Fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 302 pages; 2000.
First published in 1910, E.M. Forster’s Howards End is often cited as a masterpiece of 20th century literary fiction. It is featured in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as “truly a masterpiece, the novel has moments of real beauty and optimism”. Even Forster himself claimed it was his best book (he wrote sixth novels, and this was his fourth).
Set during the Edwardian era, it’s very much a tale about the clash between town and country, and the growing gap between the rich and the poor. This is mirrored in the three very different families which form the core of the story.
The well-educated and well-off Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen, are half-German and live in London, where they can pursue their interests in the arts. Young, confident women — and with strong opinions — they are idealists who want for nothing.
The Wilcoxes, by comparison, are self-made pragmatists with an eye on social-climbing and the acquisition of material possessions to cement their place in the world. They, too, are rich, but they are from new money. They have both a pied-à-terre and a country estate, the eponymous Howards End.
And then there is the lower-class Basts — Leonard, who is an insurance clerk, and Jacky, his older wife, a “fallen” woman whom he has “rescued”. This troubled couple is often short of money and struggle to get by, but Leonard is aspirational and loves nothing more than reading books and going to musical recitals, which is how he comes to meet the Schlegel sisters.
It’s a convoluted plot — heavily reliant, it has to be said, on coincidences to work — which brings all three families together. I’ve not seen the 1992 film, so I’m not sure how faithful it is to the book, but I’m assuming most people will be familiar with the storyline. If you’re not, it goes very much like this:
Helen gets engaged to the younger son of the Wilcoxes, then breaks it off, and in the process Margaret befriends Mrs Wilcox, who leaves Howards End to her when she dies. Except the Wilcox family hide this fact from Margaret. Then — plot twist coming up — Margaret, for reasons I cannot fathom given she’s so independently minded and staunchly her own person, marries Mr Wilcox and moves to a new country estate with him. Meanwhile, the sisters drift apart and Helen does a runner, for reasons that become clear later on (I won’t spoil it here). Later, Margaret discovers that Jacky Bast was once her husband’s mistress, but she decides to stand by her man because that’s what she thinks is the right thing to do.
Yes, it’s all a bit dramatic. And I haven’t even mentioned the scandal near the end, nor the murder!
Fortunately, in Mr Forster’s safe hands, the narrative remains sensible — and compelling.
The characters are all wonderfully alive and interesting and enigmatic and flawed and, for the most part, their actions are authentic and understandable. Likewise, the dialogue, of which there is a lot, is excellent: every conversation, argument and intellectual discussion feels real rather than contrived.
Written at the beginning of the 20th century, at a time of great societal, economic, political and technological change (cars, for instance, were slowly replacing horse and cart), Forster captures England in a state of flux, where the new world is colliding with the old world, where the city is growing rapidly and encroaching on the countryside, where the traditional role of women is being challenged by the suffragette movement.
These big themes give the novel an intellectual weight that might otherwise be missing if Howards End was viewed as nothing more than a romantic drama.
Forster, for instance, looks at what responsibility, if any, the rich have towards the poor (the welfare state was in its infancy at the time of publication), and whether it is acceptable for the impoverished to pursue artistic interests, such as music or literature. He also highlights the hypocrisy in society by comparing the attitudes to sex outside of wedlock for both men (acceptable) and women (improper to the point of being outcast), along with the limitations society places on women and asks if it’s fair to restrict their potential, intellectual or otherwise.
It’s a wonderfully rich, evocative and engaging read. I’m not quite convinced of its masterpiece status — the string of coincidences and the odd death at the end take away from its credibility — but on the whole I much enjoyed this book and have promptly gone out and bought a couple more of Forster’s novels.
This is my 12th book for #TBR40. I bought it second-hand so long ago that I can’t exactly remember when I purchased it but the price scrawled in lead pencil on the first page tells me I paid £2.50 for it. Note, I have also added this review to my ‘1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die’ page.