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Book review

Maurice. E. M. Forster. (1913/1970)

Maurice explores homosexuality in upper-middle class England at the turn of the last century. This unadorned narrative follows a love affair between two young men of different temperaments, but both constrained by the social prejudice and legal concerns surrounding homosexuality at this place and time. Maurice is a social document, recording some of the many aids with which human beings try to deny their reality and wish away human nature. Maurice is also a paean of hope for individual liberty.

Maurice explores homosexuality in upper-middle class England at the turn of the last century. This unadorned narrative follows a love affair between two young men of different temperaments, but both constrained by the social prejudice and legal concerns surrounding homosexuality at this place and time. Maurice is a social document, recording some of the many aids with which human beings try to deny their reality and wish away human nature. Maurice is also a paean of hope for individual liberty.

Written in 1913, unpublished till 1970, Maurice tells the intertwining coming-of-age stories of two young homosexual men in Edwardian England. The two men vary in their cultural backgrounds and individual predispositions. Maurice Hall comes from a stolid, unadventurous stockbroking family; Maurice himself has limited abstract intelligence and modest intellectual ambitions. Clive Durham is the son of a country squire, his degenerating mansion symbolising the deterioration and obsolescence of the class of landed gentry. Clive himself is fluent and witty, and has found in ancient Greek philosophy (viz Socrates and his fondness for beautiful young men) a vindication for his homosexuality.

The two youths meet as undergraduates at Cambridge. Clive already knows he prefers men; but he has decided to limit himself to purely platonic, affectionate relationships. Maurice, who discovers his homosexuality via his feelings for Clive, has to content himself with the occasional chaste kiss. Still, it is Clive who offers the personal security and cultural context for Maurice’s self-expression. All the more disappointing, then, that Clive later experiences revulsion at his own identity, decides to become straight, and marries a woman with whom, to all appearances, he has an affectionate and typical marital relationship.

Maurice is left alone to grapple with his homosexuality. He seeks all the predictable avenues. He tries to sublimate his libido into his work, and into socially acceptable activities (coaching boys’ sports teams is probably not the best choice for this frustrated, repressed Englishman); he tries to work up the appropriate ardour for a woman; he seeks medical help.

Dr. Barry is the family friend to whom Maurice appeals. The outspoken physician’s professional response will appal modern readers, but captures the zeitgeist: Dr. Barry refuses to believe that a man like Maurice, of healthy constitution and respectable family, could possibly be “an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort.” (The circumlocution is Maurice’s –originating apparently from his lack of any alternative vocabulary. He quite literally doesn’t know what to call himself.) Dr. Barry advises his patient to forget his ‘sick fancy’ and marry a suitable woman.

Still bent on a cure, longing for normal family life, Maurice next turns a hypnotherapist, who finally furnishes our beleaguered protagonist with a name for his ‘condition’ – ‘congenital homosexuality.’ The hypnotherapist, at least, shows no revulsion for what was then widely considered a grotesque moral disease; he claims that about half of his patients can be cured of their predilections. But Maurice has no such luck.

Maurice then pursues a relationship with a social inferior, which leads to predictable complications: miscommunication and blackmail. These machinations, too, Forster interprets as situationally caused: “Fear,” Maurice explains to his partner, “Is why we’ve been trying to down one another, and are so still.” Forster correctly identifies that it would be unreasonable to expect two members of a prosecuted, persecuted group, practising ‘the crime that must not be named,’ to conduct their sexual relationships in an open, affectionate way – though such instances did frequently occur, and one such was in fact the inspiration for Maurice.

But in the end Maurice and his working-class partner resolve their differences and commit to one another. As things are, their only hope is to abandon society and live as nomadic woodsmen in the privacy of England’s woods. Maurice must quit his job, and his partner his family. But Forster sees in this lifestyle the only realistic hope, at this time and place, for men like himself. In his epilogue, written several decades after he completed the manuscript, he confesses that urbanisation had deprived English homosexuals of even this, their last refuge. But the epilogue reaffirms his hope for a better future. Homosexuality was in fact legalised in 1967; Maurice was finally published in 1970, the same year that Forster died.

Though dating from the same period as many of Forster’s best works, Maurice is much more straightforward in narrative, mostly steering clear of the kind of mysticism and idiosyncratic psychological analysis that characterise works like Howards End and (the much later) Passage to India. But in his analysis of the pettiness of middle-class morals, and of fraught intrafamilial relationships, Forster shows characteristic keenness and empathy, both coloured by his views as an outsider. In Maurice, it’s not just Clive’s family estate, or Clive’s class that are in decay – it’s a whole society.

The resolution that Forster offers his lovers – by his own admission an optimistic resolution – is also typically Forsterian: a solution negotiated between two individuals, based on interpersonal harmony: a solution outside the scope of larger society, which remains rigid. But Forster’s own view of the possibility of systemic reform appears to have been more hopeful than that of Maurice’s hypnotherapist. Asked whether England would ever decriminalise homosexuality, this practitioner replies: “I doubt it. England has always been disinclined to accept human nature.”

Forster depicts Maurice and Clive, as well as secondary characters, with clear, broad strokes. Maurice is slow, but sure: “What he grasped he grasped with a firmness that the refined might envy.” Of Maurice’s lonely struggle Forster says:

“He hadn’t a god, he hadn’t a lover – the two usual incentives to virtue. But on he struggled with his back to ease, because dignity demanded it. There was no one to watch him, nor did he watch himself, but struggles like his are the supreme achievements of humanity, and surpass any legends about heaven. No reward awaited him. This work, like much that had gone before, was to fall ruining. But he did not fall with it, and the muscles it had developed remained for another use.” In Forster’s antiheroic attitude to life, great deeds have less value – because they’re more lauded, thus in a sense easier – than life’s every day, invisible struggles.

Forster even seems Maurice’s struggles as ennobling him, as opening to him a greater spiritual plane that might otherwise have been accessible to one of his modest abilities and bourgeois background: “[The portrait of old Mr. Hall], looking at his son, is touched with envy, the only pain that survives in the world of shades. For he sees the flesh [of his son] educating the spirit, as his [own] had never been educated, and developing the sluggish heart and the slack mind against their will.”

Maurice presents cleareyed social analysis, as well as compelling portraits of the ways in which temperament, social class, and life experience can mould the individual’s response to inhabiting an atypical body. Anyone curious about the history of homosexual experience – or about how  the human spirit responds to, adapts to, and can be broken by stigma and repression – will enjoy Maurice.

Read Maurice for free here. Read in soft copy to save trees and save money.

By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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