June 28, 2013

A century later, has E.M. Forster’s happier year finally arrived?


Still from the 1987 Merchant Ivory adaptation of Maurice

In the opening scene of E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice, an adolescent Maurice Hall takes a long walk with his prep school teacher, Mr. Ducie, to learn about the mysteries of life. “To love a noble woman, to protect and serve her—this, he told the little boy, was the crown of life. . . . ‘It all hangs together—all—and God’s in his heaven, All’s right with the world. Male and female! Ah wonderful!”

To this Maurice responds, simply, “I think I shall not marry.”

When he began writing Maurice in 1913, Forster surely couldn’t have imagined the world in which we find ourselves a hundred years later, with the American Supreme Court affirming the rights of legally married same-sex couples and a marriage equality bill speeding its way through the British Parliament. It’s a world where Maurice could perhaps marry his lover, Alec Scudder, after all.

Maurice was inspired by Forster’s visit to the home the philosopher and poet Edward Carpenter shared with his working-class partner George Merrill, and it anticipated in its romantic themes and frank sexuality D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, written fifteen years later. Yet Maurice was by far the more transgressive novel for its time. As Peter Fulham notes, writing online for The New Yorker, “[Forster’s] final comment on Maurice, attached to the manuscript, which was hidden inside a drawer, read, ‘Publishable. But worth it?’ The subtext, of course, was clear: the release of such a book could have meant the end of Forster’s career and reputation.”

Why? In a note written in 1960, one month before Lady Chatterley’s Lover was finally cleared for publication in the United Kingdom (and eleven years before his own novel would be published, posthumously), Forster declares Maurice‘s central transgression to be its happy ending:

I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows. . . . If it ended unhappily, with a lad dangling from a noose or with a suicide pact, all would be well, for there is no pornography or seduction of minors. But the lovers get away unpunished and consequently recommend crime.

Indeed, in this way Maurice is unique among other groundbreaking gay literature of the twentieth century, even among novels written much later, like Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar of 1948, which ends with a murder, and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room of 1956, which ends with an execution.

Happily, though the novel’s emotional heart remains as powerful today as it was a hundred years ago, many of the struggles its characters face would be implausible in a modern setting. The psychological “cure” Maurice seeks from a hypnotist has been banned by many health organizations, and is illegal in some circumstances in California, with similar legislation pending in New Jersey; Exodus International, the leading Christian ministry which proffered such cures, closed last week with a formal apology from its president.

The hypnotist’s subsequent recommendation that Maurice move to a country like France, where homosexuality isn’t a criminal offense, would be meaningless today, since it hasn’t been illegal in Britain since 1967. (In many parts of the United States, homosexuality wasn’t decriminalized until 2003; France legalized same-sex marriage last month.)

And Alec Scudder’s threat of blackmail would be impotent when gay people can live openly without fear of reprisal in many parts of the world. (They can now serve openly in the military in both the US and the UK, and are protected from housing and employment discrimination in Britain, although efforts at similar nationwide protections have been stymied in America.)

Although Forster dedicated his novel “To a Happier Year,” he wasn’t optimistic such a time would ever arrive. The last paragraph of his 1960 afterword is worth quoting in full for the stark contrast it provides with recent advances for gay rights (not to mention the winning pun he ends with):

Since Maurice was written there has been a change in the public attitude here: the change from ignorance and terror to familiarity and contempt. It is not the change towards which Edward Carpenter had worked. He had hoped for the generous recognition of an emotion and for the reintegration of something primitive into the common stock. And I, though less optimistic, had supposed that knowledge would bring understanding. We had not realized that what the public really loathes in homosexuality is not the thing itself but having to think about it. If it could be slipped into our midst unnoticed, or legalized overnight by a decree in small print, there would be few protests. Unfortunately it can only be legalized 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.

As Peter Fulham writes in The New Yorker, “the happier year, perhaps, has not yet arrived.” Much progress remains to be made. But as recent court victories, legislative accomplishments, and opinion polls show, the “generous recognition of an emotion” Edward Carpenter worked for is closer than ever. Maurice Hall would be happy.


Christopher King is the former Art Director of Melville House.