Maurice is one of my all-time favourite novels. E. M. Forster’s tale of emotional and sexual awakening was written in 1913-1914 but published posthumously in 1971. In Edwardian England, an explicitly queer narrative with a happy ending was out of the question. To please mainstream audiences, queer (or queer-coded) relationships in 20th century literature and film were conventionally doomed from the start, often with one or both characters returning to the heterosexual “norm” by the end. The number of queer narratives from the 20th century ending in suicide, arguably trivialising queer mental health and characterising queerness as a mental illness, is its own moral minefield. Forster, however, was determined that Maurice should end happily — and it is immeasurably important that it did.
I had fairly high expectations for the 1987 James Ivory film adaptation of Maurice. Considering Ivory’s other successes turning Forster’s classics (A Room With a View in 1985 and Howard’s End in 1992) into critically acclaimed films, I had no reason to expect less from Maurice. And yet, with Maurice being my favourite novel of Forster’s, I couldn’t help thinking any film adaptation would fail at capturing the author’s most personal work. In the end, I was not disappointed.
James Wilby and Hugh Grant are instantly believable as the quiet, conventional Maurice Hall and upper-class Clive Durham – a seemingly radical Cambridge undergraduate who Maurice falls in love with. Initially, Maurice can seem like a blank slate and yet Wilby’s incredibly heartfelt performance draws us into his world while he navigates the confines of polite society. As Annie Jo Baker puts it, “It’s chilling and terrifying: his warm, gentle, genuine humanity in contrast to the robotic period drama mechanics.” The film’s first half captures the feeling of being young and falling in love with people, places, and ideas. These joyous early scenes, through beautiful architectural shots, endless bookshelves, and dialogue littered with anecdotes, evoke a world of old-fashion charm.
But Clive’s exciting, unconventional persona becomes increasingly easy to see through; he only subverts tradition when it won’t damage his reputation. “The sole excuse for a relationship between two men,” he tells Maurice, “is that it remains purely platonic.” Controlled by his repressed nature, and the laws that could criminalise him, Clive marries Anne Woods, brushing off the past as though it never happened. Clive’s fear is embodied in the character of Risley, a friend to Maurice and Clive who is arrested for homosexuality. Forster based Risley on writer Lytton Strachey, who also served as the inspiration behind Neville in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (1931). In their respective texts, both Risley and Neville suffer in trying to find fulfilling relationships in socially constrictive circumstances —arguably the great battle of all early queer fiction.
One key element from the book the film beautifully brings to life is Maurice’s intense loneliness after rejection. He must stay in complete silence about what causes him the most pain for fear of being arrested. The only characters Maurice can confide in about his sexuality are doctors who attempt to “cure” him of his affliction as “an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort.” One doctor asks him to focus on a pretty girl with long hair, to which Maurice responds that he prefers short hair. The doctor asks why and, bursting into tears, Maurice cannot respond other than “because…”. In the book, remembering Clive, Maurice cries “because I can stroke it—”.
Alec Scudder, played by Rupert Graves, helps Maurice heal emotionally and adds a further layer of social commentary to the narrative. Alec is Clive’s gamekeeper, and his social class makes his relationship with Maurice even more scandalous. When Clive finds out, he dismisses Maurice’s love for Alec as an “obsession.” It’s a genuinely satisfying moment when Maurice responds with “I don’t need advice. I’m flesh and blood, Clive, if you’ll condescend to such low things. I’ve shared with Alec.” Clive, disgusted, returns to his wife and reminisces about his old friend before going to bed. The novel provides us with a little more insight into Clive’s mental state. Forster writes that Maurice and Clive would never meet again, and Clive would always think of his friend beckoning him “out of some eternal Cambridge”. This makes it more apparent that Clive loved Maurice, but couldn’t give him the open, unashamed love Maurice deserved.
Possibly the smartest character in Maurice, Alec directly criticises Maurice for his classist snobbery. After they spend their first night together, Maurice, feeling conflicted, ignores Alec’s letters. When they meet again, Alec tells him: “You shouldn’t treat me like a dog! You were just amusing yourself. I’ve never come like that to a gentleman before. You said ‘Call me Maurice’ but you never even wrote to me.” This confrontation marks a turning point for Maurice; he realises that if he loves someone, yet feels superior to them, he is no better than Clive. This act of crossing social barriers without shame not only allows Maurice and Alec to be together but proves why we need representation of healthy queer relationships in the media, and why we need queer writers voicing their stories.
In the Terminal Note to Maurice, Forster wrote that “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 1987 film, by following the original text so closely, expanded this “for ever and ever” to our screens, and set the scene for queer films to come.
– Sylvie Lewis
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