Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Howards End


To read or reread...

“Are you reading that again?”

“Me? Again? Of course again! It’s THE classic of 1910 - a literary analysis of socioeconomic changes, class, and the family. Or something! We could write a course about it and humanize MBAs.”

I was talking about one of my many, MANY favorite books, Howards End.

Give those business people culture: a little art, a little soul. Howards End, Aretha, and R. Crumb. Require those potentially double-dealing business types to study liberal arts before loosing them on the MBA community. I’m sure some accountants and stockbrokers would rather read Howards End than study spreadsheets (or embezzling) or whatever it is they do. All those Wilcoxes to identify with and defend - or be appalled by. This could be their top ethics course book, along with, err, perhaps an abridged version of Bonfire of the Vanities . And Babbitt, The Jungle, Death of a Salesman, and An American Tragedy might round out the literature course.

When a friend said E. M. Forster was slow, I had the vapors. Or not the vapors. Margaret Schlegel, the heroine of Howards End, would never have vapors.

Howards End isn’t really a business novel. It is a novel about houses and changing class. It is the story of what happens in an age of increased mobility, with the advent of motorcars and expansion of railways, as people swarmed into London and others expanded into suburbs. People who have lived their whole lives in one house began to move. And many of the urban problems are the same ones we have today.

The cultured half-English, half-German Schlegel family must change their way of life as the lease of their house expires and they must decide where to live. The heroine, Margaret, a sensible, sometimes whimsical, tolerant woman in her late twenties holds the family together, encouraging her younger sister, Helen, a beautiful, lively, passionate radical, to travel and study, and indulging their younger brother, Tibby, a self-absorbed scholar with hay fever who doesn’t care much for people. The novel centers on their encounters with people of other classes: the Wilcoxes, successful businessmen who live on the surface and mistrust intellectualism; and their patronage of/friendship with Leonard Bast, a lower-class clerk who passionately wants to better himself through literature and music. They meet Leonard at a concert, and when Helen absent-mindedly walks off with his umbrella , Margaret convinces him that it was not a deliberate theft. Through a series of coincidences, Leonard comes back into their lives later, and is ruined after the Schlegels pass on Henry Wilcox's advice to leave the insurance company where he has been employed. Leonard and his wife, a former prostitute, go hungry. And when Helen tries to take responsibility, the tragedy deepens.

Howards End is an old English country house, where Mrs. Wilcox, Margaret's friend, has lived her whole life. After her death, this house becomes the fulcrum for a meeting of the characters of three classes: the Wilcoxes, the Schlegels, and the Basts.

It's a fabulous book, which explores many themes: work, marriage, and feminism among them.

There is also a Merchant-Ivory film, written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great post! Whenever I read "Howards End" I find something new that captivates me--whether I focus on "telegrams and anger" or the motor car or the trailing hay or the encroachment of the city on the country---there's always something great. And the narrator?! He keeps me guessing.

Mad Housewife said...

i'm glad somebody else likes Howards End!

I've read it four or five times, but I'm always wondering if the ending will change. I almost feel Mr. Wilcox might make a different choice. This state of suspense must be a sign of greatness: no other novel gives me that feeling!

Danielle said...

Yes, you do write about this beautifully. I've read it twice (love EM Forster in general) and you make me want to pull it out and read it again!

Mad Housewife said...

Danielle, I should have known you'd love Forster, too! somehow I've never reread his others. The coffeetable now holds a wobbly TBR pile: maybe I'll add one more Forster.

Ellen said...

Oh wonderful. I have _Howards End_ on top of my pile for day reading. The portraits and opposition/melding of Helen and Margaret are what I'm after: remember how Emma Thompson played both Margaret Schlegel and Elinor Dashwood and wrote her playscript for the 1995 _S&S_ under the influence of Jhabvala's (who you've recently reviewed beautifully too).

I shall come back after I've read and watched.

Now what is the relationship of _Howards End_, the movie to Austen's _S&S_, the book? and Ang Lee/Emma Thompson's _S&S_ to Forster's _Howard End_, the book?

Is not the center the two women too? with the husband a realistic non-romantic portrait of the old man?

Ellen :)

Mad Housewife said...

Ellen, you're right about the Schlegels and Dashwoods. Fascinating that Thompson played both Elinor and Margaret. Margaret is an Elinor with power. Marianne and Helen are even more simiilar.

I'll have to watch S&S one of these days. I've seen Howards End many times.

Ellen said...

Better belated than not at all:

I'm finally reading this wonderful book -- I don't say rereading as I think I have forgotten it if I ever did read it. I'm persuaded though it would be hard to prove that Forster had _S&S_ in mind as he wrote it. It seems to me an instance of Elliot's type of adaptation she calls "de(re)composing". As somewhat mystically (you can't prove this sort of description) by Leitch, this is a text or film which decomposes, merge, and form new composition at underground levels of reading. Film a composite of textual and filmic signs merging audience consciousness.

Examples: the chapter where Margaret, Helen, and Tibby are described: it is a redo of the description of Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret in modern terms. The likeness is down to Tibby getting but one sentence, and he is marginalized in something of the way Margaret is. Aunt Juley is an ironic replay of Mrs Jennings. There are little allusive clues: for example, Charles Wilcox's young wife is called "Miss Dolly Fussell that was ..." We are to add the poor. A funny scene where the news is brought to the Wilcoxes that Mrs Wilcox left her house to Miss Schlegel (Margaret) has allusions and imitations in parody of the famous Chapter 2 of _S&S_: Dolly fears she and her family will be thrown out; any minute now Margaret will arrive to do it.

Helen's night (if that's what it was with) Paul Wilcox who will marry money and rank -- Marianne and the two Elizas, where pregnancy does not emerge from one night stands (as it rarely does). Jackie such another as the two Elizas.
Mr Wilcox and the Wilcoxes a realistic set of Fanny and John Dashwoods. It really is there, I am not fantasizing.

I am no hagiographer and have not lost sight of those areas of life where Austen is naive, inflexible or limited. She is naive about sex; the idea that Elinor and Edward would hold out to obey such a promise is silly romance found in earlier novels; the utter self-sacrifice and punishing of heroines (like Elinor is to be the one to tell Edward of Colonel Brandon's offer) is a motif still in Howell's novels. She does not see the poor, nor connect subtly to larger economic and cultural forces.
It's not the only sister book I have found: Other keep the woman's centered basis: it's an archetype but the sister book is closer: others are Montoliue's _Caroline de Lichtfield_ where the older man is crippled (uncannily picked up by the 2000 I Have Found It_ which also anticipates motifs and expansions in the 2008 _S&S_); Edith Wharton's _Summer_ where the unromantic marriage to the older man after the young man has seduced, impregnated and abandoned our heroine is dreaded becuause of the sex, and E. H. Young's _Jenny Wren_

Forster is doing this. He improves on his model in some way; it's not a woman centered text with woman's issues at the core anymore, so he loses too.

Then the underlying patterns of psychological romance come out in the now and again twinned movies.

I just love Forster's tone -- flickering everchanging ironies which catch up delight in snobbery, in art, compassion for the outsider (especially Bast and even Jackie).

Ellen

Mad Housewife said...

Dear Ellen,

It was rereading Sense & Sensibility that inspired me to reread Howards End. I agree that it would be hard to prove that Forster was inspired by it, but there are amazing similarities between the sisters. Margaret and Helen are a little more sophisticated than the Dashwoods, but not very. Someone should write about this -like you!

Ellen said...

Here I am again, hoping you get this. I remember you said it's sent to you nowadays. Thanks for the comment on Livejournal. I'll try to answer later this evening.

This is about Margaret. I am bothered when Forster says she loves Mr Wilcox. There is nothing in the novel to justify this. I cannot believe it. Forster does not sufficiently make it clear she married him for the money and security and _didn't love_ him, couldn't. After the marriage, we begin to get hints of dissatisfaction.

ARe we to take Margaret to be a sort of unacknowledged Charlotte Lucas? Old maid makes good? Why this assertion of love? It only feeds the idea that marriage is the great goal.

How did you feel about the presentation of Margaret's marriage to Mr Wilcox?

Working on the book today, tried, Kathy, and hope your work towards your course is getting on,
Ellen