London Pride, the LGBT+ festival which runs for 3 weeks in June, culminated with a parade this weekend. The Orlando shootings had already given this year’s festival an added poignancy, and after the week we’ve had in Britain, a joyful parade celebrating diversity warmed my battered heart. My favourite thing at this year’s festival is undoubtedly this – we should keep it all year round.
Image from here
In this post I’m going to look at two classic novels which explore an experience of being gay at the start of the twentieth century. They are both set in Britain, where at the time being a gay man was illegal (repealed in 1967). Lesbians weren’t acknowledged in law, but being gay of gender was broadly speaking, socially taboo.
Firstly, Maurice by EM Forster, which was written in 1914 but not published until after Forster’s death in 1970. Maurice grows up in an England where sex education involves conversations like this:
“To love a noble woman, to protect and serve her – this, he told the little boy, was the crown of life. ‘You can’t understand now, you will some day, and when you do understand it, remember the poor old pedagogue who put you on the track. It all hang together – all – and God’s in his heaven, All’s right with the world. Male and female! Ah wonderful!”
Good grief. Maurice blindly follows the path laid out for him: prep school, public school, Cambridge. Forster is rather scathing towards his protagonist, emphasising his lack of intellect and inability to question his life in any way. Events force him out of this spiritual somnambulism when his best friend makes a confession:
“Durham could not wait. People were all around them, but with eyes that had gone intensely blue, he whispered ‘I love you.’
Maurice was scandalized, horrified. He was shocked to the bottom of his suburban soul, and exclaimed, ‘Oh, rot!’”
Gradually however, Maurice realises what the reader already knows, that he is sexually attracted to men and loves his friend. This is the start of him living consciously and becoming generally more pleasant:
“After this crisis, Maurice became a man. Hitherto – if human beings can be estimated – he had not been worth anyone’s affection, but conventional, petty, treacherous to others, because to himself. Now he had the highest gift to offer.”
Maurice isn’t totally redeemed: he can still be selfish and a terrible snob. This is one of the novel’s strengths – he isn’t idealised, he isn’t better or worse than most people, he is just an ordinary person with the need to love and be loved, but because “England will always be disinclined to accept human nature” Maurice suffers greatly, because he is forced to try and supress such basic human needs.
“He lived on, miserable and misunderstood, as before, and increasingly lonely. One cannot write these words too often: Maurice’s loneliness: it increased.”
Meanwhile, heterosexual couples are welcomed and celebrated, able to live openly.
“They loved each other tenderly. Beautiful conventions received them – while beyond the barrier Maurice wandered, the wrong words on his lips and the wrong desires in his heart, and his arms full of air.”
However, this isn’t a sad novel – apparently Forster was determined it would not be so as he didn’t want a gay protagonist to appear to be punished. It is about how accepting who we are enables us to live better lives not only for ourselves but for those around us, and it is about the damage that can be done when society attempts to force a predetermined conventional ‘norm’ upon people. Maurice is also beautifully written and highly readable; never preachy and emotionally affecting.
There was a Merchant Ivory adaptation of Maurice in 1987, which I’ve never seen, but looks like a faithful adaptation, starring many of the Merchant Ivory regulars:
Secondly, The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (1928). Unlike Forster, she published at the time, but given the novel was subject to an indecency trial, it seems Forster judged correctly that Maurice would cause outrage. The Well of Loneliness tells the story of Stephen Gordon, a daughter to landed gentry who were so convinced she’d be a boy that they give her a masculine name. As Stephen grows up, she struggles against the gender expectations placed on her.
“And Stephen must slink upstairs thoroughly deflated, strangely unhappy and exceedingly humble, and must tear off the clothes she so clearly loved donning, to replace them with the garments she hated. How she hated soft dresses and sashes, and ribbons, and small coral beads, and openwork stockings! Her legs felt so free and comfortable in breeches; she adored pockets, too, and these were forbidden”
The novel follows Stephen through her young life, isolated from her peers, distanced from her mother who is revolted by a difference in her daughter she cannot name. Stephen’s solace is her kind father and her horses. She gradually realises that she is attracted to women, and that this is unacceptable to the society in which she lives.
“What remained? Loneliness, or worse still, far worse because it so deeply degraded the spirit, a life of perpetual subterfuge, of guarded opinions and guarded actions, of lies of omission if not of speech, of becoming an accomplice in the world’s injustice by maintaining at all times a judicious silence”
The wiki page about this novel tells me it’s been criticised by people who see the difficulties experienced by Stephen as encouraging shame, but I think this is a bit unfair. Written in 1928, I suspect living in a society where you had to hide a fundamental part of who you are, where “Love is only permissible to those who are cut in every respect to life’s pattern” could be a bit bloody at times. Stephen is never portrayed as needing to be anything other than she is: the fault is society’s not hers, and she remains defiant to the end.
“She must show that being the thing she was, she could climb to success over all opposition, could climb to success in spite of a world that was trying its best to get her under…Yes, it was trying to get her under, this world with its smug rules of conduct, all made to be broken by those who strutted and preened themselves on being what they considered normal.”
The Well of Loneliness could do with being about 100 pages shorter (Sarah Waters judges The Unlit Lamp as a much stronger novel) but I still found it very readable and whizzed through it. It’s somewhat depressing stance may mean it’s controversial amongst critics, but love it or hate it, it remains a highly significant novel of the time.
To end, a chance to indulge my slightly baffling but most enduring Danny Dyer obsession. Often cast as the stereotypical uber-straight macho man, here he is getting an opportunity to perform gender in a much broader way: