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Archive for February 21st, 2020


James Wilby as Maurice in an early phase of the film — “Come on [out],” he shouts


Hugh Grant as Clive in the last scene, closing the window shutters on the world (1987 Merchant-Ivory Maurice)

James Ivory: The problem of living honestly with one’s emotions will be with us, I guess, as long as people make films, write plays, or write novels.

Forster: The pack were turning on Helen to deny her human rights, and it seemed to Margaret that all the Schlegels were threatened with her. Were they normal? What a question to ask? (the impassioned Margaret defending Helen at the end of Howards End)

Dear friends and readers,

This week I have been just immersing myself in E.M. Forster, rereading his brilliant and useful Aspects of the Novel, finishing the astonishing Room with a View, and about one-quarter the way through once again the inexhaustible Howards End, listening in my car to Sam Castor reading A Passage to India read aloud by Sam Dastor. Also one-third the way through Nicola Beauman’s Morgan and finding P.N Furbank’s magisterial biography a great help. She must be mad, my reader is thinking. No no. I’m reading and watching other books & movies too, and have even done other stuff, but this is what has most mattered this week. It’s all partly with a view to teaching Forster starting in less than two weeks, to two classes and I don’t want to let anyone down. I agree with Beauman this far: that Forster wrote at least four of the greatest novels in the English language. One of these four that has not got its due is Maurice.

As everyone who has read with attention the slightest about Forster or his books knows, Forster wrote Maurice in 1913-14, but did not allow it to be published until after his death in 1971. Why? it is an open exploration of homosexuality as experienced in a rabidly homophobic society, perhaps the first one in modern times not to keep the themes and insights to a hidden subtext. Maurice is a beautiful story, partly about the growing up into adulthood and then fulfillment of Maurice Hall, his discovery of his homosexuality, his suffering over how he is led to repress his nature, the slow realization in him of how perverse, destructive, unjust, cruel this is, and a final breaking out into joy (the book has a happy, indeed ecstatic ending) when he throws off the bonds of self-castigation, punishment and finds deep companionable and physical fulfillment with a man he loves. There are two parallel main stories intertwined with Maurice’s:

Clive Durham, Maurice’s equal in status, but seemingly much more intelligent, intellectual and who early on in the book seems aware he is homosexual and to be inviting Maurice to become a friend and sexual partner, but about 2/3s or less the way through turns on himself as well as Maurice, and with strong repression, marries an upper class wealthy conventional young woman, Anne, doing everything he can to live a controlled chaste heterosexual life.


Rupert Graves as Scudder upon first seeing Maurice

Alec Scudder, a servant, gardener, gamekeeper, stable man in Maurice’s employ, who also is aware of his homosexuality (he seems actually to be bisexual) and who awakens Maurice once again, but who seems to be about to live a false life also in order to find employment with his family abroad, but is convinced by Maurice to take the risks they will together (Maurice has some money) to live together in quiet retreat ….

The novel shares a number of central themes with A Room with a View and Howards End. As Claude Summers put this in his fine close reading study of all Forster’s novels, this is the necessity (if we are to know health itself) of following our innermost nature in choosing a mate and an occupation for life; one may have to make some compromises, but they must not be the erasure of humanistic values, which comes from our finest selves and sexual natures, which all his books endorse when these are aligned with humaneness, an appreciation of the beautiful in the arts, complete respect for other people & so on. I know in reading Maurice I bonded deeply with him and many of the experiences he has I recognized myself as having had — one does not need to have the same sexual orientation to experience loneliness, injustice, ostracizing, nervous self-doubt and a host of other experiences Maurice goes through — as do numbers of Forster’s characters in his other novels. Forster is like this: his generalization stance picks up all human beings so when (for example) Aziz is treated with immense bigotry, his subjective terror, anxiety, and eventually bitterness could be that of a black person in the United States — or any white supremacist society.

It is course not just these themes and insights but the way they are plotted, given life through the characters, points of view, rich settings, and eloquent language that makes for these books as masterpiece, with (I think) Maurice the most fully articulated and resolved.

Lest anyone think I am exaggerating or that Forster was far too careful, for he stopped writing novels altogether about ten years after Maurice, presumably (and this has been demonstrably argued) because he found it so frustrating not be be able to present the world as he saw it and experienced it — as an LBGTQ man (as we might nowadays label him) – just look at the reactions to his book in 1971. He was not imprisoned, tortured or hung, but the reception of the books by critics was mostly hostility, denigration, or dismissal. Cynthia Oznick (“disingenuous, infantile”), Steiner (“narrow, embittered”) were typical. Much has changed since then, but still Maurice is less valued than A Passage to India when both are equally profound protest literature.

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A group of us, varying from five to six and down to two each week wrote to TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io about the book as we read it together over four weeks, emphasizing now this theme or that character, or this or that passage, or some of the differences with the movie. I can record only a little of all this in a blog.

Part One. The first five chapters comprise a coming-of-age story, with the homosexuality of the book presented openly to us. We see Maurice as a boy in an early stage of resistance as an early seeking of himself and self-definition. The headmasters, bullying teachers, seeming half-crazed doctor-psychiatrists throughout this book, they are sent up or abhorrent. One can only flee them. Towards the ending of the part (Chapters 8-11)

I tended to “blame” Clive for turning himself (willing it) into a heterosexual male by living a strictly heterosexual life, rigidly exerting self-control, but the turning point came when after a long relationship building, and a home-coming where Maurice, having in his strong emotional responsiveness begins physically to respond to Clive’s physical overtures, prompting Clive’s daring intuitive “I love you.” It’s Maurice’a raw rough shocked horrified response that drives Clive into a reactive retreat — we will see from the outside at least — forever.

I so felt for both of them. I felt for Maurice when he stood outside before leaving for home and missed his opportunity — the kind of thing that remains so unseen and is so crucial for our lives. Then when Maurice makes the mistake of courting Miss Olcott (a play upon Alcott?) and she is so turned off; no matter what he does, it’s wrong. I’m not homosexual but this sort of thing happens to me too often: I don’t know what I did wrong, worse, I don’t know what the other person is expecting but see I am not doing it (this in job’s interviews). Here’s it’s meant a physical repulsion but Maurice also misreads signals; he does this for the rest of the novel.

Then the three short hopeless but continued attempts on the part of Maurice who the shock of Clive’s statement, rejection and this time home has at last awakened. As Clive will now be forever shut off from a physical life fulfillment, so Maurice is at long last open to it and recognizes how he has been living lies. This is the meaning of the chapter which begins “After this crisis, Maurice became a man.” I omit the religious backdrop, some of which is meant to be satiric.

For Part Two:

I find in these chapters powerful comprehensible beauty — Clive and Maurice managed a real relationship, which seems to be all the more fulfilling idealistically because (I think this is clear) it does not include full physical sex. Forster makes it clear that soul meets soul, and they speak with utter sincerity insofar as they understand themselves and one another. There are remarks about Maurice regretting this like “he was too young to detect the triviality of contact for contact’s sake” – the perfect day is the one spent outdoors in the landscape together. They have the “first taste of honesty” with one another; or because there is no acceptable set of conventions, they are not overawed by poetic traditions and all the more in contact with real eternal emotions.

At the same time we see no one but them is openly sympathetic, and many either don’t see they are lovers (in effect) or pretend not to see; worse, when pushed, or prodded, everyone is hostile. So Maurice is sent down — had he been a girl the headmaster Cornwallis would not have been adamant. Maurice’s family does not appreciate the way he tyrannizes; Clive’s family have no sympathy with Clive’s intellectuality or anything individual about him. He should not go up for a fourth year because that is not of use to the functions and roles he must play as a country squire. It does seem the mother thinks that Maurice knows which girl Clive is involved in instead of seeing the lover is Clive himself.

None of them appear to need a degree for money: Maurice goes into the family business; Clive is to take over the property and all that means.

So many good insights into our hidden lives: Like “books meant so much to” Clive “He forgot they were a bewilderment to others.” For me I can’t understand anyone who cannot or does not read regularly; I can understand because I’ve seen too often people to whom a book’s meaning and function in any deep sense is a bewilderment. Supposedly this is Maurice. Also that Maurice when he tries to make up does not realize that Clive is now in another place, that three months of experience have now been prompted by his remark so that Clive is changed.

Forster values Clive highly: calls him “a well tempered soul” and says “dignity and richness” are “poured into” Clive’s soul, that “there was nothing humble about Clive.’ Forster admires this too — I am remembering his ambivalence towards Bast. When we meet Alec Scudder we find he is not humble in himself either; it’s just an act put on — like heterosexuality is.

Part Three was very moving, and I felt that the intense deprivation Maurice feels, his desire to kill himself, suggests that there was a physical as well as emotional relationship between Maurice and Clive otherwise this really physical revulsion against himself would not have enough basis. He is just so lonely not to have a full partner physically as well as emotionally.

It creates sympathy for Maurice and to my mind makes sense that he (paradoxically) is beginning to become a better person. Suffering does not do that to all people, but it does to Maurice, he softens, he begins to feel for others and is more flexible. He also at the same time is inwardly bitter as he sees he will not be understood by anyone he meets (unless of course it’s another gay man who opens up to him but he dare not). He is so frustrated and angry he wishes he had shouted out they were homosexual when Clive first told him. He’d then have “smashed down the lies.” He feels lies are imprisoning him.

But another awakening: a young male relative from school arouses Maurice’s intense desire for sexual congress. What’ s interesting is the boy wordlessly understands and would have said yes, or okay, but Maurice fears maybe not. Maybe the boy would have responded the way he did to Clive in the first place. So Maurice locks himself in — this the second time he locks himself in a room to control himself.

I’m skipping a lot, like Maurice’s grandfather’s death, his tyrannical relationship with the women in his family, Clive’s travels

How far is Alec a stereotype: in this third part I’d say we don’t get to see enough of him. He is kept in the shadows; we hear his conversation only after we have been told he was the gamekeeper who went out with Maurice and Archie on the imbecilic cruel tasks of murdering rabbits and birds. I love Forster for bringing out how all they did (including arguing over whose fault it was they didn’t kill more animals) was senseless as well as a waste of time and some other creature’s life. Only gradually are we aware that the gamekeeper is hanging about, and our first knowledge of him as an individual is as a truculent lower class person. His class resentment is real, believable and continues to the end of the novel. He wants more than 5 bob, but then he cringes — he has been taught he is inferior and kept from gaining good English and polished manners. He is there as corduroys that Maurice feels press at him out in the landscape. Towards the end of chapter 37, memories pile up, Maurice feels some sort of electric current and at the close suddenly Alec is there in the bedroom, saying “Sir, I know …. I know ….” We are told he is said to be cleverer than the kind of gamekeeper they used to have. Throughout the book there are males who hover in the background and seem to know Maurice is gay or they are, try to make contact and either do, disastrously, or don’t. Alec has had courage or nerve and determination none of the others had.

The last or fourth part. I thought about how difficult it is for Alec and Maurice to get together and really see the other accepts them — how in the next chapters they stumble and almost miss one another forever — well I think that can happen if the other person doesn’t sudden speak out and break through the social barriers set up. There’s more than that to fear here — like blackmail; Maurice could also hurt Alec by getting him blackballed from any position ever after.

I also was so afraid when Maurice went once more to Clive: fearful Clive would “intervene” and try to stop them — out if unacknowledged jealousy?

Also I wanted to say that in my own experience you can defy the world – I had a number of people tell me not to marry Jim and express shock at what I was doing. He made no money, had no prospects of any just then. There was no one at our marriage but his parents who didn’t approve. We didn’t have to hide our love or relationship but it didn’t do us any good — it was more like what Graham describes in his first Poldark novel when Ross defies the world and marries his kitchen maid.

Forster had the example of Edward Carpenter and his partner Merrill who were living together very quietly — neither had a big money-making job at all — you do have to give up some things and not regret this and keep to not regretting it. In the 3rd season of the Durrells when Corfu is being taken over by a fascist regime, Sven the open homosexual is put in jail for a while; this being a Utopian kind of series, our friends the Durrells manage to free him — but part of his liberty like Carpenter’s is he lives a s self-dependent farmer away from others.

You ‘just’ have to be willing to pay the price of your decision — we are not told that Maurice and Alec have thought it out – yes that’s so. And Forster pulls down the curtain on the happiness. To me the happy ending that works is the one where the curtain is pulled down at a happy moment that is possible or probable but you know that time marching on other consequences will have to be dealt with or that it could have ended in another way. And that’s this one.

I particularly admired and was glad to see how Forster shows the religious cleric works for evil: Maurice (we are told) had thought clerics naive, but he sees that Borenius has ferreted out the possibility that Maurice and Alec are perhaps lovers — and certainly that Alec was somewhere having sex, and Borenius’s attempt to lasso both Alec and Maurice in. Here Forster has put his finger on a central source for homophobia: the institutional church and the kinds of people that are found there very often use the power to destroy lives they don’t like — that they have no control over. The narrator has said (third person indirect) “there is no secret of humanity which, from a wrong angle, orthodoxy has not viewed.” And religion more acute in people as a perceptive tool will go after this secret. Maurice “feared and hated Mr Borenius; he wanted to kill him.” (Not that all clerics are bad people in Forster, e.g., Mr Beebe in Room with a View.)

But Maurice believes he and Alex can escape. One of things I dislike in the movie now (having read the book) is not enough credit is given Alec. Alec is the real hero of the book — he breaks through first. Maybe Forster thinks he could do it because he’s not educated out of his realities or controlled by class, but the novel is acute enough to suggest Alec had the character to do it.

Maurice is the most openly deeply felt of all of Forster’s novels — with our vulnerable hearts and bodies really laid before us.

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Mark Tandy as Risley — we see him arrested, and tried in the film (the character is almost meant to evoke Lytton Strachey)

The Merchant-Ivory Maurice is a mostly highly faithful heritage-style rendition of the book. It grated on me in a couple of ways. It has it more concrete or clear that Alec was willing to blackmail Maurice — it showed class bias in this. The movie also has many concessions to propriety as well as middle class heterosexual audiences. They are not willing to let Clive off so easily as does Forster. They have Anne Phoebe Nichols) looking oddly at Clive: she suspects something is awry.

What did I like? the splendid performances, the beauty of the settings and (I admit it) the actors. I thought it conveyed their vulnerability. The unapologetic love scenes were done with as much frankness and the same good taste one sees in the other M-I films – and recently (I think) Outlander. Here the material is treated with intelligence and a poignancy deeply felt. It’s a haunted film — haunted by loss of what need not have been lost.

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Denholm Elliot as Mr Emerson in A Room with a View (the part is played by Timothy Spall in t’other Room with a View)

To conclude, we did agree that what held Maurice, the book, back and also the movie (it is paid less attention to than others of this team though it won many awards and was filmed in spectacularly beautiful & iconic places) is their particular sexual subject matter. Alec and Maurice opt to be alive, to live for real, not to follow the hollow commands of social conformities. As before them do Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson (Room with a View); and after them, Helen Schlegel. Helen is not broken on the wheels of the world, like, say, Leonard Bast (Howards End) or twisted like Aziz (A Passage to India). Our three pairs and Helen get away with compromising less than Margaret Schlegel has decided to put up with (for the sake of more money and owning Howards End) and than Fielding and Mrs Moore have (across their lives in Passage to India). But they are (with the exception of Leonard Bast and from the early Where Angels Fear to Tread poor Lilia and her baby who die) winners all. I have omitted the intricate connections between these major presences and the many minor people who are there in their full humanity, shaped by and assimilated into the environment of the books, adding all sorts of complexities and nuances this brief blog can only indicate, sometimes allowed the most eloquent statement in the book (Mr Emerson in Room with a View). As the occasional imbecilic (funny or not), they are compassionated; as for the obtuse and cruel, narrow and rigid, corrupt, their punishment is to be them.

Ellen

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