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Maurice (1913-14) by E.M. Forster

By Erica
Maurice (1913-14) by E.M. ForsterCover of first British edition, Note: Maurice was written 1913-14, revised 1932 and 1959-1960. Published 1971.

Review by Mary Grover: One of my favorite novels is Howard’s End, Forster’s Condition-of-England novel published in 1910. I picked up Maurice, its first draft completed four years later than Howard’s End, expecting it to be entirely different. I expected its focus to be single-mindedly on the painful reality of being homosexual in Edwardian England and exclusively focused on the personal.What I didn’t expect was that it was as much a Condition-of-England novel as its immediate predecessor. The near tragedy is set against a shifting set of social settings that make up a portrait of the different elements of Edwardian society that disable Maurice as he seeks to come to terms with his sexuality. Maurice’s attempts to be honest about his sexuality and his feelings are constantly set against the dishonesty and hypocrisy of the social groups that appear nurturing but are in fact focused on maintaining a set of social and sexual norms that are in fact unstable because built on distortions of reality. The disjunction between these norms and the realities they seek to disguise and regulate lead to hypocrisy and lies which seek to disguise many kinds of authenticities, including sexual identity. Maurice’s increasing clarity about the authenticity of his sexual identity is accompanied by an increasing sense that the society into which he has been taught to assimilate is hypocritical and will obliterate rather than sustain him. The narrative is a litany of betrayal.

The sequence of social settings in which Maurice has to explore his sexual identity represents the pillars of middle-class life: the private boarding schools, the home within commuting distance of the London stockbroker’s office where Maurice is expected to make a future living, Cambridge University and the decaying rural estate of the man Maurice comes to love. They are all dangerous environments for the otherwise unexceptional young man who is, remarkably, trying to be honest about his sexuality.

In each setting the man who appears to be a guide is shown to be hypocritical. The first guide is the prep school master with good intent trying to explain the facts of life to the recently orphaned Maurice. He does so by drawing diagrams of sexual parts in the beach. Maurice finds this acceptable though is detached from the lesson. What incites his anger is the acute embarrassment of his mentor when he realises that a family walking behind them might come across the drawings before the tide washes them away. Maurice’s venom is startling ‘Liar,, liar, coward, he’s told me nothing.’ I think the lie he has been told is that sex is straightforward. Instinctively the boy knows he has been cheated. The family doctor also proves unworthy of Maurice’s trust and appeal for help, at first misunderstanding and then denying the reality of Maurice’s sexual feelings when Maurice describes them.

Huge surges of feeling (anger, love and despair), break in on Maurice at various points in the narrative and they are always contrasted with the cold and duplicitous manouevres of the social groups into which he is, at first, trying to assimilate. When Maurice returns home from his prep school he is overwhelmed by his acute distress that the garden boy with whom he had played such pleasurable games had left the family service, possibly dismissed. The source of Maurice’s pleasure in playing with George is a mystery to the boy but his misery at George’s loss is authentic in ways that the behavior of the adults who are his mentors and guides is not.

It is this authenticity of feeling that is exceptional in the otherwise unexceptional Maurice. He is deliberately made apparently unexceptional because his honesty and desire for authenticity is seen as healthy amongst duplicitous adults who seek to brand his sexual identity as unhealthy and abnormal.

One of the reasons why the adults who care for Maurice fail so woefully is that they are locked into a past that has created the social structures they are working to uphold. The dead hand of the past is epitomised in the first half of the book by the invocation of Maurice’s dead father. He is one of many ghosts which haunt the story. Maurice is sent to both the prep and public school attended by his father, and, after university into the stockbroker’s where his father was a partner. His glowing prep school report praises Maurice for being like his father and it is expected he will protect his mother as his father had done.

When Maurice gets to Cambridge the classics scholar, Clive Durham, whom he loves, presents male homosexual desire as Athenian, so the expression of a superior sensibility but only within the bounds of what is publicly acceptable in the British present. He is careful to remain celibate. Again, Maurice’s impulsiveness and open expression of affection and desire is seen as superior to the hypocrisy around him. The reverence for classical culture that underpins the sense of superiority of the highly educated, is in fact a sham. Maurice bears off Durham in his motorcycle and sidecar away from the cosy rooms of the ancient university where desire is sentimentalized, into the countryside where consummation might be possible. In his ecstasy at having Durham to himself Maurice ignores the Dean’s attempts to halt the vehicle and stop him leaving Cambridge. Maurice is sent down.

The final traitor is Durham himself. After two years of close friendship, Durham marries, never acknowledging that Maurice might feel betrayed by his act. The final aspect of Englishness that the novel holds up to bitter scrutiny is the squirearchy of which Durham is a part. When Maurice is invited down to the family home, an estate the family have held for four generations, he realises that the life of comfortable rural privilege is in fact built on debt.

The estate Durham has inherited is on the cusp of decay in part because ‘no wealthy bride’ had, for many generations, replenished the family fortunes. The fortunes of the family depend on heterosexuality and the business of breeding heirs. Marriage itself is reduced to a money making and baby-making exercise while homosexual desire is presented as free of ulterior motive and so morally superior.

It is in his description of the rural estate that Forster excels in ways that are reminiscent of Howard’s End. The buildings embody the values of those who inhabit them. The spiritual malaise of the Durhams is evoked by the fabric of the building. The hollowness of the sexual relationship between Durham and his wife suggests that his desires are homosexual and that his marriage is built on denial of his true nature. On his final visit to Penge, Maurice notices that ‘The sense of dilapidation had increased. Through pouring rain he had noticed gate posts crooked.’ In fact Durham’s wife had bought no money with her, only charm and intelligence. However these assets are useful to Durham because they will support his political ambitions which are bound up with his status as squire. Again Maurice’s freedom from duplicity and his passion is contrasted with the calculating nature of the man he loves.

Before Maurice discovers the attractions of the game-keeper on Durham’s estate who will become a lover who reciprocates his physical passions, we have an image of decline at the heart of the family home for which Durham has sacrificed Maurice and his own hope of sexual fulfilment. As the guests gather in the living room a ‘tap, tap, is heard on the lid of the piano. It is the lean-to which covers part of the living room above the piano that leaks and seems to sound the knell for the family clinging on to land and to a culture which represents their social superiority. ‘The family ghost again,’ said Mrs Durham with a bright smile’: the ‘brightness’ highlighting the shoddiness of the set up.

There are as many ghosts in this novel as there are present and urgent desires. The two men who were so nearly lovers both lack a father but are forced to try and relive the lives of men who are no longer there to guide them and from whom no relevant example can be expected. The security that had underpinned the well-being of the two families depicted was fragile. Homosexual desire is seen, in the context of Edwardian hypocrisy, economic disintegration and social ossification, as the crucible of true passion and authentic identity.

I won’t discuss the depiction of women in the novel. Forster is so sympathetic and humane in his representation of women elsewhere, that this crowd of harpies and social conservatives was a bit of a disappointment. But in the context of Maurice’s predicament, an entirely predictable one.


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