What Cannot Be Helped

Maurice (1987)

illustration by Tom Ralston


In South Carolina, where I was on vacation, there were an abundance of shops and an abundance of things. The things in the shops were not really artisanal, nor were they plasticky replicas, but somewhere in between. Artisanal-looking replicas. How grateful I am to not be tempted to buy any old whatever anymore. The tchotchke shops (or should I say, “shoppes”?) always had a wall of signs: turns of phrase and bits of attitude—most, if not all, having to do with beach life. Take, for instance, a decorative plate that read: “Our beach house where we walk on the sand, swim in the sea, and soak up the sun.” (Commas my own.) My own personal favorite was an acronym poem: “Best Escape Anyone Can Have.” 

Maurice begins on the beach, but life is no such thing. It is cloudy and gray. The wind is soaked with salt. A group of young boys are out on a school trip to learn about science and ecology, or is it weather? Maurice, then cherubic and young, is siphoned away by one of his instructors, a man named Mr. Ducie who is played with profound charm by Merchant Ivory staple and perhaps the greatest actor of all time, Simon Callow.

On the beach, Ducie explains to a young Maurice the ins and outs of sexual reproduction, making crude but mostly anatomically correct drawings on the sandy beach with a stick. This, as either Ducie explains or implies, is the meaning of life: the thrust of procreation. Maurice has only a mother and sisters, no men to teach him the ways of the world. Maurice, who is a child, has never thought himself different. He does not articulate this difference. He may not even realize he is different. But this moment begins both the Merchant Ivory adaptation of Maurice and E.M. Forster’s novel of the same name. This is the onset, the big bang. It is a cataclysmic event, represented with casual, friendly dialogue—how very English. It is here on the beach that everything goes wrong.


It is the fault of this very website, in a sense, that I became such an adamant Forster fan some four years ago. An accidental, or incidental, viewing of A Room with a View sparked a loyal dedication from which I will never back down.

Of all the Forster texts I have read—Howards End, the masterpiece; A Room with a View, the comedy; A Passage to India, the heat—Maurice is the one that sticks in my craw, revealing itself to be a puzzle, of a sort; an ever-dense pastoral of young gay love. It is easy, by which I mean lazy, to attribute Maurice as a kind of Forster autofiction. Forster himself was gay, and upon writing Maurice in 1913 and 1914, he requested that the book be published posthumously, so it was eventually released in 1971. Though Forster was hesitant and unwilling to live through the novel’s publication, the book has little to do with him (while also having everything to do with him).

In truth, Maurice comes from all aspects of Forster’s gay life. It is directly inspired by his friend Edward Carpenter, an activist, and Carpenter’s working-class partner George Merrill. What I can’t let go of in the year 2022, however, is the knowledge that this book passed through the hands of Siegfried Sassoon—the gay anti-war poet of the early 20th century, and the subject of Terence Davies’ magnificent Benediction. That film, not unlike Maurice, is dense with mood and thought. These are not heavily plotted works, but heavily plotted romance is for the psychopaths and narcissists. Mostly love is a status, a tint. 

Sassoon (fictional) and Forster (actual) concerned themselves with the middle class—leisure-seeking, liberal-minded folks without grand estates but without debts. Forster’s romantic leads, as in text and then onscreen, often foolishly seek out an upper class beau, someone polished but pompous, saddled with purpose, which is to say inheritance. These people are kind in a baseline Midwestern America sense, but unreliable. To them, the Forster lead—Maurice, in this case—is a box to be ticked, a phase to go through. 


The meet-cute between the two men occurs not when they are Maurice (James Wilby) and Clive (Hugh Grant), but rather going by the formal address of their surnames: Hall and Durham. These are formal times; they call for formal measures. Maurice and Clive do not yet know each other. Maurice only knows Risley (another surname), a pretentious and annoying fop he takes dinner with alongside his friend and the dean. Risley is grating, but there is something about him. A je ne sais quoi if I ever saw one. Maurice sees it, too, and it leads him across the wet lawn to Risley’s bedroom.

Risley is absent. Instead: there is Durham, seated on the floor with rolls of scrolls, his hair flopped over his eyes. This is Hugh Grant, young and plum. Imagine you are Maurice and you’ve seen Hugh Grant for the first time: it would ruin your life, too. Anyway, this isn’t Hugh Grant. It’s Clive Durham, and he is looking for something that is lost. So, too, is Maurice, adrift without Risley.

Durham, Risley’s roommate, explains that his missing half is at the debate. “I was just stealing his pathetic symphony. I’m reading a paper on Tchaikovsky,” he adds, “but I cannot find the third movement.”

In Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers, Tchaikovsky says he’s stumbled upon a name for his Sixth Symphony. “The pathetic,” his brother sneers across the table at him. This is a convenient misunderstanding. The title of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 is, in fact, Pathétique Symphony. This is a mistranslation, but what isn’t? What was once Tchaikovsky’s passionate symphony, meaning bombastic and heartfelt, has become the pathétique symphony, meaning solemn and self-serious. Whether Clive knows this—or Russell at the helm of his own Tchaikovsky film—doesn’t particularly matter. The miscommunication in the title says it all.

Tchaikovsky, too, was gay and secretive, drifting through lackluster affairs with men all while hiding himself from the public eye. Much more dangerous for a man in late 19th century Russia than early 20th century England—all of which feels perilous compared to the 1970s publication of the novel and 1980s release of the film. Contemporary adaptations of Tchaikovsky’s life, whether in biopic or biography, paint the composer as a moody, emotional type, someone who lived through his music much more than his actions. 

That’s an easy leap to make in the grand scheme of artistic criticism, though certainly somewhat true with regards to the composer’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, a musical adaptation (to some degree) of Anna Karenina, was written in the depths of his depression during his six-week marriage, the relationship at the center of Russell’s bombastic biopic. His Fifth Symphony was a response to that incident, a rapturous march about Fate. So, what to make of the Sixth? The Pathétique?

Anyone looking for a piece of music that can be described as “pathetic” ought to look elsewhere (give Schumann a try, maybe), because Tchaikovsky’s Sixth is a rambunctious and exciting piece of music. The third movement, which Clive was seeking, is a rollicking romp, worthy of hitting the repeat button on Spotify. When the men play it on the pianola later, Clive scolds Maurice for playing it too quickly. But how is he supposed to resist? So then, perhaps, it is more about the passion than it is the pathetic. A piece to be cherished and slowed down, but one that fights against the beat of time anyway.

The relationship is rushed, too. It’s hard not to rush with all of that excitement. Passionate, natural, exciting—a day of playing hooky lands Maurice in the doghouse, but we owe almost every post-2000 gay movie to the scene of the two men lying in a field of golden-green grass. There is a storybook quality to both the romance and the symphony. Once you realize that Tchaikovsky’s Sixth isn’t a melodramatic slog, that it’s actually somewhat conventional, if not full of the composer’s penchant for melody, there’s a wave of disappointment. Or, as Clive says when he ends everything with Maurice: “Against my will I have become normal. I cannot help it.”


Maurice and Clive separate. Gone are the green, mist-soaked days of their courtship. The boys have left Cambridge, and with it, every aspect of their youth they’ve held dear. As the love fades, it’s easy to see the flaws in Clive: his shallowness, his flakiness, his desperate desire to be liked. He knows that it’s more advantageous for his class, first and foremost, to ignore the love he’s felt for Maurice. All the world is a deal or negotiation, one in which he’s determined to come out on top.

Still, it never helps to hear, Well, they were rotten to begin with, and Maurice responds to his snub with panic and hysteria. “What’s going to happen to me?” he sobs, all of that discomfort from the beach with Mr. Ducie surfacing as he clings to a chair. He paces, he works, he does everything he thinks he should do to get over and on with it. 

Maurice goes so far as to seek out family friend Dr. Barry (Denholm Elliott), hoping to cure his sexuality. Maurice’s distress feels equally dated and timely: that society convinces him this is a sin and sickness makes the wrenching tragedy of his relationship all the more painful. So then he does the most foolish thing of all. Maurice goes to Clive’s home for a weekend away, for shooting and for lounging—only Clive isn’t there. A few of their friends are, along with Clive’s simple wife, and a new groundskeeper named Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves), whose soot-faced cheekbones catch Maurice’s eyes.

Graves gives a performance that teeters on parody of the lower class, but so, too, does Forster’s text, dialogue written almost phonetically to specify the class from which Scudder (and eventually, to Maurice, “Alec”) comes. There’s a not-so-subtle suggestion there that the only class of person ever really free is the lower class, so ignored by high society that they’re able to carry on their affairs. And Alec and Maurice’s affair is hidden and lustful, full of arguments and disagreements. But perhaps this is what’s preferred, this is what’s better. Rather than a partner who brushes off every issue, including him, Maurice deserves one who is willing to fight—literal tooth and literal nail—for what he believes in. All the artifice that Clive is, Alec is not. 


No book or film is perfect, far from it, but Maurice gets close. It grasps for an ideal, and often, that pursuit is just as worthy. What the film doesn’t have but the novel boasts is the dedication, four words I’ve never forgotten. Before Alec, before Clive—before Maurice, even—there’s: To a happier year. For all the aforementioned posturing that this is not a piece of writing about Forster, it is still very much a book about Forster, about grappling with that which society is unwilling to grapple with. That this was such a painful year, a strained writing experience for a book Forster would choose not to see published, breaks my heart anew each time.

But here is where the film transcends, where time and memory all blur into one big green thing. Maurice and Alec wind up together, settling into a domestic urban bliss. In the meantime, out in the country, Clive stands alone. The book doesn’t have this interaction: it concludes, rather, with Clive and Maurice in conflict before the latter walks off. This elongated conclusion—Maurice and Alec’s reconciliation, and their promise to never part from one another, into Clive’s retrospective—gives breathing room to the story. It doesn’t play the third movement too fast. As the servants lock up the house, Clive takes to his candlelit solitude, his wife with whom he shares nothing, and thinks back on a love that shook him from his post. He considers Maurice’s hand, beckoning him out onto the green. Maurice was always there, asking him to come forward in time, if only Clive could get unstuck.