This post originally appeared seven years ago on my old, much loved (by me) reader blog, Isn’t it Romance? It reminded me that sometimes happy endings aren’t luxuries but necessities.
I love the novels of E M Forster but my favourite is Maurice, a novel he finished in 1914 but which was not published until after his death in 1971.
The central character of the novel is Maurice Hall, an upper-middle class man described by E M Forster in his Notes to the novel as “handsome, healthy, bodily attractive, mentally torpid… and rather a snob.” Maurice is saved from a life of small-minded conventionality by his homosexuality (“an ingredient that puzzles him, wakes him up, torments him, and finally saves him” as E M Forster put it) and is ennobled by the love he eventually comes to share with the working class Alec Scudder.
Maurice’s transformation begins when he meets Clive Durham at Cambridge and falls in love. Clive loves Maurice too but he insists their love must remain platonic. Clive is intellectual and ambitious and eventually he breaks off the relationship – such as it is – marries a suitable woman and settles down to life as a Member of Parliament, insisting that he and Maurice can only be friends. It is on a visit to Clive’s estate, Penge, that Maurice meets Alec, who is Clive’s gamekeeper. Alec visits him in the night, and is as physical as Clive is cerebral; as touchable as Clive is untouchable.
E M Forster wrote Maurice, according to P N Furbank, because the time had come for him to “commit himself, in imagination if it could not be in life, to the belief that homosexual love could was good. He needed to affirm…. that love of this kind could be an ennobling and not a degrading thing.” And so, at the end of the novel, Maurice and Alec come together. It is not an easy coming together. Every obstacle is in their way: society, their class differences and personal pride. Yet against the odds, they overcome all hurdles.
E M Forster wrote of the novel that “a happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write it 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.” We don’t ever find out how Maurice and Alec live, although we are given to understand that their life together will certainly be on the fringes of society. Forster at one stage considered an epilogue in which some years later Maurice’s sister comes upon two woodcutters – Maurice and Alec – but he eventually rejected it because that would have taken the reader to a time when the world had been transformed by the First World War. Maurice, Forster said “…belongs to an England where it was still possible to get lost. It belongs to the last moment of the greenwood.”
My very favourite passage of the novel comes at the end, in Maurice’s final encounter with his first love, Clive, before he disappears forever with Alec.
“Next Wednesday, say at 7.45. Dinner jacket’s enough, as you know.”
They were [Clive’s] last words, because Maurice had disappeared thereabouts, leaving no trace of his presence except a little pile of the petals of the evening primrose, which mourned from the ground like an expiring fire. To the end of his life, Clive was not sure of the exact moment of departure, and with the approach of old age he grew uncertain whether the moment had yet occurred. The Blue Room would glimmer, ferns undulate. Out of some eternal Cambridge, his friend began beckoning to him, clothed in the sun, and shaking out the scents and sounds of the May term.
But at the time, he was merely offended at a discourtesy, and compared it with similar lapses in the past. He did not realise that this was the end, without twilight or compromise, that he should never come across Maurice’s track again, nor speak to those who had seen him.”
The spirit of this final passage is beautifully realised in the 1987 Merchant-Ivory film of the book, starring a then-unknown Hugh Grant as Clive, James Wilby as Maurice and Rupert Graves as Alec.
Postscript: I read this novel first when I was at school doing the equivalent of A level English. EM Forster was on the syllabus and I ate up his small oeuvre with wide-eyed fervour. I loved this book so well that I chose to write about it in the exam instead of the three set texts set by my teacher.