“Howards End”, a reader’s guide

I saw the Merchant and Ivory movie of Howards End and the excellent recent TV adaptation before I dipped extensively into the novel. I had of course known its main themes. I had on my shelves a couple of Forster biographies and had dipped into them. I knew an older generation of literature graduates for whom “Morgan” was a familiar, fussy almost comical elderly figure in the Cambridge of their day and I may sloppily have picked up a little disdain from them. Because a young person I know was put to read Howards End, I thought I would too. That set me on some highways and byways of allied reading. I have enjoyed all this and offer what follows in case it’s useful.

A “technical” note on this reader’s guide

This is a sort of study guide to E M Forster’s Howards End. Beware. I am not a teacher or academic. I am not the sort of Bossy Liberal most teachers and academics are.

This guide says, here are some pointers about what to look out for when you read the book, pencil in hand (or taking notes in a Kindle version).

Quotable material
You may do very well with P N Furbank’s E M Forster: A Life, which shows how Forster’s own back-story and his intellectual milieu are evident in his writing. There are two admirable essays readily available for the student of Howards End. Oliver Stallybrass’s authoritative 1973 Introduction (I think from an edition of that date) turns up in the Penguin 1992 Merchant Ivory movie tie-in edition featuring Helen Bonham-Carter and Leonard Bast on the cover. David Lodge’s longer Introduction to the 2000 Penguin Classic edition (featuring a tinted dark-haired young woman alone on the cover) is a masterly run-round of many of the themes discussed here, with invaluable sources quoted. (David Lodge makes the classic mistake about Mrs Thatcher’s “There’s no such thing as society” remark: but Forster himself would have fallen into that trap as well, probably.)

All the above are cheap online or in secondhand bookshops.

About the book

Howards End is a story about liberalism from a dyed in the wool liberal. So, yes, it is a message book. It is also a “condition of England” book. (You may need to check out that genre.) It bemoans what England is becoming. Its themes could have been written in our age by a host of right-on, politically correct, Remain-voting Greens, Lib-dems, or Corbynistas. But E M Forster wrote this book, and he’s a fine and perhaps a great novelist and so this novel is not a work of propaganda in any simple way. I stress Forster’s masterly and crucial ambiguity because it is crucial to the novel’s success, and because Stallybrass and Lodge do not.

Howards End takes three families – the Schlegels, the Wilcoxes and the Basts – and compares and contrasts their attitudes and behaviour. Forster does not allow his partisanship to dominate his work as he describes their struggles. In particular, he does not really take sides even in the most fascinating tension in the novel, that between the two Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen, and these are the two people he most identifies with. They are, one might think, safely liberal. Turns out, they’re not.

“Only connect”

There are many rich themes in the novel, but the one which energises it is about Forster’s simple instruction which is the book’s title page epigraph: “Only connect”. His idea is not quite what you might think. He is not saying that one must max-out on empathy with people who differ from one. Rather, he wants us to think outside our boxes and to explore outside our comfort zone. Importantly, this is about accepting how different and unknowable we all are and how we have to compromise with other people. We have to reach across barriers. But we also have to think and aim to feel more widely and broadly than suits us about ourselves. If, for example, we are factual people, we have to aim to connect up with the intuitive in ourselves, and in others. We also have to accept responsibility for our actions: the rich should wonder how their wealth depends on the work of people poorer than themselves. All these reachings-out and reachings-in are key to the novel. Watch out for them. Forster says that to connect is to join the dots: as you read the novel, join as many as you see Forster has laid out for you. I think people have always loved this novel for the way it works on them. If you find the book comfortable you are probably not letting it work its challenges on you. He also says, a little differently, that to connect is to reconcile the “prose” and the “passion” in one’s nature: this is a little like the talk by modern people of the left and right parts of their brain. In both these sense, I think people have found the book liminal. (The mention of “connect” in chapters XXII and XXXVIII will give you this wider flavour of Forster’s use of the word.)

Before we go on, we need to understand the role of the eponymous Howards End. More than anyone, anywhere, or anything, it’s what the novel is built on. It’s a house which used to belong to Mrs Wilcox, and when she dies she informally leaves it to Margaret Schlegel, as she was at the time. The first Mrs Wilcox, Ruth, is important. She is rather inarticulate, she is fey (a little wired to the moon). She loves Howards End deeply, and one supposes she loves Mr Wilcox. Both affections are a little mysterious. Note how Margaret responds to both these tendernesses of Ruth.

The Wilcox family hides Ruth’s scribbled bequest from Margaret and aim to keep the house for themselves, though they don’t really like it. There’s no need to spoil the unfolding of the story: read it and you’ll see how things turn out.

I should give some clues about what the house meant to Forster and his novel. Lionel Trilling, an America critic, famously wrote that the novel is about who will inherit England. That is, Howards End represents the kind of England Forster loves and his novel explores his hopes and dreams for it. He wonders who will appreciate England properly and work to preserve it. He wonders who deserves to inherit Howards End, and England. Ask yourself, does Forster write a happy ending for his novel? Is his conclusion on pessimistic or optimistic, either for his characters or his feelings about England?

Howards End used to stand in proper, unspoiled countryside, as we commonly call England’s farmlands, but whose rurality is now, in 1904 when the book was published, threatened by the encroachment of roads and commuter development outward from London. E M Forster, like plenty of English writers, and notably William Cobbett, hates the power over its citizens and the neighbouring counties, and even the Empire, exerted by the capital. Cobbett’s “Great Wen” as he called the capital, and Forster’s London, are places of crude, calculating commerce. These capitalists think everything is for sale, every man has his price, and market forces are always more powerful and even more right than individual feelings or sensitivities. These commercialists get rich (or go under in the attempt), and devil take the hindmost. They are not stupid but they have lost their soul. Crucially, they do not connect the dots. They see life simply and selfishly, and often intelligently, but narrowly.

The Wilcoxes are that sort of person. Margaret and Helen Schlegel are not. They are not fabulously well-off, but they do not have to work and they have a leisured, cultured life. Their standard of life is quite like that of Forster for the whole of his life.

Enter Leonard Bast. He is a clerk: his work is humdrum and, almost worse, it is insecure. Like tens of thousands of workers in industrial and commercial society, his family came from the rural labouring class, which has been diminishing in numbers for centuries. His deskbound life is a lot easier than his forefathers’. Indeed he aspires to culture, and that’s how he meets the Schlegel girls. He becomes a sort of pet of theirs, a sort of project.

True, in a way, to Forster’s dictum about making connections, the Shlegels ask Mr Wilcox for advice about Bast’s career. Casually, Mr Wilcox offers an opinion and it turns out badly but he accepts no responsibility for the shifts and turns of events by which his intervention messes up Bast’s life. The Schlegels miscalculate their reaching out to Bast, but at least they care. Mr Wilcox rather blithely sort of reaches out to Bast, but barely, and he couldn’t care less when his interference turns sour.

By now we find that Margaret has decided to fall in with Mr Wilcox’s inarticulate love for her and they marry. It is important for readers to wonder why they want each other. It is just as important to see why Margaret and Helen see life differently and behave differently. I think one can say that Helen is more impulsive, bossy, stubborn, selfish and interfering than Margaret. For her part, Margaret values loyalty, manliness, decency. Helen’s liberalism is passionate but dangerously innocent and theoretical. Margaret’s liberalism is quieter, more about appreciating the real differences between people, and rather accepting of the deep currents running within and between family and friends.

Subsidiary themes in the book

Here are a few of the things Forster discusses:

It takes money and confidence to have culture.
Men have ambitions and assert themselves.
Women build relationships and subtly.
The Germans are Romantic but dangerously dreamy.
The English love the countryside but aren’t visionary.
Capitalism enriches many people, but ignores poverty.
And capitalism trashes the countryside.
Socialism obsesses about poverty but can’t cure it.
Nature is a great idea but often a cruel experience.
Better to have possessions stolen than to distrust strangers.

Let’s tease a few of those out a little. Bast longs for culture but hasn’t the leisure or experience to really feel or live it. He worships Nature but is lost when he actually immerses himself in it. Margaret and Helen are cultured and love Nature, but Howards End is really more a home than an ideal to them. Helen would rather lose some possessions than lose trust; Margaret, not so much. But then Margaret doesn’t idolise the cheapness of cheap opera seats: she’d rather sit in comfort. By the way, it is important to see that Forster can be accused of the snobbery of many liberals. That is, they disdain those who are not, in the modern parlance, “woke”. The Basts are classic cases. It may not be their fault, but they are not really capable of the rich experience of life which the Schlegels cherish.

It is interesting that the novel above all mourns the passing of rurality in England. Leonard Bast may be immune to the elegaic writing of the Nature Writers of the 19th and 20th Century, but Forster is not. For him, rurbia – the mixed-up muddle of rural and urban landscape which was becoming an important feature of how the British lived – was a sad business. Forster showed Margaret as appreciating that the capitalist gave her leisured culture. As you read the book, do you find him alert to the improvement in lifestyle of millions of his fellow Britons as they get a house and a garden, set in a tolerable if no longer rustic landscape?

P N Furbank was a friend of Forster’s and his biography is eminently quotable on all the themes and background of the book. From it we find that Forster loved his childhood home and based Howards End on it. He spent some years in Tonbridge, Kent – famously in his day, “the stockbroker belt”, so prominent in Sherlock Holmes stories. He loathed what he took to be hidebound, unfeeling, conventional middle class values.

It is tempting to imagine that Forster’s homosexuality does or should shine through his fiction. In the case of Howards End, though, it isn’t easy to make a case that it does. It is worth pondering what Forster made of Margaret and Henry, as a woman and a man. And, an allied question, was he ever fair to poor, common, abused, immoral Mrs Bast? Forster certainly scrutinises middle England’s assumptions about the respective roles of man and woman. In Chapter XXV Margaret is shown in a moment of something like rebelliousness against familiar male attitudes, on the ordinarily feminist grounds which were common in fiction, at least by women, from the mid 19th Century. (See Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley or anything by Mrs Gaskell.) The men and women we meet in Howards End are given to us in nuanced portraits of persons who happen to be male and female. At times they seem to be shown as representatives of their genders, and at others as floating free of those roles. Henry Wilcox is presented as less insightful than Margaret Wilcox, nee Schlegel. He certainly does not seem to have discovered his inner femininity. But Margaret’s very perspicacity values Henry, and his variety of masculinity. Is Margaret especially feminine in that insight? Forster may think so. Or he may admire a certain masculinity in his heroine. But it would be vulgar to assume that Forster’s being queer drives his attitudes, and unwise to simplify them.

As a part of the worthy movement for the further education of the working class, Forster was disillusioned by the attempt. His feelings for Bast are genuinely sympathetic but a little irritated.

Forster knew and had lived amongst German Romantic culture and was well able to appreciate English fascination with it.

Forster knew families quite like the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes and so was able to set these models to work in the novel. It is important that different writers responded very differently to what Henry James called the “elemental blur” of modern mechanised rushing about. James was almost thrilled by it. Forster seems to have retreated from it in fear or disdain.

I should have mentioned that the poet A E Housman matters a bit to Forster and Howards End. It explains why “Oniton” in the novel was a riff on Housman’s “Clun” in “A Shropshire Lad”. Housman is not very fashionable now. But one should try him. Housman adored certain young men, but also – less obviously – liked humanity in general. He was hugely admired by young people early in the 20th Century. It is worth mentioning that Housman is like Forster in being moved by indeterminacy, which is a crucial feature of Howards End.

Having just read Trilling’s essay on Howards End and Forster’s liberalism, it is striking to me that the America is quite sharp on that quality which might be called Bossy Liberalism. Trilling argues that articulate, liberal intellectuals are patronising about those who do not share their privilege of education. In his treatment of the Basts and rurbia, Forster seems to be exhibting those habits of thought. But Trilling argues, more subtly, that Forster is just as harsh about his own “side” of the argument. Trilling says that Forster probes nearly everyone’s take on the world especially wherever he sees dogmatism. He is above all not ideological.

Good luck with the book.

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Publication date

10 September 2019