Howards End is quite often described as E M Forster’s masterpiece. First published in 1910 it is the story of the class war in England at the beginning if the twentieth century.
The story concerns three families: The Schlegel siblings, Margaret, Helen, and young Tibby well off upper middle class half German intellectuals, the lower middle class Basts, Leonard with his desire for culture and his older disreputable wife Jacky, and the wealthy capatalist Wilcoxes. The Wilcoxes and the Schlegels meet on a holiday in Germany, while Leonard Bast meets Margaret and Helen at a concert, there is a mix up of umbrellas and an exchange of cards. The novel opens as Helen is staying with the Wilcoxes at Howards End, the beautiful farmhouse home which belongs to Ruth Wilcox. When an embarrassing misunderstanding between Helen and the Wilcoxes younger son Paul occurs, Helen’s Aunt Mrs Munt arrives and spirits her back to London. However the association doesn’t end there, when the Wilcoxes take a flat in London right opposite the Schlegel’s house. Ruth Wilcox is gradually drawn into a fragile friendship with Margaret Schlegel – Ruth has a desire to see Howards End lived in by people who appreciate it, as she feels her family doesn’t. Ruth knows that she is dying, and so scribbles down her wish for Margaret Schlegel to inherit Howards End after her death. The piece of paper is sent to her family after her death and of course causes great consternation.
“Some leave our life with tears, others with an insane frigidity; Mrs. Wilcox had taken the middle course, which only rarer natures can pursue. She had kept proportion. She had told a little of her grim secret to her friends, but not too much; she had shut up her heart–almost, but not entirely. It is thus, if there is any rule, that we ought to die–neither as victim nor as fanatic, but as the seafarer who can greet with an equal eye the deep that he is entering, and the shore that he must leave.”
Charles Wilcox the eldest bullying son of Ruth and Henry Wilcox is convinced that Margaret wants to do them out of Howards End. It soon becomes apparent however that Margaret knows nothing of the last minute bequest; the family breathes a sigh of relief, and offers Margaret a silver vinaigrette as a keepsake, which she happily accepts.
Helen determines to help Leonard Bast and his wife. When a chance conversation between the Schlegel sisters and Henry Wilcox about the company Leonard Bast works for it sets in motion a series of events. Leonard is persuaded – wrongly to give up a secure position, and take up one much less secure, the result is that he is left in a far worse position. For this Helen feels Henry Wilcox responsible, and is unable to forgive him, even when he marries her sister Margaret. Helen becomes determined to help Leonard; however her help has a tragic outcome.
“He built up a situation that was far enough from the truth. It never occurred to him that Helen was to blame. He forgot the intensity of their talk, the charm that had been lent him by sincerity, the magic of Oniton under darkness and of the whispering river. Helen loved the absolute. Leonard had been ruined absolutely, and had appeared to her as a man apart, isolated from the world. A real man, who cared for adventure and beauty, who desired to live decently and pay his way, who could have travelled more gloriously through life than the Juggernaut car that was crushing him.”
Margaret understands Henry and his imperfections, forgiving him an earlier indiscretion that comes to light. However Henry is unwilling to extend this same spirit of forgiveness to his sister in law Helen when she falls victim to a similar indiscretion. It is only at the end of the novel, with his son Charles disgraced, that Henry is able to appreciate the world his wife Margaret has created at Howards End.
Howards End was the latest book in my month long re-reading project. It is probably the book I remembered least well of those I had selected to read this month. I remember it as being the first EM Forster novel I read – I then went on to read all the others, my favourite by far and eclipsing all the others was A Passage to India. However I enjoyed reading Howards End so much this time, I might now even prefer it to a Passage of India which I re-read in July. Howards End is a powerful story of class and hypocrisy. My memory of it not being an easy read is understandable, it is not an especially easy read, but I found it enormously readable although it did take me a while to get into it. Several of Forster’s characters are not very likeable, Charles is insufferable, his wife rather ridiculous, Helen is possibly too idealistic, and though she is forced to wake up, she, unlike Leonard doesn’t really suffer for it. Margaret is really the only likeable character, she is practical and sensible, and not shying away from what is difficult she is a cool head, who ultimately manages her family well. Forster’s treatment of Leonard Bast is depressing, yet in his fate it is probably possible to see the realities of the inequalities of society.
“We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet. This story deals with gentlefolk, or with those who are obliged to pretend that they are gentlefolk.”
It is Bast of course who must suffer for the mistakes made by his social superiors. Howards End is still a brilliant family drama, with a stunning sense of time and place.