Thursday, July 18, 2013

Howard's End

Although it's a bit after the fact, I'm finally getting around to writing about the book I read for the last Classics Club Spin-- Howard's End. This was a re-read for me, and it surprised me in two respects. First, in a flare up of reading amnesia, I confused the plot of Forster's novel with Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Although the two authors aren't exactly that easy to confuse, both books do involve fancy English houses. All I know is that I opened Howard's End expecting to encounter a butler and maid (who would remind me an awful lot of Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson), and instead found myself facing the Schlegel sisters. Incidentally, Margaret and Helen Schlegel were the cause of the the second surprise of the book--the fact that I didn't like it very much at all! I found the Schlegels to be so annoying and hard to sympathize with that they negatively colored my reading experience this time around.

Margaret and Helen Schlegel are two sisters of German-English descent. They're a Bohemiam, liberal-minded, independently wealthy pair living on their own with their younger brother Tibby. At first glance, they would seen to be the polar opposites of the Wilcoxes, a rich, conservative, upper class family that owns a country house called Howard's End. The Schelgels first meet the Wilcoxes when they are traveling abroad. Once back in England, their lives interest at three pivotal points. First, Helen spends a matter of hours engaged to youngest son Paul Wilcox. Later, Margaret develops a friendship with Ruth Wilcox, the family's matriarch who harbors a sentimental, artistic streak. And finally, after Ruth's death, Margaret falls into an unlikely courtship with widower Henry Wilcox, whom she eventually marries. Margaret is aware that her personality is vastly different from Henry's, but she believes that she can get through to him and turn him into a more compassionate, open person. Some of her main efforts to bring Henry around involve a series of misguided attempts to help Leonard Bast, a poor young man who is repeated thrown into the path of the Schlegels. Not only does Leonard ultimately fall victim to Margaret's meddling, but he also pulls Helen into his tragic downfall.

One of the most famous lines from Howard's End is "only connect". It's a mantra that comes up repeatedly in the novel and describes the intention behind Margaret's desire to find a way to connect with Henry, and to teach him how to connect with others, especially with the lower class of people that Leonard represents. The way she goes about trying to make this happen comes across as extremely self-centered and self-righteous. She's obsessed with getting others to "connect" on her terms and fails to realize that there might be other perspectives outside of her own. The irony of Margaret's attitude may be intended to play into the themes Forster is exploring in the novel, but I found it so off-putting that I have to rank Margaret Schelgel among my least favorite literary characters. I know that many people love Howard's End and will likely disagree with me on this, so I want to make it clear that I'm by no means anti-Forster. I liked A Passage to India and loved A Room with a View, but just couldn't get past my personal distaste of this particular novel. But even though I didn't like it, I still have respect for it as a piece of literature. So much respect, in fact, that I refrained from going with my first choice for the title of this post: "Howard's End...Couldn't Come Soon Enough"!


  1. I had to go back and look at my review of Howards End to remember what I thought of the characters and of the book. (I read it over two years ago.) With that to jog my memory . . . I found on that first read to be engaged mostly with the themes of Howards End, particularly that of belonging to a place. I found the characters interesting. I knew so little about the plot going in that I was surprised as to how it all ended up.

  2. "Howard's End...Couldn't Come Soon Enough"! Brilliant. You definitely should have used this title for the review. :P

    I enjoyed this novel a lot more than "A Passage to India" but that really isn't saying much. I just find Forster's style of writing to be so priggish and dull. Sure, there are brief moments of insight or beauty but not enough to sustain my attention. Not a fan.



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