Boy oh boy oh boy. This book. It’s incredible to me that a book that so many of my peers, the book opinions of whom I generally value greatly, find enjoyable could be so painfully bad. I had a bit of a rant on it on Goodreads so I’m just going to copy-paste my review below, but. Wow. What a crappy novel.
What could have been a fascinating exposé on human vanity is undermined by Wilde’s overbearing self-indulgence. I can only imagine that the first draft must have been created by Wilde masturbating over blank sheets of paper, and drawing out each letter with his own semen.
The hypocrisy and self-contradiction of the novel are astounding, especially in relation to the baseless manifesto of its preface. Also striking is the blatant and relentless misogyny, primarily spouted by the insufferable Lord Henry – but Wilde gives us little reason to think women are anything but a one-dimensional hive mind who exist for men with the blandness of his women characters.
The novel is also strangely puritanical in its morality; Dorian’s venture into hedonism is portrayed (tediously, in a whole chapter engorged on pointless purple prose) as a sort of incurable moral fault, when he really just seemed to be enjoying pretty things and having sex with respectable women. It is also much less homoerotic than history seems to remember it, which is possibly a testament of the prudishness of its Victorian audience.
Dorian himself evoked mostly apathy with his unsympathetic stupidity and transmogrification into a bad clone of Lord Henry. Furthermore, the whole Vane affair was shoehorned pointlessly in with a disappointing deus ex machina end, and provided an unconvincing basis for Dorian’s short-lived attempt to repent.
The beginning and the end of the novel are, however, still fairly memorable. The prose had its moments of enjoyable flow. For these reasons I have awarded this book an extra star; otherwise, it remains one of the most irritating and overrated novels I have had the misfortune to read.
To kick off my musings on literature, I’m going to start with E.M. Forster’s posthumous 1971 novel, Maurice. Just before I do that, I’d like to make a quick, one-off disclaimer: although I’m going to be majoring in English and most likely would’ve read some academic articles on the works I will discuss, I’m not (yet) a qualified literary academic, so please refrain from using me as a legitimate source as these posts will mostly centre on my personal impressions and interpretations.
With that out of the way, let’s jump into the fun bits.
Completed in 1914 and dedicated to an unspecified “Happier Year”, this novel is bound inescapably with Forster’s bittersweet optimism. Maurice presents the very average Maurice Hall and, specifically, how he comes to terms with the one non-average aspect of his life: his attraction to men. Middle-class, moustachioed, and a bit slow on the uptake (Forster was trying to create his anti-self), Maurice navigates what it is to be gay in pre-war England (illegal, for one) as he becomes romantically involved with – first – Clive Durham, an intellectual philhellene at Cambridge, and – then – Alec Scudder, Clive’s gamekeeper.
Perhaps the most striking element of Maurice is how explicitly it deals with sexuality. That is not to say that Forster is pornographic (after all, the erotic climax of the novel is summed bosom-clutchingly thus: “…and touched him.”), but he certainly does not shy from discussing it. From Mr Ducie’s ludicrously earnest Sex Talk with the fourteen-year-old Maurice (complete with stick-drawn diagrams in the sand), to his teenage sexual awakening and “solitary indecencies”, to his acknowledgement of his sexual orientation in university, to his self-loathing as he is faced with loneliness, to his physical relationship with Alec (“I have shared with Alec… All I have. Which includes my body.”), Forster’s frankness – in both his subject matter and language – is both refreshing and revealing.
In Maurice, Forster – who was himself gay – wages war against his repressed motherland, which has “always been disinclined to accept human nature”, with the choice weapon of sexuality. Maurice is a “warrior”, he embarks on “battles” and “campaigns” for his love, he “defies” society, he exercises “brutality” and “power”; Maurice is a fight for recognition, for acceptance of same-sex love. Against the power of open sexuality, civilised England cannot bring itself to do more than disapprove. The final chapter is particularly emblematic of this, as Maurice seeks out his turned-straight ex-lover Clive and informs him that he and Alec had sex in his spare room. Clive is horrified (because Alec is a. male and b. working-class, what an arsehole), he wants to “smite the monster [Maurice]”, but being “civilised”, he only wants it “feebly”. It is in the feebleness of civilised England that Forster places his bittersweet optimism; bittersweet as, though England’s acquiescence to his cause is inevitable because of her weakness, it will be long before acquiescence arrives.
Yet Forster engages with eros not only in its carnal manifestation, but also with its oft-neglected divine, platonic facet. Plato-fanboy Clive was particularly obsessed with eros in this form, refusing to consummate his and Maurice’s relationship over its three-year course; he reasserts in the final chapter that any relationship between men must remain “purely platonic”. Maurice in turn makes constant references to feeling platonic love for Clive, with some one-soul-inhabiting-two-bodies stuff, as well as the two-imperfect-halves-make-perfect-whole kind of thing.
In comparison, Maurice and Alec’s relationship seems much more carnal. They barely know each other when they first have sex (indeed, Maurice has to ask for Alec’s Christian name afterwards), and then later on, when Maurice has a crisis of gay and refuses to acknowledge Alec’s messages, Alec blackmails him (for what? We’re not sure) – or at least pretends to. Either way, none of the initial moments of their relationship seem particularly platonic. Forster is no Greek philosopher; he advocates for both vulgar and divine eros, as opposed to a focus on just the divine. However, It’s as if Clive and Alec each represent one facet of eros, and Maurice is not quite able to reconcile the two halves into one whole (extended reference to theSymposium unintended).
Yet Maurice need not wait for Boyfriend #3 to fulfil eros for him, as Forster carefully plants the potential for platonic love to grow between him and Alec. They fall in love after conversing and wandering around London. Now, I suspect that “falling in love” in the Forster era (cf A Room with a View) is less of a big deal than we of the millennial generation make it out to be today. Nonetheless, he at the very least establishes feelings of mutual affection between them, an inkling of non-physical eros. They symbolically “marry” when Maurice conceals his identity by taking Alec’s name. Most significantly, both of them leave their relatively comfortable lives, their flourishing careers and the safe haven of family, to elope into the “greenwood” where they “shan’t be parted no more”.
How does this, then, establish Alec as the fulfilment of eros for Maurice? In order to see, we must observe how Alec penetrates (ha ha) the novel. His initial appearances are insignificant flitters in the background of Penge (Clive’s ancestral estate, where he works) during Maurice’s visit; Maurice feels temporary distaste at the unnamed gamekeeper’s casual flirtations with two girls. Maurice has brief, incidental encounters with him attending his duties as Scudder. After they have sex, an almost incidental affair, Alec becomes pervasive; ultimately, he becomes inextricable from the narrative. Similarly, he balloons in Maurice’s life until Maurice simply cannot exist without him. Is that not, then, both parts of eros complete? Vulgar eros is a given, but when either cannot be without the other, when their unity leads to their mutual completion, surely divine eros is at play.
I return to the idea of the “greenwood” to which they depart. Maurice has, most significantly, a happy ending – something about which Forster was quite adamant, to his credit. It is in fact imperative to Forster’s war against repressive England that they remain together. In solitude, Maurice is weakened by loneliness and unfulfilled desire, but in contrast, “two men can defy the world”. Together, Maurice and Alec embody hope for the young modern homosexual as they pursue a life away from the disapproving eye of English society.
And here, I must revisit Forster’s bittersweet optimism. Together, Maurice and Alec can defy the world, but Forster finds himself living out the rest of his life more or less bereft of such a lifelong companion. Thus, to some degree, they live, love, and defy in lieu of him. There is reason to be optimistic for other same-sex attracted people, but Forster himself will never quite experience that optimism for himself. Ultimately, bittersweet wist polishes Maurice into the determined, yet poignant text I had the utmost pleasure to read.
E.M. Forster, Maurice (with introduction by David Leavitt)
E.M. Forster, Terminal Note [on Maurice]
Anne Hartree, Paragraph, vol. 19, “‘A passion that few English minds have admitted’: Homosexuality and Englishness in E.M. Forster’s Maurice“