It would probably be overselling it to say that this is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read, but I’m going to say it anyway because I think it’s true. I first read Howards End, widely regarded as E.M. Forster’s masterpiece, in college. I was not pleased to be reading it because I had already seen the movie, which was released the previous year. I wasn’t bowled over by the movie (although I like it pretty well now), and I would have preferred a new story to examine. The book became one of my favorites.
Howards End struck a chord with me that would not stop vibrating; that chord sounded so strongly that I never felt a need to reread the book. This year, though, I realized that it had been more than 15 years since I read this, one of my favorite books. It was time to revisit it. And my love for it is as strong as ever.
Howards End tells the story of two families. The Schlegels are bohemian intellectuals, living in London, surrounding themselves with artists and having intense discussions. The Wilcoxes are upper-class gentility with multiple homes, including a country house called Howards End, where the younger Schlegel sister, Helen, goes to stay after she and her sister Margaret meet some of the family while on holiday. While at Howards End, Helen and the younger Wilcox brother become briefly romantically entangled, and this entanglement brings the two families into each other’s orbits in ways that stretch far beyond that one brief encounter.
The epigraph to Howards End is “Only connect…” and this theme comes up repeatedly in the novel. There are the connections between the two families, representatives of two different eras and attitudes toward life. There are the connections between rich and poor that develop when the Schlegels develop an interest in the Basts, a couple living on the edge of poverty. You get the sense that the future of England depends on these connections being made. No one group or social stratum can do without the others.
Margaret, who serves as the emotional and intellectual core of the book, sees the value of everyone. When her brother and sister want to write off the Wilcoxes as representing the old, repressive, soulless way of life, Margaret cannot do so. Here, we see her thoughts on the Wilcoxes:
They were not “her sort,” they were often suspicious and stupid, and deficient where she excelled; but collision with them stimulated her, and she felt an interest in them that verged into liking, even for Charles. She desired to protect them, and often felt that they could protect her, excelling where she was deficient. Once past the rocks of emotion, they knew so well what to do, whom to send for; their hands were on all the ropes, they had grit as well as grittiness, and she valued grit enormously. They led a life that she could not attain to—the outer life of “telegrams and anger,” which had detonated when Helen and Paul had touched in June … To Margaret this life was to remain a real force. She could not despise it, as Helen and Tibby [their brother] affected to do. It fostered such virtues as neatness, decision, and obedience, virtues of the second rank no doubt, but they have formed our civilization. They form character, too: Margaret could not doubt it: they keep the soul from becoming sloppy. How dare Schlegels despise Wilcoxes, when it takes all sorts to make a world?
I love this. Forster does not have Margaret give up her principles or declare herself inferior, but he does have her acknowledge the importance of another way. As the book goes on, compromise does become more of a danger, and there are times when Margaret finds the connection to be more complicated to maintain without giving up her own integrity, but the dream is there. It’s important. And it’s still relevant. We may not have the same sort of strict class boundaries that existed in Edwardian England, but those boundaries do exist, as do our differences in education, political beliefs, religious and moral views, and so on. Is it not possible to recognize the value of someone else as Margaret does?
The gaps Forster has in mind run deeper than these societal divisions. He also, through Margaret, addresses the differences in temperament that so often keep people from understanding each other, and from understanding themselves. These lines, to me, sum up the message of Howards End, and these are the lines that have haunted me since I first read it 15 years ago. Again, Margaret is the one thinking:
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 height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.
Representing the prose is Henry Wilcox, head of the Wilcox family. Helen Schlegel represents passion. Margaret loves them both and wants them to learn to love the part of themselves that they keep hidden even from themselves. In doing so, they will also come to love each other, bringing their enmity and isolation to an end.
I suppose there are some that would find Forster a bit too heavy-handed with his points. There are long passages in which Margaret mulls over the idea of connection, and the ideas are not presented with subtlety. But the story that puts shows Margaret’s attempts to put these ideas into practice is more nuanced and complex. There are questions of whether it can be done. It’s sometimes clear that one side is in the right and the other is wrong—how then to maintain a connection without compromising? Forster does not ignore the difficulty, but he also doesn’t abandon the dream.
My only complaint about this book involves the final chapter. It takes place over a year after the events in the previous chapter and acts almost like an epilogue. The chapter itself is wonderful, but I wanted more. I wanted the story in between. After having gone through the long tumultuous journey for so many chapters, I wanted to experience the moments that got them to that final place.
But in a case like this, wanting more is hardly a real complaint, is it?