Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Don Gorton on the Significance of Maurice

. . . and its relationship to the cause
of gay liberation

These tough economic times have meant a cut back on the number of magazines to which I subscribe. Two publications that I consider indispensable, however, are: The National Catholic Reporter and The Gay and Lesbian Review.

In the most recent issue of the latter is a well-written and illuminating piece by Don Gorton on E. M. Forster’s groundbreaking novel, Maurice. I’ve taken the liberty of reprinting Gorton’s article (in two installments) - accompanied by relevant links and by images from the novel’s 1987 film adaptation. (Maurice, described as “a rich filmgoing experience and one of the most beautiful films in all of queer cinema,” made the top ten in a recent poll conducted by to ascertain the 50 Greatest Gay Movies of all time. These films are considered the most endearing and honest when it comes to celebrating and exploring lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender themes in cinema.)

So without further ado, here is Part 1 of Don Gorton’s excellent article, “Maurice and Gay Liberation.” Enjoy! (And, if you can, subscribe to the Gay and Lesbian Review! You won’t be disappointed).


Maurice and Gay Liberation

By Don Gorton

The Gay and Lesbian Review
November-December 2009

Written in a burst of inspiration in 1913 and ’14 and set in the England of the Edwardian Age, E. M. Forster’s Maurice was “dedicated to a happier year,” though the author had no conception of when that might be. Forster shared the manuscript with trusted friends, including D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, T. E. Lawrence, Lytton Strachey, and Paul Cadmus, but would not publish the novel during his lifetime. Only in 1971, a year after Forster’s death, would the novel appear in print.

A hybrid of the traditional marriage novel and the bildungsroman genre, Maurice was revolutionary for its presentation of same-sex love culminating in a “happily ever after” ending. Forster later declared that the “happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write [it] otherwise.” In the Edwardian Age the suggestion that gay people were capable of forming loving unions to last a lifetime was blasphemous, subversive, and probably criminal.

The theme of Maurice can be described as
essentially the search for a compatible social construct
by which the protagonist can understand himself
and go on to self-actualization.

Even in 1971, it was the happy ending, dubbed the “greenwood idyll,” that came in for the severest criticism when the novel was finally published. Indeed, the notion of Maurice abandoning his family, friends, and career to build a life for himself and Alec in the primeval woods of England, like Robin Hood’s merry men sheltering in Sherwood Forest, stretched the imagination of even the newly arisen gay liberation movement. Although difficult to defend as plausible fiction set in the years leading up to World War I, Forster’s insistence on the triumph of same-sex love, reflected in his hopeful dedication to “a happier year,” forms the foundation of Maurice’s significance for the modern GLBT civil rights movement. On the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, which catalyzed that movement, and a century after the Edwardian Age, an examination of the novel’s relationship to the cause of gay liberation is timely.

Maurice is the prototypical gay-affirming coming-of-age novel. The title character, a conventional upper-middle-class Edwardian in every respect down to his class snobbery, confronts unconscious desires that begin to make themselves felt in adolescence. It is not until his second year at Cambridge University, when he meets Clive Durham, that Maurice begins his long, arduous climb to self-understanding. His realization that he’s attracted to other males, weeks after Clive confesses that he has fallen in love with him, comes only after vehement denials and a bout of “madness.”

Maurice is the prototypical
gay-affirming coming-of-age novel.

Maurice differs strikingly from post-Stonewall gay novels in that the protagonist from the beginning lacks access to any conventional discourse with which to frame his same-sex desire. In the aftermath of the highly publicized trials of Oscar Wilde in 1895, English society doubled down on the view that “the love that dare not speak its name” was something so vile that it couldn’t even be mentioned. Whether Maurice looked to education, law, medicine, or religion, homosexuality was spoken of only elliptically, in the merest “scraps of language,” which made the condemnation of it all the more baneful. An unreflective man ill-equipped to comprehend this challenge, Maurice spends most of his time in a “muddle.”

The theme of Maurice can be described as essentially the search for a compatible social construct by which the protagonist can understand himself and go on to self-actualization. At Cambridge, Maurice becomes acquainted with a character named Risley (based on Forster’s Bloomsbury friend Lytton Strachey), who challenges the compulsory silence imposed on unconventional subjects by insisting that people should “talk, talk, talk.” Risley stands as an antidote to the repression of authentic feelings, including those that are taboo, and it is through Risley that Maurice meets Clive.

Clive had found a model of homosexual affirmation in the culture of ancient Greece and the writings of Plato, and adhered to the stylized ideal of male bonding acclaimed in The Symposium and The Phaedrus. Clive assists Maurice’s self-discovery by giving him the referent he seizes upon when he says “I have always been like the Greeks and didn’t know it.”

Clive extols homosexuality as a higher form of love, a spiritual connection that must be left physically unconsummated to uphold its surpassing nobility. Yet a love so beaten down by over-intellectualization will starve for lack of sustenance. Maurice is left to burn, while Clive, according to the narrator, somehow becomes attracted to women. Commentators have labored to make sense of the cryptic and enigmatic report of Clive’s re-orientation, with the view that he is yielding to proscription and class pressure being the most favored. To give Clive’s sudden change context, Merchant and Ivory added a scene to their film version in which Risley is entrapped by a handsome police decoy and convicted of “gross indecency” in a case parallel to that of Oscar Wilde. The fear spawned by Risley’s ruination motivates Clive in the film version to recant his love for Maurice and seek a wife.

The loss of Clive devastates Maurice, who’s left to struggle with his homosexuality without his partner and mentor. Three sexual encounters with other men alarm him. In hope of changing, he confides to his doctor that he’s an “unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort,” but is told his situation is “rubbish” and must not be discussed. He turns to an American psychiatrist, who coolly labels his condition “congenital homosexuality,” which can be “cured” in half of the cases he sees. Hypnotic suggestion is this doctor’s methodology, but the treatment is doomed once Maurice has his first sexual liaison with Clive’s lusty young under-gamekeeper, Alec.

Alec energetically pursues Maurice as he continues to visit Clive’s country estate Penge, chasing after his carriage, grabbing him to get away from the local rector, and then watching the window of the room where Maurice is sleeping. Scarcely aware of what he’s doing, on two separate nights Maurice calls out his window: “Come!” On the second invitation, Alec climbs the conveniently available ladder and joins Maurice in bed.

To find their way to fulfillment, Maurice and Alec must get past the class difference. Alec thinks Maurice is treating him disrespectfully by not answering his letters, while Maurice grows fearful that he’s being set up for blackmail. The climactic encounter tellingly occurs in the Bloomsbury section of London, at the British Museum, where the two thrash out powerful and warring emotions flanked by Assyrian winged bulls. Spending the night together afterward, they progress toward understanding their love, with the “flesh educating the spirit,” as Forster describes it. Maurice formulates a plan, and the men make heroic sacrifices to be together. At last glimpsing self-realization, Maurice takes his leave of Clive, and he and Alec disappear into England’s “greenwood,” never again to separate. In a counterpoint to the happy ending, we catch a glimpse of a wistful Clive, toward the end of his life, haunted by a mystical vision of his lost lover beckoning him from an eternal Cambridge spring to “come.”

Maurice asserts the truth
that gays cannot become fully human,
fully alive, unless we embrace who we are.

When Maurice declares his love for Alec to Clive’s “thin sour disapproval,” he speaks with such an uncharacteristic clarity that Clive asks him, “Who taught you to talk like this?” Maurice’s reply, “You, if anyone,” begs the question, because Clive himself has never attained this kind of self-awareness. In fact, the unmentioned source of Forster’s idea for an enduring love “outside class, without relations or money” was the relationship of proto-gay-activist Edward Carpenter and his working-class partner George Merrill, who lived at Milthorpe in rural Derbyshire. Carpenter, in turn, took his inspiration from Walt Whitman and the ideal of a democratic “love of comrades.” We know this connection only from Forster’s “terminal note,” in which he described an affectionate touch on the backside by Merrill at Milthorpe as the spark for Maurice.

“Muddled” Maurice would have been unfamiliar with Carpenter or Whitman, so the four corners of the novel do not fully explain how he came to the insights that enabled him to plan a lifelong relationship with Alec. With an inspired push from the author, Maurice travels the last leg of his metaphoric journey from valley to mountaintop in an unseen leap. Through this brilliant authorial intrusion, Maurice foretells a post-Stonewall liberationist sensibility. Forster affirms gay self-acceptance and same-sex love that can thrive despite social reprobation. Maurice asserts the truth that gays cannot become fully human, fully alive, unless we embrace who we are. Forster bears witness to the centrality of coming to terms with one’s homosexuality in the formation of character for gay people. In the England of Forster’s construction, acceptance of being gay can take one outside of the dreary, suburban conventions that stifle authenticity. Homosexuality offers an escape from the suffocating English class system, anathematized as toxic to healthy relationships and human happiness.

Forster exposes the willful ignorance of his times when he has Clive announce that “[a]s long as they talk of the unspeakable vice of the Greeks they can’t expect fair play.” Elsewhere, he lays bare the scientific backwardness of earlier medical understandings of homosexuality and argues that it’s useless and pointless to try to change someone’s sexual orientation. With subtle irony Forster pillories the pretentiousness of established religion and deftly exposes the incongruities pervading society’s attitudes toward sex. His fiction provides a gay-positive discourse for individuals needing a framework to comprehend who they are, the idea of same-sex relationships, and a place for themselves in society.

NEXT: Part 2

See also the previous Wild Reed post:
Celebrating Two Pioneers

1 comment:

crystal said...

I haven't read the novel but did rent the movie a few years ago and thought it was pretty good.

Happy birthday to your mom, too :)