E. M. Forster's Maurice by Andy Stewart MacKay
Illustration by Sam Russell Walker
Andy Stewart MacKay is a London-based writer and cultural historian. He’s the author of The Angel of Charleston (2013) and The Story of Pop Art (2019) and has taught art history throughout Europe since 2005.
As the first queer British novel, E. M. Forster’s Maurice is a powerful story about pain and loss, self-realisation and finding a place in the world. The novel represents an extraordinary leap of the Edwardian imagination in which two very different men find happiness together in ways that would have felt almost impossible at the time. Don’t be distracted by the period anachronisms; Maurice is a radical and subversive call to the future, it’s message as urgent now as it was a century ago.
Begun sometime in 1910, finished two years later, but not posthumously published until 1971, Maurice was inspired by the exceptional life of radical queer writer Edward Carpenter and his partner George Merrill. Brave enough to live openly together, Carpenter and Merrill enjoyed a rustic existence in deepest rural Derbyshire. As a frequent visitor to their home, Forster wrote Maurice in part as a tribute to this inspirational couple, inscribing their unique lives into our literary history.
The real catalyst for Maurice was, however, the suicide of an acquaintance named Ernest Merz. In July 1909, he and Forster had dinner together and afterwards ‘walked a little alone’ along Piccadilly before, only hours later, Merz hung himself. Forster was, it seems, the last known person to have seen the twenty-seven-year-old Merz alive. And it’s possible - although we’ll never know for sure - that Merz’s suicide may have been provoked by Forster’s nervous rejection of his advances. Whatever happened, the anguish Forster suffered upon hearing the news stayed with him for the rest of his life. Maurice was therefore conceived and written as a votive offering to Merz; gifting him fictional happiness of the kind he was unable to enjoy in life. It’s not without coincidence, after all, that in the novel’s July 1909, central protagonist Maurice Hall rejects the thought of suicide. In writing the novel Forster thought the unthinkable and allowed his characters a happy ending. For if queer Edwardian life was lonely and conflicted, then at least in fiction it could be contented and fulfilled. Maurice was Forster’s big queer thick-fingered ‘fuck you’ to a world that failed him, and Ernest Merz.
Rightly or wrongly, Forster chose not to publish Maurice – or indeed any of his many queer-themed short stories - until after his death. He often wrote, therefore, not for publication, but simply as a radical act of personal resistance. There was little point, he felt, in writing Maurice unless two men could fall in love and remain so for what he called ‘the ever and ever that fiction allows’. The transgressive love of Maurice Hall for Alec Scudder became a queer personal triumph over a hostile world. The couple’s ultimate escape to the dreamy, allegorical ‘Greenwood’ represents a wholesale rejection of their inherited culture in favour of a new and better one, forged from honesty and love.
In the spring of 1995, jumping on a passing reference to Maurice in a weekend newspaper, I plotted my path to a local bookshop. I was fifteen and ‘coming out’. Like many in the same position, I was the only queer I knew and desperate to identify with someone or something, anyone or anything, that might ease my loneliness. Nervously I crossed the threshold of the only bookshop for miles. Performing, as if on stage, the role of an apparently disinterested browser, I stealthily located – as if by chance - the only paperback copy of Maurice. Frustratingly, it was filed on shallow shelves uncomfortably close to the watchful eyes of the bookseller. I nervously fingered the book’s pages until something inside me ‘moved’ and I resolved to be as brave as I could be. Placing Maurice on the cash desk, I confronted the bookseller’s silent scrutiny. Paying and leaving, walking home with my brown paper bag in hand, it felt like I’d crossed an invisible threshold. Now I realise that buying Maurice was the moment I really ‘came out’. Over the following days I hungrily devoured it like I’ve never devoured a book either before or since. Within weeks, I’d come out at school and to my parents. All of it, in part at least, thanks to what felt like at the time to be an obscure but dangerous little novel.
Today it’s easy to imagine digital dating apps as the fulfilment of Forster’s famous plea to ‘Only Connect’. But Forster’s characters don’t ‘connect’ with anyone they’re supposed to, with anyone recommended to them as a good match. His most well-known characters fall in love with people they shouldn’t or didn’t expect to. For Maurice – just as for Lucy in A Room with a View or Ricky in The Longest Journey – socially acceptable ‘first love’ is simply a misstep, a painful muddle that mysteriously points us towards a deeper, radical and transgressive love that is – crucially - reciprocated. That Forster dared to imagine the happiness of two unusual men allowed the younger me to imagine that kind of happiness for myself. The novels resounding message is that love is unexpected and transformative. But Maurice doesn’t find real and lasting love until he’s learned to shake off his personal anxieties, until he’s learned to value himself as he should. As I approach 40, it’s apparent that – for better or worse – I’ve spent the past twenty-five years using Maurice as a kind of template for ‘queerhood’. And if I’m honest, it’s the most powerful and affecting book I’ve ever read.
Sam Russell Walker is an Illustrator based in Glasgow. He graduated from the Glasgow School of Art in 2015 and his work is inspired by film, pop culture, the human form, plants and fashion. His process is also heavily influenced by the act of mark making and creating textures through this process.