A little while back, I wrote about discovering E. M. Forster’s short stories about love between men. Most of them, published for the first time in the 1972 collection The Life To Come, were portraits of fear and misery. They didn’t seem at all of a piece with my memories of Maurice, Forster’s novel on the same theme. Had I manufactured memories that were happier than the experience of the book? Had the experience of growing into my own skin changed my perceptions of how Maurice managed to find himself and his love?
When Maurice was published in 1971, I had only recently come to terms with being gay, and was a long way from stepping out of the closet. Two years after Stonewall, the idea of acceptance might have begun to seem real, but I was clueless about how to get there. Looking back, I realize that the friends I tried to talk to about myself were even more clueless: at least I’d had the benefit of thinking through what it meant to be gay. The friends I tried to confide in must have been totally at a loss for how to respond to situation they had never imagined themselves being in. I now understand their silence wasn’t condemnation; it was simple speechlessness. If nothing else, Maurice spoke to me in the voice of a man who had truly wrestled with his fears and his desires, and I wanted to follow his pathways through them.
So I went back and read the novel again. And although I’d forgotten much of the detail, and indeed a good bit (but not all) of the anguish, I was pleased to discover that Maurice really is an affirmation of the possibility of true and honest love between men. At this moment in history, just slightly more than one hundred years after Forster wrote his book, that proclamation hardly seems like news. The state where I live only two years ago passed a constitutional amendment decreeing that marriage can only exist between a man and a woman. But the courts here waited less than three days before striking down the amendment in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s refusal to hear appeals against lower court decisions to permit same-sex marriage. But Maurice…
I’d forgotten the opening scenes, in which young Maurice’s schoolmaster takes the boy aside during a school outing and explains the “facts of life” to him by drawing genitalia in the wet sand of the shore, forgets to erase it, and is humiliated when a party of women and girls come upon it by accident. After the grim experience of The Life to Come, I wasn’t expecting comedy.
And the early chapters that detail Maurice’s amorous and sexual awakening at Cambridge were as heart-rending and glorious as I remembered them. The unbearable tension of unrequitable desire commingled with expressions of affection so natural that they might be called thoughtless—not uncaring, no not at all, but occurring without thought, as naturally as breathing.
And then comes the torture as Clive, the beloved, recoils from that affection, retreats into the normalcy of heterosexual life, leaving Maurice stranded, alone, dazed and heartbroken. And although Maurice will almost despair of happiness, fear for his sanity, seek therapeutic cures through hypnosis, in his heart he never truly deviates from his desire for the love of another man. When Maurice finally finds that love with Alec Scudder, the gamekeeper at married Clive’s estate, Forster does not stint: this is real love, glorious and joyous and unalloyed.
When I think of Forster’s stories (and Maurice) from this time period as fantasias, I do so because Forster was at that moment in his life, “virginal.” The imagining—for that is what it truly was—of physically consummated love with Scudder was an event that Forster would wait several more years to experience. What is remarkable about the sexuality presented in Maurice is that is does come as full of joy as it does of fear and frustration.
Having thoroughly enjoyed this repeat reading of Maurice, I decided a repeat viewing of the Merchant/Ivory film was in order. This was somewhat less satisfying; I have a difficult time imagining Hugh Grant as an object of affection, but that’s probably just me. I was also amazed at how stiff the whole enterprise felt. I can’t remember why the Merchant/Ivory franchise was so respected, but I suspect two kinds of fidelity were in play: period accuracy in costumes and sets, and narrative fidelity to the source material. The story hews closely to Forster’s original, but in doing so makes abrupt transitions and winds up with a feeling, nonetheless, of truncation, of hurrying to get everything into the package. James Wilby is sympathetic and appealing, and the film captures the idyllic, pastoral nature of Forster’s conception of true love well.
Some critics have assessed Maurice as Forster’s worst novel, without really saying why. I suspect that the problem lies with the fact that it is a fantasy; it expresses longing rather than experience, and is full of the awkwardness of a man who struggles to understand how to express love genuinely when the entire enterprise seems impossible. I expect that it seems impossible to believe in Maurice’s torments, his false steps, and his mulishness. But when I read it for the first time, all the frustration seemed entirely real; what made it thrilling was that the promise and the hope were no less real.
When real love finally arrived, it was indescribably different, richer, stranger, more confronting, and more satisfying. I wouldn’t trade it for a love like Maurice’s. But the book, and its fantasy, reminds me of what it was like to feel hope, and to feel that hope is undoubtedly why Forster wrote it. And that is why I will always cherish Maurice.