REVIEW: “Maurice” by E. M. Forster
E. M. Forster
Penguin Books, UK, 1995
CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge, Read the Movie Challenge
Finished 27 Jun 2010
I only really picked this book up because I got the movie out and thought it would make a good addition to the “Read the Movie” Challenge. The premise sounded interesting, but so much like Brideshead Revisited that I was sure it would suffer by comparison, and in some respects it did. However, as I should probably have expected by now, Maurice proved to be utterly different than I anticipated, and ultimately the better for it.
Set in Edwardian England, the novel follows the life of Maurice Hall, every inch an “average” English gentleman, who is being relentlessly groomed to take the place of his dead father as an average stockbroker with an average and thoroughly respectable life. Were it not for a chance meeting with Clive Durham at Cambridge, he would likely have taken his place in society without a qualm. But his love affair with Clive begins to break through the stultifying normality of his everyday life, introducing Maurice to feelings of joy he had never imagined, and spurring him to dream that two men together might just be able to defy the world.
I have conflicting feelings about this novel. E. M. Forster is an old favourite of mine; A Room With a View blew me away when I first read it several years ago, so I’ve had a soft spot for him ever since. I love the way he approaches things. His prose is direct, objective, and the detached detail with which he analyses his characters, their actions and interactions, the decisions they make and the way their lives plan out makes for curiously compelling reading. He is also extremely empathetic and skilled at dissembling psychological impulses and complexities.
At the same time, I felt somewhat distanced from the characters – at times I even actively disliked them. There were passages of prose which were fantastic (in particular, the brief scene in which Clive admits he loves Maurice was extremely moving) but others which were so obfuscating as to bewilder me completely. It is definitely a book which will require re-reading several times before it sinks in, and fortunately it is of a type which I would not mind picking up and perusing for new meaning from time to time.
There were some things I did pick up on, however, which enhanced the reading experience considerably. When I first closed the covers, the ending bewildered me: I had been lead to expect a (spoiler!) happy reunion between Maurice and Clive, and had no idea why Alec was even involved. Clive’s attitude confused me, too, since he was the first to be so open about his homosexuality. It wasn’t until I referred back to an earlier passage in the book that some comprehension dawned:
“Everything I say is serious.” And somehow Maurice knew this to be true. It had struck him at once that Risley was serious. “And are you serious?”
“Don’t ask me.”
“Then talk until you become so.”
“Rubbish,” growled the Dean.
Chapman laughed tempestuously.
“Rubbish?” He questioned Maurice, who, when he grasped the point, was understood to reply that deeds are more important than words.
“What’s the difference? Words are deeds. Do you mean to say that these five minutes in Cornwallis’s rooms have done nothing for you? Will you ever forget you have met me, for instance?”
“But he will not, nor will you. And then I am told we ought to be doing something.”
The Dean came to the rescue of the two Sunningtonians. He said to his young cousin, “You’re unsound about memory. You confuse what’s important with what’s impressive. No doubt Chapman and Hall always will remember they’ve met you – ”
“And forget this is a cutlet. Quite so.”
“But the cutlet does some good them, and you none.”
“This is just like a book,” said Chapman. “Eh, Hall?”
“I mean,” said Risley, “oh how clearly I mean that the cutlet influences your subconscious lives, and I your conscious, and so I am not only more impressive than the cutlet but more important.”
— pp. 32-33
The way I see it, Clive is all about words: he insists that their relationship may only be “excused” if it remains platonic – that is, unconsummated, in the realm of words and emotions only. Maurice accepts this because not only does Clive seem to know far more about it than he does but he is, as Forster puts it, “at this stage…humble and inexperienced and adoring, he is the soul released from prison, and if asked by his deliverer to remain chaste he obeys” (p.314). But the major difference between them, and that which ultimately destroys their relationship, is that Maurice is as much about deeds as he is about words, as evidenced by the excerpt above. He is not content to remain as a “friend” in name but not in action. As he repeatedly complains after their separation, Clive is willing to do anything for him except be with him, and he is incapable of reconciling the inherent contradictions this entails. He breaks away; acts, in this case by sleeping with Alec, and in doing so finally comes to accept himself and his true position in society, rather than that which he has been pretending to for so long.
As you can probably see, Maurice is a complicated novel that makes you work for comprehension, and is not what I would call a comfortable read. However, it is definitely worth it and ultimately I think one which should be recommended, if only for its unusual insight into a world seldom expressed in the prose of this era.