I just re-watched one of my favourite films based on one of my favourite novels, Maurice, produced by Merchant-Ivory (who turn out my kind of eye candy), from the book of the same name by E.M. Forster. I’ve read the book and watched the film countless times over the last 15 years or so, but I got so much more out of it this time. I saw themes and motifs and “character development” that I had not been consciously aware of before. It’s almost as if I’m encountering the story for the first time.
I saw the contrast between Maurice’s somewhat brutish but ultimately salvific physicality, and Clive’s powerless intellectualism. I saw how they found, lost, and influenced each other, and how they both were affected by and dealt with the prospect of losing their position in society, both becoming physically ill, and then one choosing the liberty of the outlaw and the other choosing comfortable imprisonment. I noticed for the first time that in the final scene, where Clive looks out into the night whither Maurice has escaped with his lover, that the window mullions resemble prison bars, an apt image for the life that Clive has chosen.
I also noticed, as I have noticed in C.S. Lewis and Tolkein as well, that the indoors, city life, privilege, and society are seen as fostering ill health and dishonesty, whereas the outdoors, the “greenwood” as Forster puts it, nurtures health, liberty, honesty, and courage. Forster biographer Nicola Beauman puts it this way:
For the novel is not merely a plea for homosexuals to be allowed to have the same happiness in personal relations as heterosexuals; it is also a heartfelt expression of [E.M. Forester’s] belief … that country life is pure, unselfish and full of integrity and that town life is the opposite.
This is not the first time that I have been surprised by my perspicacity; my powers of observation have been growing for some time now. Where my new perceptions are coming from, I don’t know. I suppose it is partly due to life experience and increased exposure to literature, but I suspect the main contributor is my ongoing study of biblical interpretation, which is after all really just a matter of finding the meaning in narrative and images, in stories. It’s a real joy to be more aware of what’s going on “behind the scenes” of both favourite and new-to-me books and movies, like having one of my senses restored by some miracle surgery. If this continues I will be a happy bookworm indeed.
And if you haven’t read or seen Maurice, do pick up a copy. Not only is it a good book and film, it is an important one for it is a story of forbidden love that, unlike most good stories of forbidden love, has a happy ending. As Forster put it, “A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise.” Society rejects the lovers in this story, but they equally reject society, so what looks like exile and deprivation to us is freedom and comfort to them. The book is dedicated “to a Happier Year,” and though the year he was referring to has not yet arrived, we are certainly much closer to it than when this book was written (1914) or even published (1971). I hope there will come a time when a happy ending to a book such as this will not be revolutionary.
Post Script: From Forster’s “Terminal note” in Maurice:
I dedicated it ‘To a Happier Year’ and not altogether vainly. Happiness is its keynote—which by the way has had an unexpected result: it has made the book more difficult to publish. … If it ended unhappily, with a lad dangling from a noose or with a suicide pact, all would be well, for there is no pornography or seduction of minors. But the lovers get away unpunished and consequently recommend crime. Mr. Borenius [the vicar] is too incompetent to catch them, and the only penalty society exacts is an exile they gladly embrace.