How often is a novel sparked by a touch on a bum? Perhaps more often than we are likely to know. In any case E.M. Forster was visiting Edward Carpenter and his lover George Merrill (also a visitor to India) when Merrill
“touched my backside – gently and just above the buttocks. I believe he touched most people’s. The sensation was unusual and I still remember it, as I remember the position of a long vanished tooth. He made a profound impression on me and touched a creative spring”.
That creative spring was a long time in reaching a conclusion as the novel was not published and revised until after Forster’s death. It is pretty obvious why. Forster’s generation while rooted in the days and times of Cambridge, Wilde and the ‘Apostles’ may have mooned endlessly over the possibility of homoerotic attraction and love, the sweaty business of sexual congress and the possibility of living it out as a lifestyle was not the likely material of public literature. Even Carpenter who Forster visited created his love nest in some isolation and was always somewhat circumspect in his writings. So, it is understandable that Forster was sparked by that ‘touch’ of sexual freedom and openness to pen a tale of what may have been a pathway for some of his generation, but relatively few – even if it was only for restricted eyes until his death.
Forster sets out a typical privileged Victorian environment with home, school and University with family, monetary and vocational expectations. Within that context mutual attraction between boys/men is seen as unremarkable (hardly remarkable considering the segregated education context and the holiness of Victorian womanhood). However, this is largely a non-sexual engagement and anything more needs to go deep underground. Clive Durham falls very much into this category as he enjoys the attachment and physical closeness but is shocked and rejects a sexual outcome.
It can be seen as symbolic that when Maurice gives himself to a full sexual relationship with groundsman Alec Scudder, things happen very suddenly indeed with male sex achieved almost in direct response to his scream of frustration ‘Come!’ and in a bed in the very home of Clive with an employee he scarcely notices as a person.
Maurice struggles to regain his balance after the event and is almost convinced that it would be better if Alec were to emigrate, yet Alec is ahead of him with a more clear sighted view of what he wants and what might be possible even if it takes a threat of blackmail
The denouement occurs once again under the roof of the conventional Clive who either cannot or does not want to see what is now possible for Maurice. Maurice, in turn, realises that a Carpenter-like existence now awaits him as his struggle for freedom of expression means that so much of a conventional life will not be his, but that is a price he is prepared to pay.
This is a landmark book which does pry open so much of the mid to late Victorian era from a homosexual viewpoint. A modern reader may find some of the earlier treatments including the University years as somewhat tedious along with some of Maurice’s reflections. However, things do become faster paced and more direct toward the end.
It is sad for the reader to realize that Forster was only to achieve a degree of what he is writing about with his own long term lover married policeman Bob Buckingham.