E.M. Forster’s Maurice had a storied history that would rival its plot. Written in 1913, it wasn’t published until 1971, one year after the author died. The story deals with the love between two young men – the titular character and his school chum, Clive, in early 20th Century Great Britain. Controversial for its sympathetic handling of homosexuality, Maurice was Forster’s attempt at rewriting the gay narrative – he set out to ensure that there was a story in which the gay protagonist doesn’t kill himself, die, or be punished in some way because of his homosexuality. Maurice is a complex story with complicated characters – each with a mighty flaw, that makes him human. I picked up Maurice because I am a fan of Forster’s work – I especially liked Room with a View. With Maurice, the writing is simpler – more straight forward. The love scenes between the two men are obviously chaste and tame, though he takes care not to hide their affection in euphemisms; instead, the homosexuality is handled with a bracing candor.
In Maurice, we are introduced to the title character as an awkward and sad child in boarding school. As he’s about to go on to public school, he’s taken aside by a popular schoolteacher to have “the talk.” Soon after, Forster has Maurice in university, where he plods along – he doesn’t distinguish himself from the other students, nor is he anything special – only one thing makes him unique, and that’s his homosexuality. In school, he meets Clive Durham, a brainy and shy young man, and soon the two are in a relationship. Unfortunately, after university, Clive’s devotion to Maurice cools, and he intends to marry and become a “traditional” man; Maurice, meanwhile has to contend with his growing dissatisfaction with life. He fails to graduate from university (he gets kicked out for cutting class), and instead becomes a reasonably successful stockbroker. Clive returns after a tour of Europe and though he makes it clear that he’s not interested in a physical relationship with Maurice, the bond still exists.
The plot of Maurice isn’t terribly original, nor are his characters all that remarkable. But what sets Maurice apart from his other work, is the author’s willingness to explore sexuality and gender, as well as the usual concerns of class and society. Gay identities as we know today didn’t exist in the early 20th century, so it’s interesting that both Clive and Maurice create a union, but it doesn’t have a name, nor does it have a definition or label. Later on in the novel, Maurice, heartbroken turns to the Alec, a gamekeeper, who is clearly working class. That Forster writes a “happily ever after” ending for the two is interesting because realistically, it’s difficult to imagine how the relationship would survive: not only is homosexuality illegal in England, but the strong class division between the two would undoubtedly cause friction. In Maurice, we are asked to suspend these kinds of questions, putting aside technicalities and instead, Forster insists that we enjoy the love story as it is.
But as optimistic (though unrealistic) as the novel ends, all the action before it signals a cynicism and harshness in Forster’s view. None of the characters in the novel is particularly likable – along with being rather a dullard, Maurice is petty and cruel. He treats his mother and sisters with contempt, dismissing their concerns and feelings, and he is a self-admitted misogynist. It’s not clear why exactly someone like Clive ever fell in love with him. Clive, on the other hand, while intellectual and more sensitive, is also a coward, hiding behind convention and status. It’s not clear if he’s simply done being a homosexual, or whether Maurice was some sort of experiment. Thought when reunited, despite his newly-acquired heterosexuality, Clive does indulge in minor caresses that may signal that he’s not as “cured” as he wants to be. Their relationship in university is lovely – one can imagine the two idly lying on a lovely bank next to a picturesque brook in the English Lake District. However, after Clive’s transformation to heterosexuality, Maurice reveals a nasty cruel and dominating streak – his sisters are often victims of his sour disposition, but even Clive is the brunt of Maurice’s nastiness. He’s a thoroughly foul fellow, yet because of the circumstances he’s in, readers will feel sorry for the guy. He’s living in an age that fails to understand him, and he’s therefore labeled a criminal for simply being himself.
Reading Maurice in 2014 is interesting because gay rights, gay culture, and the LGBT movement has made some amazing strides in the West, while in places in Africa, the Middle East, and in the Caribbean, gays subjected to inhumane laws and violence from their own communities. Forster doesn’t predict any of the progress of the early 21st century, but his writing proves to be a fascinating contrast to contemporary queer literature. While Forster’s work does have relevance today, the lack of a political or social identity is palpable. He taps into the idea of “curing” homosexuality – a concept that has all but lost its relevance today. Maurice goes to a therapist in hopes of being hypnotized – instead of being cured, the therapist suggests that Maurice either live with his homosexuality or move to a country far more accepting. The doctor isn’t an anachronistic gay rights activist, but merely a disinterested pragmatist who is aware of conversion therapy’s woefully lacking track record.
Though this isn’t a major work by any means, it’s still important because Forster does bring forward his gay identity (as it was in 1913). He writes of a gay man who understands his feelings, even if he doesn’t understand how to intellectualize them. Maurice is a homosexual in a country that criminalizes and ostracizes his kind – and yet despite these obstacles, Forster decides to give him a happy ending. Because the novel was written just before World War I, there is an added sense of poignancy to the proceedings, because chances are, if Maurice and Alec stayed in England, they would be enlisted, and would probably either die or be seriously maimed. So even if Forster has given them a happy ending, society and the world may intrude on that happy ending. As a piece of queer literature, Maurice is still a required read because it’s a surprisingly frank book that deals with its topic with a disarming, nonjudgmental tone.