Book Review: Howards End by E.M. Forster

To be honest, I think I preferred his Way.

Joking apart, though, “Howards End” is one of the more high-brow books I’ve written about here, and also the only one I’ve finished and thought: “I really don’t understand why this is considered a great classic of English literature.”

Margaret and Helen Schlegel are two cultured sisters, second-generation German immigrants, living in Edwardian London. In literary circles, it is Serious Business as to whether or not they are supposed to be Jewish, to which all I can say is that they never mention or, apparently, even think about, being Jewish, don’t seem to think twice about attending carol services at Christmas and that their deceased father sounds a bit keener on spending time in the Prussian Army than the average member of an ethnic minority in 19th century Prussia who’d spent any time in the Prussian Army would be. There was, in reality, a notable community of non-Jewish Germans in pre-First World War Britain.

The Schelgels are, apparently, middle class, although they are richer and live in a house that sounds much nicer than 90% of the people you’ll ever meet who call themselves “middle class” (they live off their investments, for heaven’s sake!) Anyway, our heroines get involved with the Wilcoxes, a caricatured family of rich but uncultured business folk who own the titular house, and Leonard and Jacky Bast, a decent but spectacularly dim clerk and his much older, very poorly characterised, wife. We never get any explanation as to why Leonard, who is only in his early twenties, lumbered himself with such a charmless woman, by the way; his novel has a running theme of “improbable relationships that exist because the plot requires them to.”

The sisters try to help out Leonard Bast, being an impoverished wretch with aspirations to culture, and the Wilcoxes, being…no, wait, the Wilcoxes don’t actually have any problems, other than the stock prejudices of cardboard cut-out Edwardian rich people, which they don’t see as a problem. Actually, other than Leonard and Jacky, no-one in this novel has any real problems that they haven’t dreamed up themselves – it’s like “First World Problems: The Book,” all written before the concept of a First World even existed. However, the Schlegels are intellectuals who have to bring culture to the uncultured and whose motto is “Only connect”. Somehow in the eyes of Forster and a lot of his readers, this makes them better than standard-issue Lady Bountifuls, whose patronising of the less fortunate would usually be the target of satire, not admiration.

And this brings us to my biggest problem with “Howards End” – how come Margaret and Helen Schlegel are not treated as the villains of the novel? At its end, one person is dead, another is in prison, various others have been emotionally devastated, and control of Howards End has passed from Wilcoxes to Schlegels, all because the latter, in the immortal words of Vic Reeves “wouldn’t let it lie.” They had to “help” and “improve” people who, by-and-large, weren’t asking for help or improvement, and in the process they destroy them and enormously benefit themselves. Of course, it was all done with the best of intentions, but, then, we all know what’s paved with good intentions. But, so far as I can tell, everyone including the author regards them as heroines. For my money, the real hero’s Leonard Bast, and he’s too pathetic for that role anyway.

The other major problem has, I think, been picked up on by some critics – the plot of this novel is, quite simply, implausible. Not just particular twists and turns, but the whole damn thing. It relies on people voluntarily being friends, indeed eventually on getting married, when they have no particular reason to be and seem to have very little in common. The novel starts with Helen Schlegel visiting Howards End and developing a crush on Paul Wilcox, the younger son of the family, which quickly ends in disaster and the sort of scenes that would be equally embarrassing to everyone involved in 2018 as in 1910. The crush ends and everyone swears off each other and decides that they will never speak of this again.

That’s believable. And, in real life, that’s exactly where the story would end – after the first four chapters. Schlegels and Wilcoxes would simply avoid each other ever after. But they don’t – they keep associating with each other, for credibility-defying reasons, and those Schlegels just won’t let it lie…It’s almost tempting to visualise E.M. Forster leaning back from his desk at the end of those chapters and thinking, “Shit! That’s the end of the story, and I haven’t managed to convey my Big Themes about Class and Culture and Only Connect yet! Oh, well, never mind, just carry on regardless.”

It’s probably worth remembering that Forster lived in an age when people still unironically spoke of Questions, with a capital Q. The Social Question, actually mentioned in “Howards End”, The Woman Question, the Irish Question (every time Gladstone got near answering it, the Irish changed the question). For decades, writers like Charles Dickens or Emile Zola had been churning out huge tomes in which the key point was addressing some great social concern or other, and in a sense, that was your plot. Some novelists still try to do this, but in the modern world, it’s increasingly difficult to get anyone to take this seriously. If you want to hear some semi-literate hack’s “hot take” on social issues, you can find it in Buzzfeed or the Huffington Post. Or on WordPress, for that matter.

Forster had big Questions to address, and he ploughed on with addressing them, plot and characters be damned. In a sense, that’s why, in spite of being such a flawed book, “Howards End” has survived as a “classic”. One definition of a classic work of literature is “one that you have to study in school or university”, and there’s nothing easier to teach than a novel with themes obvious to even the dimmest student which also tie in handily to readily-available historical material. The essays will more or less write themselves, and once a novel ends up on a syllabus, it has a certain audience guaranteed.

And the other reason “Howards End” has survived – adaptation fodder, of course. It was a TV series only last year; it’s been made into a film; in fact, five of the six novels E.M. Forster wrote have been made into films at one time or another. I haven’t seen the TV or film versions, but no doubt the plot makes more sense by the time scriptwriters have finished with it and the characters are less improbable with actors giving them a third dimension.

Of course, it is absolutely relevant that late Victorian/Edwardian times seems to be the favourite era of everyone who likes to gawp at overdone frocks and fancy country house locations, and it is authors of that period who seem to live most off adaptation. I mean, the only thing you ever read about Henry James’ novels is what a chore they are to read – would anyone still bother if there weren’t films?

And Howards End itself? It’s a symbol of England, or something, although the real reason its in there is that it’s based on the house E.M. Forster grew up in. Unfortunately for him, that house is in what is now Stevenage. Once they’d finished developing that as a New Town, it was part of a giant concrete eyesore inhabited by exiled fans of Arsenal FC (and the young Lewis Hamilton). I don’t think E.M. Forster would have connected well with them.

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