E M Forster’s Maurice

“IN paths untrodden,
In the growth by margins of pond-waters,
Escaped from the life that exhibits itself,
From all the standards hitherto publish’d—from the pleasures, profits, eruditions, conformities,
Which too long I was offering to feed my soul;
Clear to me, now, standards not yet publish’d—clear to me that my soul,
That the soul of the man I speak for, feeds, rejoices most in comrades;
Here, by myself, away from the clank of the world,
Tallying and talk’d to here by tongues aromatic,
No longer abash’d—for in this secluded spot I can respond as I would not dare elsewhere,
Strong upon me the life that does not exhibit itself, yet contains all the rest,
Resolv’d to sing no songs to-day but those of manly attachment,
Projecting them along that substantial life,
Bequeathing, hence, types of athletic love,
Afternoon, this delicious Ninth-month, in my forty-first year,
I proceed, for all who are, or have been, young men,
To tell the secret of my nights and days,
To celebrate the need of comrades.”

– Walt Whitman

It’s banned book week, so I thought I would do my bit by finally reading E M Forster’s Maurice. Not that Maurice was ever technically banned. It was merely suppressed for some 60 years by the author himself (he wrote it in 1914, it was published in 1972) who chose not to publish it during his lifetime because of the nature of its content.

Maurice is a book about homosexuality. Or rather, it is the story of a young man (named Maurice) falling in love and coming to acknowledge and accept his own desires and wants the way any young man has to – except that this young man is homosexual. There are serious moral questions here, and a great deal of social satire, but Forster’s ultimate point is, I think, an aesthetic one. Forster is not arguing that homosexuality is right – that for him is besides the point – he is trying to make you see how love just is: is true because it is beautiful, is beautiful because it is true. All through his life, Forster’s great endeavour was to use the tact and intelligence of his writing to take us past the polite categories of social interaction into the trembling realities of the soul, to make us see, connect and feel what it meant to be both human and spirit.

If Maurice remains an enchanting read, it is for that reason. Unlike Gide, Forster is not making a philosophical argument for homosexuality[1] . Unlike Lawrence, Forster is not celebrating the physical. Forster sings of instinct, yes, but it is the instinct of the soul, in which the call of sex is but a distant flute [2] – his message, to the extent he has one, is simply that what is deeply felt cannot be ignoble and must be celebrated. Nothing else should matter – for who are we, after all, to legislate a young man’s heart.

At one level, Maurice is a string of exquisitely written cliches (though it is difficult, of course, to tell what is cliche when one is reading something written a hundred years ago). All the standard elements of the romance novel are here. The uncertain and shy young man, the stranger he first admires then falls in love with, that clumsy first courtship, that overwhelming joy of first discovery, the gradual fading of the light, heartbreak, loss, despair, renewal – right down to the final scene where our hero rushes to the docks (airport) to bid his beloved a tearful farewell. This is plebian fare, you might think – except that by introducing the element of homosexuality in it, Forster both raises it above cliche and makes the point that it really is that essentially human. Just given the sheer skill that Forster brings to his prose – the delicate crispness of the writing, the psychological acuity, the detailed precision of his visual imagination, his sense of quiet drama – this would be a brilliant book even if it was about two heterosexual lovers. By framing it as homosexual love Forster forces us to abandon cliche entirely. Maurice’s central difficulty in the book is also Forster’s (and by extension, the readers) – it is the problem of forging a new idiom, of going beyond the conventional of finding new ways to express, in action, in word, in thought, a love that does not conform to all the usual stereotypes. There’s a palpable sense of something fresh and raw and very beautiful being created in this book, the feeling of having put together something very fragile and of having to hold your breath so as not to break it.

This is part of the reason that Maurice is one of the most moving love stories of our time. As a celebration of love – not homosexual love, mind, but love generally – it is an intense and exquisite sonata, a paean of attic beauty. Early on in the novel, there is talk of the love of the Greeks, and that is precisely the sort of Platonic ideal that Forster is true to here.

Whether or not the book is an accurate description of the thoughts and emotions of a young man coming to terms with his own homosexuality in early 20th century England (or indeed at any other time) I am, of course, not competent to judge. But to think of Maurice as a book about homosexuality is to miss the point entirely. There is much here that seems outdated (though it is a sad reflection on the world we live in that too much of the prejudice levelled against Maurice, too much of the incomprehension, too many of the trials seem real enough even today), but Forster’s novel is not about the mores or conventions of his time. If Forster waited 60 years to publish Maurice it was only because he trusted the power of his writing, and understood that what he had to say was universal enough to resonate with audiences a hundred years from now. Because what he was writing about was not England or 1914 but about things far more fundamental to the human condition: youth, desire, lust, despair, hope, beauty and yes, Love.

It is a testament to how right he was that this is still a beautiful book to read.

Notes:

[1] See Corydon
[2] Of course, any half-decent Freudian would argue that all this spirituality is ultimately driven by sex – but there are times when it’s better to just let a cigar be a cigar.

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