Book Look - Howard's End, by E.M. Forster

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.


30+ Works of Classic Literature Paired With the Perfect Dessert

Because the only way to make a great book better is to pair it with something sweet.

Like wine and cheese, however, it's important to plan your pairings in advance, to make sure they complement each other. 

Here are some of my suggested pairings:

  1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn + apple pie.  Both are great American institutions.
  2. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland + pineapple upside-down cake.  Nothing is as it should be!
  3. Animal Farm + animal crackers.  How docilely they march off to their fates
  4. As I Lay Dying + pecan pie.  Nuts and booze - two things you often find in combination.
  5. The Big Sleep + oranges.  So much pulpy goodness!
  6. Crime & Punishment + fruitcake.  Two things seeped in tradition but way too dense to actually consume.
  7. Don Quixote + plum pudding.  Unappetizing upon first appearance, but suspended inside are treasures of great worth.
  8. Grapes of Wrath + pound cake.  Sustaining but never quite satisfying.
  9. Great Gatsby + sorbet.  So bright, so beautiful, so tempting; then it melts and you realizes it was never anything but sugar water and food coloring.
  10. Gulliver's Travels + Jello.  All sorts of nasty surprises suspended inside
  11. Frankenstein + glazed doughnut sundae.  Some combinations are just too dangerous to exist.
  12. Inferno + baked Alaska.  It's all fun and games until suddenly you find yourself in flames.
  13. Little Women + shortbread.  Simple but highly satisfying
  14. Lolita + lollipops.  So innocent; so alluring!
  15. Lord of the Rings + doughnuts. Beware all rings of power.
  16. Madame Bovary + fresh cherries.  Glistening, gaudy and oh, so tempting ... until you realize that they come with pits.
  17. Moby Dick + blackberry pie. As dark and bitter as Ahab's soul
  18. The Portrait of Dorian Gray + meringue.  The fantasy of perfection is sustained only so long as no one comes too close, whereupon it self-destructs and turns to dust.
  19. Pride & Prejudice + tea cakes. Obviously!
  20. Robinson Crusoe + breadfruit.  Filling, but not much nutritional value.
  21. Scarlet Letter + Twinkies.  Because all of us have a shameful secret.
  22. Scoop + ice cream sundae. As if the ice cream weren't good enough, it's topped with all kinds of delightfully gaudy sauces and sprinkles.
  23. Sophie's Choice + a box of chocolates.  Choosing just one means leaving all the others behind, and you'll never know if you made the best choice.
  24. The Importance of Being Earnest + bonbons.  Every glittering witticism is like a zing of exquisite chocolate.
  25. To Kill a Mockingbird + shoofly pie. Because you shouldn't dismiss something until you've walked in it's shoes
  26. Treasure Island + rum cake with orange icing. The orange icing is to ward off scurvy
  27. Tropic of Cancer + chocolate ├ęclairs. You know it's all about the naughty bits.
  28. Ulysses + raw coconut.  A touch nut to crack, and after you've gone to all that trouble you're still not sure it was worth it.
  29. Vanity Fair + key lime pie.  No matter how much whipped cream you pile on top, it can never quite disguise the sour bitterness at the core.
  30. War & Peace + mincemeat pie.  All meat; no pie.
  31. Wuthering Heights + raw blackberries.  It's the thorns that make them so desirable