Still from the 1987 Merchant Ivory adaptation of Maurice
Still from the 1987 Merchant Ivory adaptation of Maurice

Edward Morgan Forster’s novel, Maurice, published posthumously in 1971 is a resplendent literary work that is, like the eponymous protagonist, diffident, yet, simultaneously rebellious. Forster’s last published work might as well have been a first person narrative since the novel assumes a humanity equivalent to Maurice Hall, who is flawed and questionable. As a reader, I strove to comprehend the literary worth of Maurice as most critics did upon its publication, vacillating between upholding it as an emphatic and accurate portrayal of the goings-on of an enigmatic homosexual relationship fraught with tensions among religion, society, and the metamorphosis brought about by the realisation of one’s “abnormality” (Clive Durham and Maurice), and dismissing it as a feeble attempt to reconcile with the eros of Forster himself (who was homosexual and never endured a relationship to the point where it might have been considered a marriage of two souls, irrespective of sex) by externalising and fictionalising it in the form of Alec Scudder, a lower-class gamekeeper at Penge. I shared the confusions of both Maurice and Forster as they tried to come to terms with the validity of their identity as Uranians. Coursing my way through the novel, however, clarified the convolutions brought about by the rumination of Maurice on morality and immorality of his sexual inclination as it gradually did for Maurice himself which is why I think Maurice was a Freudian and Platonic experience for me and had an indelible impression upon me that challenged not only my understanding of the psyche of both the homosexual and the homophobe but also how the written word, when at the disposal of an able and empathetic writer, can be an immersive interaction between the reader and the author-protagonist, where each engages in Einfühlung with the other.

Symbolisms in Maurice are not numerous, which is why some insensitive readers qualify it as a procession of ramblings; the suggestiveness and significance of the opening chapter, however, sets the vacillation I spoke of earlier in motion when a fourteen-year-old Maurice is introduced to the female anatomy through the sketches made on the sands of the beach by a schoolteacher, Mr Ducie. It is Mr Ducie, who vehemently impresses upon Maurice the interdependence of the two sexes and subtly decries any deviation. The setting appealed to me greatly primarily because the convergence of the sky and the water, both coloured with the same hue (and suggesting a oneness, a oneness of the gender, perhaps) challenges the mores of Mr Ducie in theory and the Edwardian England. The education he passes to Maurice on this slate made of sand, an education of the bodily union between the opposite sexes, will be washed away by the water: Nature seemingly defies what the bourgeois and the bigoted deem unnatural. A clever preamble to the unfurling theme and the maturing characters, rebellion is evoked through the scenic tools.

Clive Durham, whom Maurice meets at Cambridge, is at once the embodiment of the closeted homosexual transcending temporal barriers and a hypocritical menace typical of the Edwardian heterosexual: a paradox that I found dizzyingly deceptive and frighteningly convincing. A Hellenist, Clive is deeply influenced by Plato’s Symposium, reading which he confesses his love for Maurice. It was Plato who introduced the world to Uranians (Pausanius argues that men who are influenced by Heavenly Aphrodite or Aphrodite Urania ‘are attracted to the male sex…their intention is to form a lasting attachment and partnership for life’). Clive, who visits Greece, falls out of love with Maurice, defeating the very significance of the Greek philosopher’s Symposium. Maurice dismisses Clive, despite yearning to reciprocate in the same vein. The contradictory personality of Clive lends a complexity that is difficult to discern yet too veracious to avoid appreciating. A paradox, if one will, serves as a scaffolding for building the character of Maurice as well, who cannot fathom the contradictory phases of love and rejection he and Clive go through and they end up being gears that move in opposite directions yet he foolishly and optimistically clings to the hope that Clive would deny women whom he was reconfigured to be attracted to in Greece. Maurice is not crafted as a melodramatic finality of a character; with flesh and blood of words, he is imparted with the ingenuity of offence that comes with betrayal and like any many of flesh and blood, he commits follies, such as seducing a house guest to nurse the hurt brought upon by Clive or wrestle him, both physically and emotionally, when Clive expresses sexual interest in Maurice’s sister, Ada. If Clive was intended by Forster to be used as the double agent by the heterosexual society then Maurice becomes the subjugated homosexual, the underground secret society.

Clive’s metamorphosis implies almost a treason and at this stage Clive transforms Maurice, not into an adolescent tale of betrayal but a drama of sexual politics. Even if I am successful in reserving an ounce of sympathy for Clive, I might see him as a distorted project of a sexual fascism in erstwhile Edwardian England that finds a strong resonance in contemporary culture and society. In her essay Why and How are We All Queer (February 2014, The Kindle Biannual) , Brinda Bose writes:

[…] the closet homophobes are crawling out in droves for their day under a vengeful sky. In such a moral chill as this, it is hardly surprising that the continual somersaults of 377 in the law courts of India should unleash a brand new set of vigilantes who are both enraged and empowered by the goings-on around queerness. Enraged, because the ‘we are queer, we are here’ sloganeering has early borne fruit, and the visibility of non-conformist ‘sexy-types’  has grown like mushrooms under straw in humid conditions. Empowered, because the Supreme Court has pushed an atom bomb into their hands with the judgement of December 11 that overturned the landmark Delhi High Court reading-down of the law in 2009, and they’re swinging it around in a frenzy of paranoid hatred as they mark their targets.

Conclusively, I might even draw parallels between the propagandist films of Mussolini and the Italian Neo-realists like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica (where one school of the film is a force of totalitarian regime and the other revolutionary and revelatory) and between Clive and Maurice (the conformist and the non-conformist).

What makes Maurice quite a game-changer (had it been published promptly upon its publication) is the conclusion to Maurice’s tale: unlike Alan Dale’s A Marriage Below Zero, Maurice, Alec, and Clive are not subjected to a Wildean fate which is rebellious, to say the least, and reads like a literary advocacy for the support of homosexuals in societies both rural and urban: this edit to the conclusion of the hackneyed homosexual novels truly excited me precisely because it challenged both literary (the “family” of the novel) and societal (the “neighbours” of the novel) tropes. Turning tables on the distorted notion of the acceptance of homosexuality only in the cities, as many cinematic and literary works are wont to show (a dancer from the homophobic state of Texas in American finds a romantic companion only when he moves to New York in the independent feature film, Five Dances), Maurice and Alec are fated to be eternally in love in the greenwoods, a word which is usually associated with an outlaw like Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest as opposed to the city where they feel oppressed.

Enriching my experience with Maurice were the ample allusions to classical literature and Greek and Roman mythology. If I were at the liberty to equate Maurice in its entirety to one classical legend, I would consider it to be a contemporary retelling of the tale of Ganymede: Ganymede is Maurice who is lulled into a false admiration and acceptance with the confession of love by his Zeus — Clive — who rapes him with the prospect of a Uranian, everlasting love but instead poisons him with hopelessness when he is assigned to be a member at Clive’s wedding, filtering the discomfort of having adopted the “normal” way of life through the devastated and toxic homosexual eyes of Maurice — much like Ganymede’s role as a cup-bearer. Clive thinks that the “straight” way of life would have been easier for him to drink if the toxicity was imbibed by Maurice first. An addition to this tale of deprivation, Alec appears as a mortal who might visit Zeus’s court to claim Ganymede and embrace him faithfully with the Uranian love that he is bribed with (for which he might be condemned to death by Zeus for such audacity), thus transforming conventions, engaging in a fairy-tale-sque climax which Forster shows as not improbable in Edwardian society, and exhibiting a societal and romantic difference between the three homosexual characters that is scandalously political (but which might have shown the characters leading a silent Harvey Milk-esque rebellion had it not been for the aforementioned fascism Clive gave in to), befitting a Greek tragedy,

This difference is illuminated through the note appended by Forster in 1960 where he writes:

Unfortunately, it [homosexuality] can only be legalised by Parliament, and Members of Parliament are obliged to think or to appear to think. Consequently, the Wolfenden recommendations will be indefinitely rejected, police prosecutions will continue and Clive on the bench will continue to sentence Alec in the dock. Maurice may get off.