E.M. Forster is one of those novelists that you’ve vaguely heard of but whose books you’ve probably never read. When skimming the pantheon of British literary greats, his name is likely to go unnoticed as you skip from Austen, the Brontes, Dickens and Thackeray, to Conrad, Woolfe and Lawrence (and then, right through to J.K. Rowling…). I picked up ‘Howards End’ (a book that, more than any other, must have inspired countless adult video productions) in the trusty university second-hand bookshop, mainly because it was only $5.14, without any major expectations; I had read it once before, back in my undergraduate days and couldn’t really recall being overly impressed by it, but I was very happy with my choice (anyone who really thought it was of an adult nature would, however, have been very disappointed).
‘Howards End’ is a house. The story starts here, and it also ends here; you could almost consider it as one of the main characters in the novel as it has a major bearing on the actions and events involving the human characters. The intermingling of the fates of the Wilcox and Schlegel families in turn-of-the- (twentieth) century London has serious consequences for all involved and an even more tragic result for poor old Leonard Bast, a lower-middle-class office clerk who becomes involved with the Schlegel sisters on a quest for more meaning in his life.
Forster uses his novel to discuss several themes. One is the relentless onslaught and expansion of civilisation and technology. Machines, especially cars, are seen as ugly and polluting, and Helen and Margaret are keen to get out of London to flee the oncoming suburbia (although, as we see at the end, the sprawl of the capital is visible even from Howards End). This advance in civilisation also demands human sacrifice; the few success stories get richer and richer in business while the not-quite poor struggle desperately to keep their toe-hold on the very bottom rung of the ladder of success. This is seen in the fate of Leonard, who loses his job after some poor, spur-of-the-moment advice from Henry Wilcox. Henry is unable to acknowledge (or even comprehend) that he bears any responsibility for the events that follow until he is finally ground down by their tragic ending.
The other major theme is the conflict between the inner life and the outer life, art and business, love and friendship and respectability. Henry falls at one of these extremes, and this eventually cripples him when events overtake his ability to adhere to his beliefs. His inability to connect his life experiences to those of Leonard (they are essentially the same) renders him pathetic and slightly mechanical (and, as we know, that’s not a good thing!). Helen veers too much the other way and must also pay the price for letting her emotions out too freely. Despite this, she recovers from her crisis and wanderings on the continent and is able to live comfortably again.
One minor theme which crops up a few times is the role of art, or the arts, in life. Leonard spends his spare time frantically attempting to catch up as much as possible with culture, literature, music, art, tries to make up for not having had a cultured upbringing, only wants to speak of the arts with the sisters when he visits them. Margaret, however, knows the truth about the arts and wants Leonard to find out that they are a means to an end, not an end in themself. The reason for reading novels, listening to music, and studying paintings is to develop one’s understanding of the world better, in order to then be able to appreciate it more.
That concept definitely rings true for me; about fifteen years after reading the book for the first time, I feel I am able to understand it better than when I was a young adult trying to get educated as quickly as possible. I also hope that I would be able to forgive trespasses (as Margaret does) and not criticise people for doing things that I also did when I was their age (as Henry does). In my new job as a Learning Adviser (see one of my earlier posts for more details!), I have to deal with young international students who may not always have such a fond regard for punctuality, attendance and all-round hard work as we may like at our college; while I am certainly not going to let them know that when I was nineteen, I was ten times worse, I’ll definitely try to keep a sense of perspective and a bit of sympathy. And that’s a pretty good thing to get from any book, let alone one which was only $5.14.