Howards End by E.M.Forster
Howards End
E.M. Forster
  • Category:Fiction (General)
  • Date Read:10 February 2023
  • Year Published:1910
  • Pages:362

Honest, I just can’t understand what he’s on about . . . He’s got me licked, I don’t know what he’s on about, ‘Only connect, only connect’, it’s just bleedin’ borin’. It’s no good. I just can’t understand.

Willy Russell, Educating Rita, Act One Scene Four

So says Rita in Willy Russell’s 1980s play, Educating Rita. She’s talking, of course, about E.M. Forster’s novel, Howards End. Rita is from the working class, a hairdresser, but she wants to improve herself through education. To this end she seeks the assistance of Frank, an English professor in a Northern England university. Yet despite her best efforts she initially struggles with the material she is given to read. Howards End is a novel of ideas and that might not suit everybody, particularly modern audiences who are used to more action and less cultured talk from characters who think large thoughts. Or, like Rita, are alienated by Forster’s approach to class: “We are not concerned with the very poor,” his narrator tells us as he is about to introduce us properly to Leonard Bast, a struggling clerk in an insurance agency,

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.

This may not sit well with modern readers who like to believe that we live in more egalitarian times. Such thinking places the working class outside the purview of history, except as an amorphous group without individual identity or culture. Rita’s initial reaction to this sentiment is, “That’s why it’s crap. An’ that’s why I didn’t go on readin’ it, that’s why.” Interestingly, Russell’s 1980 play (as well as a 1983 movie based on the play starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters) may seem familiar because its premise is similar to the 1964 film, My Fair Lady, starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, or earlier still, George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion, which was the inspiration for that film. Shaw’s play questions the basis of class when Henry Higgins, a phonetician, is able to pass off a working class flower seller as a duchess. However, although Bernard Shaw gets a mention in Howards End, he published his play two years after Forster published his novel. Clearly the issue of class was a subject writers could trust their audiences to relate to in this period.

But the tomfoolery practised by Henry Higgins on London society in Shaw’s play is not the concern of Howards End. The novel is about class – partly – and it does feature its own aspiring social climber, Leonard Bast. Although, Bast isn’t strictly working class, otherwise he would fall outside the scope Forster sets for the novel. As a clerk in an insurance firm he and his soon-to-be wife, Jacky, live on the very edge of poverty. But this does not prevent Leonard from trying to improve himself. Like Rita, he reads many books – the very best books – and he tries to enrich his life with culture. In fact, Leonard meets Margaret and Helen Schlegel, the heroines of Forster’s novel, while attending a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Despite his poverty, he is determined to improve himself, no matter that he cannot afford to.

I have suggested that Rita’s reaction to Howards End may be indicative of how modern readers might react against the novel. Her disgust with Forster’s attitude to the working class is matched by her frustration with his intellectual maxims, particularly in relation to what he is “on about” when he says “only connect”. These two words are used as an epigraph on the title page of the novel and are repeated several times throughout the narrative. Since the book deals with class and social conflict between those of different social tiers, the implicit inference to draw is that Forster advocates a reconciliation between classes, like the end of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, when the ‘’heart” reconciles the “head” and “hands”. Lang’s film is a critique of modern capitalism that advocates a more humane connection between workers and capitalists – greater understanding – brokered by the “heart”, broadly represented by the tenets of Christian theology. But Forster is aiming at more than that, which has potential rewards for readers willing to accept that part of the thinking in this book belongs to the period in which it is written.

Howards End is a novel about the English middle class early last century, but it is also a novel about the emerging modern world of England at that time. Set in Edwardian England a few years prior to the First World War, between 1908 and 1910, it conveys a sense of an era of flux: of the changing English landscape, of London, social relations, education, the rights of women, industry, and the responsibilities of the upper-middle class both at home and abroad. The novel is essentially the story of three families. The Wilcoxes represent the upper echelons of English society, whose purpose and future prosperity is no longer as certain as it was. The Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen, have comfortable incomes derived from the investment of their capital, but have little idea about the reality of the lives whose work to provide their income. They represent an educated portion of the middle-classes who devote their time to theatre and books. And then there is the Basts, who barely rate as members of the middle class. They are poor. Leonard Bast’s position as a clerk in an insurance firm is not necessarily assured. But Leonard aspires to the education Margaret and Helen have received. His conversation is littered with book learning, always leaving the impression of a man trying too hard.

Leonard falls into a conversation with Margaret at Queen’s Hall before Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony begins. For him it proves to be a somewhat fateful moment. Helen carelessly takes his umbrella home from the concert. It is of no great matter to her, but the poor cannot afford to lose such things. Leonard frets its loss and accepts an invitation to retrieve his umbrella from Wickham Place where Margaret and Helen live. Was it Helen’s intention to steal the umbrella? The accusation causes tension, but the point is that it is only the rich who can afford to trust people: “To trust people is a luxury in which only the wealthy can indulge: the poor cannot afford it.” Ultimately, the moment will tell against Leonard in this symbolically charged novel: “As the lost umbrella had spoilt the concert at Queen’s Hall, so the lost situation was obscuring the diviner harmonies now.”

Howards End is filled with dichotomies that express a sense of division and change. And further to this is the underlying tension between an emerging modern England and the traditional values of the English, as represented by London, a cosmopolitan city in a state of constant flux, and an opposing agrarian sensibility: the yeoman class of land holders, not the “Imperialist” who “prepares the way for cosmopolitanism”. Henry Wilcox, head of the Wilcox family and owner of Howards End after the death of his wife, Ruth, represents this threat. As an owner of several properties, both in the city of London and in the countryside, Henry characterizes that class of men who usher in change. The country symbolises an older England that is under threat, and Howards End, the home inherited by the Wilcoxes through marriage but left abandoned after the death of Henry Wilcox’s wife, Ruth, represents a more temperate England now in danger of abandonment. Again, this is where modern readers may find reason to recoil. An atavistic appeal to national myth – a pastoral ideal in this case, if you will – is sometimes the purview of fascist movements, like the mythic appeals to a German ideal exploited by Hitler. But Forster hadn’t the benefit of this history when he wrote his novel. Even so, he acknowledges that English social myths are small, and this is probably a good thing. Forster sometimes walks this line, but his intent, as we shall see, seems more in keeping with unity rather than division; as a manifestation of the nation in the microcosm of personal integrity.

The motor car, somewhat ubiquitous in the novel, helps characterise the tension between the opposing ideals of modernity and tradition. In the period of this novel it is a fledgling technology, but one embraced by Wilcox. As a symbol, the motor car embodies so much of what Forster wishes to express about modernity, change and shifting social values. The motor car allows easy intrusion into the countryside. It is loud, it smells, it is dangerous and it alienates its passengers from the landscape. When Margaret travels in Henry’s motor car from London she has a strange sense of disconnection from the landscape: “. . . she felt their whole journey from London had been unreal. They had no part with the earth and its emotions. They were dust, and a stink, and cosmopolitan chatter . . .” When Leonard loses his job due to poor advice passed on to him from Henry Wilcox, Wilcox is unmoved by his Leonard’s plight. He does not see the suffering of an individual, but makes his judgement based on the social and economic momentum afforded by technology and science: “It’s all in a day’s work. It’s part of the battle of life”, he tells Helen. His Social Darwinist philosophy also finds explicit expression in the threat posed by the motor car to animals: “They’ll learn – like the swallows and the telegraph wires”, he says, and insists, “The motor’s come to stay.” Inevitably, they hit a dog while driving, or so they think. The women must be protected from the trauma – in this Wilcox is a traditionalist (he is also against female suffrage). And then everything is discovered to be all right. It was only a cat (“a rotten cat”), not a dog (“a companion” animal). Nevertheless, Margaret is so angered by the men’s refusal to allow her to see what has happened that she leaps from the moving car. The dismissive attitude towards the cat can hardly be lost on her: Leonard has fared no better against the modern forces arrayed against him and their indifferent to his fate.

The novel is full of concepts held in tension; a multiplicity of dichotomies around culture and commerce, change and stasis, low and high culture, the educated and uneducated, the quotidian life and a life of passion, as well as the inner life of Margaret and the outer life of Henry, abound. Forster’s scenes provide an endless array of metaphors. The strong impression when reading Howards End is that the novel form is Forster’s vehicle for ideas: that ideas shape the story and the fate of the characters, rather than emerging from their story. In truth, this is probably how many novels are written, but Forster does not attempt to conceal the mechanisms of his process. There is a strong ideological position attached to the narrative which Forster foregrounds. We sense the presence of the author intruding from the very first sentence: “One may as well begin with Helen’s letters . . .” Forster’s narrator tells us: as though the exciting news of Helen’s new-found love is of as much consequence as any other event of the story; simply that a story must be gotten underway. Forster’s narrator wants to tell us things about the class of people he writes about, instead, and their historic moment. Yet it is potentially a risky move, requiring the indulgence of the reader to accept the fanciful perspective on life that Helen and Margaret have as no more than mouth pieces of their author. It’s a risk Forster attenuates through his intrusion:

To Margaret – I hope that it will not set the reader against her – the station of King’s Cross had always suggested infinity. Its very situation – withdrawn a little behind the facile splendours of St Pancras – implied a comment on the materialism of life. Those two great arches, colourless, indifferent, shouldering between them an unlovely clock, were fit portals for some eternal adventure, whose issue might be prosperous, but would certainly not be expressed in the ordinary language of prosperity. If you think this ridiculous, remember that it is not Margaret who is telling you about it . . .

Margaret, whose mind the narrator expresses, is not to blame for this digression, we are told. The ordinary nature of the station and its “unlovely clock” belies the imaginative possibility she applies to the ordinary world. Yet her thoughts, presumably, are not as conscious to her as they must be within the narrative. We cannot blame Margaret for what is necessary to express the part she plays in this drama. Margaret represents a particular middle-class sensibility devoted to culture and aesthetics, removed from the realities of progress and the acquisition of money. Here lies the difference between the Schlegels and their social set who discuss books and culture, and the ordinary world of the Wilcoxes, mired in thoughts of money. Even Ruth Wilcox, whose connection to Howards End shows her to be more personable than her husband, is revealed to have little to contribute in cultured company, and is dismissed by Margaret’s friends as being uninteresting. As in Lang’s Metropolis, Forster’s characters, while they live and breathe – such is his skill as a writer – also represent types that symbolize positions in his thesis.

This is a fascinating novel. Not only is it a great story that fulfils the promise of its premise and the complicating factors surrounding its characters, but it provides an interesting window into its historical moment. The First World War is still four years away, although intimations of this first great industrial war are evident in Forster’s text. The Schlegels have a German heritage and they are sometimes at odds with the English upper class who have lost their sense of proportion. And having lost their parents at an early age, they are exposed to the tenets of their Aunt Juley and a haughty nephew, each declaring that either England or Germany have been appointed by God to rule the world. It is telling that at this early age that Margaret eschews both positions, choosing instead to believe in the primacy of the individual: “that any human being lies nearer to the unseen than any organization . . .”

While speaking to Mrs Wilcox, Margaret expresses her belief that the Continent is interested in ideas. Here we have another dichotomy: “There is more liberty of action in England, but for liberty of thought go to bureaucratic Prussia,” she tells Mrs Wilcox. In 1910, it is England that Forster worries about as a potential aggressor, it seems, since it is in England where thought has atrophied, characterised by shoddy journalism (creating another dichotomy with ‘Literature’) which “renders the war a little more likely” each time the “gutter press” say a fight is inevitable. But for Margaret, this thought turns from the geopolitical to the personal, as so much of the book is likely to do: linking the personal story with the wider social story of England. Margaret feels her private emotions may also be a kind of gutter press that might steer the direction of her own life if she is not attentive to her better feelings.

It is this belief – a belief that personal effort may improve social discourse – that seems to lie at the heart of the novel. Forster chose to give the novel its epigraph – “only connect” – which causes Rita so much consternation:

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 highest. Live in fragments no longer.

Some characters are able to attempt this intellectual transformation in the novel and they benefit from it: a transformation between the “natural” and “philosophic man” (another dichotomy) that Leonard is attempting: from a state governed by base want to one governed by the mind and a sense of the self. But the journey is not assured just because it is undertaken. Leonard is weighted by the need for money: “Miss Schlegel, the real thing’s money, and all the rest is a dream,” he tells Helen. Leonard senses, “great things sweeping out of the shrouded night” but he is unable to receive them because “his heart was full of little things”, like the umbrella he must chase after because he is a poor man. But ‘connecting’ is more than that. It is about empathy too. About the need for men like Henry Wilcox to make some empathetic connection with their fellow human beings. To reach across the class divide; not to be fragmentary, but whole.

This is what makes Howards End ‘Literature’ rather than ‘journalism’. It extends its story beyond the circumstances of its characters, and makes it about English society. Howards End – the house originally owned by Ruth Wilcox’s family, the Howards – is England: somewhat neglected, its old ways somewhat dying. But it is connected to a vibrant metropolis by the roads and motor cars that might destroy its character, or reinvigorate it, depending on the sensibilities of those who finally inhabit it. I found the book to be an historical curiosity, a gripping story which I have deliberately avoided going into in any amount of detail – there are surprises which are genuinely pleasurable – and a philosophical novel that still has something to say about the way we might wish to lead our lives.

Trailer for James Ivory's Howards End (1992), starring Anthony Hopkins as Henry Wilcox, Emma Thompson as Margaret Schlegel, Helena Bonham Carter as Helen Schlegel and Samuel West as Leonard Bast
Trailer for Hettie MacDonald's television series, Howards End (2017), starring Hayley Atwell as Margaret Schlegel, Matthew Macfadyen as Henry Wilcox, Philippa Coulthard as Helen Schlegel and Joseph Quinn as Leonard Bast
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E.M Forster
E.M. Forster
Forster wrote six novels, including Where Angels Fear to Tread and A Room with a View. A Room with a View was also dramatized by James Ivory in 1985 – he would later film Howards End in 1992 – and starring Helena Bonham Carter. Howards End was Forster’s fourth novel, all published in the first decade of the twentieth century. He would not publish his most famous novel, A Passage to India, until 1924. It was the last novel he published in his lifetime. His last novel, Maurice, was not published until 1971, a year after his death in 1970. A homosexual love story is the subject of the novel. Forster’s own homosexuality had not been widely known in his lifetime.

Intrusive Narrator

Forster’s narrator is an intrusive presence in Howards End, telling us what to think about characters, or even passing judgment in the reader’s place. In a scene after the death of Mrs Wilcox, they discover she has left Howards End to Margaret Schlegel in a note before her death. The scene provides another excellent example of Forster’s intrusive narrator:

“It is rather a moment when the commentator should step forward. Ought the Wilcoxes to have offered their home to Margaret? I think not. The appeal was too flimsy. It was not legal; it had been written in illness, and under the spell of a sudden friendship; it ws contrary to the dead woman’s intentions in the past, contrary to her very nature, so far as that nature was understood by them. To them Howards End was a house; they could not know that to her it had been a spirit, for which she sought a spiritual heir. And – pushing one step further in these mists – may they not have decided even better than they supposed? Is it credible that the possessions of the spirit can be bequeathed at all? Has the soul offspring? . . . The practical moralist can acquit them absolutely. He who strives to look deeper may acquit them – almost. For one hard fact remains. They did neglect a personal appeal. The woman who had died did day to them, ‘Do this,’ and they answered, ‘We will not.’”