If I were back in college instead of being retired, I might just be tempted to put aside my love of Dickens and take up the world of E. M. Forster. Within the last two weeks I have read A Passage to India (which started with my love of Kim, by Kipling—and maybe I’ll write about that another time) followed by a re-read of Maurice, the “homosexual” novel that Forster withheld from publication until after his death.
Forster is a peculiar writer, that’s for sure—his sensibilities are so fine and his symbolism so rampant that he occasionally makes me think Henry James obvious and Hawthorne subtle. If Melville is all dilation, Forster is all contraction and ellipsis, and in these contrasts I find his fascination. He is also a pretty good storyteller, even if his stories have delicate arcs.
Maurice was written after Howards End and before A Passage to India. It is a delicate confection that treats of the young man Maurice Hall, as he moves through his young adulthood, first enamored of another Cambridge student, Clive Durham (from the upper classes) until he finds love and permanent happiness (at least the hope of it) with Clive’s gamekeeper, Alec Scudder, and comes to terms–and peace–with his homosexuality. But because this is Forster, it’s also about class, the collapse of innocence as England prepares for the Great War, and Forster moving his characters around toward the ends they all most richly deserve.
Forster is not embarrassed to have an agenda in Maurice or elsewhere in his fiction. The world he presents is not quite realistic; if it were, you would be unable to survive in it for long, since the intensity of even the slightest feeling or emotion would send you to bed prostrate with exhaustion at the mere act of living. This is how Forster makes James look gawky. And when you realize that the flowers, the bushes, and even the buildings (dorm rooms and boathouses both) are all symbolic of some economic or social phenomenon, you long for Hawthorne’s angry A-shaped clouds.
Maurice will seem precious to today’s gay and lesbian men and women, maybe even unnecessary, but when it was published in the early 1970s it could easily have been the salvation for any young man who thought his fate was only to be another bitter Boy in the Band. Forster knew at the time of writing that, if his story did not end happily, there would be no point it writing it; he required hope.
And hope is what the book still projects in these days of struggling marriage equality. Maurice reminds us of the consequences of life in the closet. There is NO going back. Read Maurice and be convinced. And see the beautiful movie staring James Wilby as Maurice and the impossibly young and beautiful Hugh Grant and Rupert Graves (now playing Lestrade in “Sherlock”).