Summary: (5/5 stars) I picked up this book as part of Book Riot’s 2018 Read Harder Challenge in order to satisfy the posthumous publication requirement . EM Forster wrote the initial draft in 1913/14 and revised over subsequent decades. Forster died in 1970 and the book was published the next year in 1971.
I really hate reading books or seeing movies that I know are going to make me cry, so I don’t know why I chose to read this one.
It’s a beautiful and heart-breaking story of same-sex love and loss. It also has an ambiguous ending a la the movie version of Brokeback Mountain. So, the reader is left wondering about what will happen to Maurice next. If you’re of a hopeful bent, you might choose to think they live out their days in a boathouse somewhere in France or elsewhere in realms where their love is not illegal. But if you’re a pessimist, you may recall that it was not so many years after the time in which this story is set that Alan Turing was chemically castrated and driven to suicide for being gay.
I hope I can be an optimist when I think back on this book.
SPOILER WARNING: From this point forward, I’m going to discuss this book without any concern about spoilers. So, if you don’t like spoilers you should stop reading now.
Maurice picks up with Maurice Hall as he is preparing to graduate from boarding school at age 14. One of the teachers takes him aside to explain sex and marriage to him before Maurice proceeds to public school. (The vagaries of early 20th century British schooling are still somewhat vague to me.) But Maurice is sort of confused by the explanation and doesn’t really see how they relate to him.
Later, Maurice meets Clive Durham at Cambridge and falls in love. It’s a conflicted relationship which begins after Clive confesses his love and Maurice rejects him because he has not yet realized that he is gay and loves Clive in return. After some soul-searching, Maurice has the epiphany and returns to Clive and they enjoy some years as committed, but secret because it’s illegal to be gay in England at the time, partners
Then Clive catches a fever, goes to Greece, and comes back claiming to be thoroughly heterosexual. He breaks up with Maurice and marries a woman he met in Greece.
Maurice is utterly heartbroken and starts looking for a way to be “cured” of his homosexuality. He even goes so far as to tell people that he’s engaged to be married. (Inappropriately, I imagined them asking her name and Maurice responding with, “GEORGE! GEORGE GLASS!”) In his heartbreak, he ends up spending the night with Alec, one of the servants on Clive’s estate. Maurice is torn up with guilt for having backslid on what he believes is his path for a cure. Alec is supposed to be leaving the country soon, so Maurice tries to resist seeing him again until he does, but Alec implies that he will blackmail Maurice if he doesn’t meet with him and give him some money or something. But Alec drops that plan and the two spend another night together and in the morning Maurice tries to convince Alec to stay in England with him rather than going to Argentina.
Ultimately, Alec does decide to stay in England and Maurice confronts Clive before disappearing with Alec, never to be seen — we presume — by his friends and family again.
Aside from exploring the conflict and fear associated with coming to terms with one’s own homosexuality, the book also lightly explores some themes of religion and classism in England in the early 20th century. Forster communicates a disdain for the classism and support for atheism. Put that together with the gay themes and it’s easy to see why this book was not published during his lifetime.
It’s truly a beautifully written book. It perfectly captures the conflict and process of coming out to one’s self and I related strongly to many of the descriptions of Maurice’s inner state as he worked to process and understand his emotions.
The ambiguous ending left me very upset, though.
Although it is pointedly suggested that Maurice might run away to another country where homosexuality is not illegal, I don’t believe Maurice is likely to do that. He even says, “England for me,” when Alec asks if he’s been to Argentina before. Maurice has traveled abroad, but the way he makes the comment suggests to me that he believes he would never feel at home anywhere else.
I am also very aware of the fact that it was decades after the time in which this novel is set that Alan Turing was chemically castrated for being gay and ultimately commits suicide out of heartbreak. I fully expected Alec to betray Maurice to the vice squad or that they would be captured at some point. Thankfully, they aren’t, but I maintained the feeling of anxiety that at any minute they would be captured and punished.
I suppose you can imagine that the couple lives out the rest of their days, happy and together, free from persecution and fear. Maurice’s final confrontation with Clive does have a redemptive aspect to it. While he has struggled throughout with guilt, doubt, and self-loathing, the confrontation is an announcement of casting that off. He is also announcing his rejection of classist pretensions of superiority. So, I don’t think it is unreasonable to see a happy outcome to the story.
But I was left feeling very, very sad when the book ended with Maurice’s disappearance with Alec.
There are two points in the book that struck me as weaknesses.
The first is the point in which the perspective of the narrator abruptly shifts to follow Clive instead of Maurice. I understand why this was done; it would have been difficult to otherwise efficiently show the change in Clive while he is apart from Maurice in such a way that would explain subsequent events. But while it’s used to good effect and makes the story more efficient, I found it jarring.
The second is Clive’s sudden conversion to heterosexuality. That’s not how this works and I am sure Forster knew this. Again, it was necessary to bring about the subsequent events in the novel. Also, I think there are hints that Clive has not actually gone fully straight. Alec knows about Clive’s past relationship with Maurice somehow. And Maurice speculates that another one of the manservants in the house is aware of these things. This makes me wonder if Clive isn’t simply employing a couple of side pieces while he lives a life of public heterosexuality. Although Clive was comfortable casting off societal impositions like religion and class in his youth, his fever — which underscored his vulnerability — and subsequent meditations on his place in society may have motivated him toward conformity. He seems less passionate than Maurice, so it’s plausible to me that his apparent conversion was mere pretense and the only reason he really rejected Maurice was because he had actual feelings of love toward Maurice and having him around would have put his position at risk. I’m not sure, but the whole “I woke up gay this morning” bit was jarring to me, a modern homosexual.
These two items are not significant detractors in my mind, however. The characterization, the nuanced portrayal of Maurice’s inner life, the efficiency of the story, and the beauty of the language are all so compelling that I found it easy to give this one five stars.