Thursday, June 20, 2013

Maurice by E. M. Forster

The ugliness of the interview overcame him.  It was like being back on the train.  He wept at the hideousness into which he had been forced, he who had meant to tell no one but Clive.  Unable to say the right words, he muttered, "It's about women--"

Dr Barry leapt to a conclusion--indeed he had been there ever since they spoke in the hall.  He had had a touch of trouble himself when young, which made him sympathetic about it.  "We'll soon fix that up," he said.

Maurice stopped his tears before more than a few had issued, and felt the rest piled in an agonizing bar across his brain.  "Oh, fix me for God's sake," he said, and sank into a chair, arms haning.  "I'm close on done for."

Maurice Hall is the quintessential Englishman--wealthy and from good stock, but not ostentatiously so, good-looking, pragmatic, sociable, neither too smart nor too dull, skilled with money.  The quintessential Englishman, except in one way: he is a homosexual.

Maurice (that's pronounced "Morris,"  by the way) discovers this fact at Cambridge, where an intimate friend named Clive Durham confesses his love to him.  Though Maurice has a deeply buried attraction to Clive, his first instinct is utter repulsion, and his response is both funny and horribly sad:

Durham could not wait.  People were all around them, but with eyes that had gone intensely blue he whispered, "I love you."

Maurice was scandalized, horrified.  He was shocked to the bottom of his suburban soul, and exclaimed, "Oh, rot!"  The words, the manner, were out of him before he could recall them.  "Durham, you're an englishman.  I'm another.  Don't talk nonsense.  I'm not offended, because I know you don't mean it, but it's the only subject absolutely beyond the limit as you know, it's the worst crime in the calendar, and you must never mention it again.  Durham! a rotten notion really--"

Later, Maurice will realize that he feels about Clive exactly the way Clive feels about him, and the two begin an illicit, long-lasting affair.  When Clive breaks it off, however--claiming suddenly to have switched to loving women--Maurice, alone, with a secret pain that cannot be mentioned, much less "cured," enters into a long period of agony, seeking but failing to find relief from doctors and hypnotherapists.

Forster famously wrote a note on the manuscript of Maurice that read, "Publishable--but worth it?"  And in fact, the novel, finished in 1914, was not published until 1971.  It's not hard to see why; Maurice remains a remarkable book in its treatment of homosexuality even today.  In 1914 a book merely about homosexuality must have been controversial; in 2013, what feels bold about Maurice is its claim that homosexuality makes its protagonist a better person.  Until he returns Clive's love, Maurice barely knows himself; embracing his sexuality makes him both aware and whole.  Toward the end of the book, Maurice takes up with a servant named Alec; it is his homosexuality, the "unspeakable" nature of it, even, that enables Maurice to connect with another human being outside of the narrowly prescribed social limits in which he resides.  It seems to me that this is a far cry from any narrative about homosexuality in our era, which seems to insist that it is either a deviance or an irrelevance to self-identity.

The relationships Maurice shares with Clive and Alec are depicted with frankness and convincing sentimentality.  I was somewhat surprised to find that, as a heterosexual reader, I felt as invested in these relationships as with, say, Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson.  But the most affecting--and perhaps true to Forster's own life--part of the novel for me was the Maurice's mental torture, which seemed a kind of awful prison.  What would the reading public have thought about that in 1914?  It's tempting to think of Maurice as an artifact of a larger gay rights movement that won't really get started for another 50 years (the Stonewall Riots were two years old when Maurice was published) but it's a story, not a polemic.  It is, in fact, a very old story, about the conflict between the individual and a society that cannot accomodate him.  The novel's strength is in its solitariness, the impression that the book, like its protagonist, asks only for a little space in the world in which to be.

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