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.
The society described by Forster broke up fast after the First World War, which was one of the reasons why he found it impossible to continue to write novels. But even if it has vanished and platonic love has not the réclame it once had, to imagine that the emotions, the fears, the doubts and dilemmas that Forster described are no longer experienced by the young betrays an ignorance of life and an acceptance of current cliché. A friend of Forster told him that his novel had dated but that is precisely what it has not. Forster himself feared that it might have been weakened by anachronisms like half-sovereign tips and pianola records and undergraduates walking arm in arm and addressing each other by their surnames, to say nothing of Libs, Rads, and Terriers (Liberals, Radicals, and members of the Territorial Army).
But all novels date in this way, and it is precisely this actuality that makes us believe that his characters lived and rode bicycles in Norfolk jackets or listened to Beethoven in the Queen’s Hall. The fact that society’s view of homosexuality or of divorce has changed does not invalidate the novels of another age. A platonic homosexual passion blossoming among the taboos of society and the bovine philistinism of the public school undergraduates, who would be quick to spot any deviant behavior which appeared to affront the minutest point of etiquette as sanctified by their class, is no more dated than Anna Karenina’s horror of divorce in a society that accepts everything in adultery except the acknowledgment of its consequences. Society may today tolerate homosexual behavior and accept divorce as natural, but the agonies of shame, guilt, and despair suffered by those who lived before are real and move us if the artist can re-create them in fictive form.
Maurice’s Cambridge is no more idyllic than Rickie’s, but whereas in The Longest Journey Rickie’s friends are there to discuss the difference between appearance and reality, Maurice’s Cambridge acquaintances are there to complete his self-revelation. There is an undergraduate, Chapman, a conventional prig from his public school who will later marry Maurice’s sister: Chapman is what Maurice would have become had he not listened to his heart. There is a very different undergraduate, Risley, a sketch of Lytton Strachey, who uses “strong but unmanly superlatives,” androgynous, clever, irreverent, irrepressible, and disturbing. Maurice realizes that as a decent public schoolboy he should despise him, but he obscurely feels Risley might help him; and indeed Risley does, in that he is one of the agents who rouse Maurice from his class-induced torpor, and he will help him again, sensing that Maurice is queer, by lending him a book when he is in despair.
The three boys meet for lunch with Risley’s cousin, the dean of the college, Mr. Cornwallis (had Forster in mind the name of Francis Warre-Cornish, vice-provost of Eton, whose daughter married Desmond MacCarthy?), one of those beneficent unmarried dons who is genial and hospitable to his young men, but whom Risley, to the outrage of the other two, dismisses after they leave as delightful but a eunuch. And indeed Mr. Cornwallis will behave like a eunuch when he rusticates Maurice from college for cutting too many lectures and being rude to him because he senses that Maurice and Clive are in love. He is one of those dons who “felt it right to spoil a love affair when they could.”
Throughout the novel Forster emphasizes how hard it is for someone such as Maurice to learn to trust his heart. He is a good-looking schoolboy from suburbia, a Pembroke or a Wilcox in the making, destined for the stock exchange, satisfied by his class though not aggressively so. He has only to go home for the vacation to return to Cambridge “thinking, and even speaking, like his mother or Ada.” Yet he also notices that at the height of his love affair with Clive, his family treat him as the master of the house: when the affair is broken his mother and sisters disregard him. At school he has become troubled by some indefinable sexual apprehension, but he is afraid to discover it and fights all the way against self-knowledge. It is only when he sees how shattered Clive is by his initial repulsion, and how hard it is to undo the damage caused by his insensitivity, that he becomes capable of salvation.
Hitherto—if human beings can be estimated—he had not been worth anyone’s affection, but conventional, petty, treacherous to others, because to himself. Now he had the highest gift to offer. The idealism and the brutality that ran through boyhood had joined at last, and twined into love…. Pain had shown him a niche behind the world’s judgments, whither he could now withdraw.
The tiffs, the reconciliations, and the profound happiness of their love affair are conveyed mainly through conversation and descriptions of how they behaved. They are unsatisfactory. Passion in Forster’s novels often is. “His voice was feeble but clear, and his face like a sword.” “Then, savage, reckless, drenched with the rain, he saw in the first glimmer of dawn the window of Durham’s room, and his heart leapt alive and shook him to pieces….”
None of this will do, and there is the same weakness that affects other novels, for instance, the Stephen Wonham or the George Emerson scenes. When Tolstoy describes the romances and romps of the Rostov family we feel he observed them through a spyglass and understood how they related to the scheme of things. When Forster describes Maurice and Clive in love, we feel he is observing them with an intruding sympathy, believing that he has to excuse them, although the theme of the book is that they need no excusing.
And their love scene drew out, having the inestimable gain of a new language. No tradition overawed the boys. No convention settled what was poetic, what absurd. They were concerned with a passion that few English minds have admitted, and so created untrammelled. Something of exquisite beauty arose in the mind of each at last, something unforgettable and eternal, but built of the humblest scraps of speech and from the simplest emotions.
Forster does not deprecate or diminish this platonic affair. For him it is as valid and as real as consummated love. Perhaps because his Cambridge was a garden in a cloister, love could not be consummated there, but Forster does not think that juvenile and jejune are synonyms. Platonic love at Cambridge sometimes had strange consequences. As they grow older dons tend to become rum if they do not marry or have sex. The historian of Cambridge, Winstanley, who became vice-master of Trinity, once left among other bequests £200 to each of the young men to whom he had been especially devoted but cut one of them out of his will when he found that he had become an active homosexual.
Forster’s mentor, Lowes Dickinson, whose Greek View of Life was so influential in idealizing homosexuality, left private papers, which Forster read when he wrote his biography of Dickinson, revealing that he could obtain sexual satisfaction only by being trampled on. But rum though the forms of platonic love could be, Forster did not renege on Ansell’s vindication of Cambridge’s values in The Longest Journey which he thought so superior to those of the “great world.”
There is no great world at all only a little earth…full of tiny societies and Cambridge is one of them. All societies are narrow, but some are good, and some are bad. The good societies say, “I tell you to do this because I am Cambridge.” The bad ones say, “I tell you to do this because I am the great world.” They lie. And fools like you listen to them, and believe that they are a thing which does not exist and never has existed, and confuse “great” which has no meaning whatever, with “good” which means salvation.
One of the shocks in the novel is that it is Clive who breaks the idyl. For Clive at first appears as the “natural” homosexual, intelligent, superior, and sensitive, who has been unhappy at school and is full of Lowes Dickinsonian Hellenistic ideals. But those who appear to be Cambridge to their finger tips often fail to listen to her message. The letter of dismissal that he writes to Maurice is inadequate and insensitive. It is not an accident that his decision to do so is made while convalescing after an illness in Athens where he had hoped to give thanks to the gods but finds he can see “only dying light and a dead land.” The bogus literary ideas have come between him and reality. It is also significant that when years later he looks back on the affair he finds it ridiculous and has come to hate Cambridge, queerness, and Hellenism. He has adopted the values of the great world.
Clive is a cut above Maurice socially. He comes of a minor county family with pretensions but is not all that well off. At first Clive thinks he can have it both ways by marrying one of Maurice’s sisters but this precipitates a violent quarrel. Later he marries a typical English rose, settles down in the county intending to stand for Parliament, and lives like a member of the upper classes in good standing. Maurice continues to work as a stock-broker and lives in anguish. Dotty, modernist religion, represented by his dying grandfather, cannot help. Neither will medicine in the person of his old family doctor. Nor can science epitomized by a Harley Street mesmerist.
If anyone can be said to save him it is Risley, who floats into his life once more when they meet at a concert where Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony is being given. Risley tells him it should be called the Symphonie Incestueuse et Pathique since the composer dedicated it to his nephew with whom he was in love. Reading a life of Tchaikovsky gives Maurice the courage to go on and despise his doctors. During his “year in Hell” (the melodrama is Forster’s, who dedicated his book “To a Happier Year”) incidents have occurred that compel Maurice to face the distinction between love and lust, and it is interesting that Risley appears as a challenge to him just as on this point Strachey challenged Forster.
Forster always championed Strachey against his detractors, and though he kept his distance and disapproved of the form Strachey’s friendship with Virginia Woolf took because it seemed to feed on cruelty, he thought, like Maurice, that Strachey’s talk “helped,” perhaps because it spelled danger and adventure. As a graduate at Cambridge Strachey and his friends used to discuss after the fashion of G. E. Moore whether to fall in love with a good-looking athlete of adamantine stupidity was indicative of a bad or a good state of mind: they inclined strongly (but not unanimously) to the view that it was bad. When Strachey read Forster’s manuscript, he commented that the relationship of Maurice and the gamekeeper rested upon curiosity and lust, and would have lasted only six weeks.
Forster dissented. He had represented lust in his novel when Maurice is tempted to get off with an innocent young man, and when an elderly greasy man makes advances to him in a train and he sees “in this disgusting and dishonorable old age his own.” Forster’s own life was to become after he wrote A Passage to India a triumphant refutation of Strachey’s gibe. His devotion to his working-class friend, though he did not set up a ménage with him, endured the rest of his long life. His friend Sebastian Sprott, professor of philosophy and sociology at Nottingham, who introduced Forster into the circles where he met his friend, was another who had such a constant relationship: he died inconsolable this August eighteen months after his own working-class companion had died. Forster’s answer to Strachey was simply that Maurice and his gamekeeper both had a quality which made lifelong devotion possible and which Strachey lacked: simplicity. But does Forster convince us of this in his novel?
Maurice meets Alec, the gamekeeper, on a visit to Clive, with whom he is now superficially reconciled. (There is a characteristic symbol—when Maurice is trying to save their love he telephones Clive but the line goes dead. When now he goes to stay with him, “however pleasant Clive and his wife were to him, he always felt they were at the other end of a telephone wire.”) Alec has irritated Maurice by turning down a tip as if it were inadequate, and mysteriously wherever he goes, the gamekeeper seems to be hovering. Once again strange apprehensions begin to visit him. At Cambridge he had won back Clive after repulsing him by jumping through his window at dawn, and as he cannot sleep in his dreary loneliness, he throws open his bedroom window and murmurs to the night: “Come.”
Unlike the time when Professor Godbole called on Krishna and the god declined to come, this god does come. The gamekeeper, who has been waiting in the garden, climbs up a ladder, enters his bedroom, and they go to bed together. But the “great world” puts up an argument which it expects to be final. Post coitum omnis animal triste est, and just as Philip Heriton in Where Angels Fear to Tread was enraged in hearing that his sister-in-law had fallen in love with an Italian dentist, so Maurice cannot endure hearing that Alec is the son of the local butcher. He panics. He tells himself that he has defiled Clive’s house, insulted his wife, and sinned against his own family. He goes back on his promise to meet Alec again, and when he begins receiving telegrams and letters from him he sees the threat of blackmail and phones the mesmerist for another appointment.
Maurice’s attitude toward the working class is insufferably pre-1914. “They want drilling a bit,” he thinks. “They haven’t our feelings. They don’t suffer as we should in their place…. They’re rotten sportsmen.” But he is to learn that the poor can suffer. For Alec writes:
Mr. Maurice. Dear Sir. I waited both nights in the boathouse. I said the boathouse as the ladder as taken away and the woods is to damp to lie down. So please come to “the boathouse” tomorrow night or next, pretend to the other gentlemen you want a stroll, easily managed, then come down to the boathouse. Dear Sir, let me share with you once before leaving Old England if it is not asking to much. I have key, will let you in. I leave per Ss Normannia Aug 29. I since cricket match do long to talk with one of my arms round you, then place both arms round you and share with you, the above now seems sweeter to me than words can say. I am perfectly aware I am only a servant that never presume on your loving kindness to take liberties or in any other way.
It is a clever, and indeed touching, evocation, but something is not quite right. Alec would not have written “I am perfectly aware.” Forster was trying to convey the tenderness and yet the independence of his gamekeeper who is indeed going to try to black-mail Maurice in revenge for his cowardice. It is Maurice’s courage which saves him and not only induces him to see Alec again but to call his bluff and again make love to him. What enabled him to summon it up? The answer is instructive. It is the clientele of the stockbroking firm with whom Maurice works,
…whose highest desire seemed shelter—continuous shelter—not a lair in the darkness to be reached against fear, but shelter everywhere and always, until the existence of earth and sky is forgotten, shelter from poverty and disease and violence and impoliteness; and consequently from joy; God slipped this retribution in. He saw from their faces, as from the faces of his clerks and his partners, that they had never known real joy. Society had catered for them too completely. They had never struggled, and only a struggle twists sentimentality and lust together into love. Maurice would have been a good lover. He could have given and taken serious pleasure. But in these men the strands were untwisted; they were either fatuous or obscene, and in his present mood he despised the latter least. They would come to him and ask for a safe six per cent security. He would reply, “You can’t combine high interest with safety—it isn’t to be done.”
It was just such a struggle as Maurice put up when he was at his lowest ebb “because dignity demanded it.”
The only concession Forster really gave to the argument that the book dated was that in those days it was still possible in England to get lost, before urbanization had finally destroyed the ability to opt out of civilization, as the hippies try to do today. The admission is significant. The classic novel rarely ends on the last page: it continues in the reader’s mind after it finishes, and everything that has gone before is meant to convince the reader that what was unwritten would have taken place—that Elizabeth and Darcy, or Kitty and Levin, will live together ever after, that Lydgate and Vronsky may continue to live but are done for.
As in the case of Connie and Mellors, we have not been adequately prepared to visualize Maurice and Alec living in what Forster called the greenwood, and perhaps he sensed this: the unseen forces, voices, scents, Nature, which are at work in all Forster’s novels, are unleashed at the end, and Clive in years to come cannot recollect the moment when he sees Maurice for the last time and finally doubts that he ever heard his avowal of love. After a bit you wonder whether the carefully constructed retreats, quarrels, and reconciliations necessary to Maurice’s redemption actually took place.
The truth seems to me to be that the quarrels that Forster’s lovers have (as distinct from the exchanges between those who are not in love) are schematic and take place because according to the author’s theory quarrels are necessary to establish honesty, loyalty, and understanding of individuality between lovers. But in real life Forster, though often sharp to his friends and chilling to the benighted, would do a great deal to avoid a quarrel; and if quarrel he must, he did it on paper. There was no Frieda for him to throw plates at.
Both Lawrence and Forster in these two novels wanted to portray tenderness as the supreme achievement in love-making and neither succeeds. Lawrence because of a brutality which is either faked or defeats its objective; Forster because he had not at that time experienced what he wanted to write about. For Lawrence the gamekeeper is the symbol of sex and ruthless virility, for Forster he is the symbol of coziness.
Affection is a difficult emotion for the novelist to convey, and the delights of love play even more difficult—Maupassant succeeds in Une Vie—but the teasing, joking, sparring that go on as Maurice and Alec lie together in bed do not make us believe that they can live together. However mawkish at times Maurice and Clive are, they have plenty to chat to each other about. They relax. When Maurice and Alec are together, we can’t. Had the artist been in control, Forster might have conveyed his intention by the unspoken, the inference, the music that is heard when the orchestra has stopped playing; but the writer of the tract has taken over.
In describing Clive’s decorous marriage to Anne, Forster emphasizes that they make love without speaking and never see each other naked. They “ignored the reproductive and digestive functions,” the deed of sex seems to Clive “unimaginative,” best veiled in night and never discussed. To have made his protest in four-letter words against this kind of love-making, as Mellors did, was alien to Forster. It would have been still more alien for him to have described in physical detail Maurice’s and Alec’s encounters. (Forster once said to me: “If you let a prick in, it comes between you and art.”)
Yet somehow the Georgian reticence of which he disapproves in Clive and Anne seeps over his joyous couple. “O for the night that was ending, for the sleep and the wakefulness, the toughness and the tenderness mixed, the safety in darkness. Would such a night ever return?” Just as Lawrence’s prose sometimes falls into the cliché of the day and resembles Warwick Deeping’s, so Forster suddenly writes sentences that remind one of The Well of Loneliness. The very determination to smash the barrier of class creates a new obstruction between author and reader: the natural becomes winsome. I suspect that Forster had never had a sexual affair until he was in his forties.
Forster’s novels are about many things but always about class. It is as essential to him that Maurice’s lover should be working-class as it is that he be a man. Forster romanticized the working classes and any criticism of them to his face would be met with frigid indignation. The closest friends he made among the undergraduates at King’s, and those he helped most, were nearly always those from the humblest families: after all, during a large part of his life he had heard and seen the highhanded ways in which their betters patronized, bullied, and insulted them.
Even when the tide turned and Mrs. Minniver realized she could no longer get away with such behavior, Forster pursued her and her set relentlessly and exposed their newly found tolerance and kindliness. Mr. P. N. Furbank, Forster’s biographer, has written that Forster’s “chief feeling towards anyone who let him make love to them was gratitude. Intense gratitude led him to romanticise them, at least with one part of his mind, and by romanticising them he managed to keep them at a distance.” Wisely he never showed us what happened when Helen Schlegel went off with Leonard Bast. That was not crucial, and indeed Helen was to be punished for her romanticism. But in Maurice the omission is disastrous because you feel that at this point the novel is not truthful.
But directly you turn to his social observations, you see the old moralist at work. Of the gentry, “gratitude being mysteriously connected in their minds with ill-breeding,” he writes:
They only disliked people who wanted to know them well…and the rumour that a man wished to enter county society was a sufficient reason for excluding him.
Not only are a multitude of nuances made between the manners of the county and the manners of suburbia, but the tone of voice of the family doctor or of Maurice’s sister Ada are devastatingly reproduced, and the perfume of the English rose, whom Clive marries, wafts across the page: he is always telling people archly how full of a woman’s wiles she is and what a wonderful matchmaker and guide when a man and a woman are at cross-purposes. But she “had brought no money to Penge…she belonged to the same class as the Durhams, and every year England grew less inclined to pay her highly.”
There is also, one is relieved to see, a Forsterian clergyman. As in an Aldwych farce you know the clergyman will lose his trousers, so in a Forster novel you know that the clergyman will reveal himself as a bloodless killer of life. Here the High Church priest is said to love the lower classes and upbraids Clive for not repairing his cottages. But the moral of the book is that you cannot love a class but only another human being, and although the priest too turns up at the dock to see the gamekeeper emigrate, it is not because he cares for him—he cares for his soul which is apparently in danger because he has not been confirmed.
Forster’s friends valued both in his conversation and in his books what can best be called his wisdom. He made remarks which sometimes were very strange and set bells ringing in the mind; he also made observations which seemed not only to be true but pregnant with more truth if you could discover it. The gnomic utterances continue to fall from his lips in this novel. “Ecstasy,” he says, “cannot last, but it can carve a channel for something lasting.” Or again:
When love flies it is remembered not as love but as something else. Blessed are the uneducated, who forget it entirely, and are never conscious of folly or pruriency in the past, of long aimless conversations.
No great homosexual novel has yet been written. There are many important novels in which homosexual characters and situations appear, and numbers of clever technical attempts in minor works have been made to explore this or that part of homosexual life. At the moment it appears impossible because, while we may accept that homosexual relations are as normal and as unremarkable as heterosexual relations, the subject with all its history and hysteria and social overtones comes between the writer and his work and between him and his reader. Implicitly he is still explaining as Forster felt bound to explain.
In a late Postscript written in 1960, Forster referred to the change in public opinion toward homosexuality. For him it was a change from ignorance and terror to familiarity and contempt. “What the public really loathes in homosexuality is not the thing itself, but having to think about it…. Unfortunately, it can only be legalised by Parliament, and Members of Parliament are obliged to think or to appear to think.” That was why Clive as a magistrate would continue to sentence Alec though Maurice might get off.
On the point of fact Forster was unduly pessimistic. He lived to see the law in England reformed. The eccentric but courageous Earl of Arran twice initiated a debate and then passed a bill in the House of Lords (which for a short time became quite a forcing ground for such reforms), but it failed to get a reading in the House of Commons. In 1968 the same bill was introduced in the Commons, and for the second time Arran fought it through the House of Lords and it became law.
But if Forster read the debates he would not have found much to make him change his mind. The opponents of the bill fought to the last ditch and had to be bought off on several occasions. As a result, homosexual relations between consenting adults in England are now no longer illegal, but the age of consent is twenty-one although children now become legally adult at eighteen and the age of consent in heterosexual relations is sixteen; whatever your age and regardless of consent, you will be punished in Britain if you go with any member of the armed forces or of the merchant navy; and soliciting is naturally still an offense.
Lord Dilhorne (a former Conservative government attorney general and bitter opponent of the bill) fought what may be described as a rearguard action to maintain the act of sodomy as a crime and taunted the Archbishop of Canterbury (who was in favor of the bill) with the offense of not declaring himself as unalterably opposed to its legalization. (The Archbishop in every sense of the phrase sat tight.) A former head of the Boy Scout movement prophesied that England would decline as Ancient Rome had declined—and for the same deplorable reasons. The doyen of the House of Lords, Lord Salisbury, waited to the end of the debate to turn on Lord Arran and plead for a closing of the ranks to preserve moral standards. (Lord Arran’s reaction was singularly aristocratic. He in no way objected to Lord Salisbury’s opposition, but took the strongest exception to his discourtesy: he thought that Lord Salisbury as his kinsman should have recognized that he had a duty first to tell him the line he was going to take.)
None of this astonished Forster. He had for years advocated publicly the reform of the law in his usual gentle, teasing manner. In 1953 he drew attention in the New Statesman to the fact that in one single police court there had been 600 prosecutions the preceding year for homosexual offenses and wondered what on earth the total count must be. Why do they solicit? “They are impelled by something illogical, by an unusual but existent element in the human make-up,” and, so he added, “One is overwhelmed by disgust or pity.” Pity, he made it clear, was the emotion he felt. But what was one to do? Imprison them? You cannot sweep it under the carpet. Hang them? Forster thought that the prospect of a holocaust each generation was probably sufficiently awe-inspiring to preclude a return to this once popular deterrent.
Kingsley Martin, the then editor, added his own contribution in which he said that he agreed with Forster that homosexuality between consenting adults was a social evil but that the law should be reformed. Forster in fact had said no such thing, as an indignant contributor pointed out the next week, but although Forster never pretended to hold opinions that he did not hold, he was willing to dissemble and keep his powder dry. When the Wolfenden Report appeared recommending reform, he attacked those who claimed that no reputable body of opinion was behind the Report, and he spoke sharply of the practice of the police in using agents as provocateurs in order to obtain convictions. Nevertheless, whether it was this issue or censorship or the libel laws or the protection of the countryside, he did not disdain to deploy some of the arts of practical politics.
When the undertakers bear away a dead writer’s body, the resurrection men move in to persuade us that he is immortal. Dying at ninety-one, Forster was so old that the process had begun when he was still alive, and Miss B. J. Kirkpatrick’s excellent bibliography appeared some years ago. The next step is to publish the uncollected writings identified in the bibliography and buried in obscure nooks. Forster’s unpublished writings between 1900 and 1915 have now been collected in Albergo Empedocle and Other Writings. No one should suppose that any of the pieces are important. The pundit of the liberal heart and intelligence did not develop until the 1920s and he had such a good opinion of his own writing that he would himself have published anything worth publishing.
Perhaps one should be thankful that the undergraduate parodies and sketches do not startle us and are never facetious. Lectures to the Working Men’s College will add nothing to his reputation though they tell us something of his ease in addressing those he considered his social equals. Nor will his first short story, written as early as 1902, though it is the start of Forster’s long exploration of the falsity and heartlessness of those who “love art.” It turns, I regret to say, on the device of the transmigration of souls (“I was a King in Babylon, and you were a Christian Slave”), a dubious theme which was the undoing of a generation of writers from Kipling to Sapper. The best pieces are those about India. But Forster has been lucky in his editor, Mr. George Thomson. He has done the job with tact, taste, and a complete absence of egoism or pomposity. The print is particularly handsome.
Forster as a living artist had a long inning. The poets and writers of the Thirties admired and accepted him. In the Forties when it became clear that his main work was completed, Lionel Trilling acclaimed him, and he passed into the universities as a classic. The young in England continued to read him until he was over eighty. Then they stopped, and he became a monument. These two books will be invaluable to those who want to pull it down and say that it is made of scrap iron and not bronze.
It does not matter. What they say will be virtually irrelevant. Forster the man has yet to appear and he will be found to have as many echoes and mysteries as his novels. The oddity of his mind expressed itself in the originality of his judgments (not, of course, always right) and of his perceptions about the nature of things (nearly always fertile, fruitful, and still sprouting). He was one of the greatest moralists of his time. He wrote one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. Nothing else need be put in the scales.
October 21, 1971