Author: E.M. Forster
E.M. Forster, best known for his novel A Passage to India, is a well-known literary figure, studied in many high schools and universities. Forster is known for writing about race relations in India during the time of its colonization by the British, as well as advocating for individual liberty, speaking out against censorship and openly opposing British colonialism.
What many do not know about Forster, however, is that he was gay, and in fact spent a large part of his life in a happy polyamorous triad with a man named Bob Buckingham. Buckingham was also married to a woman named Mary whom he loved vehemently and with whom Forster was good friends. At the end of his life both Bob and Mary tended to Forster, and were at his bedside when he died. Although he was not known to be polyamorous himself, Forster holds a special place in my heart because of this, and his novel Maurice bas been a favorite of mine since the day I picked it up.
Maurice is Forster’s only full-length novel dealing explicitly with themes of homosexuality. It was, as its dedication reads, “Written 1913, Finished 1914”, but was by Forster’s own request not published until 1971 which was the year after his death. He requested this because he feared the reaction that the book would bring, as in England homosexuality was a criminal offense for the majority of his life. To his close friends, though, Forster was out and so felt comfortable sending his unpublished book to them and instructing that it should be published once he had been passed away. The dedication also reads, “To a Happier Year”, which has always stuck a chord for me. Forster never lived to see a world where he felt comfortable enough to publish what I consider to be his loveliest book, and so never got to see what a positive reaction it has elicited from readers.
The story of Maurice follows its title character, Maurice Hall, as he comes of age in Edwardian England and is meant to take his place at the head of his family. Maurice is considered attractive and likable, though a bit unacademic, and by all accounts appears to fit the mold of the typical upper class Englishman from the early 1910s.
However while studying at Oxford Maurice becomes close friends with a peer named Clive Durham, and after studying Plato’s Symposium the two of them realize they have feelings for each other and begin to date in secret. Clive, though, will not even entertain the idea of two men in a sexual relationship and they are to keep their relationship “purely platonic.” This confused me at first because the modern meaning of platonic means neither sexual nor romantic, but apparently had different connotations during the Edwardian era. Clive simply means that the two of them will not have sex or engage in any sexual acts outside of the occasional kiss. Maurice is happy that he understands himself and his feelings a little better and that there’s someone who feels the same as him, so he’s happy to agree.
However, some time later Clive travels to Greece and, upon returning, tells Maurice that their relationship must come to an end. He cites how much “simpler” things would be if they were to be “normal” and date women as they are supposed to. Maurice is unable to accept this and cries, asking, “What’s going to happen to me?” By this point in the book I had really grown to love Maurice and so seeing him in such pain also pained me. It felt to me that Clive was a coward for backing out on Maurice so suddenly, even if he had reason to fear persecution due to the time period. After all, if he had someone who loved him enough that he was willing to brave those obstacles as Maurice was, couldn’t he do the same? But I understand that others may disagree with me. My friends and I have discussed Clive at some length and come to the conclusion that his reasoning for what he does it not supposed to be immensely clear.
For fear of spoiling a fantastic story I won’t give away much more of the plot in detail. I’ll only say that after Clive breaks off their relationship Maurice is absolutely distraught, throwing himself into his work and seeking the help of a doctor and a hypnotist to try and find something that can “cure” him. Spoiler: conversion therapy doesn’t work and it never has.
Have no fear, though, as for all the doom and gloom this book does have a happy ending; a definitively and definitely happy ending.
I don’t think I can describe how much this book means to me, in large part due to the fact that Forster chose to end it the way he did. I’m sure many people are aware of the “bury your gays” trope and the simple fact that so many queer books can be found with unhappy or melancholy endings. Sure, maybe the lives of queer people aren’t always rainbows and sunshine (pun intended), but reading about ourselves in fictional worlds where we’re constantly ending up unhappy helps nothing. Forster is quoted saying that, “A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows […] I dedicated it ‘To a Happier Year’ and not altogether vainly. Happiness is its keynote.”
What I think I like most about this book is that it connects us as a community to our history. Maurice was written in a time and place where a man could go to jail with the barest amount of “proof” regarding his sexuality, and yet Forster chose to write a happy story. To me, it’s a book that almost calls out from the past saying, “Hey, no matter what others say there have always been others like you and you deserve happiness, whatever that means to you.” Having that connection to our community’s past had a much more profound effect on me than I anticipated.
Because yeah, we as a community often have to struggle and fight, but we will always love. And we are deserving of love no matter how much the world tries to push us down. To hear that message in a story more than a hundred years old, personally, fills me with a hope and assurance I’m not sure how to properly describe.