Howard's End, by E. M. Forster

It was interesting to reread this novel after Forster's Aspects of the Novel. Although it's been quite a few years since I last read it, the story remains vivid in my memory, partly because of the 1992 Merchant-Ivory film starring Emma Thomson, Vanessa Redgrave, and Anthony Hopkins.

Sisters Margaret and Helen Schlegel love literature and music and good conversation, all readily available in pre-World War I London where they live with their young brother, Tibby. Secure in the funds left to them by their parents, they occupy a particular niche in the English class structure, the intellectual, somewhat bohemian middle class. They become involved with Leonard Bast, a denizen of the lower middle class, a clerk who aspires to raise himself by attending classical concerts and reading serious books.

The sisters also become involved with a family of wealthy capitalists, the Wilcoxes, first Helen, the younger and more melodramatic sister, who visits their country home. The spirit behind Howard's End is Ruth Wilcox, whose love for her family home has made it a charming country hide-away for her husband and children. Like the heroine of Coventry Patmore's poem, satirized by Virginia Woolf, Ruth is “the Angel in the House”, the woman whose selfless devotion to her family and submission to her husband makes her the unappreciated foundation of family life.

Given these three families from different levels of the middle class, my book club started our discussion with the question stated in the novel: “Who is going to inherit England?” We also asked how Forster followed his own edicts.

Here the plot is indeed “a narrative of events arranged in a time sequence” that are also linked by causality. Our point of view is primarily Margaret, the more practical of the sisters, who struggles to hold within her value system two opposing forces: a devotion to culture and the life of the mind along with an appreciation of the aggressive capitalists who have built the railroads and trust funds and England itself.

If “the test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way”, then Forster succeeds with his main characters. Their sometimes-unexpected choices continue to be credible. The events grow believably out of the characters, avoiding Forster's criticism of Hardy's novels that events are controlled by “the fate above us, not the fate working through us.”

Most of all we wanted to know if Forster incorporated what he called “prophecy” in his lectures, something universal. He says it only comes through subtly, in the writer's tone of voice, “the implication that signifies and will filter into the turns of the novelist's phrase.” It does come out in some of his phrases, such as “Private life holds out the mirror to infinity.” But I found some of his high-flown paragraphs—rare as they are—a bit abstract. Although impatient to get on with the story, I understood that these abstract reveries were the meat of Margaret and Helen's discussions.

But, if I understand it correctly, Forster's prophecy is more generally a theme that makes the story larger than it is, more than just the fate of Margaret or Leonard or any other character. Forster says, “There is more in the novel than time or people or logic or any of their derivatives, more even than fate . . . something that cuts across them like a bar of light.”

And here is where Forster excels. For this is not just a novel about class differences or about love and marriage. It is not even just about the fate of England, as symbolized by the shifting ownership of Howard's End. This novel is about how we connect to each other and begins with Forster's famous epigraph: “Only connect”. What could be more fundamental to the human condition?

What do you think of Forster's idea of “prophecy”?

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