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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Just Above the Buttocks
This September marks the centenary of that seminal moment in English letters when E.M. Forster was goosed by George Merrill. It calls for celebration, parades perhaps. So much changes in that moment. A working-class man, Merrill found happiness as homemaker to socialist sage Edward Carpenter, and worked with him to create an Edwardian haven for the outliers of English society. His touch inspired Forster to write Maurice, a formidable addition to the canon of gay literature.
Merrill, 22 years Carpenter’s junior, fed and housed a constant stream of pilgrims to Millthorpe, the couple’s Derbyshire retreat. Some came because of Carpenter’s writings on social reform, some for his interests in Eastern religions, some because he advocated for the independence of women, and for marriage as a partnership of equals. Many came because Carpenter championed the cause of men and women attracted to their own gender, claiming that “no one else can possibly respond to and understand, as they do, all the fluctuations and interactions of the masculine and feminine in human life.”
Forster, a gay man who offered readers a new perspective on the modern world through the Schlegel sisters in Howards End, and Lucy Honeychurch in A Room With A View, seems the epitome of Carpenter’s vision. Like many gay men and women of the time, he sought Carpenter’s advice and friendship. But it was the two men together – and Merrill’s electric touch – that did the trick.
“[Carpenter] and his comrade George Merrill combined to make a profound impression on me and to touch a creative spring,” Forster wrote 47 years after his visit to Millthorpe. “George Merrill also touched my backside—gently and just above the buttocks. I believe he touched most people’s.”
For Forster, that touch was transformative. “I still remember it,” he wrote, “as I remember the position of a long vanished tooth . . . It seemed to go straight through the small of my back into my ideas, without involving my thoughts. If it really did this, it would have acted in strict accordance with Carpenter’s yogified mysticism, and would prove at that precise moment that I had conceived.”
What Forster conceived was the story of a young Englishman who suffers a frustrating Platonic affair with a fellow student at Cambridge before finding happiness in the arms of a gamekeeper of lower class but equal courage. Building on the rough trajectory of Carpenter’s own experience, Forster began the novel within days of their meeting. Completed in 1914 and revised over the following decades, it was published posthumously in 1971.
It’s interesting to return to Maurice, and to the lives of Carpenter and Merrill, in the months following the Supreme Court ruling on DOMA. Carpenter’s writing, even coded to elude censorship and prosecution, is bold and romantic. He writes with easy confidence about the love of comrades, echoing his hero Walt Whitman. More important, perhaps, the Carpenter-Merrill partnership is a model that spanned the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and survived the trials of World War One.
In an unpublished biographical sketch, Carpenter wrote, “[Housekeeping] can only be really well managed when it is treated as an Art. George fortunately had the gift of expression in this direction, and (without knowing it) made his housekeeping, from the first, an artistic pleasure and a satisfaction to himself. He soon picked up the necessary wrinkles with regard to cooking, baking, washing and all the little minutiae of household life; and in a wonderfully short time I found myself living in a state of comfort, both physical and mental, such as the years preceding had neither offered nor suggested.”
Forster ends Maurice with the promise of similar contentment for his protagonist, though a punishing conclusion might have made publication possible within his lifetime. He wrote, “A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows.”
Reading the novel during my closeted college years, I found great comfort in that happy ending. Even today, I return to the book regularly, just as I return to C. S. Lewis’s Narnia or Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three. This summer my return to Maurice prompted a quick Google search for images of the men who inspired it, which led, in turn, to a mild obsession and the reading of Carpenter’s autobiography My Days and Dreams.
I can only hope that Maurice and his gamekeeper found something akin to the reality of Millthorpe. Carpenter and Merrill delight in the ancient value of hospitality, opening their cottage door to all. They organize a club for young men and women in a nearby barn, where they produce amateur theatricals. They live off the land for months or years at a time, then hightail it for long holidays in the warmth of Italy and Spain.
I carry these men with me now, as I do friends and family who have died but who continue to shape my life. Given the choice, and a metaphysical miracle, it’s Merrill that I’d like most to meet. Forster and Carpenter can sit by the fire and talk about Socialism and Cambridge and Lytton Strachey’s beard. George and I will be out among the fireflies, then sneak down the road to the Royal Oak for a pint.
Norman Allen is a award-winning playwright whose work has been commissioned and produced by the Kennedy Center, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and the Karlin Music Theatre in Prague, among others. His plays have been produced across the United States, South Africa and Europe, with upcoming productions in Seoul and Tokyo. His essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Houston Chronicle, Smithsonian magazine, and on WAMU-FM (NPR).