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Alec by William di Canzio Retells Forster’s Classic Gay Novel Maurice From the Gamekeeper’s Point of View

Alec

By William di Canzio (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2021)

Maurice by E.M. Forster is among the greatest gay novels of all time. Set in England about 1912, it tells the story of the young, gay stockbroker Maurice Hall, who meets and falls in love with the servant Alec Scudder while at a country house party. Notably for early gay novels, the story ends happily, with Alec telling Maurice, “Now we shan’t be parted no more, and that’s finished.” Forster completed the manuscript in 1914, but it was only published in 1971, after his death.

In Alec, playwright William di Canzio has written Scudder’s story, from childhood to his meeting Maurice to the trenches of World War I. In retelling the original upstairs–downstairs story from the servant’s point of view, di Canzio has played a card analogous to that of Alice Randall, who famously retold Gone With the Wind from an enslaved African–American’s point of view in The Wind Done Gone. But di Canzio has also gone beyond the original, in that he gives his version of what happened after the two lovers resolved not to “be parted no more.”

In di Canzio’s tale, Alec is born into a working-class family in Wales. Looking at pictures of Greek vases in the public library as a boy, he sees “wrestlers and boxers…boys playing and dancing together—naked and fine. His heart would pound while he gazed; his face would flush…” He has one teenage tryst with a friend, but he also knows that what he is feeling is unforgiveable.

Around age 16, he moves away to enter service as a gamekeeper’s assistant, and subsequently takes a position as an under-gamekeeper at a country house named Penge. It is at Penge that he meets Maurice, who is staying there as a guest of his college friend and former lover, Clive Durham, who owns the house. Alec and Maurice fall in love. (Part II of Alec, which tells of their courtship, tracks the plot of Maurice quite closely.)

Alec and Maurice make plans to live together in the country, but their plans are interrupted by the outbreak of war. They enlist in the Welsh Fusiliers. Alec is deployed to France, while Maurice is sent first to officers’ training school and thence to Turkey. For a while they are able to correspond via a sympathetic friend in London, the Baroness of Thoronet, to whom they both write and who passes on (coded) messages in her own hand so as to escape the censors. But Maurice stops writing, and Alec fears that he is dead. Alec is wounded, goes to England for medical care, then returns to the front. Eventually the armistice comes, on November 11, 1918.

Still fearing that Maurice is dead, Alec decides to go to Marseilles and thence take passage to Argentina, to which his brother and mother have emigrated. Despairing, Alec takes ill and is forced to spend the winter and spring in Cassis recuperating. He writes to the baroness to tell her of his whereabouts. His letter eventually finds the baroness at her house in France—coincidentally near Cassis—where it turns out Maurice is himself staying, recovering from the ordeals of war.

One day, Alec is standing naked on the rocks overlooking the sea, when he sees a man walking toward him, “his lustrous black hair…threaded with gray.” And so they are reunited.

The premise is a clever one, and the book is an enjoyable read. We are treated to entertainment throughout, such as the description of Alec’s visit to a famous brothel in Paris, Le Chabanais, where he watches a “pantomime” involving “two ‘Moroccan’ lads, dressed in the mode of Arabian Nights” and a “strapping fellow, turbaned, with an earring.” These are tempered by more reflective moments, such as Maurice’s war diaries and this description of Alec’s long winter in Cassis:

Since the armistice, Alec had been living, mind and heart, in a cold quiet place… But spring was coming now… Unlike the caressing spring sun in England, this Mediterranean sun reached into the essence of things. Its brilliance, its heat, its unyielding evocation of live penetrated the laters of Alec’s sadness and shattered the ice that had crusted over its source, his grief for Maurice. The spring undammed his sorrow.

But the plot is predictable: Of course the baroness’s fortune-teller sees Maurice’s shade beside Alec, confirming Alec’s fear that Maurice is dead. Of course the nurse who tended to Alec when he was hospitalized during the war turns out to be Maurice’s sister. Of course Maurice survives the war, and the two lovers are reuinted. And the details of their love-making run the gamut from soft-core pornographic (Maurice “touched the head of Alec’s cock and showed him the droplet on his fingertip.”) to just plain corny (on one occasion, after love-making, they have a pillow fight—really? a pillow fight?).

Everyone who enjoyed Maurice will want to give Alec a try. But while the somber dust jacket and Farrar, Straus and Giroux imprint solmenize the book as fiction—or perhaps even a modern classic—to me the book belongs more properly in the romance section.

Art Note

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, Two Shepherds, 1812–1813 (National Gallery of Denmark). Eckersberg (1783–1853) studied with the French neoclassicist Jacques-Louis David in Paris in 1811–1812 and “followed his teacher’s admonition to paint after nature and the antique in order to find truth” (Wikipedia). He was married three times and had several children. He described this painting simply as “Study, two shepherds; the older explaining something to the younger.”

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