Monday, 27 July 2015

Lady Chatterley Meets Maurice

Tonight on the BBC a new series called “Life in Squares” begins. It’s the dramatized story of the Bloomsbury Group, a set of literary and artistic Victorians, many of whom were lgbt. Like so many other television dramas these days sex seems to be the main selling point, or reason for its production, as far as I can see. The previews have shown little else.

But it has given me as good an excuse as any to create a new guided tour around Nottingham featuring people and places where some of the Bloomsberries lived and visited, and to write this article.

Ten years ago I designed some posters for the first exhibition produced by the Nottinghamshire Rainbow Heritage project. One of these had the same title as this article and showed the network of connections between the novels “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and “Maurice” and their authors D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster. I’ve lost the original computer file but I’ve reconstructed it from the original print copy here.

One of the central figures in the story is a not-so-well-known character called Jack “Sebastian” Sprott. His real name was Walter John Herbert Sprott but he always preferred to use the more down-to-earth name of Jack. He was ridiculed by his friends at Cambridge University because his name sounded too much like the nursery rhyme character of Jack Spratt. They were discussing what other name to call him when another friend entered the room carrying a sheet of music by Johann Sebastian Bach. It struck them immediately – Sebastian will be Jack’s new name. Sprott still preferred Jack, but to his Cambridge and Bloomsbury Group friends he was always Sebastian.

After being the last male lover of the economist John Maynard Keynes Sprott became more interested in working-class men. When he moved to Nottingham in 1925 to take up a lectureship at the University he lived in a poky little terraced house. He hadn’t been in the city long before he picked up a rough local lad called Charles Lovett, who lived with him for decades.

Sprott wasn’t monogamous and had a string of affairs which Charles tolerated. Sprott’s penchant for “rough trade” was shared with several of his Bloomsbury friends, most notably E. M. Forster. Sprott often “loaned” his partners to Forster.

Some of Sprott’s other Bloomsbury friends, however, were less than comfortable moving among the working classes. Lytton Strachey in particular didn’t like Nottingham. “Nottingham is the grimmest place in the world, but with a certain hideous grandeur”, he wrote after visiting Sprott in 1926. Shortly afterwards Strachey invited Sprott to become his literary secretary, and during the summer vacation from university Sprott would go down to live with Strachey to organise his papers.

E. M. Forster made Professor Sprott his literary executor, which meant that after Forster’s death in 1970 Sprott inherited all of his unpublished manuscripts, including one called “Maurice”. This was a love story a member of the upper-classes who went against the expectations of society and outraged them by falling in love with a lowly worker. Forster began writing it in 1913 and had difficulty finding a publisher because none of them would touch it because it was a gay love story with a happy ending. Forster refused to change the ending, and so it remained in his study till his death.

Forster did, however, pass the manuscript around his friends. One of these was D. H. Lawrence, a Nottingham writer Professor Sprott met through Forster. Lawrence had snatched away the wife of one of Sprott’s university colleagues and married her.

A couple of years after reading “Maurice” Lawrence began writing “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, a love story of a member of the upper-classes who went against the expectations of society … and all that. I wonder where he got the idea?

Knowing that England’s obscenity laws would prevent him from publishing “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” in the UK, Lawrence had it published privately in Italy. It wasn’t long before it became notorious and pirate copies emerged around the world. There was no official published copy in England until well after D. H. Lawrence’s death in 1930. When was published “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” became the centre of one of England’s most famous obscenity trials in 1960. E. M. Forster was one of many famous writers who were called to give evidence in defence of the novel.

Moving on about 12 years, and Forster’s own “Maurice” was published posthumously. When Professor Sprott died in 1971 he bequeathed all of Forster’s papers and manuscripts to Cambridge University. It was Cambridge University who decided that “Maurice” should be published a year later.

“Maurice” received a lukewarm reception. Many book critics, who had read the novel but not looked into its background, said it a second-rate rip-off of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and, accordingly, didn’t consider it one of Forster’s best works.

If only publishers in 1913 had accepted a happy ending to a gay love story perhaps “Maurice” would have seen the light of day before “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, and the reputations may have been reversed and “Chatterley” might not have received so much attention.

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