Sunday, May 10, 2020

Howards End (1910)

I responded to E.M.Forster's Howards End the way I do to novels of manners in the vein of Jane Austen—certainly our heroine here, Margaret Wilcox (nee Schlegel), is a Jane Austen type, and not just because Emma Thomson plays her in the Merchant-Ivory movie from 1992. But there's a good deal more here about class, feminism, and even, broadly, relations between Britain and Germany. Margaret and her husband Henry—she is at least his second wife and considerably younger than him—are both middle-class, but he is closer to a wealthy tycoon. Margaret, and her younger brother and sister, turn in the other direction, toward bohemianism. They read copiously, attend musical events, and belong to issue-themed discussion societies. Two more critical characters, Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Bast, are more properly representative of the working class. So the elements are all in place for social realism, though the mode of action tends toward manners, focused on holding, maintaining, and passing along property, and most importantly on making marriage decisions. Yet it's the background social tensions that give Howards End much of its impressive power. Forster is often paying attention to a divide between Britain and Germany. The Wilcoxes are English. The Schlegels' father was a German national who moved to England. But there's an implication the Schlegels are German by nature. The distinction is that the English are cool, restrained, and a little heartless—capitalists—whereas the Germans are emotional and romantic—artists. It doesn't go unnoticed that both are imperialists, in more ways alike than different, but that's a little underplayed. Still, I was often mindful of the context of the story, set and written only a few years before the giant meltdown explosion of World War I, the pandemic that followed, and all the changes they brought. No one here, not even Forster, was aware of what was to come, though the simmering just under is easily perceived now. Class, quickly followed by feminism, are the issues most top of mind for these characters. But, again, the biggest change and greatest interest for me remained the marriage of Henry and Margaret and all the tensions that attend it. The heart of the novel—and of Forster too, I think—is in the conventional bourgeois ideal of marriage as the ultimate source of comfort and sustenance. Every rat here gets his comeuppance, and everyone with a moral compass set to decency gets her reward too, so it's also altogether highly satisfying too. That may be what reminds me of Jane Austen. This is a very good one.

1 comment:

  1. "The distinction is that the English are cool, restrained, and a little heartless—capitalists—whereas the Germans are emotional and romantic—artists." I wonder if Forster was known as a Germanophile? They were murderous militarist Huns to a lot of Brits by the end of WW I.