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This is the first of my experiments with a new type of blog post, in which I ask some of the difficult questions provoked by books I’ve read! I’d love to hear what you think, so don’t be shy about dropping a comment below.
Maurice Hall appears to be the prototype of the English gentleman – educated at a prestigious school, he will inevitably go on to study at Cambridge then take his place alongside London’s wealthy financiers. Yet when he falls in love with a fellow male student at Cambridge, Maurice feels the ground of convention pulled from beneath his feet. He is forced to make an agonising decision: betray his true self in exchange for a place in polite society, or risk turning his back on this safe and familiar world to live authentically.
“After all, is not a real Hell better than a manufactured Heaven?”~ E.M. Forster, ‘Maurice’
Without a doubt, Maurice is a very moving, sensitive, and complex portrayal of how traumatic it was to be a gay man in the early 20th century. The novel’s publication history says it all – E.M. Forster wrote the novel in 1913-1914, but it was not actually published until 1971, following the author’s death. Although I want to be careful not to conflate the author’s voice with that of his characters, the novel is widely acknowledged to have autobiographical elements that add to its painful poignancy. As the central character Maurice grapples with his sexuality, he endures moments of terror and self-loathing that could be very difficult to read.
Yet I could not help but notice how women are pushed to the absolute margins of this story. Maurice’s mother and sisters are portrayed as corrupting influences compared to the pure, intellectual space of Cambridge. They are even shouldered with the responsibility for Maurice regressing further into ignorance during his summer holidays. It seems hardly surprising that his sisters fail to provide satisfactory conversation to the introspective student, considering they can never so much as dream of attending any university, let alone Cambridge!
“He knew that loneliness was poisoning him, so that he grew viler as well as more unhappy.”~ E.M. Forster, ‘Maurice’
How much should we forgive history from our lofty position of hindsight? The struggle to get Maurice published means elements of the book inevitably dated before it was even put into readers’ hands. Its characters must navigate uncharted waters, decades before the sense of unity provided by the LGBTQIA+ community, or the movement’s emphasis on intersectionality. Forster’s poignantly optimistic dedication, ‘to a happier year’, makes it seem deeply unfair to judge him for not conforming to the very modern standards he hoped would come to pass.
At the same time, the book can be read through the lens of misogyny, and the erasure of lesbian experience, which remain a problem in the LGBTQIA+ movement today. Forster’s novel takes place in an aggressively patriarchal space, that is restricted by tradition, history, and privilege even as it seeks to break free of these restrictions.
It is irrational to expect one story to speak to every individual experience. However, there is a fine line between centring a personal narrative and the ignorance or marginalisation of other perspectives. Perhaps negotiating this line is not just the responsibility of authors, but also readers, who denigrate certain works and canonise others. We have to remain mindful and critical of how the ‘voices’ of a movement are determined, who has the power to speak, and who does not.
Ultimately, we cannot overlook misogyny and discrimination against other intersections of identity, even in a seemingly progressive work of literature. Decades on, reading between the lines reminds us that we have yet to imagine our escape from the societal strictures that confined Forster’s own imagination.
“The past is devoid of meaning like the present, and a refuge for cowards.”~ E.M. Forster, ‘Maurice’
Maurice’s pain, as well as the pain he inflicts on others, are so intertwined in oppressive structures that it becomes difficult to separate victim from perpetrator.
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Have you read Maurice or any other books by E.M Forster? What did you think of their social commentary? Let me know in the comments, I would love to hear from you!