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Maurice ~ A Capsule Book Review

Maurice ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

E. M. Forster (1879-1970) was one of the best English novelists of the twentieth century. His novels are intelligent and literate, while also being entertaining and broadly appealing. He wrote the novel Maurice in 1913, but, because of its unconventional subject matter, it wasn’t published for decades, not until 1971.

The novel is set during the years before World War I. Maurice Hall is an upper middle-class youth from a conventional family; his father is dead; he has a mother and two sisters. He attends Cambridge University, where he meets and comes to know Clive Durham. These two “boys” (young men) are quite different from each other. Maurice doesn’t mind breaking the rules when it suits him, which eventually gets him “sent down” (expelled) from school. Clive is more mindful of convention.

As was common with English schoolboys living away from home, Maurice and Clive enter into a furtive homosexual relationship. For Maurice, his passion for Clive is all-consuming, all-important, and built to last a lifetime. He comes to care more for Clive than for anything else in the world.

The love affair (to others, it’s a very close friendship) between Maurice and Clive continues after school. Maurice works in the business his father worked in. Clive manages his family’s estate and gives dinner parties. Maurice spends as many evenings a week with Clive (and weekends) as he can manage.

A bad bout of influenza at age twenty-four leaves Clive weak and debilitated, but, more to the point, it leaves him preferring women. He and Maurice are finished as lovers but they can, of course, remain friends. Clive soon lands a woman named Anne, with whom he becomes besotted in a very short time. They soon marry, which is what every young man is supposed to do.

Maurice doesn’t really understand how Clive can suddenly prefer Anne over him, but he takes the news with apparent equanimity. As hurt as he is, he knows, logically, that turning to women is the exact right thing for men of his sort. He consults a medical doctor who instructs him to quit having morbid thoughts. A hypnotist advises him to move to Italy or France, where homosexuality is not recognized as a crime.

Enter Alec Scudder. He is an uncouth country lad, the gamekeeper on Clive’s estate. Even though Maurice and Alec are of separate classes, Alec recognizes in Maurice a fellow traveler. They come together when Maurice is visiting Clive’s estate and soon they are in love. As Maurice says, there is “one chance in a thousand” that he and Alec found each other. The only problem is that Alec is emigrating to the Argentine in about a week. Can Maurice persuade him to remain in England? Any kind of a longtime relationship between the two is by definition going to be fraught with difficulties. Not only are they of different classes, but they are outcasts from the world. (He was despise-ed, he was rejected, and acquainted with grief.)

The novel has a happy ending. How can that be? The happy ending is why the novel wasn’t publishable at the time it was written. Homosexuality was a criminal offense in England. Any novel, regardless of its literary merit, that allows two homosexual men to go on their merry way without destroying themselves or ending up in prison was an outrage against public morals. People wanted to see these people punished. Not happy. Never happy.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Where Angels Fear to Tread ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Where Angels Fear to Tread ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

E. M. Forster (1879-1970) was one of the best and most readable English writers of the twentieth century. His first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread, was published in 1905. It’s a story of a clash of cultures, in this case English and Italian. Stodgy, conventional, keeping-up-appearances, English middle-class morality goes head to head with emotional, hot-blooded Italian effusiveness. The English characters in Where Angels Fear to Tread are all fools who can’t see farther than the ends of their noses. The principal Italian character, Gino, is forgiving, kind and generous. Which would you rather be?

Lilia Herriton is an English widow, thirty-three years old. She lives with and is dominated by her late husband’s narrow-minded family in a small English town. She has a small daughter named Irma, who seems to prefer her grandmother and her aunt over her mother. When Lilia travels to Italy, she is captivated by its romance and beauty. Rebelling against the middle-class English morality to which she has long been captive, she meets, falls in love with, and marries a charming Italian fellow named Gino, ten years younger than she is. He has a handsome face and not much else in the way of prospects. When Lilia, early in her marriage, has a child, a boy, she dies in childbirth. Her first husband’s (the dead husband, if you will recall) family back in England believes they must go to Italy and “rescue” Lilia’s child and bring it back to England to give it a proper (English) upbringing.

Philip and Harriet Herriton, brother and sister of Lilia’s late husband, go to the little town of Monteriano, along with family friend, Caroline Abbott, ostensibly to get Lilia’s baby and bring it back to England. They fail to consider the father’s (Gino’s) feelings in the matter. Harriet is an unpleasant, bossy spinster who believes she can bully and bluff Gino into giving up the baby because it is the “right” thing to do. Philip is also of the same mind as Harriet, but when the trio arrives in Italy, Philip once again falls under Italy’s spell (partly as a result of the opera Lucia di Lammermoor) and is charmed by Gino into believing that he, Gino, is a loving and caring father and the baby is better off remaining where it is.

The Herritons don’t really give a hoot about Gino and Lilia’s baby. They want it only so they can assert their English superiority, keep up appearances, and make a point. They will do anything, including kidnapping, to get what they want. With pig-headed Harriet leading the way, they screw up monumentally, with tragic and unforeseen consequences.

Where Angels Fear to Tread was published when the author was only twenty-six. It is a meticulously written, intelligent English classic, accessible and easy to read, well worth another look. A faithful and memorable movie adaptation of the novel was made in 1991.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp