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.



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


A Room With A View (2007 TV)

It will probably take another Merchant Ivory production to best an earlier version.  The 1985 movie A Room With A View has ingrained in my memory certain images of sight and sound that are difficult to replace, like Lucy opening the window and the camera slowly zooms in the beautiful view of Florence, highlighting the Il Duomo. Or the ending shot of the silhouettes of Lucy and George sitting by the same window… To me, A Room With A View is Kiri Te Kanawa singing Puccini’s aria “O mio babbino caro” (O My Beloved Father), achingly depicting the agony of unrequited love.  Further, it is also the humor that underlies the whole story as Forster has intended, as evidenced by the chapter (or scene) titles.

Nevertheless, I came to watch this newest BBC production with an open mind.  I was eager to see how a 21st Century, Andrew Davis rendition would present this E. M. Forster love story.  Every new adaptation of an old classic should offer us a new vision.  With such endeavors Andrew Davis has proven to be relatively successful in the past with his Austen and Dickens adaptations.  Here, I anticipate another window opening out to a fresh and different view.

For this adaptation, Davis writes the screenplay as Lucy’s flashback.  And, letting his imagination roam, he has Lucy coming back to the same Florentine room in The Bertolini, by herself, as a young widow.  So with this in mind, the overall sepia tone throughout fits well with the context, a memory re-lived, through the eyes of a lonely young woman who has lost her husband in the war.  The colorless overtone might well depict the sombre mood of a very different Lucy.

But there’s the rub. With this new “twist”, Davis has put himself in a difficult position in that, the present might be sombre and sad, but the past is most vibrant and radiant.  He’s got in his hands the difficult task of reconciling the two. What mood should he establish?  The sombre loss of the present or the fantastic journey of self-discovery and the ecstasy of a young heart heeding true love of the past?   umm…alright, let’s just go on with the show…

I have appreciated the fine cinematography and camerawork. The attraction of the Florentine art and architecture as well as Rome’s grandeur are caught with a sense of depth, not just picturesque shots, ironically, thanks to the lack of color.  They are frames from Lucy’s point of view, a well-protected, English young woman’s first encounter with greatness and history outside of her familiar, parochial life.

As for the actors, I have mixed feelings.  In the 1985 movie, Helena Bonham-Carter’s fresh persona of Lucy Honeychurch is sensitively matched by Julian Sand’s poised portrayal of George Emerson, an ideal image of young love.  Somehow, I don’t feel the chemistry here between Elaine Cassidy (When Did You Last See Your Father, 2007) and Rafe Spall.  The film is supported by some excellent acting though by veterans like Sophie Thompson (Emma, 1996) as Charlotte Bartlett, Mark Williams (Sense and Sensibility 2008 TV) as Mr. Beebe, Sinead Cusack as Miss Lavish, and Timothy Spall (Enchanted, 2007) as the elder Emerson.  Tim and Rafe Spall dispaly an authentic father son relationship on screen, naturally.

Timothy and Rafe Spall

A weak link I feel is Laurence Fox as Cecil Vyse.  No, I’m not trying to compare him with Daniel Day Lewis’s performance, which is inimitable.  But I truly feel it’s a miscast here.  Fox as a chap who is no good for anything but books, one who is so physically inapt to avoid a game of tennis?  Not very convincing.  What we have in this TV version is more like an eerie and chain-smoking Wickham or Willoughby.  Speaking of which, the smoke screen connecting to his almost every appearance may well be intentional, visually depicting how marred and distorted Cecil is in his view of himself and of others, particularly, Lucy.

Indeed, as the title well conveys, it is the metaphor of seeing that is the key notion throughout the TV adaptation.  In order to impress into our mind, the director has us see lots of scenes by the window. But of course, it’s not so much of looking out but looking in that is crucial here.  The whole story is built on Lucy’s seeing clearly what is in her heart, and that the one who has drawn her out of her own self-deception is the one who can offer her ultimate bliss, and that is George Emerson.  It is not just about Cecil turning down a tennis match, but it is the last straw, the pivotal turning point where Lucy realizes how egotistic Cecil  is. Lucy to him is but an object of art and music, but not as a woman, definitely not as a lover.  Forster describes it most strikingly, “The scales fell from Lucy’s eyes.”  A Biblical allusion no less than an epiphany.

In this case of course, by following her heart, Lucy is making the moral choice of defying the long tradition of the English class system, smashing the inequalities underneath the civility, and unmasking the snobbishness she has been raised to aspire to.  In her new voice, as Cecil has noticed, Lucy has announced a new-found insight.  As an admirer of Jane Austen along with his fellow Bloomsbury writer Virginia Woolf, Forster might have written lines that Elizabeth Bennet could have uttered, lines like:

I won’t be protected.  I will choose for myself what is ladylike and right.  To shield me is an insult. Can’t I be trusted to face the truth but I must get it second-hand through you?


If a girl breaks off her engagement, every one says: ‘Oh, she had someone else in her mind;’ … It’s disgusting, brutal!  As if a girl can’t break it off for the sake of freedom.

Unfortunately, these lines find no place in the film.

Forster is not afraid to let us see a very muddled Lucy, being confronted by her own feelings and passions that are contrary to her up-bringing, loving someone from a lower social status.  The open view of Italy has offered her a wider spectrum to what she is accustomed to seeing. Here lies the muddled complexity of characterization…For often in life, we are walking confusion, unsure of our feelings, insecure about our actions, isn’t such muddledness the very commonality of our being human?

But thanks to her humility, Lucy comes to realize what is in her heart, and who she wants to be.  In her recanting of her engagement to Cecil, she admits to be less educated, not as well-versed in the arts and music as Cecil.  Maybe because of that, she is more flexible to explore and to associate with those allegedly seen as socially lower than herself.  Here lies the paradox, It takes the uneducated eye to find understanding. Cecil is an intellectual, expert in things but not people, his highly educated mind has done nothing for him but left him in a room with no view.

Zadie Smith in her brilliant 2003 Orange Word Lecture entitled “Love, Actually”, discussed the writing of E. M. Forster and Jane Austen. Regarding Lucy’s gaining insight, Smith observed incisively:

It is not by knowing more that Lucy comes to understand, but by knowing considerably less.

As for Davis’ new “twist” at the end … I think that has altered the whole story from a light-hearted piece of social satire and endearing love story to a sombre drama with an awkward ending.  And for the last scene, Lucy going on a picnic with the cab-driver, and their final gesture… I think Davis has gone too far with his gratuitous imagination.  If that is the new vision he is offering us,  I’d rather stick with the old view.

~ ~  Ripples


Photo Source of window with a view: StudentsVille