Shortly before I went on my summer holiday I was thinking about reading. Well, I am often thinking about reading: what I want to read, what I want to review, the kinds of books I want to be exposed to; and specifically I was thinking about the books I ought to read. I don’t really like the idea of ‘ought to’ when it comes to reading at all, but the fact is that there are a bunch of ‘weighty’ books on my shelves which I have bought intending to read and then never got around to, and given that I was picking my holiday reading – a time when I would have practically limitless reading hours unburdened with a need to concentrate on anything more problematic than where dinner was coming from – it seemed a good time to dip into those books which are shaming me in their un-readness from the shelves. Principally I was thinking that finally I might get around to finishing The Master and Margarita (which I have started and abandoned 3 times), but in the end I bottled it and chose Howards End by E.M. Forster. Perhaps one of the less ‘weighty’ tomes in my custody, but one I’ve been thinking I really ought to get around to reading. And as a starting punt, it is not a bad place (and perhaps M&M will appear in a future entry…though no promises). Thus chosen, said book came on holiday with me and YES IT WAS READ. Though I guess if it hadn’t been there would be no blog entry and no one would know of my failure.
I suspect there is very little I can say about Howards End that has not already been said at length and by much cleverer people than myself, but that will not prevent me from trying. The story follows the fortunes of two quite different families. There are the Schlegel sisters – orphaned yet of independent means, representing the ‘cultural’ and bohemian contingent – their brother ‘Tibby’ and an almost obligatory vulgar Aunt (Aunt Juley, very reminiscent of Aunt Charlotte from A Room with a View, which is one of my absolute favourite movies of all time (and the book is good too)); and there are the Wilcox’s – representing property and business, all things practical and necessary. The two families met on holiday at some indeterminate time before the story begins, and clash together when Helen visits the Wilcox’s family home ‘Howards End’ and falls very temporarily in love with the youngest son, Paul. The Schlegel sisters are ungoverned and ungovernable, they are impulsive and forthright and they do as they please. The love affair, brief and inconsequential, strips the two families onto opposing paths, yet they are destined to meet and keep meeting. The house is the pivot around which the two families spin, the house and a poor unfortunate man by the name of Leonard Bast and his wife, who becomes something of a tool to both sets, a matter which does not end well for him.
Of the Wilcox’s the wife and mother, Ruth, is the most different and during the later parts of her illness she develops a friendship with the older Schlegel sister, Margaret. The house, Howards End, belonged to her family and she is strongly connected to it. In fact the concept of connection is most famously central to this book with the phrase ‘Only connect’ being perhaps the most famed thing about it. On her death she bequeaths the house to Margaret, doing so as an addendum to her official will and only by means of a scrap of paper which has no witnesses or legal standing. The Wilcoxes, outraged, ignore the bequest and Margaret doesn’t hear or if. Instead Mr Wilcox gifts Margaret a silver vinaigrette as a memento of his wife, a matter which endears him to her (for Margaret desired nothing for her friendship). However, connect the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels do, as Margaret and Henry (Mr Wilcox) later become married, a matter over which the principled Helen completely disapproves.
Pivoting around the two families are Leonard Bast and his wife Jacky, a woman for which he appears to have little affection but for whom he feels an obligation. Bast encounters the Schlegel women at a musical concert, at which Helen ‘steals’ his umbrella, resulting in Margaret giving him her calling card to convince him to go with them and collect it. Bast is suspicious of being cheated, but also desires to ‘raise’ himself, by seeking culture and reading and becoming, then, a better and more intelligent person, worthy of discourse with the ‘higher orders’, which he perceives the Schlegels to be. The two women take quite an interest in Bast, being a representative of the poor. Bast is used as a discussion point at a society lecture and later a talking point between Margaret and Henry during which Henry advises that Bast should leave his secure position and seek employment elsewhere, as the organisation he works for is, in Wilcox’s words, ‘on the rocks’. Bast follows this advice, ending up in a less secure position with reduced income and unnecessarily so as it turned out Mr. Wilcox’s advice was precipitous and his old role would have been quite secure. Helen is incensed by the news, using it as a means to further attack Henry and accidentally revealing a past transgression of his which is, conveniently, linked to the fallen Mrs. Bast. This drives a wedge between the sisters. Helen decamps to Germany and Margaret to her life with Henry, flawed yet forgiven as he is.
The book is a series of collisions and connections. The house, Howards End, is a connecting point. It connects Margaret to Ruth Wilcox, it re-connects Margaret and Helen. Whilst much of their idealism is disconnected and theoretical, the house provides them with something concrete that they can build from. It is something which Henry, in his calculations and practicality, has not seen yet even for Henry the house becomes a force which connects him to something real. Thus neither the bohemian nor the pragmatic are shown as righteous or right, only through connecting with something real and recognising it as real do the characters grow and learn to love and accept each other. Leonard Bast, for all his pathetic reaching, is more connected to the real than either of the families which toy with and eventually destroy him. His wife too, though what becomes of her we never learn.
Howards End is an excellent book. It is extremely easy to read, I practically gobbled it down. The characters are not laudable; they are silly and opinionated and too wrapped up in their own self-importance, but they learn to be something better. Only connect, Forster said and he was right about that. Ideologies can be well intentioned, but action is what makes the world and breaks it too. Through this tragic, lightly comedic book Forster pokes a finger gently at the ridiculousness of social mores, of societies ideals and their high-minded ways of dictating the lives of others whether this is in relation to women or children, to the destitute and the poor or the ‘fallen’. And he does so in a way which is entertaining and non-judgemental. It is a pleasurable read, and a perhaps a good lesson to me that those books I ought to read ought to be read for a great reason: because they’re good, not just worthy. One down, many to go. I only hope the next one is as entertaining, as thought provoking and as lovely as Howards End is.
(Note, I haven’t seen the movie either. Next on my ‘to do’ list).
My copy of Howards End is published by Penguin Books (now Penguin Random House, not Random Penguin).