John C Adams Reviews 'Maurice' by E.M. Forster

(Edward Arnold, 1971)


It's not easy being LGBT even now, and in some parts of the world it is still positively terrifying in terms of your physical safety and emotional wellbeing. E.M. Forster's posthumous novel, written in 1913 but circulated only privately until his death, is a reminder that British society hasn't always been a welcoming place for the same-sex orientated. In many ways, it still isn't.


E.M. Forster is best known for his Edwardian fiction, with novels such as 'Where Angels Fear To Tread' and 'Room With A View' jostling for position alongside grittier fiction such as 'The Longest Journey' and 'A Passage to India'. The latter was Forster's tour de force during his lifetime, and he subsequently produced non-fiction, essays, criticism and reviews in abundance rather than any more fiction. He died in 1970, having left permission for 'Maurice' to be published after his death. Fifty years ago it finally saw the light of day.


Maurice Hall comes from a newly middle-class family and he moves through very minor public schools to Cambridge, where he meets Clive Durham, who comes from the landed minor gentry. Both are expected to follow in their late fathers' footsteps, which means stockbroking for Maurice and Tory politics combined with sitting on the magistrate's bench for Clive. They become inseparable at Cambridge, where they begin a platonic gay relationship that continues for several years after graduation until Clive breaks from Maurice during a lengthy trip to Greece. He returns to England, resists any attempt by Maurice to rekindle their romance and then marries a suitably bland woman from the upper classes.


Maurice's physical strength sees him through the torment that follows Clive's rejection of him. The pain of knowing that his true love has denied his own nature and married a woman out of pure desire to conform is acute. Gay relationships were illegal in Britain until 1967, and when Maurice seeks advice about his orientation the doctor kindly suggests that he go to live in France or Italy, where he can conduct a relationship with another man without fear of prosecution. Maurice remains true to himself and he is able to find love with another man, very much against the odds given the risks involved.


Maurice and Clive represent two aspects of Forster's personality gently teased apart. Put them together and you have Morgan Forster in a nutshell. This novel is therefore one of the most intensely personal works of fiction I know. It is utterly sincere in its portrayal of Clive's desire to keep his true nature entirely private. Unlike Forster, Clive is prepared to bury his gay identity so deep that he denies it even to himself. In this way Clive is able to live a respectable life without fear of being sent to prison for being gay, but in doing so he loses the best part of himself. Maurice is the part of Forster that isn't prepared to construct a life built on lies simply for personal ease. Forster did conduct gay relationships that may or may not have been as platonic as the one between Clive and Maurice. However, he was never open about his sexual orientation. Maurice is prepared, by the end of the novel, to go farther than the author and live as one half of a gay couple with a properly intimate relationship, going abroad if necessary to do so.


'A Passage to India' has attracted plenty of attention for its pretty extensive homoerotic hints in the deep friendship of the two male protagonists. However, 'Maurice' is something else entirely. The author's differing approach to these novels is consistent with Forster's reticence about his personal situation. The former was quite deliberately the last novel he published within his lifetime, and it only hinted at attraction between two young men. But after his death he was prepared for the world to know a more direct side of his sexual orientation in the form of a sincere and painfully honest portrait of a young gay man trapped in the society of his time but still determined to find enduring love, both physical and emotional. I find 'Maurice' incredibly moving every time I read it.


Many thanks to photographers Nick Karvounis, Stanley Dai and Maico Pereira for providing the images for this blog via Unsplash.com


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