I wrote quite a lot last year about being Third Time Lucky with Muriel Spark and Evelyn Waugh - after not loving a couple of their novels, I was bowled over by the third I read. Well, ladies and gents, it's happened again! This time, courtesy of Mr. E.M. Forster. I admired, but didn't particularly relish reading, A Room With A View and A Passage to India. Both were obviously well written books, but neither quite worked for me, and I found them more of a chore than a pleasure. A reliable friend told me that she'd felt the same way about those novels, but loved Howards End - I couldn't make myself read it unaided, so persuaded my book group to read alongside me. Plus, having loudly proclaimed my love for Susan Hill's Howards End is on the Landing, it seemed only right that I read the novel which inspired the title.
Well, thank you Sarah for telling me to persevere - I loved Howards End. In outline (and not giving away the huge plot points that my blurb does - BAD Penguin Classics) the novel is about the interaction of the Schlegel and Wilcox families. Impetuous Helen Schlegel and her more cautious, sophisticated (but often equally romantic - in the original sense of the word) sister Margaret first encounter the Wilcoxes on holiday somewhere, I think, but the action of the novel starts as Helen is staying with the Wilcoxes at Howards End. Within a few pages she has written to Margaret to announce herself engaged to Paul Wilcox - by the time their aunt has arrived on the scene, the engagement has been called off, but not before all manner of amusing confusion has taken place - and enough happened to make the families wish to avoid each other in perpetuity.
Naturally, this is not to be. The Schlegels and the Wilcoxes find themselves living opposite one another, and engaging in the same society. The romance between Helen and Paul is quickly put in the background, and their paths cross in all manner of other ways - during which we learn more about all the characters, including Paul's father Henry Wilcox. Although at one point he is described as having 'imperishable charm', in general he is one of the more loathsome characters I've ever found within the pages of literature. The sort of man who favours logic over people, and is always able to argue himself rationally out of the most uncaring or selfish actions. Such a frustrating figure - and drawn so well by Forster - since it is almost impossible to fault his arguments, even while everything in you knows they are wrong. Eugh, he is truly horrible.
Woven throughout the novel are Leonard Bast and his, ahem, fiance Jacky. Leonard is a lowly clerk with cultured aspirations; Jacky is somewhat lowlier, and utterly without aspirations of the cultural variety. His life crosses with the Schelegels when Helen accidentally swipes his umbrella at a concert ('"I do nothing but steal umbrellas! [...] What about this umbrella?" She opened it. "No, it's all gone along the seams. It's an appalling umbrella. It must be mine." But it was not.') Forster is not so crude as to have stock figures, but it can still be said that Bast represents the lower-middle-classes. He is intelligent, and yearns after the outward signs of it; the Schlegels, on the other hand, see his natural affinity for beauty - and hate any affected attempt he makes to cloak himself in learning. The clash of these sensibilities leads to some wonderful exchanges, including (overblown analysis alert) two of the best pages of writing I can remember reading. Jacky - only a rung or two above the oldest profession in the world - gets it into her jealous head that Leonard is with the Schlegels and turns up on their doorstep. At this point they have forgotten who he is, and Helen reports back her conversation with Jacky. That is the genius of the section - which the (otherwise admirable) film misses. What makes it brilliant is that we don't see Jacky's explosive accusations - only Helen's account of them, which reveal both her snobbery and her self-awareness;
"Annie opens the door like a fool, and shows a female straight in on me, with my mouth open. Then we began - very civilly. 'I want my husband, what I have reason to believe is here.' No - how unjust one is. She said 'whom', not 'what'. She got it perfectly. So I said, 'Name, please?' and she said, 'Lan, Miss,' and there we were."and
"We chatted pleasantly a little about husbands, and I wondered where hers was too, and advised her to go to the police. She thanked me. We agreed that Mr. Lanoline's a notty, notty man, and hasn't no business to go on the lardy-da."
There's something about indirect, reported speech that always has the potential to be hilarious...
To reveal the further entanglements of these characters and families would be to reveal too much. They do not - can never - escape one another, though, and their idealistic differences become increasingly difficult to overcome. Characters are rarely in opposition to each other - Forster's brushstrokes are not that broad. Rather, he creates realistic characters whose opinions sometimes change; whose values are not always sturdy or practicable, and who do not always say exactly what they mean, or what they wish to say.
Lest this all sounds terribly worthy, I should reiterate that Howards End is also really funny - mostly humour derived from the foibles of class and the society. To pick one amusing sentence: 'He did not kiss her, for the hour was half past twelve, and the car was passing by the stables of Buckingham Palace.'
What makes Howards End so good, in my opinion, is the melee of the characters - and the directions in which their conversations go. So often exchanges take unexpected turns - steering away from novelistic cliche. In doing so, Forster is endlessly perceptive about how people do interact. If, occasionally, he gets a little bogged down in political or societal arguments ('Only connect', and suchlike) it must be conceded that these suit his characters, and (unlike some of them) he always puts people ahead of these ideas and ideals. There is much beauty in the way he writes, and endless attention to detail. This is picked more or less at random, but I thought it a lovely paragraph - adding nothing to the plot, but everything to the pleasure of reading the novel:
They drew up opposite a draper's. Without replying, he turned round in his seat, and contemplated the cloud of dust that they had raised in their passage through the village. It was settling again, but not all into the road from which he had taken it. Some of it had percolated through the open windows, some had whitened the roses and gooseberries of the wayside gardens, while a certain proportion had entered the lungs of the villagers. "I wonder when they'll learn wisdom and tar the roads," was his comment. Then a man ran out of the draper's with a roll of oilcloth, and off they went again.
Throughout most of the novel, Howards End itself remains elusive. We see it at the beginning; we are teased with another visit, where Margaret makes it only as far as the railway station. Like the lighthouse in Woolf's To The Lighthouse, Howards End represents something to be reached and attained, rather than a constant physical presence in the novel. It flits in and out of the novel's pages, offering something which it eventually completely subverts.
Perhaps I loved it because Forster had his characters on home turf, rather than acting as tourists? I find novels set abroad (unless they're written by someone from that country) tend to become travel guides, and those are very much not my cup of tea. Or perhaps Howards End is simply more astute and, well, better? I don't know. I'm just glad that I continued to try Forster - and grateful that he wrote a novel so beautifully and perceptively.
I'd love to hear from any of you who've read this, and how you think it compares to other Forster novels. I'd especially like to hear from you if you've read Zadie Smith's On Beauty - a reworking of Howards End, I believe - to know whether or not it's worth bothering with?