Written in 1913 and dedicated “to a happier year”, Maurice is the tale of the protagonist’s coming of age as a queer man at a time when England criminalised same-sex relationships. Much like Laurie in the later Charioteer by Renault (written after Maurice, but published earlier), Maurice is torn between the spiritual affections of his university love, and the carnal nature of his love’s gamekeeper. And if that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Forster showed the manuscript to his close friend D.H. Lawrence, who suggested that as Maurice could never be published for the scandal it would cause, he could reinterpret the story with a heterosexual couple, and thus Lady Chatterley’s Lover was born. (That Forster didn’t object is evident in his appearance as a defence witness for the Lady Chatterley obscenity trial.)
Maurice Hall is an unlikely protagonist for such a novel. Born to a middle class family, he intends from an early age to follow his late father’s footsteps and become a stockbroker. A rugged lad, better at sports than studies, he coasts through his education until he attends Cambridge university, where he falls in with an older student, Durham. The two become firm friends, bonding first over music, and then over the Classics, as Durham introduces Maurice to the works (and philosophy) of the Greeks.Durham’s declaration of love strikes Maurice as a bolt from the blue — his shocked response, “But Durham, we’re English!” is one of the great comic moments with which the novel is sprinkled — and the two sever ties, Maurice too confused, and Durham too hurt, to speak of the matter further.
After much soul-searching, Maurice realises how desperately he misses his friend, and how deep his feelings for him truly run. He attempts to make amends, but Durham rebuffs him. Unable to sleep, Maurice is standing outside Durham’s window (the closest he can get to him) when he hears Durham call his name in his sleep. Taking it as a sign all is not lost, Maurice climbs through the window and into Durham’s bed (where we finally learn Durham’s first name in the gasped exclamation, “Oh, Clive!”).
Reunited, the two become closer than ever, cutting classes to spend their days lazing in the fields around Cambridge, cuddling and kissing but never more, for Clive believes sex would sully their relationship, reducing it from the elevated platonic love the Greeks so espoused. When Maurice is sent down (expelled) for cutting classes, the pair continue their relationship through letters and holidays spent at Clive’s family home, Penge (Clive, being from a higher class than Maurice, has an estate, albeit a poor one), and after Clive graduates, in Clive’s London apartment.On one of his visits to Maurice’s house, Clive falls ill with flu. Maurice wants to take care of him, but Clive rebuffs his attentions, and admits his feelings towards Maurice have changed. Devastated, Maurice refuses to accept what Clive says, deciding instead the illness has affected Clive’s mind. Clive leaves to finish recuperating at Penge, and from there travels to Greece, from where he sends Maurice a letter confirming that he no longer has any interest in men, and their relationship is over. He wishes to remain Maurice’s friend, but he intends to get married.
Brokenhearted, Maurice determines to find a cure for himself. During a visit to Clive’s house he books an appointment with a hypnotist who claims to be able to help queer men change. The session is not a success (the hypnotist warned Maurice in advance there was a 50% chance of failure), and Maurice returns to Penge more disheartened than ever.
While at Penge as the guest of Clive and his new wife, Maurice begins to contemplate what his future holds. Clive wishes Maurice would change, as he has; he claims he wants to see his old friend happy, and believes taking a wife will be the solution. Maurice disagrees, but Clive makes it clear he thinks Maurice should put his attraction to men behind him. Unable to sleep, Maurice is looking from his bedroom window when he feels an overwhelming urge to cry out “Come!” into the night. His inadvertent call is answered by Clive’s gamekeeper, Alec Scudder.
There existed at this period a dominant cultural norm which placed the working class as more physical and carnal by nature than their social superiors. Forster and his friends, like Wilde and Douglas and countless others, sought out the company of working men. Indeed, it was a touch from George Merrill, the working class companion of the poet Edward Carpenter, who inadvertently inspired Maurice, when he touched Forster on the backside.
The sensation was unusual and I still remember it, as I remember the position of a long vanished tooth. It was as much psychological as physical. It seemed to go straight through the small of my back into my ideas, without involving my thoughts.
— E.M. Forster, Maurice, Terminal Note
That Maurice finally indulges his physical desires with a gamekeeper is entirely fitting, given Forster’s own experiences and the Whitmanesque philosophy to which he subscribed. The peace Maurice finds in Alec’s arms is, however, soon shattered. The next morning he panics and flees in abject fear, despite having arranged to meet Alec again that evening at the boathouse at Penge.Maurice then receives a series of barely-literate notes, scandalously candid, in which Alec berates Maurice for running out on him. Then Alec threatens blackmail.In an attempt to avert a disaster, Maurice agrees to meet Alec at the British Museum in London. There, Alec admits he only threatened Maurice because he missed him and wanted to see him again. The two find themselves in a cheap hotel, and at the end of their tryst Alec says he was glad to have met with Maurice one last time, as he will be shortly emigrating to Argentina.
Unhappy with the realisation he might never see Alec again, Maurice begs him to stay. Alec laughs, pointing out their differences in class and income, and not even Maurice’s promises to leave his job and run away with him will change Alec’s mind. Although initially resentful, Maurice decides at last to do the decent thing and go to the docks the morning Alec’s ship sails to see him off. When he arrives, he’s astonished to learn that Alec hasn’t turned up and is going to miss his voyage. Heart racing with excitement, Maurice rushes to Penge.
The first thing he does when he arrives is speaks to Clive, and tells him all that has transpired with Alec. Initially thrilled his friend had fallen in love and intended to settle down, Clive’s joy turns to horror when he understands Maurice is giving up his comfortable life to run away with another man. He says he cannot condone what Maurice intends to do, but Maurice realises, with a sense of liberation, that he doesn’t care anymore what Clive thinks. The two part for the last time, and Maurice makes for the boathouse where he instinctively knows Alec is waiting for him.
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.
— E.M. Forster, Maurice, Terminal Note