In my early twenties, when I was beginning to think about coming out myself, I developed something of a fascination with gay literature. Things like that are typical for me. First of all, as long as I’m interested in the subject matter I think research can be tons of fun (Nerd alert, I know. I know). I enjoy learning about the way something really was. But mainly, I think it’s important to know where you came from. What people like you went through and what their lives were like. To me, a sense of history is vital. It makes you appreciate what you have and it helps you clarify what you would like to see fixed in the future.
What I quickly learned is that a lot of early gay lit is horrifically depressing. It’s basically the Emma Bovary effect: the subject matter was considered morally reprehensible for the time, so it had to be punished in the end. Early gay characters must either repress their desires or face some dire consequence. The consequence could range from severe depression and self-hatred to violence or even death. Understandably, this wasn’t exactly encouraging when I was twenty-one and thinking about coming out myself. Thankfully, there was one glorious exception, which I’ll get to in a bit.
For a long time, gay lit has been somewhat ghettoized in book stores. If a book has a gay protagonist it tends to get sent to the teeny tiny “Gay/Lesbian” section unless the author is someone of note. You’ve all seen that section. It’s invariably only a shelf or two in size, buried somewhere in a creepy dark corner of the store, and it’s mostly porn. Sorry, erotica. A lot of others aren’t actually erotica but have been carefully designed to look like they are. Taking the time to actually browse through and determine which ones are literary and which ones aren’t makes you feel dirty the first few times you do it, which inevitably leads to furtive glances to see if anyone is coming-which always makes you look guilty of something.
This is changing, but not as quickly as you might think. And the place where it’s changing the fastest may surprise you: the Young Adult section. I cannot tell you how happy it makes me that there’s a growing number of quality LGBT-themed lit for young people to discover. Stuff that won’t horrify them or try to make them ashamed. Just this week I reviewed one of them in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. I can’t wait for these kids to grow up and keep looking for high-quality LGBT books in the adult genres. I don’t think they’ll settle for two shelves in the back of the store (with maybe one semi-decent book).
Anyway, back when I was first exploring the genre there was one book that stood out from the pack and gave me hope. It was the first book I read by that author and since then he has risen through the ranks to become my second-favorite author of all time.
“You confuse what’s important with what’s impressive.”
E.M. Forster originally wrote this novel in 1913-1914. He revised it in 1932 and again in 1950, but never pushed to have it published. He knew that in order to have it published he would have to condemn his protagonist, but Forster was adamant that his novel have a happy ending. So it wasn’t until after Forster’s death that Maurice was published in 1971.
At university Maurice Hall begins a clandestine affair with Clive Durham. For two years the two young men carefully hide their relationship from the world, although they possess deeply passionate feelings for one another. Things get complicated when they approach graduation and discover they have very different goals for the future. Clive, you could say, is a cold pragmatist about the realities of the world they inhabit. He cares deeply for Maurice but does not believe that they can have a future together. Maurice is more open; being with Clive makes him happy, so that is what he wants–even if they have to live their lives in the shadows to be together.
Clive returns to his family home to marry and resume his life as a straight man. Maurice is devastated and adrift. He abandons his Christian beliefs, gets a job as a stockbroker to get by, and attempts to get over his love for Clive. He even visits a hypnotist who boasts of an ability to ‘cure’ men of such desires, and when it fails to work Maurice’s disappointment in himself grows exponentially.
When Clive and his wife invite Maurice to their home for a visit, Maurice hopes to convince Clive to return to his arms and forsake the life of lies he has been living. It doesn’t work so well. Clive is determined to stick to the straight and narrow, so to speak. He still loves Maurice but is unwilling to risk losing everything to renew their affair. Clive believes that conforming to society’s view of a man’s role is the secret to happiness.
Maurice, unable to conform the way Clive has, is convinced that he will never know happiness. Try as he might, he cannot suppress who he really is–and truth be told, he wishes that he didn’t have to in the first place. That’s when he notices Alec Scudder, a lowly gamekeeper working on Clive’s property, who shares his situation as well as his belief that true happiness is living as you are with the person you love.
Maurice and Alec have some dramatic conflicts to get through before they can be together for good, but needless to say they ultimately live happily ever after–despite the fact that Maurice knows he will have to sacrifice his position in society. In the end, it is Clive who is unhappy–living a life that cannot possibly give him satisfaction beyond material things.
The central conflict as Forster has created it is not necessarily homosexuality. What these characters are really struggling to attain is happiness. In typical Forster style, it comes down to a question of honesty and possessing the courage to reach out and grab that happiness when it comes to you. He’s a true humanist with boundless empathy for his characters, and Maurice is no different. Maurice Hall’s journey is really not so different from that of Lucy Honeychurch in A Room With a View. She also struggled to find her place in a repressive society, ultimately embracing true love–even at the cost of family and society, if need be.
Forster preached understanding and sympathy for others. You could take the theme of Howards End (“Only connect …”) and apply it to each one of his works. That’s why I love him so much. It’s a beautiful, heartfelt message, and he never fails to tell it well. In my estimation he is second only to the great Kurt Vonnegut. I could easily spend the rest of my life only reading books by the two of them, and I would be blissfully happy.
James Ivory adapted Maurice for film in 1987 with James Wilby as Maurice, Hugh Grant as Clive, and Rupert Graves as Alec. It’s a very faithful adaptation and I highly recommend it as well as the novel.
Stay tuned, because since this topic has been a source of interest to me in my reading life I plan to explore more. Good, bad, happy, and sad alike. Visit my LGBT Books page to follow along.