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Howards End revisited

Wednesday 5 September 2018

I have just re-read E.M. Forster’s Howards End. I first read it at university, as part of the Cambridge LitCrit production line of 2/3 novels per week + critical background + essay + tutorial, and it made little impression on me, I confess. Now, I find it fascinating: rich and complex in both form and content, in ways that the 20-year old me obviously couldn’t grasp. So, it’s a great literary work, but not one that I could recommend for English B students.

Everything about it is too challenging. The language employs a vast range of vocabulary and sometimes convoluted sentence structure; and anyway has many dated elements from 1910 (“I usedn’t to...”?). The everyday details of the novel’s world at times demand vocabulary which is now forgotten – for instance, a few wealthy characters use motorcars, but most still rely on horse-drawn transport, so what exactly are a “brougham” or a “fly”? And then there is the English society depicted – where the Empire is a vital project, where women are not trusted to vote, and where the poor are generally beneath the consideration of their ‘betters’. Not, I insist, that these are Forster’s own opinions – he clearly indicates strong criticism of all these views – but he sets out to portray frankly the assumptions and the prejudices of the time in which he wrote.

Above all, there is the novel’s complex vision of the world, bordering on the mystical at times. There is romantic, passionate description of the English rural landscape (now almost entirely erased by agribusiness), but also a vision of London as a strange corrupting city-organism. There are relationships in the book which seem to border on the telepathic, sympathies which the better characters feel beyond normal communication (or is this just Forster’s style going over the top?) And there is something almost supernatural about the house Howards End itself, which seems to generate its own Fate or Destiny. Modern EngB students may find all of this well outside their own experience of the ‘real’ world.

And yet, and yet... There is much in the novel which feels entirely modern, now, 110 years after Forster started to write it. Our students should engage with some of these ideas. For instance, take a couple of Language B themes...

Identities – The family who are central to the novel, the Schlegels, are immigrants, bicultural and are not entirely at home in the culture in which the children have grown up. They are Anglo-German, even if their English aunt insists “hastily” that they are “English to the backbone”. The two main protagonists, the Schlegel sisters Margaret and Helen, evidently embody Forster’s idea of German culture as intellectual and poetic (there are repeated asides to this effect), whereas the antagonistic English family, the Wilcoxes, are pragmatic, business-like, even unimaginative in contrast. Margaret’s development in the novel, in particular, involves a painful struggle to reconcile these two identities, and to understand who she is within conflicting cultures. Sounds familiar?

Social relationships – The novel is full of family relationships, and how different families work in different ways, by different values. The two main families, the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes, also embody and illustrate what we may call the intellectual class and the business class, respectively – and we see how these two social sub-groups interact, with suspicion and incomprehension on both sides. And finally, there are the poor, represented by the hapless clerk Leonard Bast, whose dark frustration and desperation intrudes into the generally sunny and secure lives of the two wealthy families. How much do they – and we – care about social inequality?

You see? The central elements of the novel I mention are all significant today, even if their expression in actual concrete details may appear ‘historical’. Now, even the historical angle is intriguing. For one thing, I want to find out how the novel was received when it was published - to what extent was it seen as radical, even subversive, for suggesting that the poor are down-trodden, and that single women may become pregnant and not deserve social contempt? For another thing, the Schlegel sisters show that Germans are entirely human and sympathetic - and yet four years after publication, war breaks out and Germans suddenly become the sub-human 'Huns'. 

Overall though, I am still afraid, unfortunately, that this great novel (and there’s much more that I could comment on) would be too challenging for all but the most able of English B students.


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