E. M. Forster’s Howards End

Howardsend Howards End

E. M. Forster

I read this in a compilation published in 1993 by Gramercy Books, New York, NY.  Also contains:  A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread.  Howards End is approximately 236 pgs.

Originally published in 1910.

Other books I’ve read by Forster:  A Room with a View .  I still need to tackle Forster’s masterpiece, A Passage to India, which is the last Forster I need to read on the Guardian list.

Guardian 1,000 Challenge.  Family and Self Titles.

Forster gives us three families and uses them to illustrate several themes.  The heart of the story revolves around the intellectual and well-off Schlegals.  The Schlegals are comprised of the main character, the steady and clear-sighted Margaret who is the eye of the storm in this book, and her emotional and head-strong sister, Helen.  They have a younger brother, Tibby.  The Schlegals are involved in a variety of warm-hearted and intellectually exciting  pursuits and social circles.  They are also about to lose their London home to a developer and must find a new one.  Surrounded by books, with deep memories of the past both in England and with relatives abroad in Germany, the Schlegals represent the intelligentsia.  Money is plentiful for the Schlegals but they are not really interested in money.  This is a very feminine tribe; brother Tibby is sort of an after-thought.

The second family, the Wilcoxes are up and coming capitalists.  Pater familias Henry Wilcox made his fortune from his investments and business ventures in Africa.  Sons Paul and Charles are following in his footsteps.  His quiet wife, Mrs. Wilcox, is a representative of the older gentry and her family home, Howards End, is the center of key action in the novel.  The Wilcoxes are interested in pursuing money, houses, and cars; they move fast and they represent progress and action.  The Wilcoxes are a masculine, striving group whose feminine members are quietly repressed:  daughter in law Dolly, for example, is depicted as a simpleton and the mysterious Mrs. Wilcox is a cipher and connection to an agricultural past.  Mrs. Wilcox forms an attachment to Margaret Schlegal and her deathbed wish that Margaret inherit Howards End has ramifications that will echo throughout the lives of all the characters.

The last family, Lawrence and Jacky Bast, represent the lower classes.  Lawrence is a clerk in an insurance company and Jacky has an unsavory and questionable past.  They struggle along in a tacky apartment but Lawrence is a quietly striving person who wants more out of life.  Lawrence’s strivings bring him into accidental contact with the Schlegals — and that connection will have catastrophic consequences.  Both Lawrence and Jacky seem lost and disconnected in their world and Forster shorthands poverty for squalor and helplessness.  Jacky, for example, is the slutty “lost” woman who drags down an innocent young man.  Lawrence is weakly gullible and the action he takes based on a thoughtless remark about the stability of his insurance company by Mr. Wilcox —  filtered through the emotionalism of the Schlegals — results in the book’s climax.

Forster weaves the lives of these three disparate families together in a way to illustrate a couple of broad themes:  the loss of the natural life and the encroachment on nature by urban sprawl, second:  the failure of human beings to “connect” and be able to value, help and understand each other in order to realize their true potential and last, the differences between men and women.  It is interesting to see that while women appear to be under the thumbs of their men — Forster actually gives them the upper hand.  For example, Margaret who appears to be a complacent and subservient wife, actually leads all the characters — male and femaile —  towards the book’s resolution.  Even  Jacky, merely by showing up at the right place and time, exerts her own kind of control over imperious Mr. Wilcox.  Finally, the mysterious Mrs. Wilcox, and her doppelganger, Mrs. Avery who insists on making Howards End a living home despite the Wilcox’s vision to close it up lead us to the final realization that nature has the power to heal all wounds and bring us home in the end.  This is the ultimate power of Howards End, as Margaret realizes towards the novel’s conclusion:

She forgot the luggage and the motorcars, and the hurrying men who know so much and connect so little.  She recaptured the sense of space, which is the basis of all earthly beauty, and starting from Howards End, she attempted to realize England….

Realizing England, I believe, was Forster’s shorthand for seeing that all his characters come to grip with a right balance, or connection, between nature and urbanity, and that all of earth’s people are allowed to grow to their full potential.  This “realization” certainly is not achieved in Howards End, but Forster helps us, like Margaret, attempt to reach it.

A great read, which I’m grateful for the Guardian list in pushing me to complete.  What next???

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