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Delicious descriptions: EM Forster and downsizing

October 27, 2018

EM Forster, Howards EndMy reading group’s next book is EM Forster’s Howard’s end which I first read at university in 1973. (My lovely Penguin Modern Classics edition cost me all of $1.20.) It’s a delicious read and I’m falling in love with Forster all over again. My full post on it will go up some time next week, after I’ve finished it and book group is over. But, I can’t resist sharing this little section on moving house, because it feeds into all those discussions that have been happening over recent years – in the media and in my personal circles – about downsizing and decluttering.

THE Age of Property holds bitter moments even for a proprietor. When a move is imminent, furniture becomes ridiculous, and Margaret now lay awake at nights wondering where, where on earth they and all their belongings would be deposited in September next. Chairs, tables, pictures, books, that had rumbled down to them through the generations, must rumble forward again like a slide of rubbish to which she longed to give the final push, and send toppling into the sea. But there were all their father’s books — they never read them, but they were their father’s, and must be kept. There was the marble-topped chiffonier — their mother had set store by it, they could not remember why. Round every knob and cushion in the house sentiment gathered, a sentiment that was at times personal, but more often a faint piety to the dead, a prolongation of rites that might have ended at the grave.

It was absurd, if you came to think of it; Helen and Tibby came to think of it: Margaret was too busy with the house-agents. (Ch. 17, opening)

My first reaction was plus ça change. My second was how I love Forster’s language and writing, and how this paragraph (or so) shows exactly why I love the writing – the language, the voice and tone, the gentle satire and social commentary. And my third was that I must share it with you all.

Are any of you Forster fans?

36 Comments leave one →
  1. October 27, 2018 20:09

    Since I retired I have been on a mission to try and reduce ‘clutter’ from the house. It’s frightening how much we’ve acquired over the years, much of it not used for a very long time yet somehow we think we need to keep it ‘just in case’. My husband is a terror for keeping things like telephones in case our current one fails – but since we’re only ten minutes from shops that would equip us with pretty much anything, it seems a ridiculous idea. So yes, this passage resonated well….

    Am I a Forster fan – to some extent yes though I’m not in love with Howard’s End just because of those irritating siblings right at the start. I prefer Passage to India

    • October 27, 2018 20:56

      Lovely to have your response Karen. Thank you. This decluttering/preparation for downsizing is such a challenge isn’t it. I think Mr Gums is a bit like your husband – keeps things in case they’re needed (the practical approach), while I’m more like the characters in this book, keeping things for sentimental (and memory) reasons. That is, I fear (in fact I know) that the object keeps the memories intact.

      As for Forster, interesting. When our group discussed doing Forster this year, I had a preference for A passage to India, but I must say that this re-reading of Howards End has reminded me of what a great writer he is, regardless, I think, of the subject. I rather like those siblings. They are such characters. But, it’s Forster’s writing that really grabs me.

      • October 28, 2018 01:53

        Maybe I should read it again and see if my opinion has changed since its a long long while since I read both books

        • October 28, 2018 08:53

          Maybe, yes. Well, I would rather say absolutely or you must! But tastes are different and with so many books out there you probably want to read I’ve decided to agree with your less prescriptive “maybe”! I’m kind that way!

  2. October 27, 2018 20:55

    I love Foster. Thanks for sharing that quotation. It is both relevant today and so well written. The idea behind keeping “father’s books” is so eloquently presented.

    • October 27, 2018 21:07

      Oh thanks Brian, I’m glad you love Forster too. I read so much of him in my 20s and have been wanting to read him again. I loved, too, his Aspects of the novel.

  3. Lithe lianas permalink
    October 27, 2018 21:54

    Oh yes! Every word of it is true! But I do believe it will be ever thus except for tthose (un)fortunate souls who don’t have a sentimental bone in their bodies. But I don’t know whether they are to be admired or pitied.

    • October 27, 2018 22:11

      Haha, Lithe Lianas, good question I’d like to admire them, but in my heart, really, I pity them! My sentimental bones cause me such angst but I think I’m glad to have them.

  4. October 27, 2018 22:20

    Yes, I like Forster too:)
    I like A Room with a View, and Maurice.

    • October 27, 2018 22:32

      Yes, I liked Maurice too, Lisa. I remember seeing the film of Room with a view, but I am not sure I read it. I was just pondering today whether, although I’d love to reread A passage to India (as I found it so powerful when I read it in high school) I should really read A room with a view.

      Oh, and I really also loved Aspects of the novel. It made a big impression on me, and I often think about the things he said in it.

      • October 27, 2018 22:35

        Yes, we read Aspects at university, and although I believe it’s considered old-fashioned now, it shaped the way I look at literature.
        That film with Helena Bonham Carter (was it?) was just gorgeous!

        • October 27, 2018 22:48

          Like any theory, I think, you need to look at what works for you?

          For me, some of what he says in that book is timeless, and some is more idiosyncratic to him or his times. Post-modern theory, the New Critics, Feminist theory/criticism, etc, all have something to offer but I think it’s limiting to see everything through one prism or perspective. That said, some prisms or perspectives make more sense to me than others.

        • October 27, 2018 23:20

          Yes, I hear what you say. Issues that weren’t in the public discourse then have made a huge impact on literature and it’s richer for it. But as you say, some aspects of Aspects are timeless, and I wonder if whatever it is that students read these days is an engagingly written as his book was.

        • October 28, 2018 08:50

          Good question. Some theory can be so tedious and academic. Here’s a phrase from a film article my little team of volunteer indexers came across last week… “The citationality of the performative form”! It’s hard writing an abstract when you aren’t across the jargon!

        • October 28, 2018 10:28

          Uh…. um… yes!!!

        • October 28, 2018 11:22

          I was hoping for some elucidation from you 😄

  5. October 28, 2018 06:06

    I remember learning about him in high school but don’t remember reading him. Your book club sounds wonderful in what they choose. I just took a car load of things to the tip shop and another one to auction. The main thing I have a hard time decluttering are books! Without them this house would be quite bare!! Dread the thought.🤠🐧

    • October 28, 2018 09:40

      I love my bookclub, as I may have said before, Pam! I agree totally re decluttering books. I still have some university textbooks and actually used one last week for my Jane Austen meeting. It was a history of librarianship and we were discussing subscription libraries. I knew the book would come in handy one day!!

  6. ablay1 permalink
    October 28, 2018 07:32

    Thank you for that lovely passage. I understand the sentiment very well. My father was a hoarder and he’d keep all kinds of things ‘just in case’. When questioned, he’d say, ‘Well, I don’t have to feed them.’ (But with his background I understand why.) I too find it hard to get rid of things, even while knowing how healthy decluttering is.
    I must read ‘Howard’s End’; I think I’ve only read ‘Passage to India’ at school.

    • October 28, 2018 09:45

      Oh then you should Anna, if you can find the time. I did Passage at school, and this one at university, along with his Aspects of the novel. I went on to read others including Maurice. It was published posthumously in 1971 because of its subject matter.

      Some call Howards End his best, and it is a wonderful read.

  7. Jill Sanguinetti permalink
    October 28, 2018 13:12

    Hi all,

    If we want something gentle, how about this suggestion from Whispering Gums?

    • October 28, 2018 13:20

      You mean more gentle to read Jill? If so, yes, a great option for that… Meaty but gently so.

  8. October 28, 2018 21:46

    I suspect you chose that passage because it resonated with your own experience. I theoretically like my decor to be spare, but I don’t let go of stuff either, particularly books. I listened to HE just recently and especially remember that marble topped chiffonier for some reason (and not much else).

    • October 28, 2018 22:34

      I sure did Bill – having had two elderly relations die in the last few years, and my parents downsize, I’ve had a close relationship with lots of stuff in recent times.

      What you say about yourself sounds like a contradiction in terms! But I completely understand it. I sort of aspire to being more spare, but I can’t let go of stuff for many of the reasons Forster describes.

  9. October 29, 2018 10:27

    Ah, the ever present dilemma of clutter. One must deal with one’s parent’s accumulations as well as one’s own, and there never seems to be a good place to put them all. Even getting rid of belongings is helpful to a point. How often have I looked for something I’ve sent off? After coming back from Japan, I am more drawn to the minimal then ever. Their clean lines and empty spaces beckon me. But, then I’d have to get rid of my grandmother’s piano, and my husband’s grandmother’s chifferobe, and those antique chairs my mother saved…I like Forster describes it all, and I look forward to when I can give the slide of rubbish a giant push. Except, there are my mother’s books. And, mine. 😉

    • October 29, 2018 17:03

      I can see we are people of a similar mind, Bellezza. My head loves the minimal but my heart can’t get there. (Furniture and books, and special pieces of china, and …)

  10. October 29, 2018 19:10

    Now I want to reread all my Forster’s again too!!
    De-cluttering is a high rotation family conversation right now as the on-going process of packing up my father-in-laws place continues. B21 & B18 assure us they want nothing of ours (or Pop’s) and will gleefully throw it all out when we’re gone…but I wonder. I always used to cringe when I saw my f-i-l favourite mustard coloured vine entwined pottery set in pride of place on his table, but now that he’s gone, I feel rather sentimental about it…because it was his.

    • October 29, 2018 19:45

      Haha Brona. I know what you mean about the pottery set. I brought some things from my aunt’s that I eoyodnt once have lived but I use them with joy.

      But my son 34 wants nothing to do with old stuff, while our daughter 31 cares about the stories.

      • ian darling permalink
        October 29, 2018 21:28

        I think Forster was a civilized and humane voice that we would be fortunate to have the likes of today. I don’t know if I would see him as a great novelist with both Howards End and Passage To India being in the category of (in my opinion) slightly overrated. But I certainly remember reading Howards End and it is a fascinating Edwardian document!

        • October 29, 2018 23:52

          That’s a good way of describing him, Ian – civilised and humane. On re-reading Howards End now I’m not sure I’d agree that it is over-rated – but see what you think when I write my post (after I’ve finished the book which I hope to do tonight.)

        • ian darling permalink
          October 30, 2018 20:48

          I called Howards End an Edwardian document but on reflection I realise it is a book that has a resonance in our bitter Brexit world. The Wilcoxes today would be seen as not nearly brash enough to be acceptable and as for the Schlegels…. far too cosmopolitan to escape hate and resentment. Leonard Bast might be a Corbynista or, heaven forbid, an ardent English nationalist. Only connect- that is such an important message in our bitterly divided nation.

        • October 31, 2018 08:02

          Thanks for that pertinent reflection lan. Love your analysis re Brexit. We are watching from afar with interest!

  11. October 30, 2018 02:43

    Yes dear eucalypt

    I’m a keen Forster fan

    Especially keen on Howard’s end

    For the obvious reason

    And for a second reason: the book contains forster’s credo- “ only connect” – and my own

    The two words express my deepest drive

    As reader
    As writer
    As human
    As denizen of the cosmos

    Lovely review gumnut baby

    • October 30, 2018 08:00

      Thanks Howard as ever for your inspired comment. Yes, that is a wonderful credo… Says so much, covers so much, as you say.

  12. buriedinprint permalink
    October 30, 2018 09:01

    He was one of my first MustReadEveyrthing authors and I still have a soft spot for Passage to India, because it was my first of his, even though I know the others are more commonly favourites (and I probably would have felt the same). I saw the film of “A Room with a View” when I was a teenager and didn’t properly register that it was based on a novel but, after reading A Passage to India, I clued in, and purchased a set from the Quality Paperback Book Club, which I adored and read and reread. I love the idea of your copy having been such a bargain; I never properly understood exchange rates when I was a child in a commonwealth country, but all my books had Australian prices as options on the cover and they always seemed such big numbers to me! 🙂

    • October 30, 2018 13:19

      Ah, was he Buried. I approve!

      Yes, all our penguins woukd have Commonwealth country prices, as does this one, but Canada’s numbers aren’t better than Australia’s. However, the exchange rate did make it hard to tell.

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