Reckoning with E.M. Forster’s ‘Maurice’

Reviewing E.M. Forster’s much-fussed-over posthumous novel, the first by a major literary personage of his generation to write explicitly about homosexual love, I wrote: “Tougher than I remembered, E.M. Forster’s Maurice treats its titular hero with some measure of objectivity; this burgher-in-training isn’t a proxy for the novelist. Nor is the book a mooncalf’s swoon over the swarthy body of a poorly educated farmhand named Alec Scudder.” The casting of James Wilby as Maurice in James Ivory’s 1987 adaptation added a gentle irony: Wilby also played the unbearable upper middle-class prig Charles Wilcox in Ivory’s Howards End (1992), suggesting Maurice’s fate should he have forsaken a life of globetrotting pederasty with his Scudder.

Alexander Chee ‘s review of William di Canzio’s Alec doubles as an appreciation of Forster’s achievement, one I dismissed rather cheekily in the mid ’90s because my closeted sensibilities, besotted by Harold Bloom and Pauline Kael, had smothered my common sense. Chee cites Cynthia Ozick’s original Commentary piece as an example of the novel’s “scalding and chaotic” reception in the early ’70s as Gay Lib was building toward an ecstatic apogee. Rereading it online (I own the collection in which she published it), I found Ozick’s review more nuanced than I remembered. Why did Forster not stick any sex into Maurice? Many readers would’ve loved learning what Scudder teaches Maurice after the former ascends that propitiously placed ladder outside the latter’s window. Ozick:

The reason—unlikely though it may appear at first hearing—is that Forster thought homosexuality wrong: naturally wrong, with the sort of naturalness that he did not expect to date. (The Terminal Note admits that Maurice “certainly dates” in other respects, and mentions its “half-sovereign tips, pianola-records, norfolk jackets.”) But if Maurice is a fairy tale, it is not because two men do not ever, then or now, out of fiction as well as in, live together happily and permanently, but because Forster himself believed that except in fiction and daydream they ought not to. Against his deepest wish he set his still deeper belief. They ought not to

Ozick could not have known about Bob Buckingham, the policeman whom Forster shared with Buckingham’s wife Mary for several decades in a remarkable example of generosity.

Pish-posh. Art is one thing, life another, readers might say. To read the heavily revised Maurice as a Forsterian, though, is to recognize a novel cleft in the usual Forsterian manner: the tension between momentum and the prissy narrator who nudges us into coming round to his way of thinking. His close friend Virginia Woolf diagnosed the problem in an appraisal of his work to date: “He is like a light sleeper who is always being woken by something in the room.” Sexual attraction drew Maurice and Scudder; they act upon the attraction; they flee England, liberated from legal encumbrances. They also flee the encumbrance of Forster’s narrator. They at once know more than he — and know less.

Back to Chee. What I enjoyed about his response to Forster was his attraction to this shy twentieth century small-l-liberal who chose his battles with care and ripped his limitations to shreds with estimable candor. Edmund Morgan Forster could not have been Andre Gide or Edward Carpenter; to have been a W.H. Auden would have shriveled him. He did not succumb to bad faith. The cleft I mentioned in his novels reflects a divided sensibility. Writers live in these interstices. But he didn’t lie to himself; like many of us, he wanted many things at once. Chee:

I am interested in whether a reader who knows nothing of Maurice or Forster will find Alec as involving or compelling as I did. I don’t have the answer yet. But what I would like to leave you with is that Forster’s work on behalf of our generation of queer writers did not begin with Maurice’s publication—rather, the novel’s publication was the culmination of what he did while he was alive. In the mentorships he cultivated with other writers, in the way he spoke out for those writers or in the ways they guided him, in his attempts to critique social class, colonialism, and Empire, he inspired many. Perhaps someday it will be seen this way. Who knows how many Forsters will be needed to make it so.

Who knows indeed.

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