By Ris Schortinghuis
Imagine writing a book about the type of love you wish to have in your life. Imagine writing a book that has the happy ending that no one is willing to let you have – a book that is infused with love and joy, but also complex human characters who make mistakes and try to exist in an unjust world. Now, imagine putting this book, and part of yourself with it, away in a drawer, because the government is literally imprisoning people who love like you do, only to see that government stop imprisoning those same people 60 years later when you have just turned 88. You are tired. You have been hiding all your life, disclosing your self only to a few who know what it is to be Other, and you do not want to face the hullabaloo of all the critics poring over your work with new-found gems of information – new keys to unlocking your work. You let it be and, a year after you pass, a friend publishes your story. This is the story of the novel Maurice by E.M. Forster, a gay writer who did not live to see his imagined happy ending be accepted by a wider reading public.
To me, this is a sad story. How I wish, I wish, I could hug him and march for him and go all militant suffragette on the government who denied him that happy ending. I knew about Forster’s story before reading Sarah Winman’s new novel Still Life, published by 4th Estate earlier this year, and I cannot express enough how healing this story in Winman’s rendering proves to be. Winman’s fiction has been called “healing” in the past; the term even sports the front cover of A Year of Marvellous Ways through a blurb by The Times: “Magical and healing.” That story centres the friendship between an older woman and a young soldier, similarly to Still Life.
Though E.M. Forster is a minor character in Still Life, thematically his presence is major. Keep him in mind as we go through the story. Winman’s novel centres around two British subjects involved in the Second World War in different ways, who briefly meet in war-torn Italy in 1944 and keep circling each other for decades to come. They are Ulysses Temper, a young soldier with a lovely wife at home, and Evelyn Skinner, a sexagenarian art historian who has some form of romantic relationship with the woman with whom she shares a house in Tuscany. Ulysses is the son of a globemaker and aspires to continue with the business when and if he returns from the war. Evelyn is a lover of art and a possible spy. They connect over wine and cigarettes in an abandoned wine cellar where they have come to bring some invaluable art to safety. The next day, a romantic interest between Ulysses and his commander is explored and, after the city of Florence is freed from occupation, Ulysses saves the life of a suicidal man on a roof in the middle of the town. One man is saved, but – tragically – the commander is killed not long after. Then we return to London and find a tight-knit community of creative people who all love and support each other, but have trouble making succesful relationships work. Peg, Ulysses’ wife, is attracted to her husband, but their marriage isn’t considered the real deal, since, as Ulysses tells Evelyn, “Thing is, it’s always been us when the others have left. Always that spark when the lights have gone out. Is that love?” (16). So Peg falls in love with an American man and becomes pregnant with his child before he leaves her for good. The marriage between Peg and Ulysses breaks up, but they stay connected regardless.
Then, unexpectedly, Ulysses inherits the house of the suicidal man he once saved. He, Peg’s child Alys, their older neighbourhood friend Cress, and the parrot from the local pub all travel down to Florence to set up a different type of life. And this is where the warmth and the joy in the novel really start. Winman describes the ease of community when you live with an unjudgmental and open heart; when you radiate love and acceptance, arriving with a make-shift family all willing to support each other through thick and thin, you get a chance to live an absolutely remarkable life in a place far removed from your origins.
In Florence, Evelyn comes closer and closer back into Ulysses’ orbit. They keep having almost-chance-meetings on her regular returns to Florence, where she once found true love and her general love of art and poetry. This creates the idea of Ulysses and Evelyn being magically connected, soul mates of a different kind. When they finally do meet again through Alys, their community and family seem to fall into place.
What we have thus far is an array of queer characters and allies in this novel, finding out who they love and expanding that love beyond the traditional nuclear family. Ulysses raises a child as his own, even though he is not her father, because her mother cannot be a stable presence in their lives. He also nurses and commemorates his love for his commander in private. Cress finds love in old age, is a (grand)father figure to many characters, and keeps finding new ways to experience the world. He learns the power of poetry, even though he “was a facts man, and facts were stone. Poetry, though, was sand. Ever compared to stars in its granular infinity. Ever shifting” (143). There is love of knowledge in his character similar to the love Evelyn has for art and the city of Florence. Alys is a child of this combination of abundant love and love of knowledge, going out into the world almost confidently queer when she discovers who she is attracted to. The level of acceptance and community in these characters’ lives is what probably every queer person wishes for more than anything.
It is not just free love beyond the confines of comphet idealism that this book celebrates: it is also love of art, poetry, and Florentine architecture. During their first meeting, Evelyn and Ulysses discuss what is central to the appreciation of art. Evelyn starts: “But always the value for me will be response. How it moves one … it is important, Ulysses.” When he asks: “More important than people?” Evelyn answers: “They go together. It’s what we’ve always done. Left a mark on a cave, or on a page. Showing who we are, sharing our view of the world, the life we’re made to bear” (25).
This culmination of a love of art and love itself is best described in Evelyn’s mentor Constance Lively, an older lesbian poet she met when she was young and in love:
“[Constance] suffered a heart attack on the Gotthard Railway on what would have been her final trip to Florence. Crossing the Kerstelenbach Viaduct was often cited as taking one’s breath away, and it did exactly that. They found her with a pen in her hand. Final thoughts on love, ultimately: ‘I shall remain astonished.’” (198-199)
And it is astonishment that follows the events that happen later on, when Florence is flooded with mud and water after heavy rainfall. We follow our community (for that is what they have become in the course of this book) saving themselves, their neighbours, and their livelihoods from the destructive forces that overwhelm the city: a flood of water and mud engulfs Florence. Countless houses and businesses are ruined and destroyed, along with the art and priceless books in museums and libraries. This novel shows itself to be a love letter to a city as well, when we find ourselves caring so much about it when tragedy hits. And, apparently, there is a worldwide community that already feels the same way: students and art enthusiasts from around the world gather to help clean up the muck and to help repair Florence’s artistic gems.
The novel ends with the part that is “all about Evelyn” and we finally witness the budding of her once true love and her encounter with E.M. Forster. We have experienced through Winman’s narrative what it means to love openly, what it means to be part of a community, what it means to stand up and come to the rescue of those in need (whether human, animal, or art object). We have experienced loss of love and loved ones, found warmth at the hearths of strangers and instant or life-long friends, and, maybe, if you’re like me, we have been healed by this abundance of support and passion.
And so, here we circle back to E.M. Forster. He is miserable on holiday with his mother in 1901 – 12 years before he wrote Maurice, requesting a ‘room with a view.’ A happy ending may be cheesy to some – even downright uninteresting to others – but still, reading about an openly lesbian woman proclaiming to this young man, after he has expressed his trepidation at not fitting in on his journeys “You’ll do here, Mr Forster, ten times over!” (Winman 421) – I feel that is pure magic. Fiction is casting a healing spell spanning generations, reaching far beyond what history has allowed us to accept.
Ris Schortinghuis is both a student and active worker in the bookish field, continually expanding and sharing their knowledge of queer fiction. They are currently in their second year of the Research Master (RMA) Comparative Literary Studies at Utrecht University. In addition to being a bookseller at two different bookshops (they were longlisted for Bookseller of the Year 2022), they are a Bookstagrammer, translator of novels and shorter pieces into English for a prominent Dutch publishing house, and on the Hebban Bookseller Panel. Instagram: @AllAboutThemBrains
- Forster, E.M. Maurice. London: Penguin Classics, 2005 .
- Winman, Sarah. A Year of Marvellous Ways. London: Tinder Press, 2019 .
- -. Still Life. London: 4th Estate, 2021.