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The Afterlives of E.M. Forster

For decades, Forster could not publish his novel of gay love, “Maurice.” Its importance in his work and to the writers he nurtured is only just becoming clear.

William di Canzio’s Alec arrived in the mail looking like an English novel set in Italy, circa 1960: a black-and-white illustration of a handsome young man’s face framed by a gray square, his gaze on something just out of sight, his lips parted as if he is about to say something, or has just said something. The Alec of the title is Alec Scudder, a young man famous to us—if we know him at all—as the final love interest in Maurice, E.M. Forster’s posthumous novel of gay life, begun in 1913, published in 1971, 47 years after his last previous novel. Di Canzio promises us Alec’s side of this story.

by William di Canzio
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 352 pp., $27.00

Alec Scudder is a young assistant gamekeeper in the employ of Clive Durham, the first love of the titular Maurice Hall. Clive has given up on the chaste love he and Maurice had promised each other as a compromise between their feelings and what they felt “respectability” demanded of them; instead, he has married the woman his family expected him to marry. By the time Alec appears in Maurice’s life, three-quarters of the way through the novel, Maurice has come to visit Clive’s country home, desolate over Clive’s seemingly abrupt marriage and subsequent transformation into a heterosexual local politician running for office. Clive was the first person to give a name and a language to the feelings Maurice had all his life before this, and Maurice now knows no other world that could sustain him. Maurice is undergoing treatment, hoping to be hypnotized out of loving Clive and out of his attractions to men in general; he even endures the household speculation that he is courting a woman. This is when his eyes meet Alec’s, passing him on his way into the estate, and he falls in love. Or rather, they both fall in love—it is love at first sight. Maurice and Alec quickly begin what seems like a doomed love affair.

Maurice charts these difficulties with a level of detail not found in most fiction of the period. It is also a novel about social class in a way most fiction about gay men still does not manage: Clive is upper class, Maurice is middle class, and Alec, working class, and Forster portrays the roles each is pressed into because of this, and their resistance or submission to the demands of those roles. A common theme in the novel is the replaceability of men in these dominant culture roles. The novel ends with Maurice fiercely declaring his love of Alec to Clive, who can barely understand what he’s saying, and then walking away, leaving Clive talking to himself alone in the dark on his grand estate. In Alec, di Canzio begins by illuminating Alec’s side of these circumstances from the novel and then continues out past the border of the lawn where Maurice left Clive.

The challenges di Canzio faces are various: Most Forster fans have not read the original novel, largely because of the hostile discourse that appeared as soon as it was published; and those fans who have read it may feel possessive over Alec, in part as a response to that hostile discourse. A reinvention of Maurice is a literary experiment, then, that might invite much protest from the audience most likely to enjoy it, and may require some explaining to the audience that might enjoy it but not otherwise read it at all. It is also daunting to borrow some of Forster’s characters, who bring the expectation of the music and technique that surrounded them in their native environments—a Forsterian music and a technique no debut author should promise lightly to anyone.

I had all of this in mind as I picked the book up, and then I read it in a single day, as I had not with any other book in the last year. Alec is a debut with a bold premise, if also a subtle one, surrounded by some of the most conflicted critical terrain in Western literature. And it seems to me that among Alec’s missions is to reopen that discussion, with the question of just what Forster was doing when he wrote and published Maurice, and why.

E.M. Forster’s long silence as a novelist is notable because his first five books of fiction had appeared in a rapid procession, establishing him quickly as one of the most promising British fiction writers of the twentieth century: Where Angels Fear to Tread, The Longest Journey, A Room With a View, and Howards End appeared between 1905 and 1910, and in 1911 he published his first book of short stories, The Celestial Omnibus. Thirteen years passed before the publication of his fifth novel—A Passage to Indiadelayed partly due to World War I. And then he seemed to abandon writing fiction altogether, up until his death in 1970, when news came of this final, unpublished novel, as well as a collection of stories, both about gay men.

The author who would become so famous for writing the words “Only connect” had, unknown to his reading public, written in his diary in 1911 of his “weariness of the only subject that I both can and may treat—the love of men for women & vice versa.” He had already fallen in love with the friend he would base Clive on—a friend who would read the novel he started two years later, about the struggle to live as a gay man in Edwardian England, a struggle known intimately to Forster, who revealed 60 years later, in the posthumously published novel’s “Terminal Note,” that he, like his characters, was a homosexual.

Cynthia Ozick’s surprisingly scalding and chaotic 1971 review of Maurice in Commentary, “FORSTER AS HOMOSEXUAL,” in which she calls Forster’s posthumous revelation of his sexuality an “audacious slap in the face,” includes a decent one-paragraph summation of what we might call the first public Forster, the one the public thought they knew when they mourned him:

He endured the mildest of bachelor lives, with, seen from the outside, no cataclysms. He was happiest (as adolescents say today, he “found himself”) as a Cambridge undergraduate, he touched tenuously on Bloomsbury, he saw Egypt and India (traveling always, whether he intended it or not, as an agent of Empire), and when his mother died returned to Cambridge to live out his days among the undergraduates of King’s. He wrote what is called a “civilized” prose, sometimes too slyly decorous, occasionally fastidiously poetic, often enough as direct as a whip. His essays, mainly the later ones, are especially direct: truth-telling, balanced, “humanist”—kindhearted in a detached way, like, apparently, his personal cordiality. He had charm: a combination of self-importance (in the sense of knowing himself to be the real thing) and shyness. In tidy rooms at King’s (the very same College he had first come up to in 1897) Forster in his seventies and eighties received visitors and courtiers with memorable pleasantness, was generous to writers in need of a push (Lampedusa among them), and judiciously wrote himself off as a pre-1914 fossil. Half a century after his last novel the Queen bestowed on him the Order of Merit. Then one day in the summer of 1970 he went to Coventry on a visit and died quietly at ninety-one, among affectionate friends.

His bachelor life, however, was not mild, and underwent several cataclysms—and “seen from the outside” barely admits what a closeted life could hide. He was happiest later in life, when he was more comfortable with his sexuality. He did more than “touch tenuously on Bloomsbury”—several of the Bloomsbury circle read Maurice in manuscript, and aided in its revision and eventual publication. He helped Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in part because Lampedusa was, shall we say, a brother in arms. The idea of Forster as someone who had written himself off as a pre-1914 fossil was an idea he hid behind, deliberately, even if he also feared it was true. As for the affectionate friends, the woman who held his hand as he died was May Buckingham, the wife of his lover, Bob Buckingham, a working-class police officer he’d met in 1930. He and May had shared Bob for decades.

Forster’s reading public did not ever really know him, and for some, like Ozick, this felt like a betrayal. As if he owed his reader any truth other than what was in his novels, or any life other than the one he lived in writing them. There was not the slightest bit of anger at what the world had denied Forster, and only contempt at what he himself might have denied himself as a result.

The argument over whether Forster was right or not, or even polite or rude or “audacious,” to withhold the novel and then publish it posthumously obscures the mix of ways queerness and homosexuality were prosecuted and insists there was a single right response to his predicament. This debate also doesn’t acknowledge the very real legal obstacles at the time even for fiction depicting more orthodox heterosexual relationships explicitly, such as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Perhaps more than Maurice itself, Forster’s “Terminal Note,” included at the end, seems to have antagonized and emboldened his critics. In sections titled “Notes on the three men,” “Homosexuality,” and “A Note on the Text,” the note describes in brief the novel’s genesis and mission and how he found his three characters—Maurice, Clive, and Alec—as well as his rationale for writing and then withholding the novel. A fateful paragraph: “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, and in this sense Maurice and Alec still roam the greenwood.” The idea that he would write a happy ending seemed to generations of readers a dedication to something impossible, utopian, and even craven, derided in a number of ways. Yet it was riskier than his critics acknowledge—one could as easily call Maurice dystopian, when describing the world into which he and his characters were born.

Forster insisted on the novel’s happy ending, fully aware that, if it were published, British law at the time would treat it as an incitement to criminal conduct. He knew the laws in England well, having been enlisted to testify on behalf of The Well of Loneliness, an early and important lesbian novel by Radclyffe Hall charged in a British court with a criminal incitement to obscenity, even with its tragic ending. Any ending in sympathy with a homosexual person, happy or tragic, could invite a criminal charge at the time the novel was written and all the way up until 1967, three years before Forster’s death.

The tone in Forster’s “Terminal Note” is also important: The man hidden from his readers was in some ways the real revelation. The ease and familiarity with which he describes the novel’s inspiration—the moment when the philosopher George Merrill touched his behind is perhaps the most hilarious virgin birth story in modern history, and possibly the only funny one—this alone revealed him to his readers as never before. He’d hidden his sexuality on purpose, a security measure taken at a time when, as he points out in the note, “police prosecutions will continue and Clive on the bench will continue to sentence Alec in the dock. Maurice may get off.” Whether vociferous or mild, the critics who dismissed his novel and his coming out as of little importance did so despite presumably knowing all of this.

The “Terminal Note” also now seems like a facade of a kind, as the scholarship around Forster excavates the truths behind it. For whatever reason, Forster presented a novel he had worked on over decades as a novel he had written in one year. The note does not acknowledge that Maurice was written not only from 1913 to 1914, as Forster declares, but was in fact his most revised novel, nor does it describe his long friendship with the writer Christopher Isherwood, who tried to get him first to revise the novel so that it included sex scenes, and then to publish the novel while he was alive. The note’s story of how the novel appeared to him all at once also makes no mention of his private sex journal, undated and undertaken to understand his feelings, or his youthful study of a gay canon, such as he could find it. In her 2010 biography of Forster, A Great Unrecorded History, Wendy Moffat finds him reading:

A.E.W. Clarke’s Jaspar Tristram, H. N. Dickinson’s Keddy, Howard Overing Sturgis’s Tim, and the schoolboy fantasies of Desmond Coke, who published under the delicious pseudonym “Belinda Blinders.” There were defenses of homosexuality by J. A. Symonds and the Victorian sage Edward Carpenter. And there were the overtly sexual poems of Whitman, Michelangelo, and Shakespeare.

The early draft of the novel did not end on Clive’s estate, but set the lovers down in Edward Carpenter’s yard on their way to Forster’s beloved “greenwood.” In di Canzio’s Alec, that is where Maurice and Alec find shelter and mentorship, introduced by Alec’s teacher, “Morgan.” And so Forster arrives, set up as a historically correct character, into this novel, in a way Forster never did and never would in his own novels.

What seems to be Forster’s Great Silence, as I have come to think of it, beckons us in, if we love his fiction—the sense of the promise unfulfilled, of what never happened, conjures a powerful impulse to project onto it, and this began during his lifetime. The literary critic Lionel Trilling’s study of his published work, E.M. Forster—in which he defined and popularized the term “moral realism” to describe Forster, and found the path to his own great work, The Liberal Imagination—begins with the highest possible praise: “E. M. Forster is for me the only living novelist who can be read again and again and who, at each reading, gives what few novelists can after our first days of novel-reading, the sensation of having ‘learned’ something.” Published in 1943 and revised later in 1964 with a new introduction, it includes the speculation as to whether a future biographer would be able to explain Forster’s “possibly permanent retirement after the great success of his last novel.” At the time Trilling’s appreciation of his work appeared, Forster hadn’t had a new novel out in 20 years.

I wondered if Lionel Trilling, having written the early important book on Forster, had any thoughts about Maurice, and what I found in his collected letters was a note to Cynthia Ozick in 1971, praising her operatically scathing review, to which he added,

It might amuse you to know that I came to the explicit realization that he was homosexual. I’m not sure whether this was because of a particular obtuseness on my part or because a quarter of a century ago—more, actually, although it scarcely seems possible!—homosexuality hadn’t yet formulated itself as an issue in the culture. When the realization did come, it at first didn’t seem of crucial importance, but that view soon began to change, and, as I came to have some slight personal acquaintance with Forster—I had not met him until after the publication of the book—it changed radically.

Trilling’s introduction to the 1964 edition of his Forster book suggests only that he and Forster had become friends, but that it did not change his mind—that he preferred his earlier assessment of his novels, before their friendship. The letters also include his nomination of Forster to the Nobel Committee just seven years previous to his letter to Ozick. There is a complicated smugness to this note that feels off, until you recall that Forster did not, it seems, include Trilling in the circle of those who read the Maurice manuscript.

The films made of Forster’s novels by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory in the 1980s and ’90s would seem to have accomplished what Trilling did not: As they lovingly adapted Maurice, along with A Room With a View and Howards End, the films created a popular public identity for Forster’s novels together. The novelist Edmund White recalls reading Maurice only after seeing the film, since he had interviewed two of the actors around the time the film came out. He had been put off by the critical condemnation of the novel. I confess I did much the same.

Alec is not the first novel to make Forster into a character. He makes a cameo appearance in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library, and is a main character in Damon Galgut’s 2014 Arctic Summer, a novel about Forster’s sexual and romantic awakening, titled after a novel Forster started and abandoned in order to write and finish Maurice. The playwright Matthew Lopez also summons him this way, putting him inside his Howards End reinvention set in Manhattan, in order to give Forster’s blessing to this adaptation of the novel.

But it was Wendy Moffat’s biography that introduced me to the idea of Forster as the ultimate E.M. Forster character. Her biography is often characterized as the one that focuses most intently on Forster’s homosexuality, but this strikes me as a way of continuing the separation of Forster and his sexuality. I think of it instead as written with a sense of how central that sexual identity is to his identity. She also dramatized Forster’s talent for allowing people to imagine him as a very different person so that he could live his life behind their projections—what Moffat called “Forster’s very canny use of other people’s assumptions about him.” As Bernard Perlin, an artist who had sketched Forster, told her when she interviewed him, “The tiny eyeglasses would turn into a mirror—he was a bit of a cipher to his admirers.”

And so there may be as many imaginary Forsters as admirers. Ozick, for example—who has described elsewhere how she read The Longest Journey every year as a young writer and traveled as far as Forster’s King’s College door, but did not knock—certainly had her own, and the fury of her review seems at least in part the product of someone disappointed by a hero in the way that any hero disappoints, by being someone different from whom you imagined them to be.

Just as it is small to call Maurice a utopian experiment, it is small to say di Canzio only sought to offer us a view of Maurice and Alec through Alec’s eyes. By adding the character named Morgan to Alec, he places Forster into the imaginative world of his own novel. It was easier for critics to accuse Forster of writing the novel autobiographically—and making it seem less authoritative as a result—when less was known about his life. Homosexuality in the posthumous Forster critical narrative was powerful when hidden, and once public, seen as weakness. Di Canzio reunites Maurice with parts of Forster’s biography both close to Forster’s heart and missing from his fiction, even from Maurice—the courses he taught to working-class men after he finished up at King’s College as a student; the three years he spent in Egypt as a Searcher, interviewing the World War I wounded in order to find those who were still missing. But the radical queers Edward Carpenter and his lover, George Merrill, who inspired Forster to write Maurice not just with a touch, but with their very real relationship, connect both novels as well as Forster beautifully.

Alec is the product of a sexually sophisticated imagination, unlike Maurice, and so we find the lovers borrowed from Forster hard at it, so to speak, and in full enjoyment of each other. The originality of di Canzio’s novel flowers in its second half, when the lovers leave behind the private queer Eden they have made together and enter the hostile, outer world—the arena where their lives would have no meaning except as tools in a war between colonial powers, as intended. When World War I breaks out, the lovers enlist. They idealistically imagine they will not be separated in the army, but their different social classes mean they spend the next few years of the war apart—Alec as a private, and Maurice as an officer. In this way also, Alec is the kind of novel Maurice could never be, full of sex and war, death and torture.

Di Canzio’s descriptions of their experiences are harrowing, tender, brutal, and comic. A favorite scene is when Alec visits the legendary Parisian brothel, Le Chabanais, while on leave, and encounters pure lust in a way he hasn’t before, as well as the truth of the late King Edward VII’s preferences. He believes he is haunted by Maurice, who is missing and unaccounted for, and increasingly presumed dead. He writes Maurice letters, unsent, saved so as to be given to him once he is found, and they build his emptiness with a moving slowness before the war pulls him down like an ocean full of the drowned. He reaches the war’s end overwhelmed with loss, and while his wounds heal, he descends into despair and then loses himself in Southern France, near Marseilles, unable to go home to a land without Maurice. The writing here is the novel’s best. The question Maurice raised—is there anywhere these men can truly be together?—is made the more real, not the less, by the war and this novel.

There is another kind of wish fulfillment here that eventually tugged at me. There are wealthy people who are kind, perhaps too kind, and a certain baroness especially, though I adored her. A scene set at a party she throws is one of my very favorites. These angelic benefactors function collectively at times as a Deus Ex Machina, if the Ex stood for Exchequer, though if you remember the way beauties can open doors, hearts, and wallets, perhaps Alec is something of an accidental courtesan, constantly surprised by the generosity of those around him in response to his beauty. There is an Epilogue, in which the lovers depart for America, and it allows me to use a famous Forster quote: “Epilogues are for Tolstoy.” But I understand why it is there. And it is perhaps a parallel to the journey that the manuscript of Maurice made to Isherwood.

The care Forster took in sharing Maurice may have made it the most influential of unpublished novels before it was finally published. The novel’s first journey in 1952 from Forster in England to Isherwood in California saw it passed hand to hand by a series of gay men in what Moffat calls a “pony express” undertaken to protect it from the American Comstock laws that would have seized it. As it circulated, the novel became first an open secret and eventually the center of a sort of private reading club for gay male writers, critics, and friends, for decades. The literary scholar Philip Gardner found that Forster had kept a careful record of who had read the novel and which manuscript version had been offered. Over a 57-year period, the list of those who had read the novel included writers and intellectuals like Lytton Strachey, J.R. Ackerley, W.H. Auden, Isherwood, Stephen Spender, Forrest Reid, and Forster’s biographer P.N. Furbank, along with his mentors such as Goldsworthy ­Lowes Dickinson, Edward Carpenter, and George Merrill. Carpenter and Merrill lived out one real-life happy ending for a gay couple at the time. The novel was not so fantastical after all.

When I profiled the gay bestselling American novelist Gordon Merrick for Out Magazine in 1997, his surviving lover, Charles Hulse, described how Forster had admiringly written to Merrick of his first novel, The Strumpet Wind, beginning a correspondence that had culminated at a hotel near King’s College, where Merrick was left with a copy of the manuscript and read it in one night. He was then inspired to write The Lord Won’t Mind, a novel of explicitly sexual gay love with a happy ending that rescued him from obscurity in 1970, when it became a New York Times bestseller in hardcover—the same year Forster died. Merrick’s next 12 novels of the love affairs of gay men sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Edmund White even gave that success some credit for his own start at the time, recalling that publishers were interested in him at least in part due to Merrick’s success.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, the presiding book critic for The New York Times in 1971, wrote one of the few reviews that, to my mind, treated Maurice with any respect. He spoke of it as a major work, that of an artist at the peak of his powers, and, to his surprise, he even preferred it to Howards End. He took this position before reviews appeared by critics like Noel Annan, writing for The New York Review of Books, who begins his piece as only an intelligence officer (and a Cambridge man) might: “It has for long been known that E.M. Forster had a novel that at first he could not, and then would not, publish in his lifetime.” Annan did not seem to have been among the many invited to actually read the book in manuscript, and in Forster’s diaries, published in 2011, Forster says of Annan, “He really is a shit.”

I am interested in whether a reader who knows nothing of Maurice or Forster will find Alec as involving or compelling as I did. I don’t have the answer yet. But what I would like to leave you with is that Forster’s work on behalf of our generation of queer writers did not begin with Maurice’s publication—rather, the novel’s publication was the culmination of what he did while he was alive. In the mentorships he cultivated with other writers, in the way he spoke out for those writers or in the ways they guided him, in his attempts to critique social class, colonialism, and Empire, he inspired many. Perhaps someday it will be seen this way. Who knows how many Forsters will be needed to make it so.