It’s the return of one of my favourite topics: Museums in Books. This post’s book is E. M. Forster’s Maurice and the museum in it is one I consider my spiritual -and sometimes physical – home; the British Museum. For those of you unfamiliar with the book, it’s the tale of same-sex love in the early 20th Century, following the titular Maurice from his school days to… well… I’ll avoid as many spoilers as I can.
Maurice was published posthumously, in 1971. Although Forster shared the novel with close friends, his audience was “carefully picked” according to the book’s Terminal Note. It’s clear from the Note that Forster felt the novel unpublishable due to its happy ending. He writes, “If it ended unhappily, with a lad dangling from a noose or with a suicide pact, all would be well, for there is no pornography or seduction of minors. But the lovers get away unpunished and consequently recommend crime.”
2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of Homosexuality in the UK. Today, there are still 74 countries in which it is a criminal offence and 13 in which it is punishable by death.
We’ve come a long way, but the fight isn’t over yet. Museums have a role to play in this fight, by uncovering the histories and stories of the love that dare not speak its name. The V&A do a sterling job of this with their monthly LGBTQ Tours. The British Museum, however, really got the ball rolling with this when they published their groundbreaking book A Little Gay History.
The British Museum plays an important role in Maurice, but more on that in a moment. This is what it would have looks like at the time of the novel, the famous pediment of the Great Russell Street entrance looks almost the same as it does today.
Although.. is the pediment painted? Perhaps it has changed more than I realised. Let’s have a look at the inside.
The Enlightenment Gallery is designed to look traditional, so on the surface, not much has changed. Now we know what we’re looking at, shall we see what the characters are up to in the museum?
‘The rain was coming down in its old fashion,’ on the day that Alec and Maurice visit the museum – what else do you do on a rainy day?
‘”What’s all this place?” he asked.
“Old things belonging to the nation.”‘
That’s a fairly good description of the British Museum’s collection, although now we tend to think a bit bigger: we’re a museum of the world for the world rather than just the UK. But yes, Maurice is right, it’s a museum for Britain, not a museum of Britain. You’d be amazed how many people get that mixed up nowdays.
‘They paused in the corridor of Roman emperors. “Yes, it’s bad weather. There’ve only been two fine days. And one fine night,” he added mischievously.’ Wink-wink nudge-nudge. I like that they paused in a corridor filled with Roman emperors, I like to imagine Maurice and Alec had this exchange while Hadrian and his lover Antinous looked down at them.
Moving on from the Romans, the pair find themselves in front of the winged bulls from Assyria. After marvelling at the craftsmanship they notice the thing I always enjoy pointing out to visitors:
‘”This one has five legs.”‘
There’s some subtext at play here; there’s something queer about these statues, and there’s something queer about the people looking at them. As the couple are working their way through a misunderstanding, they are met by a Mr Ducie who recognises Maurice, but not entirely. ‘How like Mr Ducie to get the facts just wrong!’ thinks Maurice.
When Mr Ducie realises he has made a mistake, this happens:
‘… determined to show he was not an old fool, he addressed the silent pair on the subject of the British Museum – not merely the collection of relics but a place round which one could take – er – the less fortunate, quite so, – a stimulating place – it raised questions even in the minds of boys.’
I wonder what those questions could be?
The British Museum scene is an important one in the novel. It gives the characters a chance to confront themselves, to confront each other and to confront their queerness. It gives them a chance to be a couple, Mr Ducie, after speaking to the boys rejoins his wife, mirroring Alec and Maurice’s visit to the museum.
Most importantly to Alec and Maurice, the British Museum gave them the space to work through their issues with each other.