Written in 1914, only published in 1970, after Forster’s death. This novel has its place in the ranks of important literature because of the content: the story of young man’s awaking sense of his own homosexuality; some of his encounters; how his family life changes; and the fact of his own apparent happiness with a new partner by the novel’s end, not to mention the fact that the new partner is also from a ‘lower’ social standing. The extended publication history is explained by Forster wishing to avoid the book getting embroiled in legal proceedings, given that male homosexuality was illegal in the UK at the time of writing and remained so until 1967.
The novel does not have a place in the ranks of important literature because of the quality of the writing: it is very much of its time – that is 1914, not 1970. The language is stilted, nowadays possibly seen as archaic; some of the attitudes and language put me in an Enid Blyton-esque world of ginger beer and ‘cracking good fun’. Women are patronised into the shadows, they may be a ‘good sort’, or ‘marriage material’ or they are someone’s mother, which does at least earn some love / respect.
It is also interesting for the blazing class-snobbery on display in some of the characters – not to say these attitudes don’t exist today, just that people would in the main be less open about expressing them. One of the society men is canvassing locally for election, his mother opines, with, “…the aristocratic knack of anticipating criticism. ‘But seriously, it will be a wonderfull thing for the poor if he gets in. He is their truest friend, if only they knew it.‘” According to Maurice, who has had his own dealings with poor he tells us, “They haven’t our feelings. They don’t suffer as we should in their place.” To which, a young woman asks him, “Are you a disciple of Nietzsche?” Which did at least make me laugh.
Maurice wishes to be rid of his “rampant morbidity” that overtakes him at times; he sees both a doctor and a hypnotist looking for ‘a cure’. Not least after the man he first fell in love with at Cambridge, denies him once they leave the college and rather bizarrely goes on holiday to Greece where he meets his future wife and returns declaring himself no longer interested in men.
There’s no doubt that the novel was a brave one to write for its time, and it stands against criticism in its illustration of the prejudicial attitudes that ran through English society, both in terms of sexuality but also in terms of class – “knowing one’s place” – and for those things alone it deserves a place on our bookshelves.