Commentary Magazine


Forster as Homosexual

Possibly the most famous sentence in Forster’s fiction is the one that comes out of the blue at the start of Chapter Five of The Longest Journey: “Gerald died that afternoon.” The sentence is there with no preparation whatever—no novelistic “plant,” no hidden tracks laid out in advance. Just before the turning of the page we have seen Gerald resplendent in his sexual prime, “with the figure of a Greek athlete and the face of an English one,” a football player of no special distinction but the fact of his glorious aliveness. Then, without warning, he is “broken up.”

The suddenness of Gerald’s death has been commented on almost too often by Forster seminarians; it is, after all, a slap in the reader’s face, and must be accounted for. Asked about it in a 1952 interview (it was then forty-five years since the book had first appeared), Forster would only say, “It had to be passed by.” An insulting answer. Forster is a gentleman who never insults unintentionally; he also intends to shock, and he never shocks inadvertently. Shock is the nearest he can come to religious truths. If you are reading a Forster story about a vigorous young man and happen, in the most natural way, to forget for just that moment how Death lies in ambush for all of us, Forster will rub your nose in reminders. How dare you forget that Death is by, how dare you forget Significance? Like those medieval monks who kept a skull on their desks, Forster believes in the instructiveness, the salubriousness, of shock. He believes that what is really important comes to us as a shock. And like nature (or like religion bereft of consolation), he withholds, he is unpredictable, he springs, so as to facilitate the shock.

That is in the fiction. His own life seemed not like that. 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.

That was the life. That none of this was meant to be trusted, not, certainly, to be taken at face value—least of all the harmonious death—suddenly came clear last year, when the British Museum let it be known it was in possession of an unpublished Forster novel, written in 1913, between the two masterpieces Howards End and A Passage to India; and that the novel was about homosexual love. Biographically, the posthumous publication of Maurice1 is the precise equivalent of “Gerald died that afternoon.” (Trust the fiction, not the life.) It was to be sprung on us in lieu of a homily, and from the grave itself—another audacious slap in the face.

But literary shock, especially when it is designed to be didactic, has a way of finally trivializing. The suddenness of Gerald’s death presses so hard for Significance that Significance itself begins to give way, and wilts off into nothing more impressive than a sneer. Forster, prodding the cosmos to do its job of showing us how puny we are, is left holding his little stick—the cosmos has escaped him, it will not oblige. Gerald’s death may surprise, but the teaching fails: death qua death is not enough. We must have grief to feel death, and Forster did not give us enough Gerald to grieve over. We were never allowed to know Gerald well, or even to like him a little; he is an unsympathetic minor character, too minor to stand for the abyss. Shock does not yield wisdom on short acquaintance.

Maurice is meant to convey wisdom on longer acquaintance: here is a full-scale history of a homosexual from earliest awakening to puzzlement to temporary joy to frustration to anguish, and at last to sexual success. In Maurice it is society Forster prods, not the cosmos; it is one of Forster’s few books in Which death does not reverberate in any major way. But like the cosmos in The Longest Journey, society in Maurice eludes Forster’s stick. In Howards End it did not: he impaled English mores in the house-renting habits of Mr. Wilcox, and wrote of the money-and-property mentality in such a way as to dishevel it permanently. Howards End is, along with Middlemarch thirty years before, the prototypical English Wisdom Novel—wisdom in the category of the-way-things-really-are, the nest of worms exposed below the surface of decency. Maurice is even more ambitious: it appears not merely to attack and discredit society, but to outwit it. How? By spite, by spitting in the eye of conventional respectability; by inventing a triumphant outcome against the grain of reality and (then) possibility. “A happy ending was imperative,” Forster explained in a message which accompanies the novel in the manner of a suicide note (and is, in fact, styled by him a “Terminal Note”); like a suicide note it represents defense, forethought, revenge—the culmination of extensive fantasizing. “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.”

The key words are: in fiction. Maurice, in short, is a fairy tale. I don’t choose this term for the sake of an easy pun, or to take up the line of ribaldry, and certainly not to mock. I choose it because it is the most exact. Maurice is not merely an idyll, not merely a fantasy, not merely a parable. It is a classical (though flawed and failed) fairy tale in which the hero is stuck with an ineradicable disability. In the standard fairy tale he may be the youngest of three, or the weakest, or the poorest and most unlikely—in Maurice’s instance he is the oddest, and cannot love women. In the prescribed manner he encounters sinister advice and dissembling friends and gets his profoundest wish at the end, winning—as a reward for the wish itself—the hand of his beloved. The essence of a fairy tale is that wishing does make it so: the wish achieves its own fulfillment through its very steadfastness of desire. That is why fairy tales, despite their dark tones and the vicissitudes they contain so abundantly, are so obviously akin to daydreams—daydreaming is a sloughing off of society, not an analysis of it. To wish is not to explain; to wish is not to reform. In real life wishing, divorced from willing, is sterile and begets nothing. Consequently Maurice is a disingenuous book, an infantile book, because, while pretending to be about societal injustice, it is really about make-believe, it is about wishing; so it fails even as a tract. Fairy tales, though, are plainly literature; but Maurice fails as literature too. In a fairy or folk tale the hero, even when he is a trickster, is a model of purity and sincerity. What is pure and sincere in him is the force of his wish, so much so that his wish and his nature are one. But Maurice as hero has a flaw at the center of him; he is conceived impurely and insincerely.

This impurity Forster himself appears to concede. “In Maurice,” the Terminal Note explains further, “I tried to create a character Who was completely unlike myself or what I supposed myself to be: someone handsome, healthy, bodily attractive, mentally torpid, not a bad businessman and rather a snob. Into this mixture I dropped an ingredient that puzzles him, wakes him up, torments him and finally saves him.” The impurity, then, is the ingredient of homosexuality dropped into a man who is otherwise purely Mr. Wilcox, lifted temperamentally intact out of Howards End: a born persecutor whom fear of persecution “saves” from the practice of his trait.

But whatever Forster’s hope for Maurice was, this is not the sensibility he has rendered. It is impossible to believe in Maurice as a businessman or a jock (in Cambridge vocabulary, a “blood”). He is always Ricky of The Longest Journey (which means he is always Morgan Forster) got up in a grotesque costume—the Sensitive Hero as Callous Philistine—and wearing a wobbly wig. Whenever Maurice is most himself, the prose gives a lurch: it is Forster remembering, with a mindful shudder, to throw in a liter of mental torpidity here, a kilo of investment shrewdness there. But all that is artifice and sham. Forster loves music; Maurice is ignorant of it; consequently Maurice’s self-knowledge occurs partly through Tchaikovsky. Forster at school recoiled from games and fell in love with Hellenism; Maurice has “physical pluck” and is an indifferent scholar (his “Greek was vile”); consequently on Prize Day he delivers a Greek Oration. No matter how Forster sidesteps it, Maurice keeps coming out Forster. After a while the absurdity of the effort to coarsen Maurice—to de-Morgan him, so to speak—fatigues; Forster’s pointless toil at this impossibility becomes, for the reader, an impatience and an embarrassment. It is embarrassing to watch a writer cover his tracks in the name of exploring them. Purporting to show a hard man turn soft under the pressure of alienation from the general run of society, Forster instead (and without admitting it) shows a soft man turn softer—so soft he slides off into the teleology of the fairy tale. This falsification is the real impurity of the novel. Its protagonist falls apart at the marrow, like a book left outdoors overnight in the rain. Maurice cannot hold because Maurice is made of paper and breaks like dough at the first moist lover’s squeeze.

One suspects Forster knew this. How could he not? He had already published three nearly perfect minor novels and one extraordinary major one. He had already created the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes. Written in his own handwriting across the top of the British Museum’s typescript of Maurice, and put there possibly as late as 1960, were the Delphic words: “Publishable, but is it worth it?” The ambiguity is typical. Is the reference to the homosexual theme—or to the level of craftsmanship? That Forster was distinctly capable of detecting a falling-off from his own standard we know from his account of Arctic Summer, a work he abandoned midway because of “fiction-technicalities.” Comparing the texture of his unfinished novel with the “density” of A Passage to India, he explained, “There must be something, some major object toward which one is to approach. . . . What I had in Arctic Summer was thinner, a background and color only.” If he was able to sense the thinness of one novel and then let it go, why did he preserve Maurice, which he must surely have perceived as at least equally thin? In 1960, the date of the Terminal Note, thirty-three years had already passed since Forster’s invention (in Aspects of the Novel) of the terms “flat” and “round” to describe the differences between characters in novels. A flat character is always predictable; a round character is not. Maurice is neither flat nor round, but something else—a ghost—and Forster must have known it. How could he not? What made him want to hang on to a protagonist so dismally flawed? The answer may be in the “something, some major object toward which one is to approach.” In Maurice it is painfully easy to see what that major object is: sex, overt and unfudged. Forster preserved the approach but did not arrive. “There is no pornography,” the Terminal Note scrupulously reports. So much the worse for Maurice. He is there—he was put to paper neither flat nor round—only for the sake of the sex scenes; and the sex scenes are hardly there at all. Maurice—neither flat nor round—is the ghost of undepicted, inexplicit coitus, of the missing “pornography.”

Except for those absent sex scenes—one feels them struggling to be born, and Forster stamping them regretfully out at their earliest gasp—Maurice has no reason to be. It is a novel, if one can say such a thing, without a cause. Or, rather, the only genuine cause for it, the force that got it written, was a fresh and potent interest in all those matters that did not get written: the caresses in detail, the embraces, the endearments precisely depicted. Instead we are only handed plot. And to be handed plot is, in the case of Maurice, to be handed something worn out almost to risibility. It is not that Maurice has no plot; it does, and I suppose I am bound to recount a little of it; but it is a plot that Forster has dealt with at least twice before in the two novels of which Maurice is the shadow-novel, and, in fact, in what may have been the very first short story he ever wrote.2

In all of these—“Albergo Empedocle,” The Longest Journey, A Room with a View—a poetic but naive hero (or heroine) falls in love with a woman (or man) who appears at first to be even more sensitive and poetic, but who betrays by turning out to be unable to love with equal tenderness or sincerity. In The Longest Journey Ricky, charmed by the eclogue-like scene he witnesses of the “Greek athlete” Gerald kissing Agnes in the dell, marries Agnes and finds instead that he has surrendered his spirit to coldness and cynicism. In A Room with a View Lucy, whose poetic nature is expressed in music, becomes engaged to Cecil; Cecil is brilliant, and therefore seems to be in love with art, Leonardo, and Italy, but is in reality “like a Gothic statue,” which “implies celibacy, just as a Greek statue implies fruition.” “Albergo Empedocle” describes the break-up of an engagement between Mildred, a young woman intellectually immersed in Hellenism, and Harold, who suddenly feels himself to be the reincarnation of a Greek youth. For the moment Mildred is romantically enraptured at the notion. But she ends up thinking her fiancé mad—whereupon he displays his love for another youth, ancient Greek-style. All these tender lovers, genuinely won to the Greek ideal of the body, are betrayed by a capricious and false Hellenism.

Maurice, too, finds his hard-earned Hellenism betrayed. In the joyfully liberating atmosphere of Cambridge he is introduced to music, Plato, and Clive Durham, a worshiper of Greece and a lapsed Christian. Like the others, they have their day in the dell and become lovers, though mainly sentimentally (Clive “abstained . . . almost from caresses”). Then Clive goes on a pilgrimage to Greece, and there—in Greece; irony!—“becomes normal.” He has “turned to women,” and enters the life of conventional county society, marrying coldly and growing more and more worldly and opportunistic. Maurice’s outlook darkens. He too tries to “become normal.” There follow relatively good, though thin, Forsterian scenes with a doctor (who can only say “Rubbish” to the idea of homosexuality) and a hypnotist (who decides the case is hopeless). Then comes the happy ending. Just as Lucy in A Room with a View flees from Cecil to marry the Pan-like figure of George Emerson, Maurice flees his family, his work, and society altogether, going off to live tenderly ever after with a rough-mannered but loving gamekeeper.

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“There is no pornography.” In short, a daydream without pictures. But what Maurice lacks, and what is necessary to it because it belongs at the heart of its imagining, is the pictures, is the “pornography”—or what Forster significantly continued to think of as pornography. What surely was not necessary was the reflex of Forster’s ineluctable plot—the same story of compulsive attraction and callous faithlessness Which he was driven to manipulate again and again, looking for some acceptable means to tell what he really wanted to tell about the importance of the body. It was pointless to write a book like Maurice unless the body in its exact—not implied, not poeticized—male lineaments could be truly shown. Forster did not show it truly. It is clear enough that he longed to show it truly—he lingers over those blurry passages in which he might have shown it truly, and instead reaches desperately for the expedient of poetry. “And their love scene drew out. . . . Something of exquisite beauty arose in the mind of each at last, something unforgettable and eternal, but built of the humblest scraps of speech and from the simplest emotions.” And of the flesh. But it is the flesh which Forster omits.

The reason for this omission, it seems to me, is not that in the England of 1913 Forster still did not dare to put it explicitly in (Gide in France had already launched Corydon, but that was France), and not even that Forster still belonged mentally to the England of 1897. No. The reason—unlikely though it may appear at first hearing—is that Forster thought homosexuality wrong: naturally wrong, with the sort of naturalness that he did not expect to date. (The Terminal Note admits that Maurice “certainly dates” in other respects, and mentions its “half-sovereign tips, pianola-records, norfolk jackets.”) But if Maurice is a fairy tale, it is not because two men do not ever, then or now, out of fiction as well as in, live together happily and permanently, but because Forster himself believed that except in fiction and daydream they ought not to. Against his deepest wish he set his still deeper belief. They ought not to: despite the fact that he was always openly in favor of the liberalization in England of laws concerning homosexuality, despite the fact that as early as 1928, beginning with the Well of Loneliness case, he went to court to testify against the suppression of a homosexual novel, the first of a succession of such books he publicly defended and praised.

Forster’s own books are full of masked portraits of repressed or hidden or potential homosexuals, from Ansell in The Longest Journey to Tibby in Howards End (who warms the teapot “almost too deftly,” is called “Auntie Tibby” for fun, and is declared not to be “a real boy”). The description of Cecil in A Room with a View fits not only what the young Tibby will become, but what Maurice’s lover Clive already is: “He is the sort who are all right as long as they keep to things—books, pictures—but kill when they come to people.” Many of Forster’s clergymen are seen to be embittered ascetics who, had they not suppressed the body, would have loved men. Mr. Borenius, the rector in Maurice, jealously accuses the gamekeeper of being “guilty of sensuality.” It is because Forster himself is always on the side of sensuality, of “fruition” as against “celibacy,” that all his spokesmen-characters, with profound sadness, eventually yield up their final judgment—on moral and natural grounds, and despite Forster’s renowned liberalism—against homosexuality. Maurice, where the wish for lasting homo-erotic bliss is allowed to come true, is no exception to Forster’s moral conviction.

It is precisely on this issue of sensuality that Forster’s reservations rest. Forster believes, with Christianity, that the opposite of sexuality is celibacy—and celibacy, to Forster, can only imply sterility. And not sterility in any metaphorical sense—not in the meaning of an empty or unused life. With Christianity, Forster believes that sensuality is designed to beget progeny. The most melancholy passage in Maurice occurs at Maurice’s most ecstatic moment—when he is at last physically in possession of Clive:

An immense sadness—he believed himself beyond such irritants—had risen up in his soul. He and the beloved would vanish utterly—would continue neither in Heaven nor on Earth. They had won past the conventions, but Nature still faced them, saying with even voice, “Very well, you are thus; I blame none of my children. But you must go the way of all sterility.” The thought that he was sterile weighed on the young man with a sudden shame. His mother or Mrs. Durham might lack mind or heart, but they had done visible work; they had handed on the torch their sons would tread out.

And it is Ansell in The Longest Journey who gives the homosexual’s view of progeny, which is renunciation. He is strolling in the British Museum talking of “the Spirit of Life” when he is told that Ricky and Agnes are expecting a child. His response: “I forgot that it might be.” Then: “He left the Parthenon to pass by the monuments of our more reticent beliefs—the temple of the Ephesian Artemis, the statue of the Cnidian Demeter. Honest, he knew that here were powers he could not cope with, nor, as yet, understand.” Artemis the protectress of women, Demeter the goddess of fertility. Thus Ansell. And thus Auden. Somewhere Auden has written that homosexual men do not love their sterility; that homosexuals too would welcome parenthood; but out of decency and selflessness forgo it.

“Be fruitful and multiply.” That Forster alone perhaps of all homosexual writers is willing to take seriously the biblical injunction, and is left feeling desolated by it, is a measure of how attached he remained to Christian morals. In this attachment he was unlike any homosexual in his Cambridge generation, and possibly unlike any English-speaking homosexual in the generations afterward, Auden excepted. The Gay Liberation argument that homosexual activity is a positive good in a world afflicted by overpopulation would not have won Forster over.

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Homosexuality did not begin with Lytton Strachey, but homosexual manners did. All those habits and signals that we now associate with the educated homosexual sensibility can be said to have had their start in Cambridge when Strachey was an undergraduate; and Strachey set the style for them. Sects and persuasions, like nationalities, have their forerunners and traditions: presumably Franciscans still strive to retain the mind-set of St. Francis, Quakers recall George Fox, the white American South continues to feel itself patrician. Forster himself was influenced in liberal thinking by his ancestors in the Clapham Sect, an abolitionist group. The recollection need not be conscious; we inherit, rather than mimic, style. So with educated homosexual manners. The passion for beauty and distinction, the wit with its double bur of hilarity and malice, the aesthetic frame of mind, even the voice that edges thinly upward and is sometimes mistaken for “effeminacy”—all these are Stracheyisms. Strachey at Cambridge and afterward was so forceful in passing on Stracheyism that he founded a school, active to this day. It had, and has, two chief tenets: one was anti-philistinism expressed as elitism (one cannot imagine Strachey making a hero of a gamekeeper with no grammar, or addressing, as Forster did, a Working Men’s College); the other was a recoil from Christianity.3 In these tenets especially Forster did not acquiesce.

Though Forster knew Strachey well at Cambridge (he even confesses that a Cambridge character in Maurice was modeled on Strachey), he remained peripheral to the Strachey set. This astounding group was concentrated in the Cambridge Conversazione Society, better known as the Apostles, which mingled older alumni and undergraduates, never much more than a dozen at a time, and was devoted to intellectual wrangling, high wit, snobbery toward “bloods,” and, in an underground sort of way, homosexuality: its brilliant members kept falling in and out of love with each other. At one time Strachey and John Maynard Keynes were both furious rivals for the love of one Duckworth; afterward Keynes, like Clive Durham, “became normal” and married a ballerina. Through all this Forster kept himself apart and remote, “the elusive colt of a dark horse,” as Keynes called him. The Apostles churned out barristers, chief justices, governors of outlying parts of the Empire, dons, historians, economists, mathematicians, philosophers, many of them with family attachments to each other: in short, the ruling intellectual class of England more or less reproducing itself. The smaller “aesthetic” section of this privileged and brainy caste withdrew to become Bloomsbury; but from Bloomsbury too Forster held himself in reserve. One reason was his temperamental shyness, his inclination toward an almost secretive privateness. The more compelling reason was that he did not think or feel like the Apostles, or like Bloomsbury. He was more mystical than skeptical. The ideal of freedom from all restraint made him uncomfortable in practice. Unlike Strachey, he did not scoff easily or vilify happily (though it ought to be noted that there is a single radiant “Balls” in Maurice), and did not use the word “Christian” as a taunt. To the Apostles—self-declared “immoralists,” according to Keynes—and to Bloomsbury he must have seemed a little out of date. He never shared their elation at smashing conventional ideas; though himself an enemy of convention, he saw beyond convention to its roots in nature. Stracheyan Bloomsbury assented to nothing, least of all to God or nature, but Forster knew there were “powers he could not cope with, nor, as yet, understand.” Bloomsbury was alienated but not puzzled; Forster was puzzled but not alienated. His homosexuality did not divide him from society because he saw that society in the largest sense was the agent of nature; and when he came to write A Passage to India he envisioned culture and nature as fusing altogether. Homosexuality led him not away from but toward society. He accepted himself as a man with rights—nature made him—but also very plainly as a deviant—nature would not gain by him. It is no accident that babies are important in his books.

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The shock of the publication of Maurice, then, is not what it appears to be at first sight: Forster as Forerunner of Gay Lib. Quite the opposite. He used his own position as an exemplum, to show what the universe does not intend. If that implies a kind of rational martyrdom, that is what he meant; and this is what shocks. We had not thought of him as martyr. For Forster “I do not conform” explains what does conform, it does not celebrate nonconformity. He was a sufferer rather than a champion. Now suddenly, with the appearance of Maurice, it is clear that Forster’s famous humanism is a kind of personal withdrawal rather than a universal testimony, and reverberates with despair. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in a recent Times review remarks that Maurice’s homosexuality is “a symbol of human feelings.” But Forster woud disagree that homosexuality stands for anything beyond what it is in itself, except perhaps the laying waste of the Cnidian Demeter. Homosexuality to Forster signified sterility; he practiced it like a blasphemer, just as he practiced his humanism like a blasphemer. There is no blasphemy where there is no belief to be betrayed; and Forster believes in the holiness of the goddess of fertility: Demeter, guardian of the social order and marriage. The most dubious social statement Forster ever made is also his most famous one: if I had to choose between betraying my country or my friend, I hope I would have the guts to betray my country. He says “I”; the note is personal, it is not an injunction to the rest of us. Maurice instructs us explicitly in what he understood by “friend”; in Maurice’s boyhood dream the word “friend” foretells the love of a man for a man. We have encountered that charged word in Forster before. The statement about betrayal cannot be universalized, and Forster did not mean it to be. Declarations about bedmates do not commonly have general application.

Does it devalue the large humanistic statement to know that its sources are narrowly personal? Yes. And for Forster too: he does not ask society to conform to him, because he believes—he says it again and again everywhere in his books, but nowhere more poignantly than in his novel about homosexual love—he believes in the eternal stream. He died among affectionate friends, but not harmoniously; he was not content to go the way of all sterility, to vanish utterly. Books are not progeny, and nature does not read.

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Footnotes

1 Norton, 256 pp., $6.95.

2 Just made available in Albergo Empedocle and Other Writings, Liveright, 273 pp., $7.95.

3 Stracheyism in intellectually attenuated and severely vulgarized form can currently be contemplated in the figure of Gore Vidal, whose homosexual apologia is firmly linked to anti-Christianity—only it is the “Judeo-Christian tradition” he more liberally excoriates. Reviewing an unimportant popular sex manual of lightweight distinction, and offended by its lack of openness to homosexuality, he accuses the (Jewish) author of owning a “rabbinical mind.” Those with political minds can perhaps trace herein curious early signs of affinity between anti-Semitism and Gay Liberation. Strachey, however, would have written Vidal off as a Philistine.

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