You have no doubt heard the expression “the dog that didn’t bark – a wonderful phrase emanating from an old Sherlock Holmes story by Arthur Conan Doyle. I would like to conduct a little touch of literary sleuthing and ask why E.M Forster, eminent English novelist, declined decade after decade to publish the one and only novel that deeply explored the truth of his nature as a gay man. His literary executor published Maurice in 1971, one year after Forster’s death. In exploring the decision to refrain from publishing a book first completed in 1914, we can also ponder the question of if and when a writer has a duty as citizen and public intellectual to enter the public arena and adopt a clear position on a contentious issue. I suggest that publishing the novel in the late 1950s would have been an ideal intervention on Forster’s part in the debate over whether to decriminalize homosexuality.
In 1960, despairing of witnessing a substantial change in the law notwithstanding the Report’s clear recommendations for a more enlightened approach, Forster penned a “Terminal Note” to Maurice, to be published after his death.E.M Forster was one of the century’s truly great novelists. Following a string of elegant comic novels, Forster penned an ambitious Condition-of England novel, Howard’s End, in 1910. Fourteen years elapsed before he wrote his masterpiece, A Passage to India. He then clearly struggled, publishing no novels at all for the last 46 years of his life. Yet all the while, he had another novel that he circulated to those close friends he thought would be sympathetic to his attempt to depict a positive gay relationship in Edwardian England. The legal context to his decision to refuse to “let his novel bark” is critical. Homosexual relations between men was against the criminal law. Harsh punishments could be meted out. Further, obscenity laws prohibited works that depicted gay or lesbian relationships from being published, or at least created a risk of prosecution. While all of this is true, it certainly does not provide a full explanation for Forster’s unwillingness to take a public stand. In the 1950s attitudes began to change in English society, particularly amongst writers and their readers. Mary Renault forged ahead with her novel The Charioteer in 1953. Even earlier, Angus Wilson wrote his remarkable novel Hemlock and After, in 1952. This tale of an aging novelist and bisexual who journeys through the homosexual underworld calls into question certain liberal pieties and the potential pitfalls of liberal humanism. It also brought squarely into the open areas of British life –homosexuals making assignations that were illegal and subject to harsh punishment. Forster was sufficiently impressed by the debut novel that he wrote to Wilson to congratulate him but also to express a degree of unease about the plot.
A series of prosecutions of gay men, some of them high-profile and extensively covered in the press, ushered in debate in the House of Commons about the problematic state of the law, at least as progressive politicians and their constituents saw it. The landmark Wolfenden Report was published in 1957, recommending decriminalization. It paved the way for more enlightened attitudes to gain ground and legal reform finally took place in 1967. Yet, through this period Forster the novelist remained silent.
Perhaps it is more correct to say, as his biographer Wendy Moffatt does, that he made a few small feints in the direction of public advocacy. But really, the emphasis has to regrettably be on the limited nature of his role.
The legal context to his decision to refuse to “let his novel bark” is critical. Homosexual relations between men was against the criminal law. Harsh punishments could be meted out. Further, obscenity laws prohibited works that depicted gay or lesbian relationships from being published, or at least created a risk of prosecution. In 1960, despairing of witnessing a substantial change in the law notwithstanding the Report’s clear recommendations for a more enlightened approach, Forster penned a “Terminal Note” to Maurice, to be published after his death. He indicated that, because homosexuality remained a crime, it would have to remain in manuscript. He suggested that the guardians of public morality in England could not accept such a book. Perhaps it would lead to a prosecution for obscenity. His “Terminal Note” parallels dialogue found in the novel. Maurice, the stockbroker who dares to live according to his heart’s desires, consults a hypnotist who acts as his “reality teacher.” He suggests to the outcast that he leave England for France or Italy, where homosexuality is no longer illegal. Asked if the law might not change in England, he tells Maurice that he doubts England will change, as it has always been disinclined to accept human nature. The entire chapter is both humorous and moving, as the novel adroitly reveals both the absurdity and the rigidity of the conservative society that is willing to repress and punish so many gifted men.
At the end of the “Terminal Note” Forster laments that, notwithstanding Wolfenden, police prosecutions will continue and Clive on the bench (Maurice’s platonic lover from university, now an establishment figure in the legal profession) will continue to sentence gay men in the dock. But this prognosis was unduly bleak. A strong advocacy group, the Homosexual Law Reform Society, was effectively making the case for sensible legal reform. More and more writers and politicians were willing to enter the public fray to offer eloquent protests against the many injustices that the status quo represented. The Labour Party was voted into power in 1964, following, ironically, a sex scandal involving a very embarrassing heterosexual affair between a government minister, Profumo, and a young woman. Prime Minister Harold Wilson appointed a well-know liberal reformer, Roy Jenkins, as Home Secretary. Jenkins worked with others in the party to make the case for compassion and understanding and engineered a remarkable breakthrough in Parliament. Homosexual relations between consenting adults ceased to be criminal.
Looking back on this period, though, it is vital to recognize that major reform was not inevitable. There were many conservative voices crying out that it was dangerous to make such far-reaching changes. Therefore, the actions of authors like Forster could indeed have helped to make a difference. In any event, he did make the imaginative effort to write this book that didn’t bark, and for that we can be grateful.