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Maurice by E.M. Forster — book review

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“No tradition overawed the boys. No convention settled what was poetic, what absurd. They were concerned with a passion that few English minds have admitted, and so created untrammelled. Something of exquisite beauty arose in the mind of each at last, something unforgettable and eternal, but built of the humblest scraps of speech and from the simplest emotions.”

There is much to be admired in E.M. Forster’s Maurice. While it saddening to think that although he wrote Maurice in the 1910s he was unable to publish the novel during his lifetime, Forster did at least share it with some of his closest friends.
Maurice follows the titular character of Maurice Hall from boyhood to adulthood. In the opening chapter a teacher, knowing that Maurice’s father was dead, feels the need to educate him on sex. Maurice however doesn’t find this conversation enlightening, if anything it cements his aversion towards women and marriage. It is perhaps this incident that makes Maurice begin to question his sexuality. Although he never does so explicitly, his otherwise privileged existence is marred by self-questioning and doubt. Throughout the narrative Forster depicts the way in which homosexuality was regarded in the early 20th century: Maurice himself doesn’t know what to make of his desire towards other men. The country’s general attitude towards “unspeakables of the Oscar Wilde sort” range from pure denial, so they will dismiss homosexuality as “nonsense”, or “condemn it as being the worst crime in the calendar”.
At university Maurice becomes acquainted with Clive Durham. Clive, unlike Maurice, is a scholar, and lover, of ancient Greek philosopher and is apt to quote their teachings. While Maurice is simply enamoured with Clive, Clive wishes to attain a higher form of ‘love’ (“love passionate but temperate, such as only finer natures can understand,”) and believes that by being with Maurice their “two imperfect souls might touch perfection”. Unlike Maurice, Clive finds the idea of their becoming physical intimate to be distasteful, implying that it would spoil their relationship.
When the two are no longer at university together the two no longer have many opportunities to spend time together. their physical in their relationship, Clive insists on adhering to his ideal of love. Later on, Maurice finds himself pursuing a relationship with Alec, Clive’s gamekeeper.
The first half of the novel brought to mind Brideshead Revisited. This is quite likely to the university setting and the various hierarchies there are at play there. Both Maurice and Clive come from wealthy families. They are fairly pretentious, prone to make snobbish remarks, and are fairly misogynistic. Forster himself points out all of their flaws and is unafraid of poking gentle fun at them. Because of this I felt less disinclined towards them, even if I didn’t strictly like them.
This isn’t a particularly happy novel. There is bigotry, self-loathing, heartbreak, and suicidal contemplation. At one point Maurice is diagnosed with ‘congenital homosexuality’ and even attempts to ‘cure’ himself by way of a hypnotist. Yet, Forster’s prose is full of beauty. There are plenty of stunning passages in which he discusses and contrasts romantic and platonic love (Clive/Apollonian vs. Maurice/Dionysian), physical and intellectual desire, or where he describes beautiful landscapes. Forster adds a poetic touch to negative emotions such anguish and despair, so that even when his narrative never really succumbs to the darkness experienced by Maurice and his moments of introspection carry definite beauty.
Perhaps the thing that kept from loving this as much as Forster’s A Room with a View is the lack of chemistry…Alec appears towards the end and in no time Maurice seems in love with him. Alec’s personality is somewhat reduced to his being of a lower class. Still, while Maurice may not join what I consider to be the holy trinity of classic LGBT literature (for those who are wondering: The Charioteer, Giovanni’s Room, and The Price of Salt/Carol) I still think that it is a brave and illuminating novel (Forster’s afterword alone is worth reading).

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up)

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A Room with a View by E.M. Forster — book review

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A Room with a View evokes a gentle Edwardian idyll: we follow the story’s characters through their paced long walks, their wanderings through Italy (in Florence there is the lovely view of the River Arno, Basilica of Santa Croce, Piazza della Signoria, and later on in Fiesole’s high fields Lucy, our main character, will undergo a life changing experience), and observe them in their English ‘habitat’.
Forster’s lulling prose hums with a quiet sort of energy. His descriptions of Italy and of Lucy’s family home—Windy Corner—located in Surrey are incredibly expressive. As an Italian I was amused by the way in which my country, its culture and its people, are viewed as ‘other‘ by English tourists such as Lucy’s disapproving older cousin and chaperone, Miss Charlotte Bartlett. Italy seems to them less civil than their beloved Britain…yet they are unable to deny the power of its history.
Through Miss Bartlett and the other guests of the Pension Bertolini, Forster epitomizes the english tourist: they all seem disdainful of other English tourist yet they are themselves unable to connect with the various landscapes they visit. In spite of their reservations Lucy and George feel a strange pull to one another, and Forster describes their growing feelings with a restraint reminiscent of the society they lived in. A lot remains unsaid, and the reader has to read between the lines in order to glimpse Lucy’s affection for George.
The seemingly mild story provides us with plenty of amusing portraits. Yet, Forster’s satire never comes across as harsh or exaggerated. He seem to be gently poking fun at certain personalities without making his characters into clichés or reducing them to satirical caricatures.
An enjoyable tale that combines a forbidden attraction with an exploration of freedom, art, and travel, as well as a humorous take of English society during the Edwardian period, A Room with a View makes for the perfect escapist read.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars (rounded up to 4)

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