115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

My Death or England’s: Weaving Same-Sex Desire into the Fabric of National Identity

Michelle Runyan, College of Western Idaho

E.M. Forster wrote that Maurice was “unpublishable until my death or England’s.” Maurice is a tale about a queer citizen hiding in plain sight. My analysis focuses on fear of surveillance and the gaze of the “normal” British citizen, each a means of isolating and making invisible queer citizens not considered a legitimate part of the national identity, forcing them to create performative identities to evade detection of their “otherness”.

Proposal: 

Writing to a friend about Maurice, E.M. Forster said that it was “unpublishable until my death or England’s.” At its heart, Forster’s Maurice is a tale about the othered citizen hiding in plain sight. Its text is brimming with desire for “Britishness” to include that which it purposefully excludes: same-sex desire.

Building on the arguments of Paul Peppis and Ann Hartree, I extend critique of Maurice to argue that the project of the novel is not only to locate a home for same-sex desire within the space of British identity, but to expose the decay that plagues the state of Great Britain and the hypocritical moral decrepitude that caused it. My analysis focuses on the fear of surveillance and the gaze of the “normal” British citizen, each a means of isolating and making invisible queer citizens not considered a legitimate part of the national identity, forcing them to create performative identities in order to evade detection of their “otherness”.

I argue that the creation of a non-British ‘other’ was purposeful, in that it helped to create a national identity; for, as Dennis Grube explains, “national identity is defined by its boundaries -- by who is included and who is excluded” and without these boundaries “it becomes no identity at all” (2). This is especially important considering the chronological and socio-political context in which Maurice was conceived and written: only a mere two decades after the infamous Wilde trials which caused Forster to be especially covert about his own sexuality. It was also this fear which caused him to keep from publishing Maurice in his lifetime, for the happy ending of the titular character would have been wildly subversive, unlike texts such as Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness which ends with the main character’s acknowledgement that only a heteronormative union can be truly happy and successful.

The novel is Forster’s warning, perhaps in the same sense as most dystopian novels are written, that to cling to tradition at the expense of happiness will lead to a rotten Britain made of  cardboard citizens and a (morally and financially) bankrupt aristocracy. By immersing the reader in the consciousness of a protagonist who is the ideal image of the “normal” British citizen, Forster shows us that it is possible for same-sex desire to be weaved into the national fabric of identity -- indeed, it shows us that it is already there, hidden in plain sight.