Review of Howard’s End, by E.M. Forster
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/30/05
Sometimes one is spoiled by a brief glimpse into heaven. By that I mean that one can have experienced wondrous hills and dales, gorgeous Mediterranean beaches, and Arctic splendors, only to feel they are somehow inadequate after that rare glimpse of heaven. I got this same feeling after reading Howard’s End by E.M. Forster. The book is a solid commentary on late Victorian, early Edwardian British society, and in some ways a comedy of errors. It’s by no means a great book, but is certainly not a bad book. I can see why some people rave over EMF, although I am not applying to that chorus. the reason is simple- I’ve seen heaven. In this analogy heaven is the plays of Oscar Wilde, written a decade or two before this book, which also included some EMF short stories, which came hardily recommended to me.
Simply put, EMF is no Wilde, not even close. His characters are, in a sense, the stock sort of British characters one is well familiar with from PBS productions like Masterpiece Theater, or the Merchant Ivory films of the 1990s. In fact, this book was adapted into a well regarded film by that company back then. Yet, I could not shake free the notion that this solid book would have been infinitely better in the hands of a master like Wilde. There is none of the witty repartee, and none of the ferocious characterization. Yes, Wilde’s plays were comedies, while this book is not really a comedy, but I kept thinking, it should be a comedy.
Howard’s End is the name of a wealthy estate that entails the lives of two clans- the wealthy Wilcoxes and the plebeian Schlegels. There are all of the typical episodes of class envy and snobbery, a possible budding romance between a wealthy scion and a poor girl, and the like, but the meat of the tale kicks off when Margaret Schlegel and the matrician Mrs. Wilcox become buddies, with the old lady hobnobbing with young Margaret’s pseudo-intellectual bohemian pals. The two women then holiday at Howard’s End, the Wilcox estate, and bond more closely. Mrs. Wilcox then dies, but not before willing Margaret Howard’s End after finding out Margaret’s clan are about to lose their home.
This sets up the rest of the novel’s denouement. Of course, the rest of the Wilcoxes are aghast that the Schlegels are getting what should be theirs. Time passes and Margaret end up marrying Henry Wilcox, Mrs. Wilcox’s surviving husband. Of course, there are other secondary stories of affairs, pregnancies, and the like, but when Henry’s son kills a man accidentally and is sent to prison, well, things look grim. Eventually, the Schlegels get Howard’s End, as the old lady willed, and things are resolved in what is now considered typical soap opera fashion. While it is seen as a political novel, in its attacks on England the fact is that EMF lacks the anger of a Dickens, as well the wit of a Wilde. What is left is nice, with occasional glimpses of good writing, but, as a whole, the book is a sort of curio, from a time when things like ‘innocence’ could be written of with out quotation marks about them, and taken seriously. Yes, both families are implicated in colonial exploitation, but what the book really is is a study of the frictions between micro-differences in class. At that level it still has some relevance. But, it certainly is not an ‘important’ work.
Having recently read A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, which is set in a similar time frame, but in America, I can tell you that it has a far greater relevance to today than Howard’s End because it deals with characters and situations all can relate to, while EMF basically deals with transitory situations hermetically sealed within a bygone era. And unlike ATGIB one doesn’t really ever care about these characters- they are interesting as specimens, to a degree, but there is never a moment when you feel angered at a wrong they’ve suffered, or glee when one of them succeeds. You are always aware that these are ‘characters’, not real people. In short, the fourth wall to allow the reader into the world is never broken. This, along with its lack of transcendence, is why it’s a curio.
But, personally, it’s the look into Wildean heaven that most undoes EMF.
Let me give you just a few samples of the difference. Here is a quote that seems
to be quite Wildean:
‘It is the vice of a vulgar mind to be thrilled by bigness, to think that a thousand square miles are a thousand times more wonderful than one square mile, and that a million square miles are almost the same as heaven. That is not imagination. No, it kills it.’
Note that there is no real hyperbole, the speaker is rather dour. There is a ruing, without a wink. Perhaps a better quote is this:
‘What is the good of your stars and trees, your sunrise and the wind, if they do not enter into our daily lives?...Haven’t we all to struggle against life’s daily greyness, against pettiness, against mechanical cheerfulness, against suspicion? I struggle by remembering my friends; others I have known by remembering some place--some beloved place or tree--we thought you were one of these.’
Again, note the dourness and resignation. Wilde, were he expressing either of these sentiments, would have done so with more flair, uplift, and bite. These are not examples of bad prose, mind you. They are good- even very good, and that’s the difference- Wilde and his characters are utterly brilliant!
A final quote:
‘Love and Truth-- their warfare seems eternal. Perhaps the whole visible world rests on it, and if they were one, life itself, like the spirits when Prospero was reconciled to his brother, might vanish into air, into thin air.’
I do believe Prospero, in Wilde’s hands, would be far from reconciled. But, again, that may just be my lack of weaning from the Master. In short, the tale told is by no means unique, and its preachments rather bald, but it is solidly told, and in comparison to the dreck of recent years one may regard Howard’s End as a classic. It’s just in light of its contemporaries it shines less brightly.
In a sense, this sort of tale, when stripped down for a film or PBS production, works better, because it is shorn of its soap operatic worst elements of unimportant sub-stories, yet, damn it, without the Wildean wit, I ask, why bother to lather up?
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