Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Book Review - E.M. Forster's Maurice

Maurice by E.M. Forster
Published by: Book-of-the-Month Club
Publication Date: 1971
Format: Hardcover, 319 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Maurice Hall leads an unexceptional life. He is neither brilliant nor dense. He is comfortably middle of the road. But ever since his teacher took him aside one day to tell him about the facts of life due to Maurice's father being dead, Maurice has known he was different. He spent years lost in the fog of puberty and adolescence to one day find a hand reaching out of the mist to him making everything clear. That hand belonged to Clive Durham, and Maurice thought that Clive would be the love of his life. Because that is how Maurice is different, he has always been attracted to men, but never known the truth of himself till Clive. Clive and Maurice spend several happy years together until one day Clive says that after his recent illness he is no longer attracted to men and now wants to marry and settle down with the woman of his dreams. Maurice doesn't know how to handle this new information. He is at sea and can only see two ways out, he shall either kill himself or cure himself. Yet little does he realize that perhaps Clive wasn't the love of his life. Biting the bullet and visiting Clive and his new wife at the ancestral pile, Penge, Maurice meets an insolent young under-gamekeeper, Alec Scudder, who answers Maurice's cry of need in the night. But does Alec spell ruin or redemption for Maurice? Either way, it spells the end of the comfortable suburban life he has been living till now.

Maurice was written right before the outbreak of WWI yet was never published during Forster's lifetime. A select group of friends read it and passed it around between them but Forster didn't seem to think that it was worth it to publish the book during his lifetime. This is of course due to the public perception of homosexuality combined with his book having a happy ending. It would have been obscene libel and might have gone the way of Lady Chatterley's Lover. But there's a part of me that really wishes he had published it. To have an established author release a book that was a homosexual love story might have shaken up the society of the time and deservedly so. Think of the ruckus that Alec Waugh created when he published The Loom of Youth in 1917? Though the homosexual relationships in that book were very understated, it still had a major impact, and not just on his little brother Evelyn. With Maurice nothing is very understated, but nothing is lewd either. It shows two different, yet loving, homosexual relationships between consenting adults. But sadly, in this day and age, to some people this is still unacceptable. Sure there has been progress, even in Forster's lifetime the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 decriminalised homosexual acts in private between consenting adults, yet still there is not universal acceptance. I can't help but wonder if Maurice was published earlier, if more authors were to show that this is just human nature, that maybe, just maybe, acceptance would be more prolific.

The publication of Maurice being delayed made it an odd duck. It felt like it's time had already been and gone, missing the boat completely. Their are strong similarities to Brideshead Revisited and one wonders if it was all just a matter of timing that Brideshead Revisited is such a classic while Maurice is left to languish in LGBT centers in College Unions across the world. Brideshead Revisited captured the nostalgic zeitgeist of the time when it came out at the end of WWII. It looked back to the same world that Maurice did. A time when university was a golden haven and the world was still unsullied by strife. If Maurice had been published on the eve of WWI, perhaps it would have been the boon that Bridehead Revisited was to the next generation during the next war? But of course we will never know. And there is one crucial difference. The relationship between Sebastian and Charles, while believed to be homosexual in nature, was never boldly stated as such. Once again, despite both books being touchstones in gay literature, it is the ambiguous, the less bold, that is the most lauded and famous. Much like Dumbledore being gay. It's there for you to see, but if you choose not to, you can close your eyes to the truth. Because if there's one thing that people don't like, which is proven time and time again, it's the inconvenience of truth.

While the book in theory has so much going for it with being progressive and inclusive, in actuality it needed to be better written. It lacks a vital spark that some of Forster's books are lucky enough to capture, and I have to wonder if it wasn't the topic but the execution that made Forster hesitant to publish during his lifetime. In the afterward, or as Forster pretentiously labels it, "The Terminal Note," he says that in creating Maurice Hall he purposefully set out to make a character the exact opposite of himself. And I might add that he failed miserably at it. Authors put themselves into their books, this brings the characters to life. But if they have no touchstone, no common ground with their character, well how can they relate? How can they breath life into someone whom they know nothing about? Whom they share no life experiences with? This results in Maurice being a caricature. He's all bluster and panic and rage, yet never sympathetically. If Forster had included some of his own weaknesses, then he could relate, create some starting off point for the reader to connect with Maurice, instead we are always outsiders, and we don't like what we see one bit. There's a reason his family hates him, pompous, pretending, controlling, ass. In fact, I totally side with his family, I hate him too! Rarely am I ever rooting for a character to commit suicide, but every time Maurice contemplated this, well, I was there encouraging him to pick up the gun and end it all.

What initially drew me into the book was that it was so refreshing to find characters who just accepted who they were. Clive Durham never denied that he preferred men. Never. From his youngest yearnings he was honest with himself and his honesty let Maurice realize his own truth, that he too had always been only attracted to men. Of course it isn't dramatic if people don't have internal struggle and strife. So the book slowly went downhill from the radical notion of acceptance to the time honored tradition of "it was just a phase." Yes, perhaps it's just a phase that Clive went through, but Forster doesn't successfully convey this. It comes across as a lie that Clive's homosexuality was just something that everyone does at university. This amazingly insightful and thoughtful youth ends up towing the party line so that he becomes the honorable he was always meant to be. Ugh. While Maurice himself decides to go in another ludicrous direction, by trying to cure himself. Why do people feel a need to lie to themselves and try to fix things that don't need fixing? Yes, society was problematic, they were breaking the law of that time, but by believing what they were told they don't realize that it's society that is wrong, not them. To seriously consider hypnotism over true love with a member of the same sex? Now that is crazy.

But was Forster really advocating true love over conformity? While Maurice never "cures" himself what he does doesn't seem to me logical. Maurice tells Alec that two against the world can do anything. Well, to me, that means to live in defiance of society, to take on the world. To Maurice it means to retire from society and hide in the greenwood like actual fairies. WHAT!?! I thought two against the world can do anything? Apparently that only means to successfully hide from the world so no one knows what they are. So true love is acceptable only by complete removal from the society that is trying to conform them? The choice offered here isn't really a choice. You can make yourself an outcast, and let society win, or conform with society and let society win. So in other words, society will always win and how you lose is your only real choice. What bullshit is this really? Plus why not just go to a country, like France, where they didn't have to hide like the hypnotherapist suggested? I just don't get it. This book is so revolutionary in so many ways but slowly starts to take back every victory one by one till all we are left with is exile. Grumble grumble. Plus, all that is only touched on and never fully addressed, this idea of what it means to be homosexual depending on your class, to look outside Maurice's insular world, all left behind to run off into the woods. I feel the need to yell out my window, but not Maurice's enigmatic beckoning, more bemoaning in this case.


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