Where 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 …
A BIT OF A SPOILER
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.
Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1941 (1910 orig. ed.)