Maurice and Gay Liberation

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WRITTEN IN A BURST of inspiration in 1913 and ’14 and set in the England of the Edwardian Age, E. M. Forster’s Maurice was “dedicated to a happier year,” though the author had no conception of when that might be. Forster shared the manuscript with trusted friends, including D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, T. E. Lawrence, Lytton Strachey, and Paul Cadmus, but would not publish the novel during his lifetime. Only in 1971, a year after Forster’s death, would the novel appear in print.

A hybrid of the traditional marriage novel and the bildungsroman genre, Maurice was revolutionary for its presentation of same-sex love culminating in a “happily ever after” ending. Forster later declared that the “happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write [it]otherwise.” In the Edwardian Age the suggestion that gay people were capable of forming loving unions to last a lifetime was blasphemous, subversive, and probably criminal.

Even in 1971, it was the happy ending, dubbed the “greenwood idyll,” that came in for the severest criticism when the novel was finally published. Indeed, the notion of Maurice abandoning his family, friends, and career to build a life for himself and Alec in the primeval woods of England, like Robin Hood’s merry men sheltering in Sherwood Forest, stretched the imagination of even the newly arisen gay liberation movement. Although difficult to defend as plausible fiction set in the years leading up to World War I, Forster’s insistence on the triumph of same-sex love, reflected in his hopeful dedication to “a happier year,” forms the foundation of Maurice’s significance for the modern GLBT civil rights movement. On the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, which catalyzed that movement, and a century after the Edwardian Age, an examination of the novel’s relationship to the cause of gay liberation is timely.

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