love of Forster, and I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. I know a lot of people had a problem with the ending, but Forster wanted a happy ending and I was fine with the way he chose to end things. I highly recommend this book!

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That’s it for this review! I’m sorry, this was quite a lengthy review, which is why I was putting off writing it for ages. Have you read this book? If so, What did you think of it? Is it on your TBR? Tell me in the comments if you agree or disagree with any of this. I’d love to know your opinion.

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