Nothing much happens in the first half of this E.F. Forster novel, set in Edwardian England. That is, there’s a lot of intellectually self-conscious conversation about art, culture and philosophy by two well-to-do sisters, Margaret and Helen Schlagel, and a bit where their path crosses with a considerably less well-to-do gent named Leonard Bast, a clerk in an insurance office who is trapped by poverty, class and an unfortunate marriage into a much more subscribed life, but who aspires to something more poetic. It’s when their lives become entangles with the lives of the nuveau-rich Wilcox family, the tenants of Howards End, that things start becoming more complicated.
Literally, Howards End is a pretty country house, neither plain nor ostentatious but – as they say in the fairy tale – just right. Symbolically, it represents a simpler, more stately world in which people understand the importance of remaining connected to the land and family. Because this novel is, at its core, a story about an England in transition between two value systems: agrarian vs. modern. The characters, in one fashion or another, wrestle with the values and ethics of the “new world” in which they find themselves, trying to forge a balance between old values and modern principles.
It’s not just poor Mr. Bast who aspires to something he can never achieve. Pretty much everyone in this book possesses the same fatal flaw. Helen nurses a socialist vision of a world in which the poor are provided equal access to education, wealth, and achievement. Mr. Wilcox, a successful “new money” aristocrat, wants to believe his England a “progressive” world in which efficiency and capitalism reign triumphant. Margaret wants the man she has fallen in love with to be worthy of her love. One by one, each of them is destroyed (or nearly destroyed) by their witting/unwitting self-delusion.
About the only person who doesn’t nurse allusions is Wilcox’s first wife, a lingering representative of English yeomanry who senses her breed is dying away but who, unlike her husband, understand the substance and integrity of the principles that are being sacrificed to the gods of business. Howards End is her ancestral home, and as long as she lives, she serves as the roots that keep her family grounded. It is when she passes and her family embraces rootlessness that everyone comes to grief, in the way that all 19th century novels seem to do, with disillusion and disgrace eventually resolving into unhappy equilibrium. In the case of Howards End, everyone realizes that they have been betrayed by self-delusion and that, as the first Mrs. Wilcox understood all along, it’s the connections we make to land and family that sustain us.
This isn’t the easiest read. The pretentious intellectualism of the first chapters is off-putting; then, later, it’s hard to stand by and watch the characters advance relentlessly towards their own destruction. But I found the themes of the tale worthy, the characters interesting, and Forster resolves the tale in an ending that isn’t unremittingly bleak, which is more than I can say for other novels of this period and genre.