Author: E. M. Forster
What do we know about the author?
The noted British writer E. M. Forster came of age during the turn of the twentieth century, and he lived until 1970. At the age of sixteen, the trial and conviction of Oscar Wilde for his homosexuality left an indelible mark on Forster’s ambitions as a writer. The trial motivated Forster, who was also gay, to avoid discussion of queerness in his work. Indeed, his most celebrated works, such as A Passage to India, portray heterosexual characters. Forster managed to publish novels with traditional themes until 1924, when he could no longer bear to write only about heterosexual people. For the last thirty-seven years of his life, he only published essays.
A year after his death, Forster’s friend, famous gay writer Christopher Isherwood, published Maurice, a novel with queer characters that he originally drafted in 1914. The book was inspired by queer encounter upon a visit to gay poet Edward Carpenter, when his lover George Merrill touched Forster’s backside. Despite Isherwood’s pleas, Forster never published the book during his life because he believed that society would roundly reject it for its queer subject matter. Forster even wondered whether the novel was moving prose or just salacious trash.
What is the plot of this book?
Maurice opens with the titular character, Maurice Hall, as a young teenager learning about human sexuality from his reserved, British teacher Mr. Ducie. After Mr. Ducie provides a very heteronormative explanation of sex, he expects a lot of questions from Maurice. However, Maurice does not have any questions, foreshadowing his bewilderment with the heterosexual norms imposed on him.
Maurice comes of age in turn of the century London. He comes from a privileged suburban background, but he is not nearly as posh as the real British aristocracy. Nevertheless, he still goes to elite schools, including Cambridge for university.
Despite his privileged status in society, Maurice is very average in many ways. He is not the smartest or most cultured man. He develops into a fairly attractive man, but he is by no means a heartthrob. His family knows what they want him to be. From a very early age, Maurice understands that he will go to Cambridge, get a job as a stockbroker, and settle down with a wife and children.
Of course, that plan does not completely come to fruition. The undoing begins when Maurice becomes fascinated with a flamboyant character named Risley at Cambridge. When Maurice calls upon Risley at his dormitory, instead he finds Clive Durham. Clive and Maurice become close friends, even as flirtation lingers in the background of their friendship. Their friendship is further solidified when Clive confides in Maurice about the difficulty of telling his mother that he is not a Christian.
In awkward fashion, Maurice and Clive reveal that they love each other. Maurice initially tells Clive about a crush on a girl that arises during a school break, and Clive is disappointed. Maurice slowly realizes that the crush is not real. Their friendship progresses, and they casually caress and stroke each other’s hair. Clive summons the courage to tell Maurice that he loves him, and Maurice reacts in horror. Clive, in turn, reacts with embarrassment, and the two try to forget the whole incident. Maurice eventually admits to himself that he is only attracted to men, and more specifically to Clive. After some frustration and social awkwardness, he tells Clive that he loves him.
In the throes of love, Maurice and Clive skip school to go on a country romp. They both flagrantly flout authority, yet only Maurice receives punishment. Unlike Maurice, Clive comes from a very aristocratic family. Clive is also very intelligent, and many anticipate a political career for him. The school officials take note with wariness of the extremely close friendship between Clive and Maurice. As a result, Maurice is expelled until he apologizes to the dean. Obstinate Maurice refuses to apologize, but Maurice still manages to become a successful stockbroker.
While Maurice and Clive are separated they still manage to continue their romance. Maurice visits Penge, the Durham family estate, and Clive and Maurice nest in a secluded wing of the estate. The happiness is too good to be true. Mrs. Durham reveals that Clive must marry to inherit the family estate. For the next two years, Clive and Maurice maintain a discreet relationship with each other. Maurice spends every Wednesday and his weekends at Clive’s flat in London.
During dinner one evening at the Hall residence, Clive becomes ill and faints. Maurice’s surreptitious kiss does not revive him. To add insult to injury, Clive tells Maurice that he prefers the nurse to restore him to good health, even as Maurice loyally cares for him. Clive’s health eventually improves to some degree, but he goes to Greece to fully recover.
Shockingly, Clive writes Maurice from Greece to tell him that he is no longer queer. Clive believes that his illness causes the epiphany. During his illness, he notices his nurse’s charm and beauty. Clive believes that he simply experiences a natural, physical change in his sexuality. A disbelieving Maurice tries to convince Clive that he is queer, to no avail.
Nevertheless, Maurice manages to sustain a friendship with Clive, as Clive wants to stay friends. Clive gets married to a woman named Anne Woods, whom he meets in Greece, and the three miraculously live in harmony. Clive and Maurice espouse similar political views, and Maurice visits Penge regularly. Clive has now become a successful lawyer, and he seems close to attaining a higher office.
Feeling anguish over his queer desires, Maurice decides to visit a doctor to try to vanquish his homosexuality. Maurice’s visit to close family friend Dr. Barry is a disaster. Dr. Barry says Maurice’s desires are “rubbish,” and he advises Maurice to avoid the “temptation from the devil.”
Maurice’s visit to a hypnotist, Mr. Lasker Jones, goes more smoothly. Lasker Jones diagnoses Maurice with “congenital homosexuality.” Maurice consents to treatment, and he follows Lasker Jones’s advice. Lasker Jones advises Maurice to stay at Penge with Clive and Anne, but this stay thwarts the treatment efforts. When Maurice returns to Penge, the gamekeeper Alec Scudder becomes the object of his affection.
Although Maurice is initially very rude to Alec, Maurice warms to him. One night, Maurice sleepwalks to the window of his bedroom and cries out “Come!” Repairmen who were repairing the tiles on the roof had left a ladder resting against the windowsill of Maurice’s room. Conveniently, after Maurice cries out, Alec climbs up the ladder and whispers, “Sir, was you calling out for me? … Sir, I know … I know.” They talk in low whispers, and they sleep in each other’s arms.
After a cricket game the next day, Maurice becomes ill and abruptly leaves Penge. Alec sends telegrams and letters to summon him back to Penge, and more specifically the boathouse at Penge. Maurice longs for Alec, but fears that Alec is trying to blackmail him. Meanwhile, Maurice gives up his treatment with Mr. Lasker Jones. Lasker Jones tells Maurice that he is subconsciously resisting hypnosis, and they both agree that Maurice is unavoidably gay.
Maurice persistently avoids Alec’s messages, but the two eventually meet at the British Museum when Alec threatens blackmail. The threat is a bluff, and the two profess their love for each other. Maurice cancels an important social engagement, and they spend the night together.
Alec has long planned to move to Argentina, and Maurice implores him to stay in England. Alec does not believe that they can reasonably maintain their relationship without ruining their lives. Maurice tries to say farewell to Alec, but he discovers that Alec never boards the ship for Argentina. Returning to the boathouse at Penge, Maurice discovers Alec. The two pledge their commitment to each other. The book ends with Maurice proudly telling Clive about his commitment to Alec.
How is this book queer?
Forster makes it clear from the beginning that Maurice is gay. In the opening scene when Mr. Ducie tries to explain sex to Maurice, Maurice only replies that he does not think he will marry. He perhaps says this because gay men did not marry in that era. Nevertheless, Maurice cries when George the garden boy leaves his home abruptly; he later dreams of a naked George playing football.
At Sunnington College, the all-boys prep school that he attends before Cambridge, Maurice even surreptitiously flirts with boys: “He dared not be kind–it was not the thing–still less to express his admiration in words. And the adored one would shake him off before long, and reduce him to sulks.” At the end of the novel, Maurice sees Mr. Ducie again in the British Museum when he is with Alec. Maurice rests his hands on Alec’s neck, but Mr. Ducie does not notice. Maurice is finally comfortable with his sexuality, even as a cluelessly heterosexual Mr. Ducie observes him.
The queerness of Maurice and Clive truly blossoms at Cambridge. In their translation class, Clive and Maurice hear the dean say, “Omit: a reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks,” in reference to gay love in the text. While this comment piques the interest of Clive and Maurice, it also explains how positive portrayals of queerness have been erased from history and perhaps even religion. Rightfully so, Clive is incensed over the dean’s omission: “… to omit it is to omit the mainstay of Athenian society.” Maurice is relieved that homosexuality can even be discussed in public, and Clive recommends for him to read The Symposium.
The evolution of Clive and Maurice progresses in surprising ways, as Clive ultimately rejects his own queerness and Maurice embraces his own homosexuality. The reader wonders if Clive is a repressed queer man or if his queerness mysteriously vanishes. The evidence suggests that Clive is closeted and repressed, but the truth is never revealed. As a boy, Clive struggles with an attraction to men and also wanting to be part of his family’s tradition of wealth and dominance. Even as a boy, he tries to find a Biblical justification for homosexuality: “He wished Christianity would compromise with him a little and searched the Scriptures for support. There was David and Jonathan; there was even the ‘the disciple that Jesus loved. But the Church’s interpretation was against him.’” This struggle portends Clive’s eventual submission to money and power.
Indeed, Clive has an unusual marriage to Anne, and it seems fraudulent: “He never saw her naked, nor she him. They ignored the reproductive and the digestive functions.” Perhaps this sort of relationship was typical for the era, but one wonders why Forster emphasizes this dynamic. Moreover, Clive’s homophobia intensifies, perhaps as a sign of his repression. Clive is positively disgusted as he tries to break up with Maurice: “The horror of masculinity had returned, and he wondered what would happen if Maurice tried to embrace him.” Only when Maurice ceases to threaten his sexuality does Clive let down his guard. Clive is overcome with emotion and gently kisses Maurice’s hand when Maurice lies about getting engaged to a woman: “Dare he borrow a gesture from the past?” Clive returns to his homophobia when Maurice reveals his love for Alec: “Clive sprang up with a whimper of disgust. He wanted to smite the monster, and flee …”
Clive’s homophobia is in stark contrast to his initial feelings for Maurice. Clive and Maurice skip class to enjoy nature, in a beautiful description of love in its infancy: “All this last part of the day was perfect. The train, for some unknown reason, was full, and they sat close together, talking quietly under the hubbub, and smiling.” Frustrated by the heterosexism in society, Clive fumes about Maurice’s punishment for skipping: “If a woman had been in that side-car, if then he had refused to stop at the Dean’s bidding, would Dr. Barry have required an apology from him? Surely not.”
Nevertheless, for a while, Clive perseveres with his love affair with Maurice. When Maurice visits Clive at Penge, Clive arranges for them to have their own secluded wing of the country estate. The necessity for the seclusion revives Clive’s frustration with the heterosexist status quo: “‘It served my mother right when I slipped up to kiss you before dinner. She would have no mercy if she knew, she wouldn’t attempt, wouldn’t want to attempt to understand that I feel to you as Pippa to her fiancé, only far more nobly, far more deeply, body and soul, no starved medievalism of course, only a—a particular harmony of body and soul that I don’t think women have even guessed. But you know.’” The comment reveals Clive’s misogyny, and Maurice also possesses his own brand of misogyny, as seen through his poor treatment toward his sisters. However, Forster rightly notes the frequent equality in same-sex love that is often missing in heterosexual love: “He educated Maurice, or rather his spirit, for they themselves became equal. Neither thought “Am I led; am I leading?” Love had caught him out of triviality and Maurice out of bewilderment in order that two imperfect souls might touch perfection.” They forge a deep love that continues through the foulness of sickness. When Clive becomes ill, Maurice lovingly cares for him: “Maurice lifted him out of bed and put him on the night stool. When relief had come he lifted him back.” Yuck.
Naturally, Maurice is a broken man when Clive abruptly terminates their relationship. As desperate times lead to desperate measures, Maurice is ashamed at his lust for Dr. Barry’s nephew, who is far too young for Maurice. An embarrassing and suggestive encounter with an older man leads Maurice to seek treatment. Maurice flirts with an old man in a train, and the man smiles back. Chaos ensues when Maurice plays too rough and knocks the man down, giving the man a bloody nose: “He sputtered apologies, offered money. Maurice stood over him, black-browed, and saw in this disgusting and dishonourable old age his own.”
Resolving to get rid of his homosexuality, Maurice decides to see a doctor to get rid of his homosexuality: “He might ‘keep away from young men,’ as he had naively resolved, but he could not keep away from their images, and hourly committed sin in his heart.” Maurice does not know if any doctors actually treat homosexuality, or if he can even trust any doctors. Maurice’s feelings echo the feelings of many queer people even to this day, as queer people strive to find care that affirms their identities. Indeed Dr. Barry’s reaction to Maurice’s confession is what queer people fear most: “‘The worst thing I could do for you is to discuss it.’” Maurice reasonably responds that he wants advice: “It’s not rubbish to me, but my life.” Forster notes that Dr. Barry is typically clueless about caring for queer people, as were virtually all British doctors in that era: “Dr. Barry had given the best advice he could. He had read no scientific works on Maurice’s subject. None had existed when he walked the hospitals, any published since were in German, and therefore suspect.” Sadly, Maurice had always trusted Dr. Barry, and he wonders if his own sexuality “might not be rubbish, though every fibre in him protested.”
Fortunately, Maurice seeks a second medical opinion, which turns out to be slightly less flawed. The hypnosis of Mr. Lasker Jones ultimately fails, and Mr. Lasker Jones tells Maurice to live in a country such as France or Italy where homosexuality is not a crime. Mr. Lasker Jones doubts that England will ever accept homosexuality as England “has always been disinclined to accept human nature.” Forster’s critique of England cannot be missed. Through Mr. Lasker Jones’s care, Maurice accepts that there have always been people like him, that there always will be, and that queer people have been and continue to be persecuted. This is a feeling queer people continue to realize even today. Disappointingly, Mr. Lasker Jones is not the queer ally that the reader hopes him to be: “The doctor wanted to get on to his next patient, and he did not care for Maurice’s type. He was not shocked like Dr. Barry, but he was bored, and never thought of the young invert again.”
Thankfully, Maurice concludes with the happy romance between Alec and Maurice that transcends class. The bond between Alec and Maurice overcomes their class difference, as Alec belongs to a lower class. Indeed, Clive tells Maurice that Alec is smart, but “you can’t expect our standard of honesty in servants, any more than you can expect loyalty or gratitude.” Forster emphasizes Maurice’s classist attitudes, as Maurice jokes about the poor and works in a profession that prioritizes wealth preservation. Maurice’s immediate distrust of Alec is revealing, as he assumes that Alec only wants to be intimate in order to blackmail Maurice. Regardless, the coming together of Alec and Maurice in front of an Assyrian bull sculpture in the British Museum reinforces that the men inescapably belong to a rigid class system within an imperial behemoth.
Jealousy is also an obstacle to the romance between Alec and Maurice. From afar, Maurice first sees handsome Alec flirting with two maids, and a “pang of envy” arises in him. Alec later says that Maurice in that moment had looked at him with anger and gentleness. Alec believes that Maurice does not respond to his letters out of jealousy. The reader wonders whether Alec is actually bisexual: “It was before you came. It is natural to want a girl, you cannot go against human nature.” Is it natural for everyone? This is a curious comment that would benefit from further explanation, as Maurice survives the novel as an increasingly balanced man who is only attracted to other men.
Who would enjoy reading this book?
If you enjoy beautiful writing and a happy ending, Maurice will not disappoint you. Indeed, this is a good–almost great–book. Maurice addresses male queerness with great sensitivity, acknowledging a range of experiences. Forster portrays the misogyny that was pervasive during that era, even among queer men. In addition, the author imagines both class tension and class deconstruction between queer men. Queerness takes different forms in the characters of gay Risley, gay Maurice, ostensibly bisexual Alec, and questioning Clive. The novel could be even better if it discussed with more depth the sexual identities of these characters, with the possible exception of Maurice. Admittedly, the work is refreshingly candid given the moral propriety of the era, but a modern reader yearns for more.
Forster, E. M. Maurice. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2011. Digital.
Symondson, Kate. “E M Forster’s Gay Fiction.” The British Library, The British Library, 4 May 2016, www.bl.uk/20th-century-literature/articles/e-m-forsters-gay-fiction.