Howards End (reread)

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?

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31 Responses to Howards End (reread)

  1. Amanda says:

    I have so far been unable to connect with Forster’s writing, except for his novelette The Machine Stops. I haven’t tried this one, though.

    • Teresa says:

      I remember reading that story online last year. It was so interesting! I couldn’t believe it was Forster!

      I don’t know which other Forsters you’ve tried, but this is far and away my favorite. I also liked A Room with a View and A Passage to India, but didn’t feel the passion about them that I feel for this book.

  2. Sarah says:

    This is a wonderful, thoughtful review of howard’s end–makes me want to re-read it. Did you ever try “On beauty”by Zadie smith? A modern re-imagining.

    • Teresa says:

      I have read On Beauty and enjoyed it, although I didn’t know at the time that it was a reworking of Howard’s End. I didn’t quite like it enough to reread, but I’m tempted to see the connections.

  3. Nymeth says:

    A wonderful review of a wonderful book, Teresa. I love Forster for his insistence to draw attention to everyone’s humanity – which is something we DO need to be reminded of even today.

    Also, I wanted to know what happened before the epilogue too!

    • Teresa says:

      The book is amazingly relevant today, both on a sociological level and on a personal, internal level.

      And yes, after all the angst of the preceding chapters, I really wanted more of the build up to the ending. I wanted to take that journey with them! I wonder if it proved to be too hard to do without getting maudlin?

  4. Iris says:

    Such a wonderful review. It makes me want to read Howard End so badly and I have never felt that need before!

  5. Eva says:

    I read this book either last year or the year before and LOVED it. I’ve only read 2 Forsters, and while I very much enjoyed Room with a View, this one blew me away.

    • Teresa says:

      I feel the same. I enjoyed Room with a View and A Passage to India (which I think you’d like), but this book is blows them both out of the water.

  6. JoAnn says:

    Not only my favorite Forster, Howard’s End is one of my favorite books, too. Your review is excellent… I’m ready for a reread!

  7. S. Krishna says:

    This is a book I’ve always wanted to read but never have. I should rectify that very soon.

  8. Jeane says:

    I’ve always kind of had in the back of my mind that I wanted to read this someday, but I never really knew what it was about. It sounds like such a deep story. You’ve bumped it up closer to the top of my list!

  9. Steph says:

    I read this for the first time this year and while I wouldn’t say I’m Forster’s biggest fan, I did like it a good deal. I think it’s one of those books where I would certainly benefit from a re-read one day, since the first time through I was more concerned with the plot rather than picking up on the nuances.

    Also, I’m so glad this book held up to a re-read for you. It’s always so devastating when old books we once loved no longer hold the same magic for us when we revisit them.

    • Teresa says:

      I wonder if seeing the movie first helped me because I wasn’t focused on working out the plot and could think about theme and character on that first read. There are certainly enough plot developments that it takes focus to absorb it all.

  10. teadevotee says:

    I’ve tried both A Passage to India and A Room With a View, but didn’t get on with them. There’s a new biography of Forster out, but I didn’t feel like I should read it before making my whole way through one of his books! I’ll definitely try Howards End on the back of your review. I never realised that ‘only connect’ was from this! Am cultural moron :)

    • Teresa says:

      It’s entirely possible that Forster pinched “only connect” from elsewhere, but I always see it attributed to him. And as I told Eva and Amanda, this is by far my favorite Forster. If you want to give Forster another try, this is probably the one to go to before deciding Forster isn’t for you.

  11. J.G. says:

    I finally got to this recently and really enjoyed it. I think I will give it a re-read after it’s had a chance to settle. There seems to be plenty in Forster’s approach that is subtle, even though some of it (as you said!) is not. I have a feeling I missed a few things that might come out the second time around.

    • Teresa says:

      There’s definitely meat enough here for multiple reads. I must admit that 15 years later I didn’t find much that was *new* exactly, but I felt the richness more strongly.

  12. bookssnob says:

    I haven’t yead this in YEARS. I remember enjoying it when I read it, but I probably missed most of the nuances you so skillfully picked out. I will re-read it, eventually, though Forster has never captured my heart or my imagination in the same way as some of his contemporaries. Dare I say it? – A Room with a View bored me to tears, and I gave up with A Passage to India after just a few pages. Like Henry James, I very much want to enjoy reading Forster, and feel that I should love him, but the connection between us as author and interested reader has never developed. However, that doesn’t mean I’m ready to give up, and your review has reminded me that Forster is due another look, soon.

    • Teresa says:

      I have had precisely the same experience you describe with Henry James. I wanted to love him and attempted Turn of the Screw several times (it just seems like a Teresa kind of book) and Daisy Miller once, but it took reading Portrait of a Lady for me to fall in love. I’m almost afraid to try something else of his lest the spell be broken!

  13. I have admitted before, and will again now, that Merchant-Ivory’s A Room With a View was my gateway to Forster. I often wonder how and when I would have found his books if I hadn’t had that exposure to the film back in 1986. I think the film is glorious (as is Howard’s End and to a far lesser extent Maurice) and my love of the films swept me up into a Forster frenzy that didn’t abate until I had finished all of his novels and short stories.

    Given this love affair of mine with Forster in print and film, I am always a little stunned that anyone could not love both. My advice to anyone who has trouble getting into Forster is to start with his first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread. A much lighter and quicker read than others and may be enough to hook someone.

    Although I revisit the films frequently and can recite dialogue from memory, I have never re-read any of Forster’s books since my initial Forster frenzy about 20 years ago. So I loved reading your review or your re-read. It reminded me how much more there is to the tale then what was distilled in the (in my humble opinion) brilliant film.

    • Teresa says:

      You know, I think I might have seen A Room with a View before I saw Howard’s End, but I’m just not sure. I know I saw it before reading the book. I did enjoy both movies quite a lot because they are just so gorgeous and well acted, but I didn’t fall deeply enough in love to turn around and read the books–at least not until Howard’s End was assigned.

      Thanks for the suggestion on Where Angels Fear to Tread. I own the book but haven’t gotten around to it, nor have I seen the movie. And I have yet to read or see Maurice. In both those cases, I’m hoping to read the book first!

  14. Melissa says:

    Great review. This is one of my favorite books. I love Forster’s writing and the characters are just divine.

  15. Stewart says:

    I tried to read this a while back, before moving on to Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, neither of which I got to the end of.

    For the purposes of pedantry, I should point out that the book is not called Howard’s End, but Howards End. It’s the same mistake people make with Finnegans Wake.

  16. Stewart says:

    No, I don’t remember. It was — what? — four years ago.

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