Friday, 19 October 2012

Howards End ~ E. M. Forster

Having read four Forster novels in four years, I don't need anyone to tell me that he is one of the most prolific of the Georgian writers. My favourite however will always be A Room with a View for its beautiful portrayal of Florence and for the innocent Lucy. Like fellow-writer Virginia Woolf, Forster's style is impressionistic, and it renders every sentence in the book an unparalleled beauty.

In Howards End two worlds are in continual opposition. The Schlegels are reminiscent of the Bloomsbury group in their advocation of culture. Tibby intends to live off his inheritance and not work at all. The Wilcoxes, on the other hand, derive their income from colonial plantations. Their "colonial spirit" (the youngest Wilcox, Paul, is sent to Africa) is a sharp contrast to the sensitive, intelligent, "continental" spirit of the Schlegels. The Wilcoxes motor all around the country (with an elan, which one might compare with the French poet who thought an automobile was like a growling monster exhausting fumes), constantly changing houses -- Howards End, Ducie Street, Oniton, Wickham Place, and the new house planned in Sussex. This rootlessness of the Wilcoxes is reflected in the Schlegels too, however. At the turn of the century, London to Margaret is "a foretaste of this nomadic civilisation which is altering human nature so profoundly, and throws upon personal relations a stress greater than they have ever born before."

For Margaret, the aim of life is to "only connect", not to contrast the outer and inner life, the seen and the unseen, but to reconcile them. However, she gradually realises that the outer life of the Wilcoxes is so expansive and powerful, that it cannot exist peacefully beside the life of personal relations and emotional truth. Ruth Wilcox had experienced it herself, and in bequeathing Howards End to Margaret she had hoped she would be able to build the bridge between the two selves. The morning after Margaret accepts Henry's offer of marriage, she decides that she might yet be able to "help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. . . . It did not seem so difficult. She need trouble him with no gift of her own. She would only point out the salvation that was latent in his own soul, and in the soul of every man. Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer."

Margaret's attempt to make Henry "connect" is systematically carried out when she tries to make him see that his affair with Jackie is exactly the same as Helen's affair with Leonard Bast. For Henry to admit to the similarity in the two incidents and connect, would be to admit his role as the catalyst of harm (in Leonard's professional and personal life) as well as a symbol of alienating forces in the modern world. As Margaret exclaims, "You shall see the connection if it kills you, Henry".

Henry does connect in the end, but only at the expense of breaking himself: with the prospect of Charles's prosecution for killing Leonard. Margaret takes him to Howards End to "recruit", but in his own admission that he's "ended", this reconciliation is quite a failure.

In the end, although the Schelegs have found a home in Howards End, the connection of inner and outer life has not been achieved. For Margaret and Helen, "The inner life had paid." However, Henry's symbolic hay fever that keeps him indoors is testimony to his failure to achieve inner life.

My book was a second hand copy I had bought a few years ago from College Street. It has the wonderful smell of old books and belonged to someone in the seventies. He had made copious notes which I didn't mind. None of them were distracting, and it is quite interesting to see what one's predecessor thinks about a certain part of the book that one found intriguing. After all, I was only trying to connect.

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