Howards End requires slow reading. That’s how I savor every page, dig out every gem and delve into every contentious issue it raises. It is a book exploring dichotomies: Rich and poor, male and female, town and country, art and business, life and death. After reading several contemporary novels, where the everyday vernacular is part of the text, it is immensely gratifying to immerse in the literary and poetic narratives, deep and yet highly amusing story of E. M. Forster’s masterpiece.
Howards End is a cozy country home, pristine and idyllic. Its owner, Ruth Wilcox, like her property, is untainted and well set in traditions. Her husband Henry Wilcox is a stark contrast. He is the new rich, entrepreneurial, business-minded and successful in the London financial circuit. Shortly before her death, Ruth finds a new friend in Margaret Schlegel and is introduced to a different world when Ruth visits her in London. Margaret, her out-spoken sister Helen, and younger brother Tibby who is attending Oxford, represent the new wave of social progressives with a vision of an egalitarian society, and who find their fulfillment in the arts and intellectual pursuits.
Before her passing in a nursing home, Ruth wills that Howards End be left to Margaret Schlegel. This comes as a shock to the rest of the Wilcoxe family, who deliberately disregard the wish. By chance, the Schlegel sisters come across Leonard Bast, an impoverished man who due to some ill advice from Henry Wilcox, has lost his job and livelihood. Herein lies the thread that Forster so skillfully weaves through his characters and storyline, exposing conflicts of the classes, of conscience and ideals.
I’ve seen the Merchant Ivory film adaptation a few times over the years, but this is my first experience with the source material. While I read it with Emma Thompson (Margaret Schlegel), Helena Bonham Carter (Helen Schlegel), Anthony Hopkins (Henry Wilcox), Vanessa Redgrave (Ruth Wilcox), Samuel West (Leonard Bast)… constantly appearing on my mind, they are no hindrances to my enjoyment. Rather, I just have to marvel at how superb their performances had been in light of my reading Forster’s characterization.
The book transports me to a world different in time and space, but feels ever so close. One hundred years have passed since its publication in 1910, the issues are still relevant, and the characters authentic and real. Like just a few weeks ago, I was writing about the two different art forms of books and films, and how we should treat each one separately to appreciate them. Here’s Margaret addressing this very issue:
What is the good of the arts if they’re interchangeable? What is the good of the ear if it tells you the same as the eye? Helen’s one aim is to translate tunes into the language of painting, and pictures into the language of music…. Oh, it’s all rubbish, radically false. If Monet’s really Debussy, and Debussy’s really Monet, neither gentleman is worth his salt — that’s my opinion.
Thank you Margaret for your comment.
Listening to the sisters arguing about every single issue is most entertaining. Here’s Margaret again:
We have great arguments over it. She says I’m dense; I say she’s sloppy.” (makes me think of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility)
After all, it’s the reflexive self that’s valuable, and the perceptive Schlegel sisters are prone to analyze. Helen is quick to make Leonard Bast feel comfortable when he accepts the invitation to tea at the Schlegel’s:
Cake?” said Helen. “The big cake or the little deadlies: I’m afraid you thought my letter rather odd, but we’ll explain–we aren’t odd, really–nor affected, really. We’re over-expressive: that’s all.
Thank you Helen, for that last line.
For Leonard Bast, the impoverished clerk with richness of soul, the meeting of the sisters is just too much for him… another world that he yearns to belong but knows he will never enter. Forster’s lyrical description just might well expose his ambivalent psyche. Leaving the Schlegel home, Bast steps out onto the street:
London was beginning to illuminate herself against the night. Electric lights sizzled and jagged in the main thoroughfares, gas-lamps in the side streets glimmered a canary gold or green. The sky was a crimson battlefield of spring, but London was not afraid. Her smoke mitigated the splendour, and the clouds down Oxford Street were a delicately painted ceiling, which adorned while it did not distract. She has never known the clear-cut armies of the purer air. Leonard hurried through her tinted wonders, very much part of the picture. His was a grey life, and to brighten it he had ruled off a few corners for romance. The Miss Schlegels–or, to speak more accurately, his interview with them–were to fill such a corner…
And who would have thought the rich and callous but now widowed Henry Wilcox would ask for Margaret’s hand in marriage. Forster’s sensitive rendering again is marvellous as he describes Henry proposing to Margaret:
She had too much intuition to look at him as he struggled for possessions that money cannot buy. He desired comradeship and affection, but he feared them…
But what kind of a marriage will that be? The following conversation could well foreshadow their future together. This takes place when Margaret asks Henry about his initiated friendly talk with her brother Tibby:
What did you talk about? Me, presumably.”
“About Greece too.”
“Greece was a very good card, Henry… Well done.”
“I was telling him I have shares in a currant-farm near Calamata.”
“What a delightful thing to have shares in! Can’t we go there for our honeymoon?”
“What to do?”
“To eat the currants. And isn’t there marvellous scenery?”
“Moderately, but it’s not the kind of place one could possibly go to with a lady.”
“Some ladies do without hotels. Are you aware that Helen and I have walked alone over the Apennines, with our luggage on our backs?”
“I wasn’t aware, and, if I can manage it, you will never do such a thing again.
The undercurrent of power and conflicts… intriguing storytelling.
And finally, I must stop. But not until I’ve quoted this conversation between Helen and Leonard Bast. The finality of life renders all material goods meaningless. Is this cold comfort though for the poor? Even with such a good line as this one uttered by Helen: “Death destroys a man: the idea of Death saves him.”, Forster may just well be toying with us again. Here’s Helen with her exposition on the existential and Bast’s response:
I love Death–not morbidly, but because He explains. He shows me the emptiness of Money. Death and Money are the eternal foes… Men like the Wilcoxes… building up empires… But mention Death to them and they’re offended, because Death’s really Imperial, and He cries out against them for ever.” …
Leonard looked at her wondering… Death, Life, and Materialism were fine words, but would Mr. Wilcox take him on as a clerk?
Oh, the subtle humour…
And the ultimate ironic ending makes this already enjoyable read ever more intriguing… Forster’s version of the meek inheriting the earth?
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples