Ben Whishaw
Ben Whishaw’s narration captures both Maurice’s vulnerability and Forster’s ironic authorial voice © Rich Polk/Getty Images

The story behind EM Forster’s Maurice is a story of the “love that dare not speak its name” embodied by a novel that dared not risk publication. 

In 1914, when Forster first wrote the book, society would have been scandalised. Today, the greater scandal seems that his tale of love between two young Englishmen had to wait until 1971 before it saw the light of day. Publication eventually came one year after Forster’s death — and just four years after England’s partial decriminalisation of homosexual relations.

Entrusting his manuscript to Christopher Isherwood and dedicating it to “a happier year”, Forster clearly feared the consequences of Maurice appearing in his own lifetime. Consequences that ranged from mere societal opprobrium to criminal conviction. The fate of Oscar Wilde, sentenced to hard labour for “gross indecency” in 1895, no doubt weighed on Forster, who was 16 at the time. (In the book, Maurice consults a doctor for fear of being an “unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort”.)

Now, marking a half-century since Forster’s death and the novel’s publication, Maurice has a fresh iteration in an audiobook narrated by Ben Whishaw. For a story dominated by the viewpoint of the title character, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting voice: Whishaw, winner of an Emmy, a Bafta, a Golden Globe, is himself gay and has interpreted gay characters in the 2014 film Lilting and in TV series London Spy (2015) and A Very English Scandal (2018).

Maurice is “a passionate and poignant tale”, says Whishaw. “It’s one of the great tragedies of modern literature that Forster never got to see this story celebrated as it should be.” It adapts well to audio, he adds, thanks to the “intimacy, tenderness and privacy” of the story.

Whishaw’s narration deftly inhabits both Maurice’s vulnerable gaze and Forster’s ironic authorial commentary. His voice has a resonant, tremulous quality, without being overly “thespian”, and a cadence that signals distinct yet seamless switches of tone. A 2016 Guardian article described the actor as making “a speciality of the damaged, the doomed, the beautiful and damned”. 

Rupert Graves as Alec and James Wilby as Maurice in Merchant-Ivory’s 1987 film version of ‘Maurice’
Rupert Graves as Alec and James Wilby as Maurice in Merchant-Ivory’s 1987 film version of ‘Maurice’ © Moviestore/Shutterstock

If social mores proscribed Maurice’s love for Clive (played in Merchant-Ivory’s 1987 film by Hugh Grant, Whishaw’s Very English Scandal co-star), Maurice also transgresses the class barrier by finding love with Alec, gamekeeper on Clive’s estate. Some even suggest that Maurice was a prototype for DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was first published privately in 1928. 

Maurice and Clive’s affair swings from loving declarations to terrified denials. Maurice feels “some special curse had descended on him”; his Cambridge tutor warns of the “unspeakable vice of the Greeks”. Both men seek to keep their relationship not only hidden, but chaste too; it is framed as a struggle for the soul over the body. Still, Maurice has an epiphany familiar to all gay men: “He would not deceive himself . . . He would not pretend to care about women . . . the only sex that attracted him was his own. He loved men and had always loved men.”

In our age of Pride marches and same-sex marriages, it’s easy to forget how daring such a declaration was in Forster’s time. “Unlike the novel, which Forster . . . of necessity circulated among only a few friends, the audiobook appears in a context of profoundly changed social mores,” says Emma Sutton, professor of English at St Andrews University and co-editor of Twenty-First Century Readings of EM Forster’s ‘Maurice’. Whishaw’s interpretation is, she adds, a “landmark, given the novel’s centrality to Forster’s reputation and its extensive influence on later queer fiction, cinema and drama”.

Whatever the changes in the century since Maurice was written and the half-century since publication, the novel has contemporary resonance, says Whishaw. “It serves as a hopeful plea from another era, a happy reminder that queer love isn’t doomed to fail despite what we might be told.”

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