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literature

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Forster, E. M. (1879-1970)  
 
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But the most revealing of Forster's published stories is "The Curate's Friend," written in 1907. A slight, fantastical tale of a young clergyman's transforming encounter with a Pan-like faun, the story on first reading appears hardly more than an anecdote; however, concealed beneath its comic veneer is an account of homosexual recognition and acceptance that is undoubtedly autobiographical.

As a result of his encounter and self-acceptance, the protagonist rises beyond such concepts as guilt, sin, and conformity, yet he is also aware of the price society will exact should he reveal the source of his new-found happiness: "I might find myself an expense to the nation."

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The story thus illustrates the great value of honesty to oneself, even as it also acknowledges the necessity for discretion--even hypocrisy--in a repressive society. The story betrays Forster's awareness in 1907 of his own precarious position in a society that rewarded him as author of acclaimed novels but that was nevertheless prepared to punish him for the secret desires that animated his art.

Why Forster Abandoned the Writing of Novels

Forster sometimes explained his failure to write novels during the final forty-six years of his life as a result of his inability to publish his works on homosexual subjects. This explanation begs a number of questions and should not be accepted at face value as the complete reason Forster abandoned the writing of novels at the height of his career, but it does indicate the importance he attached both to his sexual identity and to his gay fiction.

He seems initially to have turned to gay subjects during difficult moments in writing on publishable subjects. In 1911, for example, soon after the triumph of Howards End, he expressed his overweening "Weariness of the only subject I both can and may treat--the love of men for women & vice versa," and abandoned a novel he was working on to compose homoerotic short stories.

Similarly, he wrote Maurice when his attempts to write an Indian novel faltered after a few chapters. Although he knew that he could not publish it, he hoped that having completed his novel of homosexual love, his period of sterility would be over and he could return to publishable work, a hope that was not immediately realized.

The Writing of Maurice

Forster's decision to write Maurice was the direct result of a 1913 visit to Edward Carpenter at the home he shared with his working-class lover George Merrill in Derbyshire. The novelist had admired Carpenter as a pioneer in the early gay liberation movement for years and probably modeled Mr. Emerson in A Room with a View on him.

Heartened by the example of Carpenter and Merrill, Forster conceived his novel of homosexual passion in a flash of inspiration. He wrote the first draft quickly and with a sense of elation, guided by the conviction that "a happy ending was imperative."

More than anything else, it was the happy ending that made Maurice unpublishable. Since homosexuality was illegal in England until 1967, the novel might have been construed as glorifying crime and hence could have been subject to prosecution.

But even in manuscript, Maurice had a major literary influence as an important source for Lady Chatterley's Lover, whose author, D. H. Lawrence, was among many of Forster's friends and associates to read the novel in typescript. (Ironically, when Maurice was published, some reviewers dismissed it as a homosexualized Lady Chatterley's Lover; more accurately, Lawrence's novel is a heterosexualized Maurice.)

Forster tinkered with his manuscript often and made major revisions in 1920, 1932, and 1959. These revisions centered largely on increasing the prominence and credibility of Alec, who was initially a vague, romantic composite of the working-class men Forster admired from afar, and on making the ending more believable.

The Publication of Maurice

On its publication in 1971, Maurice was denigrated by reviewers and critics, who read it too narrowly as a sentimental apology for homosexuality. But the novel is not an apology at all. Rather, it is a convincing and affecting account of an ordinary young man's groping toward wholeness in a society that makes such growth very difficult.

The eponymous hero moves painfully from conventionality to heroism. The "vast curve" of his life includes a progression from an alliance in which spirit educates spirit to one in which the flesh educates the spirit and develops "the sluggish heart and the slack mind against their will."

He eventually rejects the life of respectability for a life of freedom and sacrifices a spurious safety for the struggle that "twists sentimentality into love."

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