Oct 20, 2009

Howards End by E.M. Forster

Howards End by E.M. Forster

The plot of Howards End is difficult to summarize, but here's an attempt: the Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen, meet the Wilcoxes by chance when both families are on holidays. Helen is later invited to spend some time at Howards End, the Wilcox family’s home, and ends up getting briefly involved with their younger son Paul – with tragicomic results. This is only the first of many interactions between these two very different families. And let’s not forget Leonard Bast, a clerk who’s hanging on for dear life to the very lower ladder of the middle class, and who meets the sisters when Helen accidentally steals his umbrella at a concert…

These are just the basics of the plot – but the basics of the plot probably make Howards End sound a lot less interesting than it actually is. And it’s of course no coincidence that the last book I said this about was the lovely On Beauty.

Let me start by telling you a little about the characters: I loved the Schlegel sisters (who were apparently modelled on the Bloomsbury group). They are idealistic, but not in a na├»ve, uninformed way. They care about music, literature, philosophy, the suffragist movement, all the social questions they come across, really. But at the same time, they’re not… ah, let Margaret speak for herself: More and more do I refuse to draw my income and sneer at those who guarantee it.

The Wilcoxes are different – keener to maintain social rules and divisions, which is a nicer way of saying that they are very prejudiced indeed. But what makes Howards End so extraordinary is the fact that all these characters are presented as fully human. Nothing is oversimplified; nobody is reduced to a stereotype. At its core, this novel is about treating people as people, always as people, regardless of the arbitrary social divisions most of us ilve by. It’s about connecting, of course; about seeing beyond differences and barriers, and about reaching out.

The tone of the narration very much reinforces this theme – there’s such warmth to it; it’s so gentle and inclusive and humane. E.M Forster is a Modernist who reads like a Victorian. He often comments on the plot – and though he does this self-consciously, the effect is still very nineteenth-century. The main difference is that he never sounds authoritative. There’s humour in his asides, and he writes with such obvious sympathy and even tenderness for his characters that the commentary never feels intrusive. And importantly, the reader never feels that it closes the possibilities of the story – it might nudge you in a direction or another, but it never actually pushes you.

The humour works better than the more reflective moments, and the writing (and even some of the plot) is occasionally, by today’s standards, nearly over the top. But I only loved Howards End more for it – I regarded even the most melodramatic passages with the same tenderness with which I regard D.H. Lawrence’s constant repetitions, for example. I loved the voice of the story so much that I was predisposed to forgive it anything.

A (spoilers-free) note of the ending: it surprised me, and I think it was the only instance in which the story became almost too idealistic. But this is perhaps my inner cynic getting the better of me. Maybe the two family’s final arrangements would work. And doubts aside, I want to give Forster a hug for ending things on such a hopeful note – especially after making me believe that they could not possibly end well.

I read Zadie Smith’s On Beauty last year, and though I knew it was based on Howards End, reading it I was surprised that so many scenes were familiar. This doesn’t make me appreciate Smith’s novel any less, though – it’s a lovely tribute to a lovely classic. Both are books I wholeheartedly recommend: they offer social commentary that is humorous and never heavy-handed, they have memorable casts of characters, and they’re both about how what connects us outweighs what divides us, much more than we realize.

A few bits I loved (and the first in particular is an example of what I mean by almost over the top, but endearingly so):
That was "how it happened," or, rather, how Helen described it to her sister, using words even more unsympathetic than my own. But the poetry of that kiss, the wonder of it, the magic that there was in life for hours after it--who can describe that? It is so easy for an Englishman to sneer at these chance collisions of human beings. To the insular cynic and the insular moralist they offer an equal opportunity. It is so easy to talk of "passing emotion," and how to forget how vivid the emotion was ere it passed. Our impulse to sneer, to forget, is at root a good one. We recognize that emotion is not enough, and that men and women are personalities capable of sustained relations, not mere opportunities for an electrical discharge. Yet we rate the impulse too highly. We do not admit that by collisions of this trivial sort the doors of heaven may be shaken open.

And the voice in the gondola rolled on, piping melodiously of Effort and Self-Sacrifice, full of high purpose, full of beauty, full even of sympathy and the love of men, yet somehow eluding all that was actual and insistent in Leonard's life. For it was the voice of one who had never been dirty or hungry, and had not guessed successfully what dirt and hunger are.

On a perfect day, when the sky seemed blue porcelain, and the waves of the discreet little bay beat gentlest of tattoos upon the sand, Margaret hurried up through the rhododendrons, confronted again by the senselessness of Death. One death may explain itself, but it throws no light upon another: the groping inquiry must begin anew. Preachers or scientists may generalize, but we know that no generality is possible about those whom we love; not one heaven awaits them, not even one oblivion.
Other opinions:
Trish’s Reading Nook, Ticket to Anywhere, A Striped Armchair, and a lovely post at Tales from the Reading Room about Forster and his work.

(Let me know if I missed yours!)


  1. Even though I didn't enjoy A Passage to India as much, I'm still looking forward to reading this one and several of Forster's other works.

  2. This book have never really appealed to me and I don't know why. On Beauty is also something that I haven't added to the wishlist.

    Your review was interesting to read, but I'm still not convinced these books are for me. Perhaps at some point in the future?

  3. I've only read one Forster, Room With A View, and I didn't love it. BUT I've heard that Howards End is perhaps his best, so I think I will still try this one at some point, and hopefully I will connect with the writing a little better! Your review has certainly made me more optimistic about giving it a shot!

  4. I really loved this one when I read it a gazillion years ago. I remember being surprised about how funny it was. I could handle a re-read!

  5. Oh, I need to read this now. I knew that would happen. I am pretty sure that I have that copy at home at my parents' so perhaps I'll hold out and collect it at Christmas.

    I loved On Beauty and I loved A Passage to India; I enjoyed A Room With a View.

  6. You know, I would really like to review the phone book or the manual to your vacuum cleaner or some such thing. I'm fairly convinced you could manage to get me to add that to my wish list, too. ;)

    Seriously, this is one of those books that I've simply had classified in my head as "above me." (Honestly, not trying to be mean to myself here either. Promise.) Anyway, here you've gone and made me believe that I might thoroughly enjoy it. How do you do that?!!

  7. I never read this one. The passages you cited were so enjoyable. I love the cover of this version as well; Thanks for the great review.

  8. I read this in January and loved it! The Emma Thompson/Anthony Hopkins adaptation is really good too. :D

    Anyway, I had no idea On Beauty was a retelling of it-now I want to read that one!

  9. This one has never jumped out and begged to be read (nor have I seen the movie!). But now I think I might. I have, however, had On Beauty on my TBR list for awhile.

  10. I haven't read this one. "A Room with a view" is on my wishlist though. If I like it, I will read this one as well. Thanks for your review!

  11. This is my favorite Forster. I also think the characters are so well-rounded. Sorry for suggesting On Beauty as though you hadn't read it! I should do my homework before commenting!

  12. Like Priscilla, I think of this as my favorite Forster. It is just so beautifully done (Merchant & Ivory were spot-on with the movie also, and I'm not generally fond of movie adaptations. Though having a cast that includes Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave & Emma Thompson doesn't hurt!).
    Liked On Beauty as well. Great review, Nymeth!

  13. I've missed this classic somehow, but it does sound marvelous.

  14. I love a kiss being described as a collision!

  15. Amanda, I hope you enjoy his other books more! I remember you mentioned you liked the complexity in your review, and that was definitely here too.

    Jackie, I completely understand why both books wouldn't appeal to everyone! But at the same time, both are very hard to describe, and maybe that's why reviews never quite do them justice :P

    Steph, I hope you do manage to connect with it!

    Suey, the humour really surprised me too.

    Claire, I hope you love it as much as I did! This was my first Forster, and I think I'll try A Passage to India next.

    Debi: If I'm ever feeling silly, I promise a mock review of the phone book done especially for you ;) And I do that BECAUSE IT'S TRUE. You WOULD enjoy it. I really think so!

    Diane: I just HAD to post this cover even though it's not the one I have. It's so lovely!

    Eva: I rarely ever watch movies these days (no idea why, as I DO love cinema), but I want to watch that one! And YEAS read On Beauty!!

    Sandy: You know you want to read them both :P The characters alone make them worth reading.

    Andreea: I want to read A Room with a View too at some point.

    Piscilla: No need to apologize! I really appreciate the suggestion even though I've already read it. And I'm sorry I haven't gotten around to replying to your previous comment - it's been one of those weeks. I wanted to say, though, that it's SO nice to see you around again!

    ds: That's an impressive cast for sure! I must watch that adaptation.

    Kathy, it is! One of my new favourite classics for sure.

    Jill, isn't that a wonderful image?

  16. I've started this a few times, but never could get into it...

  17. I would so love to attempt this book sometime. But I feel the need to cheat and watch the movie first!!

  18. I LOVED this book - even more than A Room With A View, and much more than A Passage to India. I bought On Beauty shortly after reading it but, you know the story...

  19. This is my favorite Forster by far (although I loved the others I've read: A Passage to India and Room with a View). And I want to say right on to your remark that "E.M Forster is a Modernist who reads like a Victorian." I love the Victorians and thought I hated the modernists until I discovered Forster. (I've since come around on some other modern authors, but Forster was the one to convince me that literature didn't go entirely downhill at the turn of the century.)

  20. I loved On Beauty and so I've been meaning to read this for some time!

  21. I'm not sure if this is the book for me, but I know I enjoyed reading your insightful review, Nymeth! :)

  22. I love this book and didn't like the movie ds mentions liking, although I loved the movie adaptation of A Room With a View (it quite captured the humor).

  23. I haven't read this but I did enjoy ON BEAUTY. It's such a good book.

  24. Do you know the phrase "you could sell me the Brooklyn Bridge?" I swear, you make me want to read books I've never considered reading.

  25. This has been on my TBR for a long time! I loved A Passage to India.

  26. What a lovely review - I found it wonderfully true to the heart of Forster's work. I love him for his exquisite humanity, too, for the endless compassion he shows his characters while they act misguidedly and sometimes tragically for the best (as they see it). And he can be so funny! You make me want to read him all over again.

  27. It sounds lovely! I've never read Forster before!

  28. I love Howards End. Thanks for the great review. Forster is a brilliant, wonderful writer.

  29. I have an omnibus edition of Forester's works, and this one is included, though I have yet to read it. I also have heard many people say that as an author he is brilliant and his work powerful and unexpectedly funny. I hope to one of his books soon, and I am really glad that you liked this one so much. You know, as much as I read, I sometimes feel there is so much out there that I am missing! Great review, by the way!

  30. I would like to read this one at some point, so I'm glad it's enjoyable and accessible. Thanks for the review!

  31. Lenore, sorry it didn't work for you!

    Staci: Nothing wrong with that :P

    JoAnn: lol, I do know the story. I hope you get around to it soon, though, because it really is excellent.

    Teresa: The Modernists took a long while to grow on me, and even today I only like some of them. I MUCH prefer Forster's style to, say, Joyce's.

    J.T. Olfdfield: I had always vaguely meant to read Forster, but On Beauty was the reason why I went out and got it.

    Melody, thanks!

    Jeanne: I've heard great things about the movie version of A Room With a View. I want to read the book first, but will definitely also watch it at some point.

    Alice: It really is!

    softdrink: lol, hopefully that's not a bad thing :P

    Teddy Rose: I must read that!

    litlove: Thank you so much! That means a lot to me coming from you :) Clearly I must read everything Forster has written.

    Rebecca, I hope you love him when you do :)

    Marie, I can't believe it took me this long to get to him!

    Zibilee: Thank you! And so true - the old books versus time thing :P

    S. Krishna: It was a lot more accessible than I was expecting it to be. And funnier too!

  32. I've seen the movie - the one with Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins - which is lovely, but I haven't read the book. I want to, though.

  33. Hmmm--now I'm thinking that I need to read this one again. I went back and read my review (which thank goodness my blogging has evolved since then--what a crap review!) and it looks like I read it right after moving and starting my job. I just remember struggling so much with the book. Anyway, I'm glad it worked for you and maybe my next Forster book will be better (I have a few of his others on the shelf).

  34. I just picked this up at the library today and am really looking forward to it!! I love Forster but haven't read this one yet... (A Room With A View is one of my all-time favorites...)

  35. Maree: Do! And I shall see the movie.

    Trish: Ha, I always think the same when I look at my early reviews :P I'm sorry it didn't work for you! Maybe it was timing, or maybe it's just not a Trish book, which I'd understand!

    Daphne, I hope you're enjoying it/have enjoyed it! I must read A Room with a View.


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