Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Howards End by EM Forster

Well, it is odd and sad that our minds should be such seed-beds, and we without power to choose the seed. But man is an odd, sad creature as yet, intent on pilfering the earth, and heedless of the growths within himself. He cannot be bored about psychology. He leaves it to the specialist, which is as if he should leave his dinner to be eaten by a steam-engine. He cannot be bothered to digest his own soul. Margaret and Helen have been more patient, and it is suggested that Margaret has succeeded--so far as success is yet possible. She does understand herself, she has some rudimentary control over her own growth. Whether Helen has succeeded, one cannot say.

Howards End is about two families. The Schlegel sisters, Helen and Margaret, are intellectuals, deeply interested in what they call "personal relations," and the life of the mind. The Wilcoxes, who own the titular country house, are pragmatic and businesslike, care little for "personal relations," and only value what is useful to them. If one of these sounds preferable to you, it sounds also preferable to me, and when I tell you that this novel is about the essential struggle between these two perspectives perhaps you will understand why I do not think Howards End is quite successful.

In short: Margaret Schlegel befriends the Wilcox matron, Ruth, who promptly dies and leaves Margaret Howards End, though it is written in a note to the remaining Wilcoxes who proceed to ignore it. Margaret then befriends the widower (and much older) Henry Wilcox, who, surprisingly, asks Margaret to marry him. Margaret, surprisingly, accepts. (Observant readers may note that this puts her on the path to inherit Howards End anyway, which is the only way the book could end, really.) The engagement is not conflict-free, and Howards End represents the stakes is in this allegorical battle: England, the world, the future, etc. In this passage Forster rhapsodizes over a hilltop view of the English countryside and coast:

England was alive, throbbing through all her estuaries, crying for joy through the mouths of her gulls, and the north wind, with contrary motion, blew stronger against her rising seas. What did it mean? For what end are her fair complexities, her changes of soil, her sinuous coast? Does she belong to those who have moulded her and made her feared by other lands, or to those who had added nothing to her power, but have somehow seen her, seen the whole island at once, lying as a jewel in a silver sea, sailing as a ship of souls, with all the brave world's fleet accompanying her towards eternity?

Though it sports some nice prose, I am ambivalent about this passage. It very tidily expresses the novel's entire theme, but to do so Forster, as he frequently does, stamps all over the book, showing his footprints. Was he this intrusive in A Room with a View?

The larger problem, for me, is that I simply don't buy the central plot point of the book's second half, that Margaret would accept Wilcox' proposal. Wilcox is a lout, dismissive to Margaret, disdaining of servants and the poor, valuing only what he can use or buy and throwing the rest on the mind's rubbish-heap. Margaret keeps insisting on his fundamental goodness, but I fail to see it. Forster's own opinion seems to be that the Wilcoxes are worthwhile because, as one character puts it, "They keep England going, it is my opinion." (I suppose Forster wrote too early to know how Mussolini was respected for making the trains run on time.)

But through a convoluted series of happenings, Wilcox is redeemed and all is set right. His redemption fails to redeem Margaret's poor judgment in marrying him, which in turn undermines Forster's regard for her sense of "personal relations." Thinkers and doers are reconciled, and you yourself may guess where they spend the rest of their happy days.


Ingenieur said...

Margaret's choice is certainly surprising, but I don't think it is a gross offense against verisimilitude. Opposites often attract in long term relationships, as we seek to find in our partner what we lack in ourselves. Even so, Margaret took on a harder case than she knew, as we are told: "For there was one quality in Henry for which she was never prepared, however much she reminded herself of it: his obtuseness. He simply did not notice things, and there was no more to be said."

That she persisted, and forgave, and persisted again stretches modern credulity further, since most of us join Helen in saying, "I can't, and won't attempt difficult relations." An older wisdom is required here, an inner light, more visible to Forster in 1910 than to us 100 years later. He only saw the beginning of "the inner darkness in high places that comes with a commercial age."

Christopher said...

Thanks for the input. I really wish I remembered this book well enough to respond better!

However, I will say that since I read this I read A Passage to India, and it seems like it's written by a totally different guy.