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[243] Howards End – E.M. Forster


Life’s very difficult and full of surprises. At all events, I’ve got as far as that. To be humble and kind, to go straight ahead, to love people rather than pity them, to remember the submerged—well, one can’t do all these things at once, worse luck, because they’re so contradictory. It’s then proportion comes in . . . [67]

Howards End is the kind of book that leaves one overwhelmed with its ambitious scope, and that the omnipresence of symbols renders one misgiving as to where to begin interpreting the meanings. The novel begs rumination—sort of looking at it from a distance in order to appreciate how the pedagogy fits in the big picture. One is ushered into a realistic series of episodes that Virginia Woolf criticizes as lacking in cohesion. These elements—early death of a pivotal character, a destroyed will, a sexual scandal, manslaughter—nonetheless contribute to a strong plot. From the beginning Forster is setting up a novel that concerns social wholeness. Through a full-fueled melodrama he poses a deep inquiry into the state of England and its culture. Outwardly, like the plots of so many English novels, Howards End is about the rights of property, but the concern of heirs transpires to a grander scale that asks the question: Who shall inherit England?

She seemed to belong not to the young people and their motor, but to the house, and to the tree that overshadowed it. One knew she worshipped the past, and that the instinctive wisdom the past can alone bestow had descended upon her . . . [20]

The novel opens when Helen Schlegel begins an impetuous affair with Paul Wilcox, a competent colonial administrator who is foolish. That Helen is more seduced by his family’s way life is comic. When Margaret Schlegel (8 years senior) steps in to interfere with this impulsive engagement, she meets Ruth Wilcox, who possesses a fair English good sense and compassion that are in danger of being corrupted and defaced by modern commercialization and materialism by people like her husband, Henry Wilcox, who longs for comradeship but fears affection. The haphazard friendship with Mrs. Wilcox develops into an intense kinship that Ruth bequeaths Howards End to Margaret in her will.

That she would have—that it is a case of undue influence. No, to my mind the question is the—the invalid’s condition at the time she wrote. [89]

Ruth Wilcox is the soul of the novel because she bears the values that align with those of Forster. She serves her purpose even she exits so early on the book. Since the families have had dealings through the affair between Helen and Paul, the bequest of Howards End to Margaret seems a greater betrayal to the Wilcoxes. The real battleground in which the Wilcoxes and Schlegels clash in their conflicting values is Leonard Basts, a lowly clerk who has lost his job because of a casually false advice Henry Wilcox gives.

Here was the core of the question. Henry must be forgiven, and made better by love; nothing else mattered. Mrs. Wilcox, that unquiet yet kindly ghost, must be left to her own wrong. To her everything was in proportion now, and she, too, would pity the man who was blundering up and down their lives. [221]

However Margaret wants to convert Henry, through love and patience, she is not able to bring him out of the fortress, because the man is incapable of emotion—he is realistic and practical. Not only is her marriage to Henry Wilcox just as impulsive as Helen’s affair, Forster seems to use marriage to satirize the sexual lack which has its concomitance and perhaps the result in the deprivation of a developed sense of personality.

The dramatic sequence of events that Virginia Woolf deems incohesive, therefore, calls for an amalgamation of what Forster feels are best in each of the castes—the unsentimental and practical Wilcoxes, the intellectual and intuitive Schlegels, and the downtrodden Basts. Forster envisions a society where all the conflicts and understandings created by division of class will disappear as the different values and ideals will resolve the differences and complement one another. As James Ivory, director of three Forster films, has stated, “the love of humanity also has its own vices and the love for truth its own insensibilities.” The choice of moral course does not settle the quality of morality.

312 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]


23 Responses

  1. I’ve been meaning to read this for years! You’ve crafted a wonderful review, and now I feel even more urgency to read it. I’m wondering if you’ve seen the movie? I’ve not, even though I’ve been tempted, but I didn’t want to ruin the book.

    • I thought this is a wonderful tapestry of life and class structure of England. I haven’t watched the movie because I’ve been waiting until I have read the book. 🙂

  2. Another of Forsters works that I havent read and frankly must in fact if the book buying ban goes through in 2010 for me as a challenge I will be looking at alot of the classics that I own. This one will be being read I can assure you.

    • I’m very glad to hear you’ll be reading the classics and in particular this one. I need to read a classics about every 3 or 4 books I read. They put me back into the perspective of what a novel should be, one that has a strong theme and is asserted to the full throughout the entire book.

  3. Matt, your review makes me want to pull this down from my shelf for a reread – now! Howard’s End is my favorite Forster, with A Room with A View a close second. I still need to read Maurice though.

    • I find Howards Eng more accessible and more complete in bringing the theme home. It’s a book about England. It was not until I have finished it and reflected upon all the different episodes that I realize this is very ingenious.

  4. Your words have inspired me to move this one ahead of the other “classics I will read” list. I have owned a copy for a while but have never taken the plunge. Wonderful review!

  5. Excellent review Matt. I don’t think I will ever read this one but I always enjoy reading your thoughts!

  6. Glad you liked it. And now I am asking myself, do I read it again or watch the film again…hmm choices.

    • Now I’m on to watching the movie. Lately I’ve been on a pattern to dig up the classics that I haven’t had the chance the read and immediately follow up the reading experience with the movie. I watched Maurice last week and was amazed how faithful it is to the book!

  7. Really fantastic review Matthew. You have outdone even yourself. I’m going to read this one immediately!!!!

  8. I read A Room With a View by Forster last year and it didn’t do much for me, but I’ve always heard that this one is his masterpiece, so have been thinking that I should try it. Your review has definitely made it sound like it is something that I would enjoy far more, so I will be sure to look for it in the future.

    • My problem with A Room With a View is that the characters are not likable. I am not intrigued by the story. Whereas Howards End has a full cast of characters that are well developed. Even though I can’t say I like all of them, the book tosses back and forth about the different values across the castes of the class. It’s very clever of Forster to have portrayed England as the caricature presented in the novel.

  9. A very incisive review. You’ve added to my appreciation and understanding of the book.

  10. Such a fine review — thanks for the recommendation

  11. […] reading some of the greatest classics since college, namely, Howards End and Brideshead Revisited, and watching the motion picture of Maurice, I have the craving for movies […]

  12. […] Howards End E.M. Forster Forster envisions a society where all the conflicts and understandings created by division of class will disappear as the different values and ideals will resolve the differences and complement one another. […]

  13. […] meaning to read? Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, Howards End by E.M. Forster, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, and The Woman in White by Wilkie […]

  14. […] Posterity: What Makes a Classic? (11/28/09) Reading Beyond the Words: On Symbolism (4/23/09) [243] Howards End – E.M. Forster (11/13/09) [226] Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier (9/7/09) [195] The Hours – Michael […]

  15. […] A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook – “Howards End is the kind of book that leaves one overwhelmed with its ambitious scope, and that the omnipresence of symbols renders one misgiving as to where to begin interpreting the meanings.” […]

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