Book Review

Maurice by E. M. Forster

a snobbish delight

E. M. Forster died in 1970, just a couple of years after the law that – finally – decriminalised homosexuality. Forster was – if you didn’t know – gay, and so this was something he felt was a good thing to have happened. However, by 1967 he was in his late eighties, so wasn’t going to get much benefit. Almost all of Forster’s adult life, then, was spent living in that dark period of British history when it was illegal to be gay. The ban came into force in 1885 as part of a parliamentary bill that sought to improve “public morality”. Though that sounds like it was an entirely repressive and destructive bill, it was also the Act that that made having sex with ten year olds a crime, and criminalised pimping out child prostitutes, which I think we all have to agree is a good thing.

I was speaking to my lover yesterday about conservative attitudes towards “justice”, and how some prosecutors believe that jail terms must be a direct and proportional retribution-exchange for the crime. (This apparently comes up in the new series of Serial.) Thinking about this law from the 1880s had me making a similarly empty moral weighing: is making it illegal to make money from child prostitutes as good as making it illegal to be gay is bad? The thing is, you cannot justifiably compare these, it is impossible to ascribe comparative values to questions of morality. An act can be good or bad, or less good or less bad than another, but that doesn’t mean all acts exist in a comparable plane. This is a tangent, but I want to make it clear that child prostitution is a societal ill, but homosexuality is not. It shouldn’t matter who you have mutually consensual relationships or sex with, innit, and the fact that I can type, “publish” and believe that would’ve been surprising to Edward Morgan Forster throughout his life.

Maurice is not a tragedy, and it is this fact that caused him to keep the manuscript unpublished. Written, as he explains in a 1960 “Terminal Note” at the end of the book, during 1913 and 1914, it remained unpublished until 1972, when Forster was dead and the laws had changed. Maurice is not a story that ends with a troubled gay man killing himself or being murdered, it is instead an optimistic romance that ends happily. This is why, Forster wrote – both optimistically and pessimistically – it could not be published. A dirty morality tale would be acceptable, as too could have been this romance in a more liberal society, but in the England of his 20th century, it would have provoked scandal. Forster’s friends who read the book obviously knew he was gay and didn’t care, and Forster’s work has remained popular despite him being “outed” posthumously by this and his collection of previously unpublished short stories (The Life to Come and other stories). People keep coming back to Forster’s writing because a) we’re not as homophobic a society as we used to be and b) there is clarity and wit in his prose, and he tells moving narratives of a world that, alas, no longer exists.

Maurice, then, offers a false note of hope at its end, much as a happy ending in a gay romance set in San Francisco at the end of the 70s would now: the war, offstage, unmentioned and unforeseen by the literary Forster, will come soon and change everything. Forster gifts himself and other gay readers a rare thing in a novel, an implied “happily ever after” in a gay text written and set in a period when societal convention and the fucking law meant this was near-impossible. This was what Forster wrote Maurice for, for the happy ending he couldn’t get in life, and one that became ever more impossible as technology and more war rendered secrecy and discretion ever harder to find.

The depressing “Terminal Note” from 1960 hits the reader immediately after they have encountered Maurice and his lover’s pre-war happiness. This is cruel from Forster, but it also makes sense. Because the disappointment was his life, the lack of peace and comfort, feeling his lust and his love unwelcome in his country. And it is fucking sad, it is fucking disgraceful, that anyone ever did try to police people’s private lives. It shouldn’t happen. It makes me angry.

But Maurice, Maurice does not.

///

I last read this about a decade ago, in a mad flurry of intense (undergraduate) engagement with all of Forster’s oeuvre. I then went on to write my (in places factually inaccurate) undergraduate dissertation on Where Angels Fear To Tread and A Room With A View. Returning to Forster’s fiction after such a long absence was a real pleasure. Though his characters and his narrator often voice some pretty snobbish opinions, they are within a societal mode where they seem essential to the authenticity. For example, when Maurice meets the wife of the first man he ever loved, Anne (who he has already helped with some investments), he comments that poor people “haven’t our feelings. They don’t suffer as we should in their place.” Anne’s reaction is to feel “she had entrusted her hundred pounds to the right sort of stockbroker.” Lol.

Later on, Maurice explains that he dislikes playing cricket with his “social inferiors” because “He might be bowled or punished by some lout, and he felt it unsuitable.” He then goes on to fall in love with a gamekeeper (this was written a decade before Lady Chatterley’s Lover), whose speech is written with a patronising authorial attempt at rural phonetics. Maurice never really has to confront his class prejudices, and (again) the book’s “happy ending” could well become unhappy for another reason, i.e. when the practicalities of class impinge on the romance. Forster himself was a snob, everyone he knew was a snob (probably), and the sedate life he lived ensconced in academia meant he probably had little contact with people who could have changed his mind.

Because of the snobbery, no, I wouldn’t enjoy Maurice if it were to be written or set now. Forster’s overarching classism never lets up, and without the comfortable distancing of 100 years, it would get very grating very quickly, I imagine. Who knows, though, maybe I could enjoy a contemporary affluent voice writing with ignorance of normal (i.e. non-affluent) lives? Lol, no, I couldn’t: see my recent blog on Old Filth.

Maurice is an intriguing and enjoyable insight into homosexuality before the First World War. When he first comes out to a doctor, Maurice describes himself as “an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort”, and his first relationships remain chaste due to seeking a platonic ideal. Maurice doesn’t actually fuck a man until he’s already had one session of hypnotherapy to try and curb his urges. The second time he visits this gay conversion therapist and admits its failure, the psychologist/hypnotist/doctor advises Maurice to emigrate to a country that doesn’t criminalise homosexuality, as Oscar Wilde did once he left Reading Gaol. The doctor, after making this suggestion, responds to Maurice’s query as to whether he thinks the Code Napoleon will be adopted in England with: “I doubt it. England has always been disinclined to accept human nature.” And this pessimism, which lifts when Maurice finds love, is doubled down on by Forster’s 1960 “Terminal Note”.

Maurice is a charming novel, describing happiness and romance and sexual joy with an honesty and openness and a lack of a tragic ending that makes it a pleasure to read. Yes, it is classist, yes, it is pretty homosocial, but it is what it is, which is a well-made novel about homosexuality written in 1913. It’s far more than a literary curiosity, and is well worth a read. Maybe one day I’ll watch the Hugh Grant film of it. Maybe not. Lol.


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