Howards End by E.M. Forster – Places, Rat Races, & Romantic faces

[Don’t even question that title. I don’t even know… Also E.M. stands for Edward Morgan!]

This is the second book authored by Forster that I have read, and for the second time the beauty of his prose strikes me hard. Forster’s writing isn’t florid or exceptionally complex – in fact, it is quite simple but nevertheless very beautiful.

The surface content of Howards End is equally simple: it traces the interwoven lives of Margaret and Helen Schlegel, the Wilcox family, and the Basts. Yet the text offers much more than that. Let me discuss some of the themes that stood out to me.

Class Relations

This is the most obvious of the themes. The Wicoxes are quite wealthy, and Mr Wilcox is a business man. So they’ve done quite well from a socioeconomic perspective. However, the Wilcoxes with the exception of Mrs Wilcox lack cultural value. The Schlegels are also rather rich but their wealth is inherited from their father (as they are women during early nineteenth century). The sisters have received a classical education, are fond of Beethoven and reading, support women’s suffrage, dabble in socialism, and promote charitable causes. Even within the upper echelon, the Wilcoxes and the Schelgels show two different kinds of rich people.

Mr. Bast is on the opposite end of the spectrum but yearning to reach out to the intellectual pleasures that the Schlegels can so easily access. We first meet him during a Beethoven concert, sitting beside Margaret. Leonard Bast tries to read big names and broaden his mind, but he finds that mundane life interferes with his aspirations, and it needs to be faced. (In fact, a common observation in the book is how the mundane spoils the “unseen”.) He is a romantic at heart who understands the simple pleasure of walking all night, and the Schlegels recognize his romantic spirit, not his efforts to become “cultured”. This is one distinction between Wilcox who has money but none of that special connection to the invisible, and Bast who has no money but clings to his romanticism. (The lives of Mr Wilcox and Mrs Bast also intersect in an interesting way that has to do with class and gender.)

Mr. Wilcox pretty much represents capitalism in his habits and his attitude towards those beneath him: “You know nothing about him. He probably has his own joys and interests – wife, children, snug little home. That’s where we practical fellows … are more tolerant than you intellectuals. We live and let live, and assume that things are jogging on fairly well elsewhere, and that the ordinary plain man may be trusted to look after his own affairs.” (142) When in reality, the Basts are about to be evicted from their tiny dirty flat in some basement, and Mr Bast is experiencing intense internal struggle.

Romanticism/Humanism vs Materialism (Novel of Ideas)

Howards End may be classified as a novel of ideas since different philosophies are explored through specific characters. The Schlegels become a stand in for Romanticism, humanism, even socialism and feminism (at times) while the Wilcoxes remain fixed in their representation of materialism, practicality, capitalism, imperialism etc. The crux of this philosophic muddle seems to be the idea that wherever one’s allegiance lies s/he cannot survive without a personal connection with other human beings, places, things, ideas.

“…either some very dear person or some very dear place seems necessary to relieve life’s daily grey, and to show that it is grey. If possible, one should have both.” ~ Margaret (142)

“…personal relations are the most important thing for ever and ever, and not this outer life of telegrams and anger.” ~ Helen (171)

“You and I have built up something real, because it is purely spiritual.” ~ Helen to Margaret (192)

Expansion vs Home

This is a personal foetus of a thesis that I have been working on. Forster’s fixation on places is very prominent in the novel. There are also plenty of references to expansion, colonialism/imperialism.

So my idea is that Howards End represents home/homeland, a place that is intimately known. That intimacy makes it special and dear, creates a connection between individual & place (like the one Margaret yearns for).

Here are some interesting quotes from the passage in which Margaret first steps into Howards End:

“She remembered again that ten square miles are not ten times as wonderful as one square mile, that a thousand square miles are not practically the same as heaven. The phantom of bigness, which London encourages, was laid for ever when she paced from the hall at Howards End to its kitchen and heard the rains run this way and that where the watershed of the roof divided them.” (198)

“…she would double her kingdom by opening the door that concealed the stairs.” (198)

“But it was the heart of the house beating, faintly at first, then loudly, martially. It dominated the rain.” (198)

Imperialism and expansionism feature in the novel through Mr Wilcox who works in the West Africa Rubber Company (colonialism!); his son Paul who sets for Nigeria (more colonialism & the “civilizing mission”, “white man’s burden”, etc.); mentions of England vs Germany competition abroad (for Africa, again); Mr Wilcox’s accumulation of property; owning motor cars in which travelling at fast speed & covering a lot of land in a short amount of time erases the paysage. The meaning is lost when there is no connection and places/things are accumulated for the sake of quantity and possession.

Places!

In general, Forster is obsessed with England as a country of people and landscapes, not the geopolitical entity. He even repeatedly refers to London & England as she/her. See here:

“But who can explain Westminster Bridge Road or Liverpool Street in the morning – the city inhaling – or the same thoroughfares in the evening – the city exhaling her exhausted air? We reach in desperation beyond the god, beyond the very stars, the voids of the universe are ransacked to justify the monster, and stamped with a human face. London is religion’s opportunity – not the decorous religion of theologians, but anthropomorphic, crude.” (106)

AND

“England was alive, throbbing through all her estuaries, crying for joy through the mouths of all her gulls, and the north wind, with contrary motion, blew stronger against her rising seas. What did it mean? For what end are her fair complexities, her changes of soil, her sinuous coast? Does she belong to those who have moulded her and made her feared by other lands, or to those who have added nothing to her power, but have somehow seen her, seen the whole island at once, lying as a jewel in a silver sea, sailing as a ship of souls, with all the brave world’s fleet accompanying her towards eternity?” (172)

HOW BEAUTIFUL! A “ship of souls”!

Bonus: awesome gender stuff.

This is just one selection…

“I believe that in the last century men have developed the desire for work, and they must not starve it. It’s a new desire. IT goes with a great deal that’s bad, but in itself it’s good, and I hope that for women, too, ‘not to work’ will soon become as shocking as ‘not to be married’ was a hundred years ago.” (107)

Ba dum-tsss.

In short, this novel was just GREAT!

4h

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