By: E.M. Forster
The Schlegels are intellectuals, devotees of art and literature. The Wilcoxes are practical and materialistic, leading lives of “telegrams and anger.” When the elder Mrs. Wilcox dies and her family discovers she has left their country home—Howards End—to one of the Schlegel sisters, a crisis between the two families is precipitated that takes years to resolve. Howards End is a symbolic exploration of the social, economic, and intellectual forces at work in England in the years preceding World War I, a time when vast social changes were occurring. In the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes, Forster perfectly embodies the competing idealism and materialism of the upper classes, while the conflict over the ownership of Howards End represents the struggle for possession of the country’s future. As critic Lionel Trilling once noted, the novel asks, “Who shall inherit England?” Forster refuses to take sides in this conflict. Instead he poses one of the book’s central questions: In a changing modern society, what should be the relation between the inner and outer life, between the world of the intellect and the world of business? Can they ever, as Forster urges, “only connect”?
This is the fourth E.M. Forster book that I’ve read. I was interested to read this because it is such a well-known work by Forster and knowing that there is an adaptation floating around out there sort of piqued by interest. Contains some spoilers ahead!
What I think is the most amazing part of this novel is how much it reflected the Edwardian period in which it was written in. Compared to reading books set in the Regency or Victorian periods, you get a sense from reading Howards End that every aspect of life is changing for everyone in every social level of society. The boundaries between the rich, the middle and the lower classes are becoming more and more fluid. Modern innovations are entering the spectrum and along with it, new ideas and new behavioural norms. The Schlegels are well-educated, cultured and although they start off unwedded at the beginning of the novel, they are not pressed to get married. They are also able to make decisions and express opinions with reprimands from anyone around them, a sign also that opinions towards women and what they can and cannot do are changing. The economic and class strife–while very universal and can be applicable to today’s environment–at times escape me in the course of the plot, but the tensions very much colour out the opinions of the various individuals that populate this novel.
The cast of characters involved in the novel are all unique and it’s interesting to see how their personalities and class status affect their behaviour and, as mentioned, their opinions of each other. The Schlegels are very much at the heart of the story, mediating between the Wilcoxes (the rich) and the Basts (the working class). Margaret and Helen’s relationship and personality contrast reminds me very much of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, between Elinor’s sense to Marianne’s sensibilities. Margaret is very much the proper sister, worried about what must be done and what was expected moreso than her younger sister Helen, who usually acts and remarks without thinking things through. While Margaret grows closer to the Wilcoxes, Helen becomes sympathetic towards the plight of the Basts. It is through their relationships with these families and their social situations where all the drama comes in. These relationships also affect the relationship between the two sisters, which I thought was the most interesting out of all the relationships presented in the book. Other characters who came in and out of the novel were interesting to varying degrees, but not to the same engagement as Margaret and Helen.
The concepts and issues that the novel touches on are interesting, from social status to the need to connect with human emotions and sympathies to the nationalism that was prevalent at this time. However, I felt that Forster was just cramming way too many themes into the novel that I never quite warmed up to the characters as I’ve done with his other novels. There were also far too many moments in the novel that, while they reflected the way social visits were conducted back then or the way people socialised with each other, just failed to grab my attention in relation to the overarching storyline. The narrative sometimes went off on tangents where Forster would muse on some aspect of human life and experience or another; while this too was interesting, they tended to go on for longer than they ought to before drawing back to the story.
Overall, the concepts introduced in the novel were interesting and I can see why it is considered a classic. As a personal reading experience, the novel did not quite grab me as I thought it would. I reckon it will take another read for me to fully understand all of the nuances in the novel. Nonetheless I would recommend this novel as the themes it discusses are universal.