Maurice – E. M. Forster

Maurice 2Some of us found this book irritating. You want to give Maurice a thorough shake as if to say, ‘Get on with it.’ It only warms up three quarters through with the appearance of Scudder.

It’s written by a master with a sense of the land and the elements and a sense of the mystic – the ladder, for example. But it’s ‘a minor book by a minor author.’

It’s ‘wildly subversive in some ways’ though Gaylib types argued that it could have been powerful if published just after the Wolfenden Committee reported.

Then again, you have to remember that things were very different back then and that its happy ending could be seen as incitement to crime and cause a major row and a court case.

Even after the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, many remained in the closet fearing for their careers, especially in work like the Diplomatic Service.

One reviewer said that “Alec as a character is sketchier than the gamekeeper in “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, and his motivations are unclear.” In his essay Class-based Erotics, Rictor Norton suggests that ‘Forster intended the novel to show the democratizing potential of men’s love for men.’ Yet would such love last? Lytton Strachey wrote to Forster, “As you describe it, I should be inclined to diagnose Maurice’s state as simply lust and sentiment — a very wobbly affair; I should have prophesied a rupture after 6 months — chiefly as a result of lack of common interests owing to class differences — I believe even such a simple-minded fellow as Maurice would have felt this — and your Sherwood Forest ending appears to me slightly mythical.”

Isn’t it more the case that “Genuine aristocrats often did fetishise the working-class body, but it never became problematic for them: they simply seized (or paid for) their pleasures from lower class youth (usually in their employment), and seldom sentimentalised the “meaning” or “noble virtue” of such relationships.”

Stephen Donaldson’s article on the “Eroticization of the Working Class” in the Encyclopaedia of Homosexuality, ed. Wayne R. Dynes, 1990, pp. 1405-6 says that: “The psychological roots of the aristocracy’s attraction to the working class have not been systematically examined, but are undoubtedly related to a sense that the upper class (in particular its intellectuals) has lost some of its masculine vitality, has become `effete’, refined, sophisticated, removed from the exercise of physical power, while the (young) males of the lower class are more robust, earthy, grounded, more in touch with their sexuality, more physically aggressive, in short, more macho.”

Norton points out that “If you look at the long-term relationships involving gay men and straight/married men ….you will notice that the married man is the working-class man and the self-identified gay man (whether married or not) is the upper-middle-class man. In other words, the key feature about the relationship is not the difference between the sexual orientation of the two men, but the difference between the classes of the two men. ……working-class men got married as a matter of course: it would be part of their social identity and hardly affects their sexual identity. Marriage has been a foregone conclusion among working-class men, just as marriage is the expected goal for all women regardless of orientation or class. …..many young men and their families have got a decent start in life through the benevolence of their wealthy gay patrons, through an arrangement that was quite satisfactory to all concerned, and which really did not involve “self-hatred” etc.”

Just as it isn’t true that upper class men didn’t necessarily ‘corrupt’ working class men, nor was middle class morality foisted on the lower classes. “…before the pillory was abolished ….the most homophobic spectators were working-class women, and particularly prostitutes. There is a pillory broadside ……..showing such women standing before a molly in the pillory, shouting “Cut it off!” (i.e. castrate him). There really is no evidence at all that homophobia is something that the middle class or upper class somehow “teach” or transmit to the working class.

“Nearly every discussion about cross- class relationships deals specifically with masculine sexuality (whether queer or heterosexual), and any lesbian aspect to this type of relationship is seldom discussed. My own impression is that cross-class relationships are not a very common feature among lesbians, i.e. that most long-term lesbian pairs consist of persons of the same class (even if they are sharply differentiated as a butch/femme pair)….. Edward Carpenter observed that the growth in the number of “comrade-alliances” between women in the late nineteenth century …occurred primarily “among the more cultured classes of women who are working out the great cause of their own sex’s liberation,” i.e. the suffragettes etc., mostly middle class ladies. And unlike middle-class philanthropic men who all too readily formed alliances with working-class “fallen women” or “ragged boys”, these philanthropic ladies seldom mated with the lower class women they lifted up. Perhaps the only markedly cross-class relationship among lesbians are those which are simultaneously cross-race relationships (white middle class with black working class, hardly ever the other way around).

Forester portrays well the internalising of homophobia which poisons the soul: When Maurice goes to public school and hears other boys talk about girls, he realises that his thoughts are not only different, but something to hide. Maurice pretends to be like the other boys while in the back of his mind he desires not women, but men. It is a struggle for Maurice to keep his thoughts to himself and it causes him to disengage from the people around him in fear that they will learn what he really is.

Forester must have got from Carpenter and from the Bloomsbury Group an existentialist type of inward spirituality that contrasted with the established English religion. He sets up an opposition between false religious salvation and true, secular salvation. Ethical and aesthetic truths can be determined by looking into ones own feelings.

When Alec does not take the boat with his brother to the job waiting for him, he chooses to give up salvation in the economic and religious terms of society for individual salvation in a relationship with Maurice–a secular salvation which is mythologized in Mr. Grace’s theory of the sun.

Some have seen symbolism in the name of the prep. schoolmaster Mr. Ducie, a name that implies doubleness or hypocrisy in the sense of “deuce”; it also seem to pun on “Do see!”–the imperative of the teacher laying down society’s rules. The name also recalls Ducie Street, where the Wilcoxes had one of their houses in Howards End. “It all hangs together, he says, “all–and God’s in his heaven, All’s right with the world. Male and Female!

Forster proposes a different kind of creation than procreation. Through a sort of empathetic act, a person can bring life to someone else.

Others see the symbolism of light and darkness. Maurice attends his father’s public school, “Sunnington,” where his darkness is prolonged; and when he arrives at Cambridge, he stands “still in the darkness instead of groping about in it.” But in his second year there Maurice begins to move, meeting Risley–a Cambridge homosexual modelled on Lytton Strachey–who calls himself a “child of light.” Going one night to visit Risley, Maurice literally gropes through the darkness in the hall and enters the room to find Clive Durham, with whom he becomes infatuated: “. . . His heart had lit never to be quenched again.

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.

In the last chapter Maurice goes up from the boathouse to tell Clive that he loves his gamekeeper. Clive, who cannot see Maurice in the shadows, “felt that his friend . . . was essential night.” Clive cannot understand or accept Maurice’s love for Alec; it is something dark and obscure. In terms of the positive symbolism of darkness in the novel, however, this “essential night” is the darkness inside the sun, the darkness in which, according to Mr. Grace, God lives.

A house symbolises the state of England before the First World War changes everything. It is already in decline. Maurice is “not [one of] the timorous millions’ who own stuffy little boxes, but never their own souls”. The only house that is described in any detail is Penge, on his first visit to which Maurice has an after dinner conversation with the Durhams and their friends. It was a suburban evening, but with a difference; these people had the air of settling something: they either just had arranged or soon would rearrange England. Yet the gate posts, the roads–he had noticed them on the way up–were in bad repair, and the timber wasn’t kept properly, the windows stuck, the boards creaked. He was less impressed than he had expected with Penge.

The middle classes highest desire seemed to be 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.

The establishment that Maurice rejects was shaped by the public school tradition. Nick Duffell explains that a boarder has to learn: to adapt his young character to survive both the loss of his family and the demands of boarding school culture. The psychological impact of these formative experiences on ……boys who grow up to occupy positions of great power and responsibility cannot be overstated. It leaves them ill-prepared for relationships in the adult world and the nation with a cadre of leaders who perpetuate a culture of elitism, bullying and misogyny affecting the whole of society……100 years ago, when men from such backgrounds led us into a disastrous war; it is familiar, sometimes mocked, but taken for granted. But it is less well known that costly, elite boarding consistently turns out people who appear much more competent than they actually are. They are particularly deficient in non-rational skills, such as those needed to sustain relationships, and are not, in fact, well-equipped to be leaders in today’s world….children survive boarding by cutting off their feelings and constructing a defensively organised self that severely limits their later lives. …….For socially privileged children are forced into a deal not of their choosing, where a normal family-based childhood is traded for the hothousing of entitlement. Prematurely separated from home and family, from love and touch, they must speedily reinvent themselves as self-reliant pseudo-adults……they then struggle to properly mature, since the child who was not allowed to grow up organically gets stranded, as it were, inside them. In consequence, an abandoned child complex within such adults ends up running the show. This is why many British politicians appear so boyish. They are also reluctant to open their ranks to women, who are strangers to them and unconsciously held responsible for their abandonment by their mothers…..Boarding children invariably construct a survival personality that endures long after school and operates strategically. On rigid timetables, in rule-bound institutions, they must be ever alert to staying out of trouble. Crucially, they must not look unhappy, childish or foolish – in any way vulnerable – or they will be bullied by their peers. So they dissociate from all these qualities, project them out on to others, and develop duplicitous personalities that are on the run, which is why ex-boarders make the best spies…..Strategic survival has many styles: bullying is one; others include keeping your head down, becoming a charming bumbler, or keeping an incongruently unruffled smile in place….evidence from neuroscience experts shows what a poor training for leaderships this actually is. In short, you cannot make good decisions without emotional information…..nor grow a flexible brain without good attachments ……nor interpret facial signals if your heart has had to close down ……nor see the big picture if your brain has been fed on a strict diet of rationality

The parson, like some of is modern equivalents: I think, and until all sexual irregularities and not some of them are penal the Church will never reconquer England. (Good!)

ForsterThe author claims: In Maurice I tried to create a character who was completely unlike myself or what I supposed myself to be: someone handsome, healthy, bodily attractive, mentally torpid, not a bad business man and rather a snob.

Maybe Maurice is fitter but they both went to Cambridge.

His parting shot remained true for a long time: the Wolfenden recommendations will be indefinitely rejected, police prosecutions will continue and Clive on the bench will continue to sentence Alec in the dock. Maurice may get off.

Should we admire the author? One commentator suggests not: E. M. Forster is a classic example of the person who is widely known within the sophisticated gay community as a homosexual, and whose name is added with pride to the list of famous names that gay people so eagerly make. Since all such lists are apologetic they are all self-oppressive, but in this case there is particular irony. Throughout his life Forster betrayed other gay people by posing as a heterosexual and thus identifying with our oppressors. The novel which could have helped us find courage and self-esteem he only allowed to be published after his death, thus confirming belief in the secret and disgraceful nature of homosexuality. What other minority is so sunk in shame and self-oppression as to be proud of a traitor? …. Some time ago (we) had the idea that there should be a Closet Queen of the Year award. This could take the form of a small plaster statuette of the Boy David. It would have to be gold-sprayed for Forster, who surely deserves the title of Closet Queen of the Century. The next twenty-five years are unlikely to produce a better candidate.

There is another review of this book from when we discussed it a decade ago here.

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  1. […] We revisited this book in 2014 and the review is at […]

  2. I’ve been a regular attendee of the group for six years now and it was a real shame to miss this particular group meeting.

    I have to agree that reading Maurice in relation to todays culture it feels irritating and slow but i became increasingly interested in it’s sad rather than tragic tone which the happy ending doesn’t overcome.

    A recent biography of Forster by Wendy Moffat put’s Forester’s sexuality and how he himself related to that at the centre of understanding him as a writer. Even after two or three chapters, autobiographical strands in Maurice i think evoked a lot empathy for the writer.

    To see Scudder as just working class totty would be wrong i think. There was an essential ‘nobility’ that Forster was driving at even if it was suffused with eroticism. From the beginning, when alone, Scudder talks with Maurice as an equal; he refuses to play to the class expectations in their developing relationship.

    Forster’s religious position was reached when he was very young and certainly before involvement with the Bloomsbury set it seems; as was his sexuality. Forster’s role in Humanism is also well understood.

    I like Maurice as a character. He ultimately finds his own path and thinks his way into how he will act. I like his niggling, often impatient and forceful character.

    It is sad that it was written before the first world war and not published until after his death but to label him a closet queen who somehow profited from that is unfair. He did not publish another novel after he was 40 or so because he simply felt he couldn’t write the novel he wanted to. That is sad especially for a man who lived until 90.

    I support Isherwood and others in believing that he was a great writer even if he was caught up in how to deal with his own sexual identity.

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