It has for long been known that E. M. Forster had a novel that at first he could not, and then would not, publish in his lifetime. But he intended it to be published after his death, and he left an account of how he came to write it. In the spring of 1913, when he was thirty-four, Forster was suffering from that perpetual loneliness which for a bachelor is the first sign of middle age. One day he went to visit Edward Carpenter, a curious late-Victorian clergyman turned free-thinker, nature lover turned socialist—a sage and liberator to some of Forster’s generation, who lived with his working-class friend George Merrill in a cottage in Derbyshire.
During their talk Merrill did to Forster what apparently he often did to young men—he touched him just above his bottom. “The sensation,” Forster recalled, “was unusual, and I still remember it, as I remember the position of a long vanished tooth. It was as much psychological as physical. It seemed to go straight through the small of my back into my ideas…. I then returned to Harrogate, where my mother was taking a cure, and immediately began to write Maurice.”
This happened to occur at a moment in time when Forster was at his most creative. On his return from India the previous year he had begun work on a novel which became A Passage to India, but he got stuck in the Marabar Caves. The next spring he began another novel called Arctic Summer, in which he again got stuck, and this he did not finish. But he had no difficulty in finishing Maurice. The difficulty was to publish it, for it was entirely about homosexuality.
It is the story of an ordinary philistine young man who discovers that he is homosexual when a fellow undergraduate at Cambridge falls in love with him. The affair is ecstatic but platonic. After two years, however, Clive, the friend, breaks it up and eventually gets married to live in upper-middle-class style. Maurice can find no way out from his guilt and loneliness until, on a visit to Clive at his country house, he establishes a curious antagonistic relationship with a gamekeeper called Alec Scudder.
They go to bed together, but their love appears doomed because the gamekeeper’s family has paid for him to emigrate to Argentina. Disconsolately Maurice turns up at the dock to see him off, and, when Alec fails to appear, remembers that Alec had begged him more than once to meet at the boathouse on Clive’s estate. His instinct is right and there he finds his lover waiting. The book ends with Maurice—or rather Forster—having the exquisite pleasure of telling Clive that he is flinging up his job and his status as a gentleman to go off with his gamekeeper.
Many will greet this book with a titter. Someone has unkindly suggested that it should have been called “To the Boathouse,” and the appearance of yet another gamekeeper among the demon lovers of Georgian fiction is positively alarming. Since comparison with Lady Chatterley’s Lover is inevitable, perhaps all that needs to be said is that, as always, Lawrence had the greater imaginative force and intensity and depth of perception. The inner life of his protagonists seems to break out of the fissures which he points to in English society, and he knew how the poor thought and talked, and what working-class culture was, in a way that was denied to Forster.
Both novels, when set against the masterpieces each man wrote, are failures. All the more tragically, for both felt themselves possessed when they wrote and were convinced of the supreme importance of what they had to say about sexual relations. Perhaps for that reason the novels also have to perform the work of tracts, and creation gets elbowed aside by argumentation. If Lawrence’s ambition, range, and achievement were greater, so too was his failure, and there is nothing in Forster so overwritten as some of the passages of sexual achievement in Lady Chatterley’s Lover—nor anything so falsely poetic as the twining of flowers in Connie’s pubic hair. Set beside this mad Van Gogh landscape Forster’s novel resembles a Marie Laurencin.
Forster knew he was writing a tract: he was determined, so he tells us, to have a happy ending lest anyone should suppose that he thought homosexuality ruined and corrupted. Tracts are rarely funny and we get hardly a glimpse of his humor. Those fierce contoured plots have disappeared. “Yes—oh dear yes—the novel tells a story,” and this time it is Forster and not Sir Walter Scott who is telling it. (“What happened to a decent, rather stupid, middle class Englishman who discovered that he was attracted only by men.”) So the reader begins to ask, “And then?” and certainly turns the pages avidly to see what happens next. But the book feels thin in the way that Forster’s other novels never do.
Nevertheless, Maurice is not negligible. We never doubt, as we so often do in the novels of our time, that Forster believes in the supreme importance of human beings, and hence of their actions, and hence of the moral meaning of those actions. His characters are never diminished by their environment. They are not allowed to shuffle off their responsibilities upon the inevitable processes of history or excuse themselves by identifying with the case histories in psychoanalysis. They have souls to be saved (in this world), and, as always with Forster, we believe salvation to be possible because he has no mercy.
Comparison with Lawrence may be inevitable but it is also dangerous. Our notions of sexuality have been affected by a debasement of Lawrence’s ideas and by the popularization of various semi-scientific studies of sexuality. People often therefore believe, as Lionel Trilling pointed out in his well-known review of the Kinsey Report, that sexual behavior should ideally be as free from restraints as possible and that the most satisfactory sexual encounter is one in which both lovers come to a climax as often as possible.
This was emphatically not Forster’s ethos. He was homosexual but in a definite and circumscribed way. He would not have thrown a party to celebrate his thousandth man. He would not have wished to go cruising with Mr. Gore Vidal. He was amused by other people’s sexual adventures or misadventures if they were unimportant, but appalled and critical if they were destructive. The Homintern was not for him a concept and he would not have joined the Gay Liberation Front.
Diaghilev and Nijinsky were symbols for his generation of what homosexuality could give to art, and he paid homage to Gide: he could scarcely be ignorant of it when four out of the fourteen men in the original Bloomsbury circle at the time he was writing Maurice were active homosexuals. He knew perfectly well that other homosexual worlds existed, such as the international set, and that numbers of homosexuals camped about as pansies and transvestites or felt impelled to solicit rough trade in public lavatories or to comb the pubs, or were in his time especially susceptible to guardsmen and sailors.
But he was not interested in them any more than he was interested in womanizers. He liked the comedy of sex but he disliked sexual boasting or feats of fucking. The great myth of potency which has so affected post-First World War American literature from Hemingway’s heroes to Updike’s couples never enthralled Forster. Forster thought sex was an attribute of love and, though ultimately indispensable, by no means the most important attribute. Loyalty was as indispensable and so was truthfulness. Love meant, as it did to others born Victorians, a lifelong involvement, changing its shape no doubt, but not something that in the nature of things would turn out to be a transitory affair.
He expected from homosexual love what his heterosexual friends expected when they married—eternal devotion and affection; and indeed because children, coquetry, and the impediments of social conventions surrounding females were absent from homosexual love, he expected more from it than from heterosexual love. He admitted that this was curious. When Clive speaks to Maurice irritably of his mother trailing girls before him to marry but thinking only of heirs, Maurice is filled with:
…an immense sadness—he believed himself beyond such irritants—had risen up in his soul. He and the beloved would vanish utterly—would continue neither in Heaven nor on Earth. They had won past the conventions, but Nature still faced them, saying with even voice, “Very well, you are thus; I blame none of my children. But you must go the way of all sterility.” The thought that he was sterile weighed on the young man with a sudden shame. His mother or Mrs. Durham might lack mind or heart, but they had done visible work; they had handed on the torch their sons would tread out.
These notions of sexuality are unfashionable but they are not ignoble or absurd. Forster was himself to ask wryly how many Italian boys would settle for a platonic relationship such as Maurice and Clive accepted, but historically it is entirely credible. Such a relationship was common in England and Germany. A. E. Housman in morose despair had to accept something far less satisfactory from Moses Jackson. Or there was the chaste passion felt for Harold Macmillan at Oxford by the boy who later became Mgr. Ronald Knox. Nor can one forget that the year after Forster left Cambridge Stefan George met Maximin in Munich, that boy of such astonishing beauty and affection, who became the center of the Kreis, was lavished with admiration, and after his death three years later was mourned with a poignancy which in the poet’s memoir and in his verse was to show with what intensity and purity platonic love can encircle and celebrate the beloved.
The cult of homosexuality was a European phenomenon, but in England the institutions of the upper classes intensified it. Their custom of sending their sons to boarding schools from the age of eight to eighteen, and of following this with a spell at one of the monastic colleges at Oxford or Cambridge or (if destined for the army) at Sandhurst or Woolwich, meant that physically and intellectually boys were almost entirely cut off from girls, and girls from them. This unrelenting masculinity was sanctified by a Christianity devoid of the Virgin Mary and female saints and by a curriculum devoted almost exclusively to Greek and Latin.
The classics, however, had begun to be romanticized. They were being reinterpreted by the more daring spirits as an alternative to the ethos of Victorian Christianity. The classical ethos also seemed to exclude women, and its underground texts were not merely the Symposium or the ninth lecture of Maximus Tyrius but heroic statements such as that made by Philip of Macedon as he gazed upon the bodies of the Theban lovers who had died in battle against him: “Perish the man who suspected that these men either did or suffered anything base.” The Hellenism of Maurice’s Cambridge is as historically accurate as the smugness of his suburban home.