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Recuperating E. M. Forster's Maurice
The critical reception of Forster's work is a curious analogue to, and a marked indictment of, certain key theoretical schools in the last century. The main corpus of his work is revered for its subtle ironies: it is researched, prescribed, and examined regularly; it is esteemed as art. Yet his novel Maurice has been consistently rejected as weak. Because it was published posthumously, recent critics have even accused Forster of cowardice. A Room with a View and Howards End are threaded through with an evasive, paradoxical humor ideally suited to analysis of balanced polarities that apparently dissolve in turn under the mirthful indirection of Forster's deft telling. The underpinning criteria of New Criticism have flourished in an encounter with such texts. Each novel is regarded as an artistic, Coleridgean whole, all of whose parts contribute pleasingly to the greater work, without any single, reducible dictum. The New Critic has thus been able endlessly to applaud opalescent changes of tone and intimation.
Maurice, however, is not teasingly vapid as in a crucial Marabar cave scene: the boathouse meeting between Scudder and Maurice is decisive and unambiguous. Maurice lacks the sly humor that just ripples the surface of the other novels. Forster is held guilty on two counts: for not reinscribing his publicly approved technique of artistic, witty indeterminacy in Maurice, and yet for not "coming out" early enough in this novel or determinedly enough in the earlier ones. Maurice may be weak, that is, weakly written, according to certain reading conventions dominant in the first half of the twentieth century, just as it may be branded weak, that is, cowardly, by criteria advanced in the second half. In fact, the very clash of such systems may point up blind spots in [End Page 53] the criticism of both periods rather than in the object under scrutiny. The plight of Maurice may not be proof of a lapse in Forster's skill or of his treachery to other homosexuals. Its rejection from both critical sides may be an endorsement of his keen assessment of the public's unreadiness for a new kind of writing. Placing key points in the reception of Forster's work in historical perspective may reveal telling shortcomings in fashionable schools of interpretation in our time rather than in the book itself.
Between 1905 and 1928 Forster was regarded as a pioneer of new techniques of prose fiction. As a result, his press was uneven. Later he was fully accepted, put on reading lists, and canonized. Later still his identity as a homosexual writer created dissonance among critics. Most damaging were the events of the middle period, in which he became a revered great. An important first date in this phase was 1943, when Lionel Trilling's E. M. Forster appeared. "For more than a decade," Philip Gardner notes, this book remained "for critically-minded readers the main avenue to a fuller understanding of Forster's fiction." 1 Emphasizing that "Forster is not only comic, he is often playful," Trilling reads him as endlessly deferring his target:
They [liberals] can understand him when he attacks the manners and morals of the British middle class, when he speaks out for spontaneity of feeling, for the virtues of sexual fulfilment, for the values of intelligence; they go along with him when he speaks against the class system, satirizes soldiers and officials, questions the British Empire and attacks business ethics and the public schools. But sooner or later they begin to make reservations and draw back. They suspect Forster is not quite [End Page 54] playing their game; they feel that he is challenging them as well as what they dislike. And they are right. For all his long commitment to the doctrines of liberalism, Forster is at war with the liberal imagination. 2
Forster's revolutionary animus is precisely controlled in its subversive strategy; he is, from the earliest works, a cunning saboteur. Ironically, however, Trilling's popularizing of Forster as the playful...