Sunday, February 6, 2011

Howards End by E.M. Forster

Edition: Howards End (Norton Critical Editions)
*By the way, I think this is simply a beautiful book. If you only have limited time to read, this is one to spend it on.

Forster's fourth novel was first published in November 1910 and met with immediate critical acclaim and general success. Forster's journals and letters reveal some important details about the composition of the work; he early on planned his novel to be primarily about the "spiritual cleavage" between the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes, but other directions for the novel (such as the ending) seemed to come about more during the composition process itself.

Howards End was  based on his childhood home in Rooksnest. (Source: Norton Introduction, Armstrong)

During some time abroad, the well-off, intellectual, and London-cultivated Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen, make the acquaintance of the Wilcox family. Howards End begins with an embarrassing incident, in which back in England, Helen develops a brief attachment to the youngest Wilcox son, Peter, while staying with them at Howards End, their country estate. Helen sends a telegram about the attachment, but the engagement is soon broken off; unfortunately, however, Margaret has already despatched their Aunt Juley to investigate the situation. An unpleasant altercation ensues, which the Schegel sisters afterwards refer to as a lot of "telegrams and anger."

In the meantime, the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes break off their contact. At a concert at Queens Hall, Helen accidentally takes the umbrella of a insurance company clerk by the name of Leonard Bast. When Margaret asks for Bast's address in hopes to send back the umbrella, Bast, in his comparative poverty, is suspicious and hesitates. Noting this, Margaret summons him to come to their place (Wickham) instead. Bast pays them a visit and sharply feels his own poverty as hindrance to his "acquiring culture" in the way that the Schlegel sisters have. Back at home, Bast snubs his lover, Jacky.

The Schlegel sisters are dismayed to find that the Wilcoxes have actually moved across the street from them in London. Margaret and Mrs. Wilcox end up developing a friendship; the two women seem to recognize each other as kindred spirits, and Margaret seems to deeply admire Mrs. Wilcox's quiet and mysteriously simple stoicism even when her other London friends find her uninteresting. When Margaret goes Christmas shopping with Mrs. Wilcox, Mrs. Wilcox invites her to Howards End and at first Margaret refuses but then changes her mind when she realizes that the house is really important to Mrs. Wilcox. Unfortunately, Margaret doesn't actually get to visit Howard's End before Mrs. Wilcox suddenly dies. A note written before her death tells her husband that she would like to bequeath Howards End to her, but the Wilcox family ignore this request; after all, it isn't legally binding and she wrote it when she was sick. Mr. Wilcox does give Margaret Mrs. Wilcox's silver vinaigrette though, acknowledging the friendship between the two women.

One night, Jacky makes the mistake of thinking Bast was out visiting Wickham because he is out late and she has seen Margaret's card lying around. Bast was actually just walking around during the night, and he goes to apologize to Margaret and Helen, who don't remember him. Margaret and Helen take an interest in Bast, thinking he must have a poetic soul if he enjoyed the adventure of walking around all night long, and they engage their friends at a discussion club as to how one ought to help one such as Mr. Bast, whose poverty seems a hindrance to his intellectual and spiritual advancement: should they offer him money? Offer him partial tutelage and things? Pay for his greater comfort without him knowing? Later, when Margaret asks Mr. Wilcox what he might think on such issues, he offers the very practical insider information that Bast's insurance company is going to go under, ever the good capitalist who doesn't think such larger philosophical principles worthwhile. Margaret and Helen try to warn Bast but he is offended, thinking that they are trying to pump him for information about his business.

Soon, Evie Wilcox marries, and at the same time, Schlegels are looking for a new house because their lease at Wickham up. Mr. Wilcox offers their place at Ducie (from which Evie has moved out) and when Margaret visits the house, he offers her a marriage proposal. Margaret agrees, thinking that she might be able to "save" Henry from his single-minded, materialistic views on life as not much more than laissez faire capitalism. Margaret goes to Howards End for the first time after her engagement to Mr. Wilcox, and immediately falls in love with it. The couple, however, are set to move to Oniton, a countryside town closer to London. Evie's wedding is at Oniton, and after the proceedings, Helen happens to show up with the Basts in tow, claiming that the Basts have been ruined by Mr. Wilcox's advice since Leonard ended up leaving the insurance company to find a new job at a bank which proved no good. At Oniton, Jacky recognizes Henry Wilcox as her former lover in Cyprus--it turns out that he has been unfaithful to Mrs. Wilcox ten years ago. Margaret chooses to forgive Henry, meanwhile, Helen goes abroad to Germany and tries to grant the Basts five-thousand pounds, which they reject.

After they are married, Margaret and Henry decide to build a house at Sussex to live in. In a bit of a mix up, Miss Avery, the old woman who is overseeing things at Howards End (empty, since the tenant went abroad) unpacks the furniture from Wickham place, preparing the place for the new Mrs. Wilcox. Margaret tells Miss Avery, however, that they will not live there. When Aunt Juley falls ill, Margaret is perplexed that Helen is reluctant to visit and as soon as Aunt Juley gets better, Margaret asks Henry to help her find a way to see Helen. Henry comes up with a scheme to entrap her at Howards End, and Margaret finds Helen is pregnant. In an act of sisterly solidarity against the men who do not understand them and their "inner life," Margaret shuts out Henry and the doctor. At Howards End, the sisters reconcile with one another and Helen asks if she might stay in the house for a night before returning to Germany; Henry unwisely turns her down and Margaret and he have a fight in which she points out his hypocrisy in being unwilling to forgive Helen when Margaret has forgiven him for a similar transgression.

Margaret and Helen stay at Howards End anyways, and in the morning, Charles Wilcox goes to confront them. While he is there, Leonard Bast has made his way to Howards End after enquiring after Margaret's whereabouts, intending to apologize for the night of his transgression with Helen. Charles strikes Leonard with the hilt of a sword which belonged to Mr. Schlegel, and unexpectedly, Leonard dies (it is later revealed that he had a heart condition). Leonard never finds out that he has a son. At this point, the Schlegel sisters and the Wilcoxes are estranged from one another to such an extent that Margaret plans to go away with Helen to Germany permanently. However, these plans fall through when they find out that Charles has been charged with manslaughter. Henry is a broken man, and asks Margaret to do with him as she will. Though Margaret hasn't forgiven him, she takes him to Howards End, where she, Henry, Helen, and her baby end up staying for longer than they mean to. In the end, Henry is a changed man--he begins to "notice things" and "connect." Surprisingly, they find that they can all live together at Howards End as a family. Henry bequeaths Howards End to Margaret after all, and after Margaret's death, Howards End is to go to Leonard Bast and Helen's son.

The novel's famous epigraph, "Only connect..." belies the novel's complexity with respect to what it reveals about human connection. The question as to how to connect is an exceedingly difficult one. To be sure, Forster seems largely sympathetic to the Schlegel sisters' attempt to live life through personal connections, a recognition of people's "inner" lives that are not contingent on wealth, class, gender, or race, in opposition to the material, laissez-faire capitalism of the Wilcox men, who believe that there will always be rich and poor and the two kinds of people are simply irreconcilable. Margaret and Helen's universalism, by the way, is the old Victorian liberalism (except now mapped on the female subject, probably much to Arnold's chagrin had he been around), who believe that individual "best selves" might transcend material contingencies.

However, Howards End (and the Schlegel sisters themselves) is highly sensitive to the problems and limitations of such a philosophy of personal connection. Leonard Bast's material wants determine his personality and thoughts much more than the Schlegel sisters imagine--in the end, the narrator tells us that he feels abject and thoroughly blames himself for his transgression with Helen, not even thinking that she might also be to blame because of his class. At a certain point, Bast aligns with Mr. Wilcox in accepting that there will always be the rich and the poor, implying that personal responsibility and the free "inner life" are pretty mythologies. Forster's inability to penetrate the consciousness of Jacky and the Schlegel's sister's inability to see her as anything but ugly and degraded is a concession that the well-off can't truly represent the destitute. Finally, as Margaret herself frequently admits, it is the Wilcoxes who have "made" the "outer world"--the British empire, the metropolis, the capitalist system which enables greater and greater technologies on a scale previously unimaginable to mankind. At one point in the novel, Margaret concedes that both kinds of people are necessary.

And yet, it is no easy "balance" or even fusion between the Germanic idealism and universalism of the Schlegel sisters and the English pragmatism which might "solve" England's problems at the turn of the century. the condition of England." Max Levenson suggests a synecdochal relationship, in which Germanic universalism is capacious enough to contain the imagination of the English capitalist, but even so, such ways of seeing are only intermittently realized and they constantly falter.

The ending of the novel provides a rich ground for thinking through the complexity of where connection--whether between people free of their sociocultural matrices, or between the sociocultural matrices themselves--fails and where it succeeds. Margaret and ultimately the son of Leonard Bast gets Howards End, so in a way, there is a sort of poetic justice that balances out Mr. Wilcox's crime against  the lower class (his affair with Jacky). Yet, "London is creeping" at the end of the novel, and one wonders if Howards End will even be around later on. Howards End is no safe retreat from the metropolis, but yet another territory to be conquered by it. Throughout the novel, London's houses are being converted to flats by an alarming rate, and the idea that one would live in the same home their entire lives is all but gone. Still, "the goblin footfalls" remain, which the narrator describes are the dark side of metropolitan expansion and capitalist growth--the poverty and very real (because material) sufferings that threaten to topple it. Considered all together, it isn't clear at all whether the strange melding of the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels at Howards End will mean anything more than a temporary synthesis. Nevertheless, the temporary connection experienced both on a personal level (Henry Wilcox indeed seems a changed man, who begins to "notice" aspects of the inner life) and on the class level (since Leonard's son is set to inherit Howards End) is an optimistic and rather compelling one. And finally, it might be worth considering that this temporary synthesis at the end is oddly evacuated of anyone's intention; though Helen may attribute it to Margaret, none of them ever thought it would quite turn out in this way--after all, Margaret had not forgiven Henry, and was set to leave England for Germany, had unknown forces not brought Leonard to Howards End and consequently Charles to prison. Forster is deliberately vague about these kinds of unknown forces--they are sometimes naturalistic, sometimes supernatural, or sometimes they are somewhere in between or fate-like, as when he describes human life as a pack of cards in which it isn't known what card will trump what other card). We may as well end with Mrs. Wilcox, though, as the unknown force who continues through the novel as a kind of ghostly presence who possibly brings about the ending, finally arranging everything so that Margaret does end up getting Howards End even if Mrs. Wilcox's own family tries to prevent this. If Mrs. Wilcox did it all, the novel consolidates the personal and spiritual connection which she makes with Margaret, because the inheritance of Howards End ends up, at least for the time being, passing by way of such a connection rather than the more traditional ones of blood or money.

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