Wednesday, June 1, 2011

To a Happier Year

Beneath the Stiff Collar: A Panegyric for Maurice Hall (inspired by E.M. Forster’s 1971 posthumously published novel, Maurice) – Black wood-framed shadowbox; vintage men’s detachable linen collar; antique key; dried rose; beach rocks; sea shell; antique carte des visite; antique tintype; vintage British shilling coin; colour print of photograph of a male nude by George Platt Lynes; colour print of tortoiseshell veneer

In 1913, the eminent English author, E. M. Forster, who had penned such literary classics as A Room with a View, A Passage to India, and Howard’s End, began writing his most personal, most controversial book—Maurice. The story is a deceptively simple one; Maurice Hall, a young Britisher, is born into a privileged life. He grows up confident in status, precise in social ritual. Yet although priggish and conforming, Maurice finds himself increasingly attracted to his own sex. Through Clive, whom he encounters at Cambridge, and through Alec, the gamekeeper on Clive’s country estate, Maurice gradually experiences a profound emotional and sexual awakening.

Completed in 1914 (although in the subsequent decades the book was continually revised), Maurice is a powerful condemnation of the then repressive attitudes of British society and a continuing plea for emotional and sexual honesty. Aware that its publication would cause a furor, Forster—he himself a closeted gay man—ensured that the novel did not appear until after his death in 1970. Even then the manuscript was found to have taped to it a note in Forster’s hand, saying “Publishable, but worth it?”

Almost a century after its completion, Maurice celebrates its fortieth anniversary in print this year. And what has happened along the way in reference to its subject matter, its cause—the right for someone to love whom they want regardless of gender? The intervening decades have seen the repeal of England’s harsh laws banning such acts; in the United States, the Supreme Court has also abolished the same. Celebrations of gay pride are seen annually internationally—from New York City to Toronto, from London to Paris, from Rio to Sydney. In some countries, in some U.S. states, same sex couples are now able to legally marry, to adopt children. Yes, great strides have been made, ones that probably would have astounded E. M. Forster—including the fact that, in 1987, Maurice, the book whose merit he questioned, was made into a much acclaimed motion picture, with most movie goers hardly batting an eyelid at the male/male love scenes.

Today, we live in an age when mass media inundates with homoerotic imagery—fashion magazines, television screens, gym advertisements, and even your local mall’s Abercrombie & Fitch shopping bags exult the nude male form, explicitly enticing gay audiences, gay clientele. We have gay vampires and gay werewolves; we have gay congressmen and gay celebrities. We have gay dating shows and gay game shows. We have pop diva Lady Gaga rejoicing in her affirming mantra, “Baby, I was born this way!”

None of this would have been thinkable, let alone possible, when Forster wrote Maurice.

I was born in 1960, coming of age in the garish years of pounding disco beats, the flashing floors of Studio 54, the gender-bending of Boy George, Annie Lennox, and Pete Burns, the clich├ęd stereotypes of the Village People, as well as the introduction of Playgirl magazine with its blatant, though groundbreaking, masculine frontal nudity and the first publication of The Joy of Gay Sex—years of excess that not only unlocked closet doors, but virtually smashed them to smithereens. I was nine when the Stonewall riots occurred in Greenwich Village, the aftermath of that and many other protests, making my coming out something easier, not that earthshaking, not that terrible. I’m fifty now. I’ve seen the changes. I’ve lived in more tolerant times, in more tolerant places, surrounded by more tolerant people. Yes, I’ve been harassed; yes, I’ve been ridiculed. I’ve been called names, have endured disgusted stares. But I’ve also had the chance to openly love—and be loved by—two extraordinary men, both of whom changed me, my life, my heart, my soul, for the better.

And for all of that, I am grateful.

On the first page of Maurice, Forster wrote:

Dedicated to a Happier Year

Words that must continue to inspire.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Love the artwork - thanks for sharing this.

You may be interested to know, however, that Forster didn't 'finish' Maurice in 1914. On the contrary, during the novel's decades as a pre-published, privately circulated text, he generated a proliferation of different manuscript versions - some, but not all, of which survive and are held at King's College, Cambridge in the UK. The version of Maurice published in 1971, after Forster's death, dates from 1959.

The differences between the surviving manuscripts are explained in detail in the 1999 Abinger Edition of Maurice. Wendy Moffat's 2010 Forster biography is also enlightening about the context.

For my blog on this, see: http://exponential63.livejournal.com/3217.html