Monday, December 07, 2009

Don Gorton on the Significance of Maurice (Part 2)

Following is Part 2 of Don Gorton’s excellent article, “Maurice and Gay Liberation,” from the November -December 2009 issue of The Gay and Lesbian Review. It’s accompanied by images from the 1987 film adaptation of E.M. Forster’s landmark novel, starring James Wilby as Maurice and Rupert Graves as Alec. (For Part 1, click here.)


[T]he positive impact of [E. M. Forster’s] revolutionary portrayal of gay love was withheld for 57 years due to Forster’s decision to publish [Maurice] only posthumously. Forster has been chided by gay commentators for failing to publish Maurice during his lifetime, though his fears of censorship, defamation, and even prosecution were not unwarranted. Consider the experience of the less gay-affirming portrayal of lesbianism in The Well of Loneliness, published in 1928, which was censored and used to stigmatize its author, Radclyffe Hall.

It should also be noted that the happy endings in Maurice are limited to the pair of lovers, Maurice and Alec. Clive is tormented in old age after a lifetime wasted in a loveless marriage. Dr. Steven Centola, a Jungian psychologist, argues that Maurice fails to complete the final stage of the developmental process of “individuation.” Instead of re-emerging into the world and engaging society as a fully self-aware person, Maurice disappears with Alec into the greenwood. They save each other by hiding in darkness where their love will be left alone.

For Forster, it was enough that
“when two are gathered together
majorities shall not triumph.”

The focus of the happy ending on Maurice and Alec suggests that Forster’s artistic purpose was carried through with the completion of their relationship. Associated with the free-spirited Bloomsbury Group, Forster was a disciple of philosopher G. E. Moore, who assigned transcendent value to “the pleasures of human intercourse.” In Howards End, with its famous epigram “only connect,” Forster seems to say that the right personal relationships can sort out larger social tensions, namely in the Schlegel–Wilcox alliance. The resolution in Maurice comports with the Bloomsbury Group’s emphasis on personal feelings and defiance of repressive social conventions as the path to fulfillment in life, unaccompanied by a program of wider social and political change. For Forster, it was enough that “when two are gathered together majorities shall not triumph.”

It is safe to assume that the author had no concept of how larger society could be transformed to free GLBT people from repression. Parliament appears in the novel only as another setting where Clive’s drift into heterosexual conformity will play itself out. Of course, there was no plausible model of political agitation for the atomized gay population of Forster’s time to draw upon. While a nascent gay rights movement was emerging in Germany in the early 20th century (snuffed out by the Nazis in the 1930’s), there was no correlate in the English-speaking countries until much later.

It is only when the modern GLBT civil rights movement adopted a strategy of community organizing that larger social and political transformation became conceivable. Coalescence gave rise to “gay power,” which in myriad iterations succeeded in redirecting the course of history. Theoreticians in New York articulated and disseminated an ideology of gay pride that GLBT people could incorporate in individual and collective acts of radical self-definition. Soon a new and potent discourse had developed that equipped gay men and lesbians everywhere to accept themselves, to demand respect, and to fight for fairness and equality.

It was amid the rapidly evolving subculture of gay liberation in 1971 that Maurice finally appeared. Emancipation had not progressed so far that Maurice was welcomed without controversy. Even after Stonewall, the novel was ahead of its time. A forthright portrayal of gay love that ended rapturously for the protagonists was more than some critics could stomach. Typical of the initial negative reviews was that of Philip Toynbee, writing in The Observer, who pronounced Maurice to be “novelettish, ill-written, humourless and deeply embarrassing.” Toynbee maintained that Forster’s literary gift depended upon the sublimation of his homosexual feelings, evident in the novels he published during his lifetime. Other early commentators were even more bluntly homophobic. The flavor of Julian Mitchell’s scathing review in The Guardian was captured in its title: “Fairy Tale.” The convention that fictional gay relationships must end badly for the protagonists was still regnant at the time.

The fact that gay and lesbian couples
can love long and selflessly enough to unite for a lifetime,
a shocking idea when Forster conceived of it,
now enjoys wide currency.

In the 1980’s, Maurice was gaining some prestige among critics. Robert Martin undertook a reassessment in a 1983 article, the first significant reading of the novel by a gay reviewer, in which he emphasized the protagonist’s progress from a “false solution” to the challenge of being gay with Clive, to more authentic self-actualization in the consummated relationship with Alec. By 1990, Maurice was being hailed as the “first gay liberation masterpiece” by Claude Summers. Even as he criticized what he referred to as “Forster’s self-erasure”—assuming Clive was the character the author most resembled—commentator John Fletcher stated in 1992 that Maurice “should now be recognized as the one classic portrayal of ‘masculine love’ . . . and the one explicitly homosexual bildungsroman produced within the mainstream of English literary tradition by a canonical author.” Meanwhile, in 1987, Merchant and Ivory released a sumptuous feature film adaptation of Maurice, which brought the story to the rapt attention of gay and lesbian audiences worldwide.

Maurice has found perhaps its greatest resonance in the 21st century, when the cause of same-sex marriage is on the march, a cause that Alec and Maurice poignantly emblemize. The fact that gay and lesbian couples can love long and selflessly enough to unite for a lifetime, a shocking idea when Forster conceived of it, now enjoys wide currency.

By 1990, Maurice was being hailed
as the “first gay liberation masterpiece”

Perhaps there is something of what psychologist Jung termed “synchronicity” in the fact Maurice was published at a time, soon after Stonewall, when it could dovetail with events that Forster never imagined. By 1971, society had progressed far enough and GLBT people had entered mainstream discourse with (still-subversive) demands for equality, so that the novel was no longer in danger of censorship. Gay people were coming out in large numbers, hungry for a literature which would acknowledge and validate their existence. Maurice and Alec’s departure from the darkness of the greenwood and Forster’s own posthumous self-outing symbolized our collective emergence from history’s dark closet. Over the 38 years since its publication, Maurice has made significant contributions to gay self-actualization, not as a political treatise but as an inspiration for individual readers.


The following music video highlights and celebrates those scenes from the film version of Maurice that beautifully depict the love that is possible between two men. Enjoy!

Note: This music video was created by Muttzrock777. The song featured is “Perfect” by PJ and Duncan (aka Ant and Dec).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Don Gorton on the Significance of Maurice (Part 1)
Celebrating Two Pioneers

Recommended Off-site Link:
Merry Old England - Michael D. Klemm (, April 2009).


Anonymous said...

First the novel, and then its faithful film adaptation, stand in the 20th century as one of the great homophiliac novels and films, the book appearing posthumously. I found the novel more moving than the film, but concede the film is among the finest adaptations from a novel.

It's worth comparing and contrasting the films (e.g., Netflix) that are abysmal -- mostly about psychotic lovers, huslters into heavy drugs and destructive relationships, and usually a quasi-tragic ending where the homophile experience may survive by the threads of its grit, not by the virtue of its love.

This dystonic films have caused me to begin taking in "campy" erotica in which men enjoy the pleasures of homoeroticism -- sans stereotypes -- than to date have become the largest pool of joive de voire viewing. Many "gay" novels of the dime store sort do a better job than virtually all film.

The premise of films -- whether Hollywood or Independent -- is inevitable tragedy. Chris Rice's A Density of Souls captures the same kind of elan that E. M. Forester captures.

Phillip Clark said...

I had seen your review of this film on your blog and I was inspired to see it for myself. From everything you said it looked wonderful, and it was indeed! I rented it from Netflix, and even though it was a bit slow moving at times, I enjoyed it emmensely.

Once again, it gave me a picture of the kind of life that I eventually hope to find with my Prince Charming someday, *sigh* wish it would be sooner rather than later! :(

Thanks for highlight this beautiful film Michael, now I just have to read the book because as we all know they're usually much better than the film adaption!

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Phillip,

I'm glad you enjoyed the film adaptation of Maurice. It is definitely one of the all-time great (and essential) gay-themed films.

I should also say that you have Don Gorton, not me, to thank and praise for the review I shared here. I think he did an absolutely great job at discussing Maurice (the novel) and placing it in the context of the ongoing history of gay rights.

Have a blessed Christmas, Phillip, and all the best for 2010.