Some spoilers included
Maurice may not be E.M. Forster’s best or most famous novel, but it’s a lovely, heart-felt, and surprising story, particularly given the era in which it was created. Written in 1913, the novel wasn’t published until 1971, a year after Forster died. Homosexuality wasn’t decriminalized in the United Kingdom until 1967, so a story about love between men that doesn’t end in tragedy could have been seen as promoting criminal activity. At the very least, it would have been subversive and probably a give-away about Forster’s own sexual orientation. In a 1964 diary entry (reference), Forster noted, “I should have been a more famous writer if I had written or rather published more, but sex has prevented the latter.” That confession suggests that, perhaps, Maurice is his most honest, or at least most personal, novel.
The story follows young Maurice Hall as he goes through public school and then Cambridge. He is painted as ordinary, of average intelligence, and not always the kindest of men to his mother and two sisters. His sexual confusion is immediately apparent to the reader–he thinks of sex often and is heartbroken when he learns that a young servant named George with whom he used to play has left his family’s service, yet he never connects these emotions with their true meaning. At Cambridge, he develops an intense friendship with Clive Durham, yet he is still unhappy. “He stared at the ceiling with wrinkled mouth and eyes, understanding nothing except that man has been created to feel pain and loneliness without help from heaven.” Shortly after these reflections, Clive confesses that he loves Maurice, a suggestion that leaves Maurice scandalized and to which he exclaims, “Oh rot!”
Clive’s broken heart and fear of being exposed cause him to shut Maurice out, which is enough to make Maurice finally realize his nature (what’s referred to in the novel as being “like Oscar Wilde,” homosexuality not being a commonly used term at the time). In finally accepting himself, Maurice reflects, “He would not deceive himself so much. He would not–and this was the test–pretend to care about women when the only sex that attracted him was his own. He loved men and always had loved them. He longed to embrace them and mingle his being with theirs. Now that the man who returned his love had been lost, he admitted this.”
Maurice wins Clive back and they enjoy happy times together until Clive suddenly rejects his own homosexuality and marries a sweet woman named Anne. An abandoned Maurice is left to struggle with his emotions and determine whether he, too, should give in to convention, dooming himself to a loveless life.
This story could have been conventionally tragic–the scenes where Maurice consults hypnotists and physicians to help cure him of his “affliction” are indeed heartbreaking, and I felt it marching almost inevitably towards a devastating end. However, at the risk of spoiling this novel, I think it’s important to reveal that Maurice does eventually find happiness with another man, because that “twist” is what makes Maurice so remarkable. For a novel written in 1913 to suggest that two men in a gay relationship could be happy is astonishing, and I wish Forster had been able to publish during his lifetime. Yet the story isn’t completely without tragedy; Maurice’s final confrontation with Clive reveals that Clive is the one destined to live a regrettable life, having sold his true self for what was more convenient.
Maurice got mixed reviews when it was published in 1971, drawing some criticism for the ending and some for the character of Maurice Hall. I find both these criticisms unfair. That Maurice Hall is rather dull and often not very nice is part of what makes the novel genuine; a heterosexual hero would never be expected to be flawless in order for us to hope for his happiness. That the snobbish Maurice and rough-around-the-edges Alec could end up together may seem trite to those of us who have ever seen a romantic comedy, but this was written in an age when homosexuality was considered a disease.
While not the most sophisticated novel of Forster’s career, Maurice deserves admiration and a place on your book shelf.