- my rating: 5 stars
- originally published: posthumously in 1971 (originally written in 1914)
- genres: classic, victorian literature, lgbtq+ fiction, romance, coming of age
- difficulty: classics beginner
Maurice Hall is a young man who grows up confident in his privileged status and well aware of his role in society. Modest and generally conformist, he nevertheless finds himself increasingly attracted to his own sex. Through Clive, whom he encounters at Cambridge, and through Alec, the gamekeeper on Clive’s country estate, Maurice gradually experiences a profound emotional and sexual awakening. A tale of passion, bravery and defiance, this intensely personal novel was completed in 1914 but remained unpublished until after Forster’s death in 1970. Compellingly honest and beautifully written, it offers a powerful condemnation of the repressive attitudes of British society, and is at once a moving love story and an intimate tale of one man’s erotic and political self-discovery.
❝ I think you’re beautiful, the only beautiful person I’ve ever seen. I love your voice and everything to do with you, down to your clothes or the room you are sitting in. I adore you ❞
Maurice by E.M Forster is almost more famous for its story than for the book itself. That story being, that Forster penned it as an explicit romance between two men and asked for it to be published after his death, as he didn’t want to deal with any backlash it would receive during his lifetime.
The story follows Maurice, a young man studying at Cambridge. Split into two distinct parts, we follow Maurice in his first love with a fellow student Clive, and then later with Alec, a gamekeeper working at Clive’s estate. Forster forefronts issues of class, wealth and love, looking at the influence of class and social position in relationships, and the politics of romance. If you like the way Jane Austen politicises romances through class, I think you’ll see and enjoy something similar in Maurice.
Like most Victorian novels, Maurice deals with class and its boundaries. The novel examines the restrictions of a class conscious society and how these affect individuals. Class and sexuality are implicitly linked within the novel, because Forster argues the upper-class are stifled by social expectations of their class, limiting their ability to love or connect authentically with anyone. Thus, the two men Maurice is attached to are contrasted primarily by their social and class status. This contrasts plays out in how the two romantic relationships with Maurice are conducted, as well as in their outcomes.
Forster also examines how social ideas around propriety affect relationships and how these ideas play out across different social strata. Clive, Maurice’s roommate at Cambridge, is of high-class and therefore confined, Forster argues even doomed, to be unable to authentically connect with Maurice. In contrast, Alec’s freedom from the limitation of upper-class expectations, including the explicit linking of social status and romance, give him room to love Maurice wholly and authentically.
❝ Did you ever dream you had a friend, Alec? Someone to last your whole life and you his. I suppose such a thing can’t really happen outside sleep ❞
A concept I loved in this book and wanted to discuss a little was the use and function of ‘The Greenwood’ in the story. Forster invokes the concept of the Greenwood as a metaphor for relationships existing outside the socially accepted framework for romance. The Greenwood exists as an unrestrained space, drawing connotations of ‘the wilderness’. The country acts as a locus for desire, it’s existence outside the restraints of society and allowing desire to flourish unrestrained.
In the introduction, Leavitt argues the Greenwood is historically linked with Sherwood, and the Robin Hood myth. Like the Greenwood, Sherwood is a space existing explicitly outside the bounds of society. The Robin Hood myth is also heavily imbued with ideas about the breakdown of the class divide. It also perpetuates the notion of freedom in living outside the law, and the creation of a ‘masculine utopia’ (Leavitt xxiii). I really liked this interpretation of The Greenwood. The stifling lawfulness of the city and its institutions, as compared to the freedom of the forest is an important distinction in both texts.
In the Greenwood, the class divides which define society are undermined, but further, the Greenwood challenges the hegemony of heterosexuality in Victorian society. Foster writes;
❝ A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise. 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, and in this sense, Maurice and Alec still roam the greenwood ❞
The Greenwood functions as an aspirational ideal. It is not just a place, but a concept. A microcosm of acceptance that could be extended toward the wider world. As a metaphor, the Greenwood embodies Forster’s idea’s about class and class confinement, but it also embodies Forster’s quiet hope for a better future. He envisioned a society that could function like The Greenwood, where people could exist happily outside the judgement of society, and the confinement of rigid ideas around class and sexuality. I think this is a vision a lot of us would like to see come to fruition.
❝ The second dream is more difficult to convey. Nothing happened. He scarcely saw a face, scarcely heard a voice say, “That is your friend,” and then it was over, having filled him with beauty and taught him tenderness. He could die for such a friend, he would allow such a friend to die for him; they would make any sacrifice for each other, and count the world nothing, neither death nor distance nor crossness could part them, because “this is my friend ❞
Maurice is a novel that moved me. Not only in the sense that I found it examined it’s themes and issues with such care, but also in the depictions of it’s characters and relationships. This story is imbued with tenderness. It allows it’s characters to be loving, to yearn for something better, to feel a mixed pain and pleasure from that. But it is ultimately powerful for it’s hope and the closure it gives it’s characters. Maurice is a novel about the freedom of self-discovery and the elation of escaping a confining society, and I truly loved it.
As a note: I am considering writing more analytical style reviews such as this one. Please let me know if that is something you might enjoy reading, because I enjoy writing them.
Forster, E.M. Introduction. Maurice. By David Leavitt. London: Penguin, 2005. xxiii. Print.
until next time!