Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 19, 2016

Howard’s End, by E.M. Forster

howards-endI suspect that everyone I know has read this book, and if they haven’t, they’ve seen the Merchant Ivory film, but my copy of E.M. Forster’s fourth novel has been sitting on the TBR since I picked it up years ago in an OpShop for $7.00, and it was time to read it at last.

I’ve been an Aussie for decades now, but Forster resurrected my residual Englishness with his description of the panorama from the summit of the Purbeck Hills.

If one wanted to show a foreigner England, perhaps the wisest course would be to take him to the final section of the Purbeck Hills, and stand him on their summit, a few miles to the east of Corfe.  Then system after system of our island would roll together under his feet.  Beneath him is the valley of the Frome, and all the wild lands that come tossing down from Dorchester, black and gold, to mirror their gorse in the expanses of Poole.  The valley of the Stour is beyond, unaccountable stream, dirty at Blandford, pure at Wimbourne – the Stour, sliding out of flat fields, to marry the Avon beneath the tower of Christchurch.  The valley of the Avon – invisible, but far to the north the trained eye may see Clearbury Ring that guards it, and the imagination may leap beyond that onto Salisbury Plain itself, and beyond the plain to all the glorious downs of central England.  Nor is suburbia absent. Bournemouth’s ignoble coast cowers to the right, heralding the pine trees that mean, for all their beauty, red houses, and the Stock Exchange, and extend to the gates of London itself.  So tremendous is the city’s trail! But the cliffs of Freshwater it will never touch, and the island will guard the Island’s purity till the end of time.  Seen from the west, the Wight is beautiful beyond all laws of beauty.  It is as if a fragment of England floated forward to greet the foreigner – chalk of our chalk, turf of our turf, epitome of what will follow. And behind the fragment lie Southampton, hostess to the nations, and Portsmouth, a latent fire, and all around it, with double and treble collisions of tides, swirls the sea.  How many villages appear in this view! How many castles! How many churches, vanquished or triumphant! How many ships, railways, and roads! What incredible variety of men working beneath that lucent sky to what final end! The reason fails, like a wave on the Swanage beach; the imagination swells, spreads and deepens, until it becomes geographic and encircles England. (Beginning of Chapter XIX, p.170)

Ah, the power of words! I don’t feel like ‘the foreigner’ Forster says will be impressed: I feel like Forster’s England is my England still.

BEWARE: SPOILERS (Not big book-ruining ones, but you all know the plot anyway, eh?)

Throughout the novel Margaret Schlegel worries about the flux of life.  She has lived all her life in Wickham Place but the lease can’t be renewed because a developer wants to replace the old houses with flats.  Thoroughly unsettled, she can’t find a new place at all, and she is baffled by the Wilcox family who have several houses but don’t put down roots anywhere.  Mr Wilson is a rich businessman, and the first of his residences the reader encounters is Howards End, too small to be a proper estate once its meadows were sold off, but still a charming if idiosyncratic country house. It is here that Margaret’s sister Helen meets up again with the Wilcox family who they’d met while on holiday in Germany.  And it is here on this visit that Helen indiscreetly kisses Paul Wilcox and causes a flurry with an impetuous engagement and an equally impetuous breaking off.

The Wilcox family then comes to London, to their flat in Ducie Street opposite the Schlegel sisters (who are not really German, though their father was).  Frosty courtesy fades, and Margaret becomes friendly with Mrs Wilcox, a vague and sentimental creature who seems to sense the feelings of others.  But Mrs Wilcox is fading away from some unspecified malady…

The funeral brings Margaret to Howards End, and she falls in love with the place.  She has a very comfortable independent income (as do Helen and her brother Theobald, known as Tibby).  So she has no need of the property that Mrs Wilcox on a whim leaves to Margaret.  But the note – unsigned, undated and written in pencil – is deemed invalid and Margaret is never told of it.  Still, Charles Wilcox nurtures a sense of outrage.  The catalyst for his hostility is Paul and Helen’s silly ‘engagement’ but his mother’s gesture exacerbates his anger because he has a growing family and fears he will never be as rich as his father is.  He doesn’t want any of his inheritance squandered on outsiders.

By the time Evie Wilcox marries, Margaret has accepted Mr Wilcox’s prosaic proposal, and she goes down to his estate at Oniton in Shropshire on the Welsh border.  She loves this place too, but Henry had bought it only to please Evie after her mother died.  But now Evie is to have a home of her own, it’s no longer needed.  It was never practical – too far from London, and the shooting is no good for weekend house parties.  And besides, it’s damp, which makes it fit only for a boys’ preparatory school.  (Forster loves his little jokes).  Margaret as fiancée plays hostess at Oniton only once – to disastrous events, which confirm their intention to build something splendid in Sussex.

The tenant at Howard’s End having broken his lease, the house becomes a temporary storage place for Schlegel family possessions – furniture, paintings and an impressive collection of valuable books. But Margaret has to go down there to sort out a problem – old Mrs Avery has taken it upon herself to unpack everything so it must all be packed up again and put into proper storage in London.  It seems that Mrs Avery is a little fey: she has turned Howards End into the home Margaret yearns for, and that Ruth Wilcox had wanted her to have.   And as indeed , it turns out to be…

But by such a strange, melodramatic set of circumstances!  Only Forster could have pulled it off without making a penny dreadful out of it.  Instead he paints a profound picture of class consciousness and hypocrisy.  The worlds of Edwardian culture and materialistic commerce collide; the sisters debate liberalism and imperialism; Margaret mourns the pace of change and Mr Wilcox is sour about universal suffrage:

‘I hate this continual flux of London. It is an epitome of us at our worst – eternal formlessness; all the qualities, good, bad and indifferent, streaming away – streaming, streaming forever. That’s why I dread it so. I mistrust rivers, even in scenery.  Now, the sea – ‘

‘High tide, yes.’

‘Hoy toide’ – from the promenading youths.

‘And these are the men to whom we give the vote,’ observed Mr Wilcox, omitting to add that they were also the men to whom he gave work as clerks – work that scarcely encouraged them to grow into other men. (p.184-5)

It is in this novel that Forster uses the term ‘only connect’ which is forever connected with his name.  Margaret, troubled by her husband’s soul and lack of feeling for others, hopes to help him:

It did not seem so difficult.  She need trouble him with no gift of her own.  She would only point out the salvation that was latent in his own soul, and in the soul of every man.  Only connect!  That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest. Live in fragments no longer.  Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die. (p.188).

So often spousal ambitions to change the other fail!  Mr W wreaks his changes upon Margaret and she doesn’t mind, (though the more Bolshie Helen resents it).  Does Margaret succeed in changing Henry?  Readers may well have different opinions about that…

Howard’s End is a great book, and it deserves its place in 1001 Books You Should Read Before You Die.

Author: E.M. Forster
Title: Howards End
Publisher: Penguin, 1989, first published in 1910.
ISBN: 9780140111606
Source: Personal library, purchased in an OpShop for $7

Available from Fishpond: Howards End.  (Mine is the Penguin edition edited by Oliver Stallybrass, which seems to be out of print.  The link leads to the Penguin edition with an introduction by David Lodge, but there are dozens of editions available.)

 


Responses

  1. Enjoyed your review, but I’ve not read the book nor seen the movie. I think there’s a lot of the 1,000 books I’m not going to read.

    • LOL me too, I don’t think I’m going to live long enough even if I read nothing else but the listed books…

  2. I haven’t read it, tho I have read On Beauty… and loved it.

    • That’s the one by Zadie Smith that was an ‘homage’ to Howard’s End, isn’t it?

  3. ‘Only connect’! Goodness, I haven’t heard that phrase since my mother died – she was forever quoting it at me. To my shame, I have never read ‘Howard’s End’, but your intriguing review has inspired me. Thanks, Lisa!

    • Nice the way our mothers bequeath certain words and phrases to us, isn’t it:)

  4. I read this book many, many years ago, but much of the detail had slipped from my mind. Thanks for a lovely reminder – it’s a great book.

    • I must re-read A Passage to India one day, that’s a lovely book too.

  5. I must have read this about 4 times but had never woken up to the info about the geographic setting. oops. However, that extract resonated with me because I’m in Salisbury at the moment and in fact had a lovely walk along the plain, marvelling at the sweep of landscape thats visible. As for the book, I prefer it to the film which portrays the Schlegel sisters and brother as extremely irritating in their earnestness. What did you make of the story line involving Lionel?

    • Oh, envy, the nearest I can get to an English view for the time being is watching Midsomer Murders in the Cotswolds!
      I gather from the introduction that a lot of people weren’t convinced about Helen’s relationship with Leonard. I’ll be careful what I say to avoid major spoilers, but I’ll say it worked fine for me. She was an impulsive girl given to self-sacrificing behaviour, and well, why wouldn’t there be hormones at work too?

      • The impulsiveness would certainly be within her character. The lack of consideration of the impact of that action was rather telling I thought

        • Ah yes, it’s interesting that she’s so aware of the injustice of her wealth in the abstract, but so heedless in real life.

  6. I reread Howard’s End a few weeks ago and loved it more than ever. Lovely to read the review.

    • Thanks, Lynne, I can see why you’d re-read it, it’s one of those books to come back to again and again.

  7. Well, I’ve never read the book *or* seen the film – but I would like to do the former and it is on my shelves, so maybe one day soon….

    • I really was quite surprised when I saw at Goodreads that so many of my friends there had read it, and I hadn’t. The trouble is, there’s just so many great books to read…

  8. I’ve seen and loved the movie but haven’t managed to read the book yet. I read Room with a View a few years ago and found it absolutely wonderful. I will have to be sure to get to this one!

    • I think you’ll love it. Forster is one of the 20th century’s greats IMO.

  9. Great review. I read Howard’s End for the first time in August when I was on holiday in Holland and I loved it. Still not seen the Merchant Ivory film, though I will eventually. A Room With a View is one of my favourite movies of all time, and the book is pretty good too!

    • Thanks, I agree about A Room with a View, I’ve seen it a couple of times and the casting is just perfect.

  10. I had intended to read several books by Forster this year. I don’t know what happened though as I haven’t read any.

    • Ha, join the Good Intentions Club!

  11. I’ve read it twice – enjoyed it both times. First time was with a group (?) but second time was to recall for reading Zadie Smith’s “On Beauty,” which was dedicated to Forster and inspired bt Howard’s End. Never saw the movie – thanks for the memories, Lisa.

    • Hi Becky, One of the things I like about the litblog network is that we get to revisit books we read a long time again when we read the reviews of our friends reading them for the first time:)


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