Charles Petzold

Summer Reading: “Maurice”

June 26, 2007
Roscoe, N.Y.

There's a rule that if you come across two different references to the same book, you have to read the book. (I think I made up that rule.) After encountering a brief discussion of E.M. Forster's novel Maurice in a book about Alan Turing I read last August and again in Christopher Isherwood's memoir last week, I really had no choice: I had to read Maurice. I had read the novel about 30 years ago and fortunately still had the hardcover first edition I bought back then.

E.M. Forster wrote the first draft of Maurice in 1913 and 1914, after A Room with a View and Howards End but about a decade before A Passage to India. Because of the novel's subject matter, Forster decided not to seek publication. When Maurice was finally published in 1971, a year after Forster's death, it was as if a time capsule had been opened, revealing a treasure of complex characterizations and emotional richness played out against a backdrop of antique attitudes. The excessively chaste world of Maurice todays seems tame and hardly daring, so it becomes more interesting as a description of cultural and moral attitudes of the past.

The young Maurice Hall — the name is pronounced English-style, like "morris" — lives with his mother and two sisters in a London suburb. He is being educated and groomed to take over his dead father's business. But Maurice has some vague yearnings that he can't quite understand. Here he is at 16:

Maurice goes to Cambridge and meets Risley, whose sardonic wit marks him as the only recognizably gay character in the novel. (Forster based Risley on Lytton Strachey.) Risley is a bit out of Maurice's league, however, and instead Maurice becomes good friends with Clive Durham, who is heading for a life as a country squire and MP. The first actual allusion in Maurice to the love that dare not speak its name is during a Greek translation class:

It is through Plato's Symposium and Phaedrus that Clive communicates to Maurice his unorthodox feelings for him. Maurice recoils in horror, but then realizes the truth about himself.

Clive Durham becomes Maurice's first real, although platonic, love. But they barely have the language to even identify themselves. The words and phrases they use aren't euphemisms as much as the only cultural references available, for example: "He had in him the impulse that destroyed the City of the Plain" (ch 12) That's a reference to the Genesis 13:12 description of Sodom and Gomorrah. At one point Maurice seeks help from a doctor and exclaims "I'm an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort." (31) Maurice attains some insight into what he's going through by reading between the lines of a biography of Tchaikovsky. (ch 32) His days with Clive are later described as the "land through the looking-glass" (ch 46)

In one of the more amusing sequences in the novel, Maurice seeks to be cured of his affliction by visiting a doctor who specializes in cases like his with a treatment of hypnosis. "I swear from the bottom of my heart I want to be healed. I want to be like other men, not this outcast whom nobody wants," he pleads, but finally the doctor gives up:

And Maurice begins fantasizing about an escape "to the greenwood" (which the Collins English Dictionary defines as "the traditional setting of stories about English outlaws, esp. Robin Hood"). Apparently from the beginning, Forster wanted to give this novel a happy ending, and that happy ending was the primary aspect that the novel that prevented it from being published. It was a simple fact that fictional characters who disobeyed the law of God and the law of England had to be punished by death, and neither Maurice nor the other characters in this novel hang themselves, or drown themselves, or throw themselves under a train, or swallow a handful of poison.

This is not to say that Maurice is all fun and games. Forster maintains a close chronicle of Maurice's misery throughout this exploration of self discovery. His love is often combined with anguish, and after Clive rather suddenly turns straight, Maurice goes through a period of agonizing lonelines. At one point Maurice has a paranoid episode connected with his fear of being blackmailed or arrested. (Oscar Wilde had been sentenced to two years hard labor for the crime less than 20 years previously.)

Maurice is finally a novel about the trials and triumphs of love, but the obstacles to love that Maurice faces — the weight of the world's opinions and his country's laws — are certainly greater than those of most fictional characters.