Howards End is a novel by English author E.M Forster first published in 1910 and written between 1908 and 1910. It tells the story of three very different families in turn-of-the-century England when Victorian values and traditions are evaporating and a new order, economical and social is settling in.
The three families interact with each other: the Schlegels are two cultivated young women and their little brother who enjoy the culture London offers as they spend their late parents money. They are well-established, but more importantly, they are cultivated: for the Schlegels, culture is not something you buy or have to spend much time acquiring, it comes naturally to them, and their curiosity. The Wilcoxes are “the newly rich”: their fortune was made thanks to the patriarch’s business aptitudes. They represent another kind of well-established families and, as a consequence, Forster usually highlights their differences from the Schlegels, mainly culture-related. Finally, the Basts are a hard-working middle-class couple struggling to make it every month and, he, to acquire some culture.
A they interact, the three families enjoy an exchange of values, traditions and different views about life. Of the three, I must admit I identified more with the Schlegel sisters: optimistic and little careless, they live culture and make it their every day life. Not that I consider myself extremely optimistic or careless, but as I read, I understood their optimism and brightness came from their lack of worries about life and the influence of culture, especially art, on them. Could I live engaged in London’s cultural activities without a single worry, I’m pretty sure I’d be one of them. On the contrary, I detested the Wilcoxes and their empty lives, for a life is empty without culture or love for it. The Basts were mere victims and I struggled to judge them: were they really victims? If so, to whom? To themselves? To society? To capitalism? Every time they appeared, they made me feel awkward and I wondered what role they played and when I eventually found out, I did not agree with Forster’s victimization of the “lower” classes and their naïve outlook in life and their relations to other people.
The novel is divided into little chapters that make easy and addictive reading (we’ve all stayed up late for “just one more chapter”, right?). The style is… the most precious I’ve ever read. E.M Forster had a talent for descriptions and insights. Throughout the novel, descriptions and dialogues make us familiar with the characters, but Forster’s unknown third person narrator offers reflexions on life, psychology, behavior and social situations. I found many quotes that inspired me, not only to write more myself, good writing always has this effect on me; but also to reconsider how I perceive life. This is only of those examples:
The most successful career must show a waste of strength that might have removed mountains, and the most unsuccessful is not that of the man who is taken unprepared, but of him who has prepared and is never taken […] The tragedy of preparedness has scarcely been handled, save by the Greeks […] It [the essence of life] is unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty.
Margaret hoped that for the future, she would be less cautious, not more cautious, than she had been in the past.
Isn’t it beautiful? Basically, it tells us to stop to overworry and focus on more important things, like romance, I should add, of any kind. if the essence of life is romance, then we can choose to have it with whatever we want: a person, a job, a passion for reading etc. It’s up to us to enjoy that love!
Finally, I would like to add that the class and clash between classes is at the heart of the novel which I would describe as a social exploration of an era through the eyes of a group of very special characters that, at times, shadow the social critique.
I recommend Howards End to anyone interested in sociology, history, good literature or simply the story of three families in 1900’s England. Everything about the book is beautiful and in no way is Forster’s criticism as ugly and harsh as to disturb the reader. A five-star novel, no doubt.
More remarkable quotes:
Rudeness affected Margaret like a bitter taste in the mouth. It poisoned life. At times it is necessary, but woe to those who employ it without due needed.
One is certain of nothing but the truth of one’s emotions.
Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest.