Sunday, November 13, 2011

#38, E.M. Forster's "Howard's End"

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.

Only connect! is the catchphrase of the novel, spoken over and over by our protagonist, Margaret Wilcox (nee Schlegel). The connections being made are between siblings, men and women, and social classes. I know M. has talked a lot lately about his pet peeve of the heavy-handed narrator, and I must say that this book would be his dream come true. The narrator here is so light-handed and detached, I really only noticed his presence at all once.

This book centers on the families of different social classes. The Schlegels are a highly cultured group of people possessing all the vestiges of aristocracy an English family at the turn of the twentieth century without actually being landed gentry. They believe in higher education, art, and music almost to a fault, and spend much time on committees, championing the rights of the working class and trying to give them books. The Wilcoxes are no less wealthy, but their money is much newer and gained from a few generations in business (unlike the Schlegels, none of whom work at all). This clan is headed by Henry Wilcox, a pretentious chauvinist who disdains women, the poor, and anyone in any way less successful than himself. The last family is the Basts, who are seen the least in the narrative but seem to always put the most significant action in progress. They are very working class, and while Leonard Bast seems desperate to climb the social and educational ladder, idolizing the ideals of the Schlegels, his wife Jacky is a woman of simple means and is often described as being unbearably stupid.

Howard’s End itself is a beautiful country manor home belonging to the Wilcoxes. The first Mrs. Wilcox befriend Margaret Schelgel after the families connect for the first time, after a failed affair between a Wilcox and a Schlegel. At the end of her life Mrs. Wilcox asks that Howard’s End go to Margaret because she feels that her friend is the only one who will really appreciate and endure its history and beauty. This request is ignored by her husband Henry, who goes on to marry Margaret, who has (along with her sister Helen) taken the Basts on to become their patrons. Henry is totally disdainful of their relationship, but over its course seems to relinquish some of his harsh views directed at women (When he finally admits that his wife is a tremendously clever woman, I was shocked) and the working poor. It turns out that many years previous, Henry Wilcox had an affair with Mrs. Bast, and is shocked when she returns to his life.

Helen Schlegel is a patron to the Basts in more ways than one (to put it delicately) and at the end of the novel she has Leonard Bast’s child. By this time Leonard Bast has died of a heart attack he had while being beaten rather savagely by one of Mr. Wilcox’ sons. Mr. Wilcox leaves Howard’s End to his wife Margaret as he is dying, who in turn leaves it to the son of her sister and Leonard Bast.

Lionel Trilling described this novel as E. M. Forster’s answer to the question “Who shall inherit England?” This was perhaps the most important question of national identity at that time, the height of the British Empire and before the World Wars. One of the book's loveliest passages is Margaret asking herself a version of Trilling's question that looks to both the past and the future:

Why has not England a great mythology? Our folklore has never advanced beyond daintiness, and the greater melodies about our country-side have all have issued through the pipes of Greece. Deep and true as the native imagination may be, it seems to have failed here. It cannot vivify one fraction of a summer field, or give names to half a dozen stars. England still waits for the supreme moment of her literature-for the great poet who shall voice her, or, better still, for the thousand little poets whose voices shall pass into our common talk.

Forester’s answer is simple: in this new England, if people can only connect, these iron class barriers wil eventually fall away. Old Money and New Money will be held in the same esteem, the working poor will be able to climb to previously unimagined heights, and the illegitimate child, so to speak, of rich and poor will inherit the land.

Forster grapples with the inheritance questions without getting preachy, and his language often borders on the sublime. Not once through the course of the novel did I feel like I was being beaten over the head with a moral agenda, and while on the surface it seems like a very foreign account of a very foreign way of life, if we stop to think about it, it might be more relevant than we want to imagine. It is for these reasons that I think Forster’s Howard’s End deserves its place at #38 on our list.

This week M. and I are embarking on our first joint-reading quest. Be here later this week when we give both of our thoughts on the contemporary class Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie.



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