Maurice by E.M. Forster: Should We Ever Overlook Misogyny?

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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 by EM Forster Book Cover Image

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!

8 thoughts on “Maurice by E.M. Forster: Should We Ever Overlook Misogyny?”

  1. If you criticize literature dating from before the sexual revolution through the lenses of our contemporary values, you might even find offense in Shakespeare´, Dickens, Twain, and many others. Even the Bible, the Coran, and the Mahabharata contain flaws when compared to the contemporary moral standards. Some people even try to rewrite the whole history of human civilization so that it would fit into their worldview. This includes censorship and magnifying the importance of some events and people that only play marginally influenced the course of history, taking down the statues of some writers of the US constitution because they were slave keepers. History and literature are what they are and censoring it equals to falsify it. Some people want to “cancel” Mark Twain because of his use of the n-word in many of his novels, implying that he was a racist, while those who have been reading him know that this is utter nonsense. So contemporary moral crusaders better use some more common sense and less table jumping in their condemnation and cancelation policies. Some novelist even don´’t dear to publish a novel anymore when at least not one of their main protagonists is LHBTQ. See the turmoil around the Harry Potter series where Rowling had to defend herself for not having them included by pointing out that Dumbledore was gay. When on top of that she stated her personal opinion about transgender people, the outcry was to “cancel” her. It seems that freedom of opinion and speech only works one-way for some moral crusaders.

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    1. Thank you for your comment Shaharee. I agree that censoring and distorting the past can be very unhelpful. I think there is a difference though, between acknowledging the past and uncritically celebrating it. For example, I support the removal of statues of those who built their wealth on enslaved labour into museums, where the dark side of history can be explored. I also support the LGBTQIA+ community in their fight for better representation in literature. I think the greater number of books with this representation we are seeing published is a fantastic sign of positive change, and will hopefully become an unremarkable ‘norm’ just like novels featuring straight characters.

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      1. It keeps amazing me that sexuality has to be an issue in considering art and it’s historical perspective in the US. The US has obviously missed out of the sexual revolution since in many other civilizations this is barely an issue, even with prime ministers and presidents elected into office by an electorate who don’t care what people do privately. Racism still remains a hot issue and a cause of many genocides. Especially when the underdog race is sitting upon a trove of mineral riches.

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  2. This post couldn’t come at a better time, as I just watched the film today and was planning on starting the book! This is a very interesting discussion, but I must say it’s one that I don’t have a clear opinion on. However, I think that we should always think critically of the media we’re consuming, but we should not forget or discard the context in which it was produced.

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    1. Thank you for commenting Maria! Ooh I didn’t know there was a film adaptation of Maurice, I’ll definitely have to check it out. And don’t worry, I’ve not got my head around all these complicated questions yet either! I agree with you that it’s important we keep thinking critically and asking the questions even if we struggle to come up with straightforward answers 📚❤️ X x x

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  3. […] Today I’m bringing you a new type of post for me, a sort of discussion based on a specific book. These posts are my favourites to read but —besides my review of The Atlas Six, which was more of a rant and chat about the characters—I’ve never attempted to write one of my own. This post is highly inspired by Krysta @ Pages Unbound’s discussion on posts of this kind and Florence @ Miscellany Page’s discussion of the misogyny in Maurice. […]

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