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


The Merchant Ivory Dialogues

Re-watching The White Countess (2005) has prompted me to savor other Merchant Ivory films .  I love their sumptuous period set design, stunning cinematography and exceptional acting.  Some of them have garnered Oscar accolades, and since become classics, creating a genre of their own.

Long before Bollywood and Slumdog Millionaire, there was Ismail Merchant, born in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India, in 1936.  He later went to New York to further his education, and started making movies in 1960.  On his way to the Cannes Film Festival in 1961 representing the U.S. with his nominated short, he met American director James Ivory.  The two formed a production company that same year, and the rest is history.

Before producer Ismail Merchant passed away in 2005, the Merchant Ivory Productions had created timeless masterpieces, most notably, adaptations from the work of E. M. Forster, Henry James, and Kazuo Ishiguro.  Together with German/Polish screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, they have turned literary satires and portrayal of class-conscious Edwardian and Victorian English society into accessible popular movies, interpreting the humor and wit with a mark of their own.  Ironically, none of the three are English.  Maybe it does take an outsider to see clearly.   A short list of their impressive productions includes  A Room With A View (1985),  Howards End (1992),  The Remains of the Day (1993),  and The Golden Bowl (2000).



But here in this post, I must present to you The Merchant Ivory Dialogues.  Oh that’s not how it’s titled.  But Arti just named it so.  In the 2005 Criterion Merchant Ivory Collection DVD of Howards End (1992, 9 Oscar nominations, 3 wins) I found in the Special Features this amusing interview with producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory.  The conversation between the two are so whimsical that they could almost form a comedic duo.




Here are some excerpts:

On the idea of creating Howards End the movie:

 M: Howards End started with Ruth (screenwriter) telling me and I think gave Jim the novel to read.                                     

I: Well hold on. I’d read it.

M:    Oh, You’ve read it.  I see.

I: I’d read it in fact twice.   Ruth always sort of not exactly dangled the book in front of us after A Room with a View and Maurice.  But she saw it  as a really ambitious, and to her would be most, most rewarding project for us and for her.

M: Anyway, it was slow going for me.




On Jim Ivory’s favorite scene

I: For me … from the first time, if I remember anything about it, except this scene where Margaret jumps out of the car when they run over a cat.  Charles Wilcox doesn’t want to go back and a little girl runs into the road and starts crying and Margaret leaps out of the car…

M: We had to go to this incredible preparation, real cat and the artificial cat and the dead cat…

 I: There’s no real cat.

M: And so I said no I don’t want to do it, you know.  But he insisted because it was his favorite scene, and it is not in the film.  So you should listen to the producer first.

 I: That’s all I can really remember about the book the first time I read it was that scene,  which I thought is incredibly dramatic…

M: That’s your favorite scene which is not in the film.

I: Which we shot and cut out of the film. Anyway…




On Forster the Social Critic:

M: Howards End is about the class system, and what Forster said about the inheritance of England. This beautiful house, a metaphor for England,  will be inherited by the lower class. That is what happens here. This beautiful house is inherited by the clerk’s illegitimate son. Well anyway, this is an interpretation of mine.

I: I don’t think Forster had all that great love for the working classes …

M: Not love for the working class but…

I (voice covering M): He had an ideal, which was, people should be able to mingle from whatever their background, whatever their class, they all ought to be able to in a civilized and happy world. And in the good England everyone ought to be able to mix together if only the different kinds and types of people could make a connection. Then it would be for the betterment of all.




On American Funding (or the lack of)

M: Howards End was an ambitious film at that time, eight million dollars, the budget. We could not get eight million dollars from anybody, you know, it’s just not possible because Americans never saw the possibility of this film being successful as they never see anything of consequence or civilized film to be successful. They have blinkers on their eyes, they never see anything beyond, you know, the form …

I (moving about in his seat, almost rolling his eyes): All Americans?

M: All Americans

I (raises his eyebrows just enough to show his disagreement):   All Americans.

M: All American film companies… with the exception… there are some sensible people like Sony Classics, they were at that time with Orion pictures….they were very excited but they only gave us a very small sum of money…of course, their enthusiasm and support were greatly appreciated but we had to raise 85% of the money outside…





On Getting Vanessa Redgrave on Board

I: And then there was the casting of Vanessa Redgrave, who all along, from the very beginning I had wanted in that part. I thought she was the actress to play the first Mrs. Wilcox. And we kept sending her scripts, and this is the way it’s always is with Vanessa… You’re not sure she’s got the script, you’re not quite sure she’s read it, whether she likes it, whether she’ll do it…

M: I’ll tell you the story. Jim’s heart was set on Vanessa, and so was mine. So we sent this script and then we went to tea at Waldorf  Hotel. And so we were sitting there and she said she had four, five months all planned… and the money you offer is not enough. So I said what would you like.  She said if you could double that amount, I would do it. So I said ok, that’s it, you said it, now it’s double your salary. She couldn’t believe it was instantly, spontaneously done, because knowing that we had a small budget and we had to struggle for every penny. This was like giving whatever you want.

I: A very bad precedent.

M: Sorry?

I: A very bad precedent.

M: No it’s not a bad precedent at all. And for her I would do anything, you know. If she said get me the moon, I would get the moon for her. And it’s not possible for people to get the moon, but I would do it.



Ah… the creative process, the self and the collaboration, the art and the business, the part and the whole… just fascinating.


Photos:  James Ivory, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and Ismail Merchant received BAFTA Fellowship Award (2002);  Emma Thompson and Vanessa Redgrave in Howards End,