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Howards End – not just a pretty period drama

January 13, 2018


In the end I thought the recent television adaptation Howards End did a pretty good job. Best of all, though, it tempted me to re-read the original novel, reminding me of just how good a writer Forster is and how valid this novel still is in its analysis of human character and psychology.

I have always had a fascination with the Edwardian Age, the period when my grandparents entered adulthood. I read Howards End for the first time at a time when the last of that generation was still alive. Nearly 35 years later it remains just as vibrant as when I first read it and indeed Forster’s reflections on the foibles and anxieties of that age seemed if, anything, more relevant to those we face in 2018 than to that of 1983.

The television version stayed very true to the original plot and the dialogue was often based on that of the novel. In re-reading the novel I was struck that the screen adaptation missed one very powerful ingredient, Forster’s own authorial voice through which he delivers much of the interpretation of the characters he is portraying as well as a fascinating commentary on the times in which the novel is set.

The novel takes place just before the First World War, the most catastrophic event in European history and the growing political tension which led to it is part of its background. This is played out in the relationships between two families: the Schlegels, half-German, intellectual, cosmopolitan and edging to socialist and the Wilcoxes, classically English, insular in attitudes, immensely practical in outlook and conservative in politics. Translated to today one family would be staunchly Remainers, the other, hard line Brexiters (Of Mr Wilcox “My husband has very little faith in the continent, and our children have taken after him”).Foster brilliantly brings out the mutual incomprehensibility of outlook between the two families. At the extreme they “had nothing in common but the English language.”

And yet Forster’s novel forces those two very different families together for better or for worse. Margaret, the older of the Schlegel sisters, becomes Henry Wilcox’s second wife (to the disgust of most members of both families). Forster brings out wonderfully the psychology of the attraction of opposites, how people can be drawn, unconsciously, to what, consciously, they could never admit to liking and the compromises that people inevitably make in the cauldron of real life and real relationships.  This is expressed beautifully by Margaret as she chides the rest of her family for their reaction to her relationship with Henry Wilcox, “How dare Schlegels despise Wilcoxes when it takes all sorts to make a world.”

Gender is a key theme of the novel, written, as it is, during the Suffragette campaign for votes for women. While some of the attitudes captured in the novel are historical Foster’s description of gender battles have a contemporary ring to them. In this, as in all things, Forster is most judgemental of hypocrisy and of men who assert that different standards apply to women than to their own conduct.

As is appropriate for an English novel the biggest issue is that of class. In the midst of the dance between the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes comes Leonard Bast, a working-class autodidact, who wishes to better himself through books and music whom the Schlegels attempt, somewhat ineptly, to support and help. They are enchanted by him and his authentic love of culture but cannot bridge the division of class and wealth that stands between them. Forster, affectionately but nonetheless ruthlessly, dissects the conundrums of Bloomsbury socialists and middle-class do-gooders. Again, such issues feel vividly relevant to current times.

Later in the novel the plot thickens as it emerges that Leonard’s wife was formerly Henry Wilcox’s mistress. The younger Schlegel sister, Helen, is drawn, almost in an act of revenge against the Wilcoxes, into a liaison with Leonard which leaves her pregnant. In an act of cruel double standards Charles Wilcox the son sets out to beat Leonard to an inch of his life and in fact kills him. Charles has to serve a term in prison for manslaughter but the rest of the Wilcoxes and Schlegel manage, in an uneasy way, to come together in the wake of the terrible event.

The final captivating aspect of the novel is Forster’s eye for place. This is central to the  novel in the form of the eponymous Howard’s End, based on Forsters childhood home Rooksnest (pictured at the top of the blog) which was then just outside Stevenage. The house, which acts almost as a character in the novel, casts a powerful beam of nostalgia for the values of an English past fading under the strains of technological change and political and social uncertainty.

By contrast Forster comments on the constant change of London in terms which are fully comprehensible to a modern resident of the city “It was the kind of scene that may be observed all over London whatever the locality, bricks and mortar rising and falling with the restlessness of the water in a fountain.” He also has a telling eye for the mores of London life commenting on Margaret “with a Londoner’s impatience she wanted everything to be settled immediately.”

Next to Shakespeare, Forster is one of the writers who, in my view, most captures the conscious and unconscious movements of the human soul and who brings a deep psychological insight into the portrayal of his characters, none of whom are perfect but all of whom are eminently believable.

Howards End is set more than a hundred years ago but is scarcely a dry period drama. It speaks of some of the dilemmas of Britain’s place in the world, of gender, class and human relationships in ways which are just as relevant in 2018 as they were 110 years ago and were just as vivid for me as when I first read the novel as a twenty year old.


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  1. Thanks for the reminder that some things must be read again as we become older.

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