The genesis of EM Forster’s queer novel Maurice is well known; Forster himself gives an account of it in his 1960 introduction to the novel, which still didn’t appear until 1971, after his death.
He describes a visit to the gay pioneer, Edward Carpenter, and his partner, George Merrill, in their farmhouse at Millthorpe, outside Sheffield. According to Forster, Merrill touched him on the buttocks, and the effect was such that a shock went through his body, and he instantly conceived (significant female term) the novel in its entirety.
Commentators have subsequently sexualised this encounter. According to that interpretation, Merrill was making a pass at Forster, and the sex‐starved, love‐starved Forster responded with a sexual utopian vision of an ideal relationship which cuts across the classes ‐ crudely, an alliance with a pliable piece of rough trade. In this version the ever‐closeted Forster had to dress up his rather obvious fantasy with pretentious philosophical trappings.
I have preferred to take Forster at his word, and evoke a golden late Edwardian summer afternoon, the kind of afternoon where you enter a dreamlike state, dopey with heat, and your mind floats away. Forster, Morgan to his friends, is a city man, itchy and sweating in a tweed three-piece suit, irritated by flies and annoyed at having to tramp the three miles from the station to the farm of his idol.
Edward Carpenter was an icon to Edwardian gays ‐ a very public example of the possibility of gay relationships, and their acceptance in a community. A working‐class community, of course, because young working‐class men were always more relaxed about sex than the middle class.
Also, a community well away from any metropolis and the attentions of the police. Merrill was a fine example of that cheerful acceptance of sexuality ‐ a self‐educated man, very tactile, uninhibited in his expression of his needs and desires.
Merrill acted the role of the ‘wife’, cooking and cleaning, and ended up doing all the manual work around, mainly because Carpenter was crap at it. He had his own fantasies about being a man of the soil and a worker; the only problem was that the sandals that he famously made were desperately uncomfortable.
So, Carpenter did his writing, thinking and public speaking while George looked after him; he also went with other boys, which George accepted until it looked as if one of them might take root. This might have been an exploitative relationship, but it worked and lasted for over thirty years.
There had been a gay scandal in Dublin Castle in 1884 ‐ one of the people involved was Jack Saul, who also turns up in Cleveland Street, and authored a major work of Victorian gay porn, The Sins of the Cities of the Plain.
Vicars kept the gay tradition alive and well by appointing other ‘nancies’ to such invented positions as Athlone Pursuivant, Cork Herald, and Dublin Herald (Frank Shackleton).
This too feeds into the opera, and into his creativity ‐ at the time he conceived Maurice he also received the germ of the idea for A Passage to India.
This opera presents the conception of Maurice, but music can express the multiple levels on which that takes place, and the true mystery of creation.
About two‐thirds through, Forste’s fully formed thoughts are brought to life as he assumes the role of Maurice and George Merrill becomes Alec, and they sing their commitment to each other, with Carpenter insisting in the background that “It has to have a happy ending”.
It is a blurring of reality, creativity and sexual fantasy.
A Helping Hand is important in the cycle of A Gay Century because it represents the first glimmer of revival, of an idea of gay fulfilment in the face of the repression of the age.
It will take several more operas to see that dream realised.
On first reading the libretto for A Helping Hand I was struck by the warmth suggested both in the Indian Summer, the setting, and the relationships.
Musically, it spoke to me of Delius and Elgar and, whilst I don’t suggest having stolen from them, the score is perhaps comparable at least stylistically.
The vocal ranges simply suggested three standard male voices reflecting their different ages ‐ Carpenter (the eldest) a bass, Merrill a baritone and Forster as a tenor.
To support these voices, I felt it did not need too much weight. Rather I tried making it lighter, romantic and airy.
And so, I chose the combination of Flute and Piano which seems to me to adequately complement a languid, summery tale set in awkward times.
Resources: Performers ‐ Bass, baritone, tenor. Players ‐ flute and piano.
Duration: 40 minutes
Read the Score and listen to the Music
Read the Script
All work is copyright of Peter Scott‐Presland and Robert Ely. Anyone interested in performing all or part of it should email firstname.lastname@example.org