Last week, I taught E. M. Forster’s Maurice for the first time in several years. The last (and only other) time I taught it, I didn’t think it went very well. This time I taught it in my Major English Authors class, which is focusing on British Lesbian and Gay writers. I think it went pretty well.
Forster wrote Maurice in 1913/14, but it wasn’t published until after his death in 1970. The novel relates the story of Maurice, a suburban, middle class English boy (and later man) who comes to understand that he prefers men to women. The novel is impossibly romantic, but it provides an interesting glimpse of Forster’s ideas of the origins and experiences of homosexuality.
Maurice holds a special place in my life. It is literally the novel (and film adaptation) that helped me come out. I was “struggling” with my sexuality when I happened upon the movie version of the novel on one of the cable movie channels (my dad worked for a cable company, so we had all of the pay channels). The first time I stumbled across it, I only saw one scene, one in which Clive, played by Hugh Grant, and Maurice, played by James Wilby, lay on a bed together. Maybe my parents were around or something, but I quickly turned the channel. I then looked up what movie it was in the guidebook and found out when it was playing again. I often stayed up late at night after everyone else had gone to bed watching movies. Fortunately, Maurice was playing late one night a few days later. I found a copy of the novel and read it too (though I can’t remember if I read the novel before seeing the movie or vice versa.)
The first scene I saw is about 5:40 into this clip:
The part of Maurice that immediately resonated with me was the idea of finding one’s “friend.” Early in the novel, Maurice has a dream. Forster describes it like this:
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. (22)
While studying at Cambridge, Maurice believes he’s found that friend in Clive; when that relationship doesn’t work out, he stumbles upon Alec Scudder, Clive’s gamekeeper. After Maurice and Alec spend a night together, Maurice asks Scudder,
“Did you ever dream you’d a friend, Alec? Nothing else but just ‘my friend,’ he trying to help you and you him. A friend,” he repeated, sentimental suddenly. “Someone to last you your whole life and you his.” (197)
I recently came across some letters I had received from a friend from about the same time that I first saw and read Maurice. I remember writing to him about my desire to find such a friend. Because of his religious views, he was a little weirded out by this admission (and probably more than a little worried that I was trying to seduce him or something like that, which wasn’t the case).
In teaching the novel this week, I was reminded how influential it had been on my gay identity. From the very beginning of my recognizing my sexuality, I saw it in terms of looking for a friend to last my whole life, rather than a chance to sleep with lots of hot boys in college, etc. I’m also happy to note how successful I’ve been at finding this “friend,” a word that always grates me when PJ’s family introduces me to someone as his “friend.” Reading the novel again makes he feel less irritated with them.
I won’t go into all the ways here, but I was also struck this week by how similar my own psychology, for lack of a better word, was to Maurice’s. Many aspects of Forster’s description of his main character matched what I felt and thought as I started to acknowledge my sexuality and come out.
The only part of the movie version we watched was its depiction of the demise of Maurice’s relationship with Clive, since the movie adds an explanation for the deterioration that isn’t in the book. I watched the movie again on my own, however, and thought that it really stood up over time. Wilby, Grant, and Rupert Graves, who plays Scudder, are all so young and beautiful in the movie, and it largely captures the spirit of Forster’s novel.
Neither the novel or the film is perfect, but both illustrate the cultural mores and attitudes towards homosexuality when they were created. The novel, however tentative its depictions of homosexuality, could not be published in Forster’s lifetime, if he wanted to continue his public life, while the movie features full frontal nudity, illustrating the mid-1980s increasing comfort with two nude men holding each other in a loving embrace.
It’s always awkward, I find, to teach a novel or a movie that means a lot to me personally. So, I was worried about teaching Maurice in this class of mostly straight seniors. Apart from waxing on about Rupert Graves’s beautiful ass (in a scene in Maurice that we did not actually watching in class), I think I did a pretty good job of trying to stick to a discussion of the novel in its own terms. My students seemed to do very well with it too. I collected papers on it on Friday; I look forward to seeing what they made of the book.