E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice is an intriguing read, largely because of the time period it was written in and the way it treats its subject matter, homosexual love. Forster wrote it in 1913 and 1914, but he resisted publishing it, and it didn’t appear in print until 1971 after he died. He was worried that people would have a hard time accepting what turns out to be a vexed but positive portrayal of homosexuality.
I’ve also read Forster’s Howards End and Passage to India, and if I’m remembering correctly what those novels were like, this one is more psychological and emotional in its focus. The other novels are psychological as well, but this one emphasizes interior worlds even more than the others, capturing the mind and emotions of a young man as he struggles to figure out the world and his place in it. Maurice is more abstract, taking less time with context and setting, and spending more time describing emotional states.
It tells the story of Maurice Hall, a schoolboy at the beginning of the novel, whose teacher introduces him to sex by drawing pictures in the sand during their last conversation together before Maurice heads off to public school. He dreams two highly symbolic dreams, and finds himself unexpectedly emotional when he learns one of their servants, a young man named George, has left their service. These early experiences haunt him as he moves through public school and then university, trying to understand his complex reactions to his classmates. His most significant relationship at university is with Clive, a young man much more worldly and more intelligent than he is, but one who returns his interest and, soon enough, his love. The novel charts their relationship as the two make their way through Cambridge and then move out into the larger world. The Cambridge scenes are particularly enjoyable to read, as campus life is endlessly interesting, for me at least. Once the characters leave university, their lives become broader, but also much more uncertain, and Maurice is finally made to take stock of who he is and to act upon that knowledge.
I was interested in the way the novel keeps a certain amount of critical distance from Maurice. He is largely a sympathetic character, but at the same time, we see the limits of his intelligence; Clive can talk circles around him, and Maurice is not the best abstract thinker out there. He is also unpleasantly obsessed with class and uncertain about his own status. Here is Forster’s description of him:
In Maurice I tried to create a character who was completely unlike myself or what I supposed myself to be: someone handsome, healthy, bodily attractive, mentally torpid, not a bad businessman and rather a snob. Into this mixture I dropped an ingredient that puzzles him, wakes him up, and finally saves him.
I like the fact that Forster makes his protagonist so obviously flawed, while at the same time showing so much compassion and understanding. It would be easy in a book that explores such a vexed and complicated subject as sexuality, particularly homosexuality in the early part of the twentieth century, to make the protagonist more admirable and heroic and pioneering than this one is. Instead, Maurice is just an average person, flawed in perfectly normal ways and no more heroic than most of us are.