Howards End by E. M. Forster

Howards End requires slow reading. That’s how I savor every page, dig out every gem and delve into every contentious issue it raises. It is a book exploring dichotomies: Rich and poor, male and female, town and country, art and business, life and death.  After reading several contemporary novels, where the everyday vernacular is part of the text, it is immensely gratifying to immerse in the literary and poetic narratives, deep and yet highly amusing story of E. M. Forster’s masterpiece.

Howards End is a cozy country home, pristine and idyllic. Its owner, Ruth Wilcox, like her property, is untainted and well set in traditions. Her husband Henry Wilcox is a stark contrast. He is the new rich, entrepreneurial, business-minded and successful in the London financial circuit. Shortly before her death, Ruth finds a new friend in Margaret Schlegel and is introduced to a different world when Ruth visits her in London. Margaret, her out-spoken sister Helen, and younger brother Tibby who is attending Oxford, represent the new wave of social progressives with a vision of an egalitarian society, and who find their fulfillment in the arts and intellectual pursuits.

Before her passing in a nursing home, Ruth wills that Howards End be left to Margaret Schlegel. This comes as a shock to the rest of the Wilcoxe family, who deliberately disregard the wish. By chance, the Schlegel sisters come across Leonard Bast, an impoverished man who due to some ill advice from Henry Wilcox, has lost his job and livelihood. Herein lies the thread that Forster so skillfully weaves through his characters and storyline, exposing conflicts of the classes, of conscience and ideals.

I’ve seen the Merchant Ivory film adaptation a few times over the years, but this is my first experience with the source material. While I read it with Emma Thompson (Margaret Schlegel), Helena Bonham Carter (Helen Schlegel), Anthony Hopkins (Henry Wilcox), Vanessa Redgrave (Ruth Wilcox), Samuel West (Leonard Bast)… constantly appearing on my mind, they are no hindrances to my enjoyment. Rather, I just have to marvel at how superb their performances had been in light of my reading Forster’s characterization.

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The book transports me to a world different in time and space, but feels ever so close. One hundred years have passed since its publication in 1910, the issues are still relevant, and the characters authentic and real. Like just a few weeks ago, I was writing about the two different art forms of books and films, and how we should treat each one separately to appreciate them. Here’s Margaret addressing this very issue:

What is the good of the arts if they’re interchangeable? What is the good of the ear if it tells you the same as the eye? Helen’s one aim is to translate tunes into the language of painting, and pictures into the language of music…. Oh, it’s all rubbish, radically false. If Monet’s really Debussy, and Debussy’s really Monet, neither gentleman is worth his salt — that’s my opinion.

Thank you Margaret for your comment.

Listening to the sisters arguing about every single issue is most entertaining. Here’s Margaret again:

We have great arguments over it. She says I’m dense; I say she’s sloppy.” (makes me think of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility)

After all, it’s the reflexive self that’s valuable, and the perceptive Schlegel sisters are prone to analyze. Helen is quick to make Leonard Bast feel comfortable when he accepts the invitation to tea at the Schlegel’s:

Cake?” said Helen. “The big cake or the little deadlies: I’m afraid you thought my letter rather odd, but we’ll explain–we aren’t odd, really–nor affected, really. We’re over-expressive: that’s all.

Thank you Helen, for that last line.

For Leonard Bast, the impoverished clerk with richness of soul, the meeting of the sisters is just too much for him… another world that he yearns to belong but knows he will never enter. Forster’s lyrical description just might well expose his ambivalent psyche. Leaving the Schlegel home, Bast steps out onto the street:

London was beginning to illuminate herself against the night. Electric lights sizzled and jagged in the main thoroughfares, gas-lamps in the side streets glimmered a canary gold or green. The sky was a crimson battlefield of spring, but London was not afraid. Her smoke mitigated the splendour, and the clouds down Oxford Street were a delicately painted ceiling, which adorned while it did not distract. She has never known the clear-cut armies of the purer air. Leonard hurried through her tinted wonders, very much part of the picture. His was a grey life, and to brighten it he had ruled off a few corners for romance. The Miss Schlegels–or, to speak more accurately, his interview with them–were to fill such a corner…

And who would have thought the rich and callous but now widowed Henry Wilcox would ask for Margaret’s hand in marriage. Forster’s sensitive rendering again is marvellous as he describes Henry proposing to Margaret:

She had too much intuition to look at him as he struggled for possessions that money cannot buy. He desired comradeship and affection, but he feared them…

But what kind of a marriage will that be? The following conversation could well foreshadow their future together. This takes place when Margaret asks Henry about his initiated friendly talk with her brother Tibby:

What did you talk about? Me, presumably.”

“About Greece too.”

“Greece was a very good card, Henry… Well done.”

“I was telling him I have shares in a currant-farm near Calamata.”

“What a delightful thing to have shares in! Can’t we go there for our honeymoon?”

“What to do?”

“To eat the currants. And isn’t there marvellous scenery?”

“Moderately, but it’s not the kind of place one could possibly go to with a lady.”

“Why not?”

“No hotels.”

“Some ladies do without hotels. Are you aware that Helen and I have walked alone over the Apennines, with our luggage on our backs?”

“I wasn’t aware, and, if I can manage it, you will never do such a thing again.

The undercurrent of power and conflicts… intriguing storytelling.

And finally, I must stop. But not until I’ve quoted this conversation between Helen and Leonard Bast. The finality of life renders all material goods meaningless. Is this cold comfort though for the poor? Even with such a good line as this one uttered by Helen: “Death destroys a man: the idea of Death saves him.”, Forster may just well be toying with us again. Here’s Helen with her exposition on the existential and Bast’s response:

I love Death–not morbidly, but because He explains. He shows me the emptiness of Money. Death and Money are the eternal foes… Men like the Wilcoxes… building up empires… But mention Death to them and they’re offended, because Death’s really Imperial, and He cries out against them for ever.” …

Leonard looked at her wondering… Death, Life, and Materialism were fine words, but would Mr. Wilcox take him on as a clerk?

Oh, the subtle humour…

And the ultimate ironic ending makes this already enjoyable read ever more intriguing… Forster’s version of the meek inheriting the earth?

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples


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Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

11 thoughts on “Howards End by E. M. Forster”

  1. I haven’t read this book, nor watched the movie, and now your review makes me want to pick up both.

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    Damyanti,

    You know, unlike conventional ‘wisdom’, I recommend the movie first and then the book. The movie is an excellent portrayal of its essence… some fine acting too.

    Arti

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  2. I’ve seen the movie (wonderful) but have never read the book. It sounds just as wonderful and although I’ll have the visual of the characters in my head, I’m sure it won’t affect my enjoyment of the novel.

    I’m trying to work some classics back into my reading schedule so the timing of this post could not be better.

    .
    Ti,

    In this case, I feel the movie has helped me to appreciate the book even more, mainly due to the impressive characters and images (e.g. the overhead shot of umbrellas as people leave the Beethoven session showered by the 5th Symphony). Hope you’ll raise this one up a few positions in your TBR piles. 😉

    Arti

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  3. The fabulous thing about this novel is that, although it’s about, as you well put it, the “reflexive self” (“We’re over-expressive: that’s all.” – brilliant!), I love to sell it to people for its plot. I usually describe it as the story of a house that was meant to belong to a certain family and how destiny conspired to bring them together, despite all obstacles. Is that a weird way to see it? 🙂

    I love houses with history and books where houses are almost like a character in their own right.

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    Alex,

    You’re totally right about the plot… the twists and turns leading to the final surprise resulting in the ironic ending. I find it’s particularly gratifying that these classics actually have a story. No doubt the characters are memorable, and the social issues pertinent, but it’s the story that’s the vehicle transporting us, making it such an enjoyable ride.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Arti

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    1. Alex is the first person – besides me – that has ever commented that Howards End seems to be about a house that is meant to belong to a certain family. It was thrilling to discover that Leonard Bast’s child would someday own Howard’s End.

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      Leslie,

      Thanks for your visit and comment. So true, whoever that entitles to Howards End should be one who knows its value and would enjoy establishing a relationship with it. I’m sure Helen Schlegel would teach her (and Leonard Bast’s) son to appreciate the house and its natural environment, as well as instilling in him a love of art, music, and literature.

      Arti

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  4. I’ve seen and loved the movie but have never gotten around to reading the book. I loaded it onto my Kindle a few weeks ago though so when the time and the mood strike I am ready!

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    Stefanie,

    I always wonder whether the effects will be different reading an actual book and reading it on Kindle. Love to know your response.

    Arti

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  5. I had no clue what the phrase “reflexive self” might mean. A brief skim through a variety of sources left me dazed and finally bored – but I’ve never done well reading sociologists. 🙂

    A couple of quotations did catch my attention. One is Margaret’s contention that “If Monet’s really Debussy, and Debussy’s really Monet, neither gentleman is worth his salt …” Film and book, book and film, for sure. And what a wonderful expression of a truth you’ve been describing.
    But do you hear echoes of Keats, and his famous “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” line? I do – and I suspect the conversations between Margaret and Helen might touch on the pulling apart of those two concepts that was taking place at the time the book was written.

    The other phrase I loved was this, said about London: She has never known the clear-cut armies of the purer air. I’ll have to read the book to find out, but I have a suspicion that the distinction between clouds and smoke and the clear-cut armies of the purer air shows up in other contexts, as well.

    Lovely, intriguing review, Arti!

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    Linda,

    There are so many quotable quotes and words of insights and of course some are wrapped in sarcasm. That’s what makes the book highly enjoyable. This is one of the cases where both the book and the movie adaptation are superb and gratifying. Hope you’ll have a chance to enjoy both.

    As for the ‘reflexive self’… well, let it remain a mystery. 😉

    Arti

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  6. You are marvelous! My goodness, you are so good at reviews. I do believe you need a column.

    Yes, the classes, so artistically rendered. I simply adore what Forster did. And I adore what Merchant Ivory did, and I’m with you, his characters are Forster’s. What can be more delightful than Helena Bonham Carter and how she contrasts, but plays, with Emma Thompson’s Margaret? And the reticence of Bast, the grayness of his life, but drawn to the sisters as a moth to light. And Hopkins as Henry, so perfectly chilly!

    And you know my favorite thing about the book is that epigraph: Only connect.

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    Ruth,

    Yes, of course, how can I have missed it: “Only Connect” But then again, it tickles with sarcasm too. Whoever that makes connections to the Schlegels are headed for some very dramatic consequences… for better or worse, temporal or long term. Anyway, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the literary work that only a master storyteller can render… the literary and poetic portrayals of scenes and characters, and the issues he so deftly embeds or brings out to the front and centre. The movie is worthy of the masterpiece too. Thanks so much for your kind words. I’m so glad to find those who have experienced both art forms being so gratified with them!

    Arti

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  7. What an excellent review. I think I have this book in my library, as yet unread, but now it will be on my list. Thanks for coming to my blog and leaving a comment.

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    Vagabonde,

    Yes, do… and the movie too. You’ll enjoy them both.

    A.

    Like

  8. What splendid detail! It dawned on me as I began reading this that for being a lover of all films Merchant Ivory, I’ve never seen this one. I must rent it — but before or after I read the book? The stack is so very tall, yet the quotes you pulled are so rich and full of character. I can see how you would want to spend the time with it. Forster is never “easy” but he is usually worth the investment.

    I think I may have mentioned in your earlier post on books and movies (but not sure!) that Rick is reading Les Miserables, having never seen the film or musical. I have seen the musical multiple times and love it. I suspect when he finally sees it when it comes to our city next year or perhaps in June during tv pledge week, he will find it musically powerful but sorely lacking. He keeps saying, “Do you know about…” and it’s not in the play. Meanwhile, as he’s halfway through, I ask him if this character or that has emerged. Not yet. Yes, I think we will have to look at these from two different perspectives and value each as the art form it is.

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    jeanie,

    I watched the movie a couple of times over the years before reading the book, and enjoy both tremendously. So I’d say, don’t wait, go rent your movie.

    As for Les Mis, you could say that in the book they don’t sing. I’m afraid yes, it’s that view about their being two different art forms, just have to appreciate them in their own right and on their own merits. I’ve enjoyed both the book and the musical, which, I have to say, is one of my favourites.

    Arti

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  9. Really? Howard’s End? I think I own a copy, and it sounds like a perfect summer read. I have to slow myself (my reading) down to enjoy it as you mention. It’s been AGES since I’ve read a book of that length in that manner. Oh, the luxury of it! I’m gonna go look for it now.
    And will also finish up two books in progress at the moment, neither worthy of mention, actually, – sheer entertainment! more later on this…

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    oh,

    It’s not that lengthy actually… yes, it’ll make one nice summer read.

    A.

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  10. How well you bring this back to me! I adored the film. I adore E. M. Forster, and I can’t remember whether or not I’ve read the book. I think I must have done, and yet…. I can’t be sure. Perhaps it’s time for a (re)read? What I love about Forster is the way he creates people who are dreadful, really, unbearable, and then makes us love them.

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    litlove,

    I agree with you about your take on Forster, “the way he creates people who are dreadful, really, unbearable, and then makes us love them.” The movie makes them come alive too with the superb performance of the cast. Yes, this could be a breezy summer read… with the Criterion Collection film as a delightful compendium.

    Arti

    Like

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