One may as well begin with my letter to E. M. Forster:
Dear Mr. Forster,
I know you died in 1970, but I’m writing to you anyway. I hope you don’t mind. I’m not expecting a response or anything. There’s just something really important I wanted you to know.
I am an idiot.
Years ago, when I was seventeen or so, my English teacher told me I really should read a book you wrote called A Passage to India. My tiny high school library didn’t actually have a copy, so I just shrugged and kept reading those idiotic Point horror books I used to read.
Really, Mr. Forster, I was a lazy, stupid teenager.
Now, I’m thirty two, and I really wish I’d listened to what my English teacher told me, because if I’d read A Passage to India all those years ago I might have discovered your books earlier in life.
(I should add: I still haven’t actually read A Passage to India. It was published in 1924, and I’m only up to 1910 in my reading, so it might be a while yet before I get to it. But I will get there – I promise.)
I’ve read three of your books now. Your first book, Where Angels Fear to Tread was pretty good. Much better than that piece of crap Henry James wrote. Then, I read The Longest Journey, and I have to say, I was a little upset when poor Rickie died. Okay, Mr. Forster – I was devastated. But, even though that book left me distraught, I was utterly bowled over by the way you wrote it. Especially the bit where Rickie and what’s-her-face went into the dell together and came out as lovers. That was brilliant writing, Mr. Forster. It was one of those reading moments that you never, ever forget.
(Yes, Mr. Forster. I know I need to get a life…)
Anyway. I’m writing because I read a book this week that changed my life: your 1910 novel, Howards End.
I must admit, when I first finished reading Howards End, I knew I’d read something brilliant, but there were a few things that left me scratching my head. But in the time since I’ve finished, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. Then – all of a sudden, everything just clicked into place. I connected. Everything made sense. I understood. It was magical.
(Yes, as I said a couple of paragraphs ago, I know…get a life…)
The mark of a brilliant book: once you’ve finished reading it, you want to immediately read it again. Unfortunately, due to this whole blogging about one book every week (apart from last week) thing, I won’t be able to sit down and re-read Howards End for quite some time.
Until then, I’ll place it on the special shelf where I keep all my favourite books; the books that made a crater-sized impact on my heart.
Ps. Terribly sorry I left your book in a hotel room. I didn’t do it on purpose, I swear…
Once again, I’ve come down with a slight cold. Yay me! I have a bit of a fever, so I sincerely hope this review makes some kind of sense (I’ve opened with a letter to a dead guy – it’s not looking good so far). Anyway. This week’s – last week’s – review…
by E. M. Forster
Published in 1910
I can’t make this clear enough: you need to read this book.
Howards End is one of those books that has the capacity to change your life for the better. I know I’ve said that before – because, in a way, every book I read changes my life a little. But Howards End has changed my life a lot. I won’t be able to forget this book in a hurry.
Well, that’s the effect it had on me, at least. Someone else might not feel the same way. Either way, I can’t recommend Howards End highly enough. Which is why I’m not going to tell you the entire plot. Here’s what I can tell you:
Our hero…isn’t actually a hero at all. She’s a heroine. Her name is Margaret Schlegel. The story centres around her, and her younger sister, Helen. Margaret and Helen are independent, intelligent, cultured young ladies. They have a younger brother, Tibby – but he’s utterly useless. As their parents have passed away, Margaret leads the Schlegel family as a matter of necessity.
Enter, stage right: the Wilcox family. They’re not just rich – they’re loaded. Their home is called Howards End, a country estate just of of London, one of many homes owned by the Wilcox family.
While the Wilcoxes are holidaying in their London apartment across the road from the Schlegels, Margaret meets and befriends the graceful, otherworldly Mrs. Wilcox, née Howard. She was the last of the Howards; Howards End, her family home, is her prized possession.
Margaret’s friendship with Mrs. Wilcox changes Margaret’s life. Then, without warning, Mrs. Wilcox dies. Her final wish is scribbled in pencil on a piece of scrap paper: she leaves Howards End to Margaret, rather than her own family.
The Wilcoxes, angry, ignore Mrs. Wilcox’s last request. Not telling Margaret of her inheritance, they keep the house themselves, more through stubbornness than love – despite the fact that they know Margaret is looking for somewhere to live, as the lease on their current home in London has expired.
While Margaret searches desperately for a family home, the recently-bereaved Mr. Wilcox begins to pay her a great deal of attention. Margaret realises that the disgustingly rich Wilcox family could hold the key to securing the future of her family. Mr. Wilcox takes Margaret to the empty Howards End…and it’s there he proposes marriage to her in the least romantic manner imaginable.
A little perspective here: Margaret is in her early thirties. Mr. Wilcox is in his sixties. Eeeew. But, to my sheer disgust, Margaret accepts Mr. Wilcox’s proposal, thus alienating her sister. EEEWWW!!
Helen, in the meantime, has made the acquaintance of Leonard Bast, a young insurance clerk. He’s married to a much older woman, an alcoholic with a seedy past.
After a conversation with Mr. Wilcox in which he casually mentions that Mr. Bast’s insurance company is just about to go broke, Margaret and Helen decide to “help”, advising Mr. Bast to quit his job. The thing is, Mr. Wilcox is a giant idiot, and, later, forgetting his original comment, states what a fine, upstanding company Mr. Bast’s former employer is. Oops. Already poor, Mr. Bast and his wife are now facing abject poverty – and, blaming Mr. Wilcox for his downfall, he’s looking for revenge.
Helen feels quite sorry for Mr. Bast. So sorry, in fact, that she sleeps with him. As you do.
So. Three families: the Schlegels, the Wilcoxes and the Basts. A loveless marriage, a one night stand. And a house – Howards End. Things are about to get veeeery messy indeeed.
Want to know what happens? You’ll just have to read the book…
While I enjoyed Forster’s other novels, Howards End eclipses them all. It’s deeper, with a richer layer of symbolism flowing beneath the words. And I’m a huge fan of symbolism…
For a novel written one hundred years ago by a man, Howards End is imbued with a surprising amount of feminist thought. In the other novels by Forster I’ve read so far, his female characters haven’t exactly been shining beacons of feminist hope. But in Howards End, Forster makes up for all this by introducing not just one, but two female characters who kick some serious arse. Margaret and Helen Schlegel are intelligent, modern women who have the whole world ahead of them. They’ve trekked mountains on their own, and yet, men like Mr. Wilcox believe that a woman shouldn’t so much as take a walk without someone to look after her…
That’s not to say that Margaret and Helen are always right. They’re not. That’s the thing about Howards End – the heroes don’t always act like heroes and the baddies aren’t always bad. Characters make mistakes, they change, they grow, in much the same way people do in real life.
Another thing I loved about Howards End is the way that Forster’s written it in a particular key – the writing has a plaintive, almost sad feel about it. It’s the feeling of one era ending and another era beginning (almost like Lord of the Rings, actually, but without the elves and stuff). Even though the name, Howard End, applies to a house, there’s a definite feeling of ending that sits around the shoulders of this book.
It’s evident in Forster’s descriptions of London; a London where gas lamps burn beside new electric lamps. And in the advent of the motor car, which takes the Wilcox family wherever they want to go. When Margaret travels in their car, it makes her feel vaguely ill. One time, she even goes to far as to jump out of a moving vehicle – a symbolic rejection of progress.
Times are changing – and although E. M. Forster doesn’t like it, he realises there’s not much he can do about it. By the book’s final page, the city is encroaching even on the fields surrounding Howards End – there are new buildings visible in the distance. The future is coming.
Forster idealises the past; the natural. The original Mrs. Wilcox took long walks in the fields around Howards End, often carrying hay in her arms (the other Wilcoxes have hayfever. They’re literally allergic to nature). To Mrs. Wilcox, Howards End is a family home. To the Wilcoxes, it’s property. The way of the future is represented by the Wilcoxes: fast cars, money and…not a lot else, really. They surround themselves with the trappings of middle-class life to cover up for the “panic and emptiness” that lies beneath.
Reading Howards End in 2010, one hundred years after Forster first wrote his masterpiece, one can’t help but feel a little sad – because we know he was right. Howards End would have been knocked down to build a shopping mall decades ago. Here, in the future, we know that the Wilcoxes won.
But, getting back to the actual book review: Howards End is pure storytelling genius. The way Forster’s narration slips from following one character to another, to another, to another – it’s amazing. He even uses the first person voice to address the reader from time to time, just to make things clear. Either way, we don’t forget he’s there.
Okay, I realise that Howards End can get a little preachy in places. It mightn’t be for everyone. There are times when Forster will assault the reader with an essay about something-or-other. Sometimes, it’s seamless…but other times, it doesn’t work quite so well. The writing can be a little dense at times, and there were passages that I had to read and re-read in order to work out what Forster was getting at.
But if you’re having trouble getting into Howards End, I advise you to persevere. Just keep reading, and this book will reward you. In the days after I finished reading, the book’s philosophy became clearer and clearer in my mind; until suddenly, it all fell into place.
Howards End is one of those books that actually offers you advice on how to live your life. But that’s not to say that the book’s “moral” gets in the way of a good story – no way. Howards End will, quite simply, alter the way you see the world. It’s a brilliantly written story that really will change your life.
Trust me: just read it.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should I read it?
Are you serious? Yes!!!
In a word:
(It’s hyphenated, therefore it’s one word. So ner)