Friday, May 15, 2009

38. Howard’s End – E.M. Forster

History; It was published in 1910, it tells a story of class struggle in turn-of-the-century England. The main theme is the difficulties, and also the benefits, of relationships between members of different social classes. Forster based his description of Howard’s End on a house at Rooks Nest in Hertfordshire, his childhood home from 1883 to 1893. According to his description in an appendix to the novel, Rooks Nest was a hamlet with a farm on the Weston Road just outside Stevenage.
Plot: The book is about three families in England at the beginning of the twentieth century. The three families represent different gradations of the Edwardian middle class: the Wilcoxes, who are rich capitalists with a fortune made in the Colonies; the half-German Schlegel siblings (Margaret, Tibby, and Helen), who represent the intellectual bourgeoisie and have a lot in common with the real-life Bloomsbury Group; and the Basts, a couple who are struggling members of the lower-middle class. The Schlegel sisters try to help the poor Basts and try to make the Wilcoxes less prejudiced.
The Schlegels frequently encounter the Wilcoxes. The youngest, Helen, is rejected by the younger Wilcox brother, Paul. The eldest, Margaret, becomes friends with his mother Ruth Wilcox. Ruth's most prized personal possession is her family house at Howards End. She wishes that Margaret could live there, as she feels that it might be in good hands with her. Ruth's own husband and children do not value the house and its rich history, because such abstractions, while being very dear to Margaret, are lost to them. As she is terminally ill, and Margaret and her family are about to be evicted from their London home by a developer, Ruth bequeaths the cottage to Margaret in a handwritten note delivered to her husband from the nursing home where she has died, causing great consternation among the Wilcoxes. Mrs Wilcox's widowed husband Henry and his children burn the note without telling Margaret about her inheritance. However, over the course of several years, Margaret becomes friends with Henry Wilcox and eventually marries him. The more free-spirited Margaret tries to get Henry to open up more, to little effect. Henry's elder son Charles and his wife try to keep Margaret from taking possession of Howards End.
Gradually, Margaret becomes aware of Henry's dismissive attitude towards the lower classes. On Henry's advice, Helen tells Leonard Bast to quit his respectable job as a clerk at an insurance company, because the company stands outside a protective group of companies and thus is vulnerable to failure. A few weeks later, Henry carelessly reverses his opinion, having entirely forgotten about Bast, but it is too late, and Bast has lost his tenuous hold on financial solvency. Bast lives with a troubled, "fallen" woman for whom he feels responsible and whom he eventually marries. It is later revealed that ten years prior, when a teenager, she had been Henry's mistress in Cyprus, but he had then carelessly abandoned her, an expatriate English girl on foreign soil with no way to return home. Margaret confronts Henry about his ill-treatment, and he is ashamed of the affair but unrepentant about his harsh treatment of her.
Because of Margaret's marriage into the Wilcoxes and situations such as these, the Schlegel sisters drift apart somewhat. Helen continues to try to help young Leonard Bast (perhaps in part out of guilt about having intervened in his life to begin with, as Leonard had not wanted it and Henry had explicitly stated beforehand that he advised no one) but it all goes terribly wrong; because of Bast's wife's connection with Henry, Henry will not countenance helping them. In a moment of pity for the poor, doomed Bast, Helen has an affair with him. Finding herself pregnant, Helen leaves England to travel through Germany to conceal her condition, but eventually returns to England when she receives news of her Aunt Juley's illness. She refuses a face-to-face meeting with Margaret in an effort to hide her pregnancy but is fooled by Margaret -- acting on the advice of Henry -- into a meeting at Howards End. Henry and Margaret plan an intervention with a doctor, thinking Helen's evasive behavior is a sign of mental illness. When they come upon Helen at Howards End, they also discover the pregnancy. Margaret tries in vain to convince Henry that if he can countenance his own affair, he should forgive Helen hers. Henry's son, Charles, attacks Bast for the dishonor he has brought to Helen, and accidentally kills him by striking him with the flat edge of a sword; Leonard grabs onto a bookcase, which falls on top of him, and his weak heart gives out. Charles is charged with manslaughter and sent to jail for three years. The ensuing scandal and shock cause Henry to reevaluate his life and he begins to connect with others. He bequeaths Howards End to Margaret, who states that it will go to her nephew - Helen's son by Bast - when she dies. Helen reconciles with her sister and Henry and decides to raise her child at Howards End. Margaret is usually viewed as the heroine of the story because, in staying married to Henry despite the scandal, she acts as a uniting force, bringing all the characters peaceably together at Howards End. Henry is sometimes viewed as a hero because he triumphs over his inability to connect with the situations of others. In the end, the open-minded intellectuality of the Schlegels is reconciled or balanced with the practical economy of the Wilcoxes, each learning lessons from the other. The ending illustrates the changing nature of early twentieth century England, for the classes are growing ever closer as England moves towards a new identity in the post-industrial revolution era.
Revew: Howards End is a symbolic exploration of the social, economic, and intellectual forces at work in England in the years preceding World War I, a time when vast social changes were occurring. In the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes, Forster perfectly embodies the competing idealism and materialism of the upper classes, while the conflict over the ownership of Howards End represents the struggle for possession of the country’s future. As critic Lionel Trilling once noted, the novel asks, 'Who shall inherit England?'
Forster refuses to take sides in this conflict. Instead he poses one of the book’s central questions: In a changing modern society, what should be the relation between the inner and outer life, between the world of the intellect and the world of business? Can they ever, as Forster urges, 'only connect'?"
Opening Line: “One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister”.
Closing Line: “We’ve seen to the very end, and it’ll be such a crop of hay as ever!”
Quotes: "I am sure that if the mothers of various nations could meet, there would be no more wars."
"Death destroys a man: the idea of Death saves him."
Rating: Okay

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