This was the book which the group discussed at my first meeting. It was in the Watershed and the only way I could find the right table was by noticing copies of the book on the table next to people’s lagers.
The group was aged mainly in their mid to late twenties and this classic novel from pre-gay history was as if it had come from another world; so much has changed since then: “gay” meant happy, and just that, and one could be sent to prison for such an unspeakable vice as homosexuality. It was such a different world that people like Edward Carpenter were talking of homosexuals as an intermediate sex and terms like ‘urnings’ were used.
It was written in 1914 and remained unpublished until 1970, a year after Forster died (a note found on the manuscript read: “Publishable, but worth it?”). It tells the story of Maurice Hall, a young man trying to come to terms with his homosexuality in traditional Edwardian England where his “sort” are arrested for such “crimes”. However, when he meets Clive, falls in love with him but faces a life of loneliness and despair when Clive turns away from him and their platonic relationship (Clive wants to remain ‘respectable’ because he intends to stand for public office).
Light and darkness are a theme: Maurice attends his father’s public school, named ironically “Sunnington,” where his darkness is prolonged – his schoolmaster tells him that his body is a ‘temple which was never be abused’; and when he arrives at Cambridge, he stands “still in the darkness instead of groping about in it.” There’s good darkness as well as bad darkness. Good darkness would be to: escape forever into the shadows.
After graduation, he sees a hypnotist, Mr. Lasker Jones, in an attempt to “cure” himself. Lasker Jones refers to his condition as “congenital homosexuality” and claims a 50 per cent success rate in “curing” this “condition.” But it is clear that the therapy has failed. (So much for those London buses advertising a ‘cure’ for homosexuality). On his second visit to the hypnotist, after his night with Alec, “the afternoon sun fell through the window upon the roll-top desk. This time Maurice fixed his attention on that.” The hypnotist, however cannot put him into a trance, cannot return him to darkness: “Nothing happened.” Maurice’s inner light is triumphing over the external darkness.
Like so many gay men of the time, Maurice suggests that he may marry: “The fact is I’m hoping to get married,” said Maurice, the words flying from him as if they had an independent life.
“I’m awfully glad,” said Clive, dropping his eyes. “Maurice, I’m awfully glad. It’s the greatest thing in the world, perhaps the only one—”
During the times he spends at his country manor, Maurice gives way to his longings by getting involved with one of the servants, Alec Scudder, who wants to meet him at the boathouse. So we now have the issue of social class (a bit like the later Lady Chatterley’s Lover) as well as ‘deviant’ sexuality.
One night, Scudder uses a ladder to climb into Maurice’s bedroom. After their first night together, Maurice panics and, because of his poor treatment of Alec, the latter threatens to blackmail Maurice. Maurice goes to Lasker Jones one more time. Knowing that the therapy is failing, he tells Maurice to consider relocating to a country that has adopted the Code Napoleon, where same-sex expression is not the state’s concern, such as France or Italy.
Maurice and Alec meet at the British Museum to discuss the supposed blackmail and it becomes clear that they are in love with each other, and Maurice calls him Alec for the first time.
Alec has a one-way ticket for to Argentina but Maurice asks Alec to stay with him, knowing that he will have to give up his social and financial position. Alec does not accept so Maurice decides to give Alec a send-off. When he sees that Alec is not at the harbour he goes to the boathouse and finds Alec, who tells him that he had sent a telegram stating that he was to come to the boathouse. Alec had changed his mind, and intends to stay with Maurice, telling him that they “shan’t be parted no more” and they live happily ever after. (The original ending showed the extreme dislike that Kitty feels for her brother and ends with Maurice and Alec in each other’s arms at the end of the day discussing seeing Kitty and resolving that they must move on in order to avoid detection or a further meeting.)
Of the oppression of conventional church: When Alec and Maurice are lying in bed the morning after their night of love in Penge, the parish church bells ring, indicating on a literal level that it is time Alec climbed out the window. But when Maurice says, “Damn the church,” Forster means it to apply also to the interference of society in the lives of the men. Before Alec leaves the bed that morning the two men tell each other their dreams of the previous night. Maurice dreamt of Mr. Grace; Alec, that the Reverend Borenious, the local clergyman, was trying to drown him. Throughout the novel Mr. Boreniouis has been concerned with Alec’s soul, and near the end of the novel he shows up at Southampton to see Alec off to Argentina with a “letter of introduction to an Anglican priest in Buenos Aires in the hope that he will get confirmed after landing.”
Of the respectable, Maurice opines: the middle-middle classes, whose highest desire seemed shelter–continuous shelter–not a lair in the darkness to be reached against fear, but shelter everywhere and always, until the existence of earth and sky is forgotten, shelter from poverty and disease and violence and impoliteness; and consequently from joy; God slipped this retribution in. He saw from their faces, as from the faces of his clerks and partners, that they had never known real joy. Society had catered for them too completely. They had never struggled, and only a struggle twists sentimentality and lust together into love.
What of the author? A researcher with access to his private papers discovered one diary entry where he wrote “I should have been a more famous writer if I had written or rather published more, but sex prevented the latter.” The researcher surmises that he stopped writing in his forties because having gay sex killed his creative drive, a scholar claims. The researcher goes on to say: “He never had sex until he was 38, although he never had any doubts – even from a very young age – that he was gay……Forster lost his virginity aged 38 to an injured soldier on an Egyptian beach. He met his long-term lover – a married policeman – some years later. One poignant entry in his diaries said: “Now I am 85 how annoyed I am with society for wasting my time by making homosexuality criminal. The subterfuges and the self-consciousnesses that might have been avoided.”
One reviewer pointed out:
‘With eyes that had gone intensely blue, Clive whispered, ‘I love you.” ‘
Weren’t Clive’s eyes ‘intensely blue’ to start with?
‘This set the Doctor (Dr. Barry) off, and he cried, “How dare you bully your mother, Maurice! You ought to be horsewhipped. You young puppy! Swaggering about instead of asking her to forgive you!” ‘
Is there a smidgeon of unconscious sadism here?
‘Life went on as usual – how could Maurice sleep and rest if he had no friend?’
However, my favourite quotations are:
“You confuse what’s important with what’s impressive.”
“I am an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort.”
“Did you ever dream you had a friend, Alec? Someone to last your whole life and you his. I suppose such a thing can’t really happen outside sleep.”
“Nothing’s the same for anyone. That’s why life’s this Hell, if you do a thing you’re damned, and if you don’t you’re damned . . . .”
“After all, is not a real Hell better than a manufactured Heaven?”
“A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows, and in this sense, Maurice and Alec still roam the greenwood.” (It was unheard of, at the time, to have a happy ending. Homosexual stories always ended in tragedy as if to reinforce ‘respectable’ morality.)
“It comes to this then: there always have been people like me and always will be, and generally they have been persecuted.”
“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.”
“There has been, is, and always will be every conceivable type of person. ”
“There was something better in life than this rubbish, if only he could get to it—love—nobility—big spaces where passion clasped peace, spaces no science could reach, but they existed for ever, full of woods some of them, and arched with majestic sky and a friend. . .”
“When love flies it is remembered not as love but as something else. Blessed are the uneducated, who forget it entirely, and are never conscious of folly or pruriency in the past, of long aimless conversations.”
“He was obliged however to throw over Christianity. Those who base their conduct upon what they are rather than upon what they ought to be, always must throw it over in the end . . . .”
“He educated Maurice, or rather his spirit educated Maurice’s 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.”
“I was yours once ’till death if you’d cared to keep me, but I’m someone else’s now – I can’t hang about whining forever – and he’s mine in a way that shocks you, but why don’t you stop being shocked, and attend to your own happiness?”
“It’s miles worse for you than that; I’m in love with your gamekeeper.”
“He knew that loneliness was poisoning him, so that he grew viler as well as more unhappy.”
“I think you’re beautiful, the only beautiful person I’ve ever seen. I love your voice and everything to do with you, down to your clothes or the room you are sitting in. I adore you.”
“You mean that a Frenchman could share with a friend and yet not go to prison?’
‘Share? Do you mean unite? If both are of age and avoid public indecency, certainly.’
‘Will the law ever be that in England?’
‘I doubt it. England has always been disinclined to accept human nature.”
We revisited this book in 2014 and the review is here.
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