EM Forster, Howards End (#BookReview)

EM Forster, Howards EndWhere to start? Like all great classics, EM Forster’s Howards End has so much to think and write about that it’s difficult to know where to focus, not to mention what new angle I could possibly add. Perhaps I’ll just start at the beginning – with its epigraph, “only connect…” That’s a concept that’s sure to get idealists like me in!

First, though – a quick plot summary. Howards End is a place – and it was left, unbeknownst to her, to a young woman named Margaret Schlegel. The novel tells the story of how this came about and what happened after the owner died and Margaret was not told the place was intended for her. But, of course, this is Forster, so the story is not a simple inheritance plot. In fact, almost none of the central plot tensions relate to this little Wilcox family secret. Instead, the novel explores the lives and values of two – well, three, really – families: the business-capitalist-oriented Wilcoxes; the more intellectual, idealistic, arts-and-culture-focused Schlegels; and the poor, down-on-their-luck Leonard Bast and his ex-prostitute wife. You can surely see in this, where the theme of connection might play out.

The novel is described as a “condition-of-England” novel. It is set in the first decade of the twentieth century, the Edwardian period, and England was changing. Money and progress (symbolised by things like the automobile) were replacing more traditional culture and values (symbolised by things like Howards End). It was a time when socialist ideas were being discussed, and of course, it was the time of the women’s suffrage movement. It was a time when society was moving increasingly from a division between the leisured class and the (mostly agricultural) working class to one between those with “their hands on the ropes” in business and industry and the urban workers who had little control over their destiny. (At least farm workers, traditionally, had homes, for example. Not so, the urban poor.)

All this Forster explores through the relationships that develop between the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels – and the poor Basts who get caught in the middle of their complex economic and moral conflicts. This is not to say that the book is all about overt conflict. Our characters are “civilised”. There is a lot of discussion, of presenting ideas and values. But, most are set in their ways and it will, in the end, take more than discussion to shift understanding on.

Only connect …


This is a classic, and has also been adapted to film and television, so I’m not sure how careful I should be, but it’s hard not to say that by half way through the novel Mr Wilcox (father, and widower of Mrs Wilcox who had “left” Howards End to Margaret) proposes to Margaret. Margaret’s more romantic, uncompromising sister Helen is horrified, and when some unfavourable information regarding Mr Wilcox comes out, she deserts the scene while Margaret – doing her best to “connect” in her own way – learns to accommodate this new knowledge.

Even before this crisis, however, Margaret has expressed (to herself) the “only connect” mantra:

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted.

She wants to help Mr (Henry to her, now) Wilcox build within himself “the rainbow bridge” that will unify all the fragments of his soul, “the beast and the monk.” This is where Margaret and Helen differ. Helen has no time for the Mr Wilcoxes of the world, no time for business and industry, or for murky morals, while Margaret, who is “not a barren theorist”, makes the connections. She knows for example that Mr Wilcox had saved Howards End for Mrs Wilcox when it was all but lost, and she knows that their comfortable lives are underpinned by the industry that Helen so despises.

This difference between the siblings reminded of another writer – one whom EM Forster admired greatly – Jane Austen! Soon into the book, I felt there was a bit of Sense and sensibility going on here, a bit of sensible, practical Elinor versus romantic, idealistic, single-minded Marianne. Like Elinor, Margaret has a good heart, and deeply humane values, but she’s not blind to the world and how it works. Like Marianne, Helen sees only one way to live … and must learn something about compromise and moderation.

And so, the resolution, when it comes, sees Mr Wilcox and Helen coming to appreciate each other’s strengths, with Margaret’s more mature understanding prevailing. That said, the ending, while recognising the role of the Wilcoxes in the world, comes down firmly on the side of the importance of “the inner life”. It is only when Margaret finally makes a stand on the values most important to her – when she confronts Henry with his refusal to connect – that the rapprochements can begin.

Where to end?

I started this post by asking “Where to start”, and now I’m wondering “where to end?” Howards End is so rich – I took multiple notes and made many observations as I was reading it. I want to share them all, but that would be impractical (if not downright boring.)

So, I might just share a few things about the pleasure of reading this book. What makes a classic a classic – that is, a book that we keep re-reading – can be many things. Most important is that they have something new to say on each re-read and for each generation, that, in other words, their themes and/or understanding of humanity translate well into other times. This is certainly true of Howards End, given the philosophical and political schisms we are facing now.

But, we are, I think, only prepared to read these older books if their writing is also good – if they tell a good story, if their characters engage us, if their language and style woo us. Again, Howards End satisfies. The involving story of the Wilcoxes, Schlegels and Basts and the evocation of their individual characters get us in. These are why the book has been adapted for screen more than once. But it’s more than the story and characters that made this book such a wonderful read for me.

It’s also that it is so beautifully conceived and written. It starts with Helen’s letters from Howards End in which she describes the place and talks of Mrs Wilcox bringing in the hay, and ends with Helen, back at Howards End, but bringing in some hay herself this time. There is recurring imagery – such as frequent references to “grey” and “greyness” which convey the misery of impoverished lives, the impoverishment (of mind and spirit), and, more generally, the dullness of daily life. Here is Margaret near the end, reflecting on the importance of respecting and tolerating difference:

It is part of the battle against sameness. Differences – eternal differences, planted by God in a single family, so that there may always be colour; sorrow perhaps, but colour in the daily grey.

I also enjoyed EM Forster’s surprising, occasionally intrusive first person voice, and the sly irony that enhances, or complicates, the novel’s commentary. Some deeper analysis would be worth doing, in fact, on the narrative voice.

Howards End was my Reading Group’s classic for the year and while everyone enjoyed the writing, there were some understandable demurs, demurs which are comfortably explained or overlooked for some, but not for others. Aspects of the plot, for example, are improbable – but that’s not new in fiction. And some of the values and attitudes are problematic – particularly regarding the impoverished Basts, who seem more like pawns than real people. But, for me, these were not flaws. They marked the book as being of its time, and perhaps, of a time in Forster’s own life and thinking, but they do not destroy the integrity of the message, nor of Forster’s overall humanity.

Have you read – or re-read – Howard’s End? If so, did it speak to you?

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) posted on this back in 2016.

EM Forster
Howards End
Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1941 (1910 orig. ed.)
ISBN: 140003118

38 thoughts on “EM Forster, Howards End (#BookReview)

      • No I don’t see any flaws. Many books are written as “idea” books and they end up feeling that way. But I always saw the Basts as real. Have you seen the new adaptation? I’m halfway through it and enjoying it very much.

        • Yes, I see it your way Guy. They seemed real enough to me too. Not fully cleaned out because they are minor characters, but comprehensible. Yes, we did see it. It was partly why my reading group wanted to do it this year. It had been a long time since I’d read it, but the adaptation felt good to me (if that makes sense)

  1. I “read” this novel when at Sydney in the latter 1960s. I was making connections myself – from Patrick WHITE’s The Tree of Man – and EM Forster’s Howard’s End. It’s been a favourite ever since. Your analysis was as I recalled it – beautifully outlined – all Willcoxes and Schlegels – though in my mind the BASTS had completely disappeared from view.

      • Hmmm! Broad brush strokes versus finer lines – or perhaps it’s that we understood the Basts as a literary device – not absolutely essential yet placed there to draw other fault lines/make them more apparent? Others might argue they are important – but they simply did not remain in our consciousness for some such reason. Then again I can watch a favourite TV police drama – “Vera” for example (how I love that big sky Northumbrian landscape) just a few years after having seen it – and most of the details only come back to me as I am watching it. Yes, I’ve seen this before – but how does it turn out – who did it – all as vaguely recalled as the Basts.

        • Haha Jim… We do exactly the same with Vera… Remember the set up but not whodunit! I feel so much better knowing it’s not only us.

          As for the Basts, it could be argued that they are there to create the fault lines as you say, and hence it’s the lines we remember, not them.

  2. I agree, this is such a great book that leaves the reader with so much to think about. I think that you hit it on the head with the Jane Austen comparison. This novel really has the feel of a Jane Austen and one could probably write many paragraphs about the similarities.

    The term “always connect” has stayed with me and pops into my head at various time.

  3. Oh yes, I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed “Howard’s End” twice. Once years ago with a group and then again at some point a dozen or so years ago when Zadie Smith’s “On Beauty” came out. It was dedicated to Forster and is obviously inspired by “Howard’s End,” and I read “On Beauty” more than one time, too. I can see a connection to Austen – fwiw.

    Thanks for the memories! And a big YAY for a good reead.

    • Thanks Bekah… Lovely to hear your thoughts too. I haven’t read On beauty partly because I’d heard that it was homage to Forster and I felt I should reread HE first. Now I have, I’d rather like my reading group to follow up with OB.

      Glad you see the Austen connection too.

  4. There is a detailed discussion on the Narrative Voice in Howard’s End on JSTOR – the article written by Kinley E Roby. It can be read for free (but not copied) by registering for JSTOR. Some knowledge of Seymour Chatman’s theories of SLANT and FILTER would also be helpful in following the discourse.

  5. I read Howards End about 10 years ago, so I don’t remember much. It was assigned when I was in grad school and paired with On Beauty by Zadie Smith. I remember more of Smith’s novel because one of her families immigrated from Africa. Have you read Smith’s retelling of Howards End?

      • It is flawed…its a novel! I feel ambivalent about Forster’s novel perhaps because, as Furbank in the Penguin introduction states, the central characters can seem oddly complacent. That Edwardian period is so fascinating and Forster’s book anatomizes it with humour and in a memorable fashion – enough to lift it above being a period piece.

        • Haha Ian “It is flawed … it’s a novel!” I like that.

          “Oddly complacent” That’s an interesting comment. My old Penguin has no introduction which is a shame. I think if I’d had that phrase in my head I would have put it to my reading group. It would be fun to tease that out. I agree with you of course about the humour and memorable fashion. It’s a quiet humour – a bit quieter than Austen’s but it’s there – particularly in characters like the hapless Dolly but also in some of his commentary.

        • Complacent because the Schlegels and Wilcoxes are so confident, in their different ways, of finding a still centre in their lives.

        • Ah, thanks for elaborating on that Ian. I sort of understand that they could be seen that way, though it’s not something that I immediately see as affecting my appreciation of the book. I have found the Robey article that commenter Bodkin recommended – because I think the narrative voice, ie Forster’s attitude to the characters, is not as straightforward as it might seem.

  6. I echo Melanie’s suggestion of Zadie Smith’s novel as a pairing, and would suggest doing so in close proximity of your rereading of the original. When I first tried On Beauty (even though a Zadie Smith admirer), I kept stalling; it wasn’t until the Forster was more freshly in my mind that I really appreciated her artistry in the retelling (entire phrases and passages such beautiful echoes). This is not a Forster I have spent as much time with as some, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading your response to it!

    • Oh Rose! This made me laugh. They had good hearts, I thought, but Helen had no common sense to go with it. Margaret though was more measured don’t you think? And Tibby was way too self-centred to do good. I think that Forster wants us to think about how to be more humane but doesn’t necessarily promote theirs at the best way. But, he does, I think, approve their heart.

      • I’m a big fan of common sense, so Helen was my least-favourite Schlegel. I hated how she interfered in other people’s lives then blithely wandered off again once the damage was done. Tibby was a non-event, so Margaret was, of course, my favourite. E. M. Forster never wrote characters who I actually like, although I’ve got a few more of his books to read, so there may eventually be one I approve of… Are you sure he didn’t write Howard’s End as a warning against interfering?

        • Haha, Rose – no, I’m not sure. You could be right!

          Seriously though, “liking” characters is such a tricky concept. I don’t really think very much about whether I would like them as a person, but whether I “like” how the writer has written them. In other words, is the character interesting is more important to me than would I like the character (if they were a real person.) I loved most of the characters in Howards End because they are so vibrantly real. Even silly Dolly! And Helen. She had such a big heart – she didn’t know how to channel it. I mean, just think about how much money she offered to Leonard – Tibby couldn’t believe her generosity. As a person though she’d be exhausting. I’d only like to see her in small does.

        • I think I’m an unsophisticated critic because I want to relate to characters. I judge them by my values and approve of them or not accordingly.
          Yes, these characters were real to me, or I wouldn’t have felt so strongly about them. I believed everything, even, as you say, silly Dolly.

        • I completely understand wanting to relate to characters … I most love characters of whom I approve or whom I admire. But I guess the difference is that I don’t tend to dislike a book if it doesn’t have any characters like that because I think I read to expand my understanding of the world? If I reject characters I don’t approve of, I would feel that I’m not developing my understanding or empathy. Does that make sense? Anyhow, as I said, I think Helen Schlegel has some admirable qualities – she’s like those people of whom we might say “her heart was in the right place but she didn’t go about it the right way.”

        • I hope I’m not rejecting books because I wouldn’t approve of or want to know the characters in real life, because I love being able to experience different cultures, times and places, and to see through other people’s eyes with their values and personalities, while having an adventure or romance, or committing or solving a crime. I admit that I am judgemental about the behaviour of plenty of characters. I like to think my mind and understanding and empathy is growing from reading fiction, but something about Helen Schlegel rubs me the wrong way! You’re in the majority view here, as others I have spoken with say the same as you, that Helen’s heart was in the right place. Regardless of my dislike for Helen (and most of the other character’s in Howard’s End), my benchmark for good fiction is that it is memorable and this book is one that has stayed in my mind.

        • Memorable isn’t quite what I mean either, I’m having a hard time articulating this. Something that makes me think, or feel something, be it the characters or the plot, or the beauty of the writing. Howard’s End did that.

        • It is hard to articulate what you feel isn’t it. I’ve been in online bookgroups and we often found it hard to articulate what we really meant. I think I know what you mean!

  7. I just finished reading Howards End – for the first time, on your recommendation! Thoroughly enjoyed it, the leisurely pace, the lovely language and exploration of ideas and emotions. Thank you!

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