Rohan Maitzen

“It feels ours”: E. M. Forster, Howards End

I know of things they can’t know of, and so do you. We know that there’s poetry. We know that there’s death. They can only take them on hearsay. We know this is our house, because it feels ours. Oh, they may take the title-deeds and the doorkeys, but for one night we are at home.

I have been in a real reading slump lately. For a while nothing I’ve started and stopped (or even the few that I’ve started and finished) has felt very satisfying, and one reason has been that they’ve felt too slight — that essential quality that (thanks to a friend who studied library science) I’ve come to call “aboutness” has been elusive, simplistic, or (as far as I’ve been able to tell) just missing. This is one way, I suppose, that my quest for novels that are “teachable” lines up with my quest for novels that really excite me as a reader: my ideal novel satisfies both head and heart, appeals to both the aesthete and the ethical explorer in me, gives me language and stories but also ideas that engage me.

I think Howards End is one of those ideal books for me. I hesitate only because I’ve just read it for the first time — astonishing, I know — and so I’m still thinking it over, and not feeling entirely up to the task. (I don’t think Howards End is a novel for beginners,* exactly, though it certainly offered some immediate readerly pleasures.) Until now I didn’t even really know what the novel was about, though I had miscellaneous tidbits stored away from having heard about it so often — “Only connect,” of course, and something about Schlegels and Wilcoxes, and a house that obviously stood for something more than a nice place to live. I probably knew a bit more about it than that, in some minimal sense of “knew,” because I’ve read and admired Zadie Smith’s essay on Forster in Changing My Mind and also researched Forster a bit myself when teaching A Room With a View (long one of my favorite novels). But unless I’m reading really purposefully, not much sticks with me when I read about a novel I don’t know myself. It’s a kind of self-protective selective amnesia, perhaps, so that I remain open-minded when I finally get around to it.

So I started Howards End with a lack of specific expectations that was at once liberating and, ultimately, somewhat disabling. It’s nice to read along and feel you are discovering for yourself what a book is about (notations on the back page of my edition include “politics,” “Beethoven!” “Monet vs. the umbrella,” “odd narrator,” “house = a spirit,” “Schlegels vs. Wilcoxes,” “men don’t know” / “his superiority,” and “only connect!”). But it’s also frustrating — if provoking, in a good way — to reach the end and know there has been more going on than you knew to keep track of from the beginning, and so this reading is, even more than usual, only a preliminary one.

Reading is always a work in progress, though, right? And you have to start somewhere. I’ll start with those notations, then, as they indicate the issues that revealed themselves to me during this first reading. It wasn’t hard to identify as the (or, perhaps, a) central conflict the difference between the world as the Schlegels see and experience it and the world of the Wilcoxes. “The truth is,” Margaret says to her sister, with a combination of surprise and confusion,

that there is a great outer life that you and I have never touched — a life in which telegrams and anger count. Personal relations, that we think supreme, are not supreme there. There love means marriage, settlements, death, death duties. So far I’m clear. But here my difficulty. This outer life, though obviously horrid, often seems the real one — there’s grit in it. It does breed character. Do personal relations lead to sloppiness in the end?

They do, in fact, and that sloppiness is one thing the novel makes (paradoxically) perfectly clear. I think this is part of what Zadie Smith means when she talks about Forster’s “infamous muddle,” that personal things (feelings, relationships, needs, demands, desires, love, jealousy, betrayal, even the passivity of indifference) don’t line up in organized ways, or lead to elegant solutions, no matter how good our intentions, or the novelist’s. It’s the outer life that has form and structure, and the interplay between these forces of order and disorder is the sum of life — though not of any individual life, since for Forster those mostly seem to fall on one side or the other.

I saw, then, though I’m sure didn’t entirely understand, this aspect of Howards End: the opposition between that Wilcox life of “telegrams and anger” and control, and the Schlegel life of art and ideas and impulses. What I didn’t see until fairly far along was that Howards End is a ‘condition of England’ novel: this didn’t occur to me until people in the novel starting talking very explicitly about England — its past, its future, its empire. The version of this question that I’m familiar with, from novelists like Dickens and Gaskell, is a much more literal one than Forster’s, at least in its framing. His questions seem more abstract or theoretical than material, though they do have practical dimensions (as shown by the elaborate game of “how should the millionaire leave his money,” or the eventual distribution of resources among the characters). The Wilcox / Schlegel antagonism embodies this social and political question, which is about which values will come to define “the way we live now.” It may be an extension of the Dickens – Gaskell version, actually, because they are also worrying about the attitudes and feelings that lead to social and political conditions and reforms. But I’m not used to Forster’s way of posing the question: there’s a good starting point for my next reading.

Leonard Bast seems like a key (if a cryptic one) to Forster’s “condition of England” question. Not that he’s the answer to it: far from it! He seemed utterly pathetic to me for some time, and then I recoiled from my own snobbery and, as a result, also from the Schlegels, who really treat him very oddly from beginning to end. Leonard makes sure that we don’t oversimplify the Wilcox – Schlegel conflict — by assuming, for instance, that, in contrast to the Schlegels’ free-spirited life of the mind, the Wilcoxes are the unequivocal villains of the piece. Again, far from it, which is something even Margaret acknowledges when she observes that the privileges she and her sister enjoy have been won and protected for them by Wilcoxes who have “worked and died in England for thousands of years.” I thought it would be Margaret and Henry’s son who became heir to Howards End, because that would neatly balance their two worlds. But it turns out it’s Helen and Leonard’s, and I’m not really sure what to make of that. I can’t see what Leonard brings to the future, to be honest! Another place, then, for further reflection.

I was interested that Forster’s critique of the Wilcoxes was so gendered. Clearly Margaret and Helen are liberated from some specific constraints of sex (is either of them a ‘New Woman‘?), and there are moments of direct feminist assertion (“A new feeling came over her; she was fighting for women against men.”). And Mr. Wilcox’s inability to “connect” (“you cannot connect,” Margaret exclaims in her wonderful denunciation) seems tied to the particular kind of masculinity he embodies: strong, decisive, pragmatic, but also unreflective, controlling, possessive (as literalized in the way he overrides his wife’s attempt to will Howards End to Margaret). We seem to be in Three Guineas territory here, with the intertwining of manliness, despotism, capitalism, and imperialism.

I seem to have said a lot already for someone who admits to being a novice with this famous novel! The last thing I’ll comment further on for now, then, is that scribbled notation “odd narrator.” There is something very casual, almost artless, about the way the story is told, from the shoulder-shrugging opening line (“One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister”) through the many equally haphazard intrusions, but also the apparent uncertainty of the narrator about what even happens (“The friendship between Margaret and Mrs. Wilcox … may perhaps have had its beginning at Speyer” — what, don’t you know? What kind of narrator are you?). The pacing is odd too: the plot moves ahead in fits and starts, building momentum then slowing for meticulous detail then jumping across crucial events with no explanation or transition (Mrs. Wilcox walks out of Chapter X just fine, only to turn up as the corpse at the funeral that opens Chapter XI). By the end, though, the novel turns out not to have been random or careless at all but to have a strong and quite balanced structure: what could be neater than that long-delayed revelation about Mrs. Wilcox’s thwarted will and the discovery by the Schlegel sisters that the house they have (from the Wilcox point of view) invaded and colonized, was always already, in some moral sense, theirs — not to mention always theirs in spirit? What’s at stake in Forster’s denial of the control he obviously has? What could be less muddled than the sense he gives us of being in a muddle? If, as Zadie Smith suggests, this is art in service of an ethical vision, it’s a far different one (I’m pretty sure) than Stephen Blackpool’s “‘Tis a muddle.'”

And with that, off I go to reread Zadie Smith, who seems to have sorted a lot of this out. Imperfect as my own understanding of Howards End is, I’m really glad I’ve finally read the novel for myself so that (with her help and others’ – including many of yours, I expect) I can begin the process of figuring out what it means.

*Update: It has been brought to my attention that this phrasing seems to suggest that I think you need to be some kind of expert to read Howards End — that only, perhaps, “superior” readers should attempt it at all. That is not what I meant (I hope readers who know me at all would not have thought so, either!), but I can see that my wording was inept. I meant that it struck me as a novel that, for first-time readers of it (beginners) like me, is hard to make sense of and maybe even, as a result, to take unqualified pleasure in. Other novels (A Room with a View, to pick another Forster example) seem to me much more immediately intelligible on a first reading. Obviously, with any novel YMMV, and no doubt there are readers who appreciated Howards End unreservedly on a first reading. I am not among them, as I often felt mildly thwarted by my own ignorance or uncertainty about what was going on. I was trying to articulate both what that experience felt like and what I thought its causes were. “I think Howards End is not a novel that’s very welcoming to newcomers” would perhaps have been a better way to put it.