Our book today is, naturally enough, Howards End, E.M. Forster’s signature masterpiece that’s an unbelievable 100 years old in 2010. The selection of Howards End was probably inevitable from the moment I found that paperback porcupined with post-its – after all, any book that could lead an attentive reader to consider so many pages vital is a book deserving of mention on Stevereads, but it’s more than that: you know there’s something special about a novel when after reading it you find it nearly impossible to believe its age.
Booth Tarkington’s short, pithy novel Seventeen was written in 1916 and feels every single one of those years. Even the greatest novels of William Dean Howells are very firmly products of their time. They’re like great weather-beaten rocks in the river: they part the waters on either side, you paddle your kayak around them with respect and even aesthetic appreciation, and then you leave them behind, and eventually the turn of the river hides them from sight. There’s nothing wrong with such books – to extend the simile, their very solidity helps to shape the riverbed and the shores on either side, and that’s important.
But some books are the flowing water itself, and Howards End is one of those books. Reading it is brightly, personally thrilling, every time. It’s the story of the artistic, free-thinking Schlegel girls and their unplanned but extensive encounter with the pragmatic, harebrained (and moneyed) Wilcox family, the owners of the lovely house-and-grounds of the book’s title. Even new readers to the book will instinctively cringe when the Schlegel girls’ blustery, well-meaning Aunt Juley mistakenly calls the place “Howards Lodge,” and they’re not cringing over her dim wit – the reaction comes from the almost instinctive feeling that Howards End is an archetypal place in the imagination, a place, like Camelot or Brideshead, that you simply don’t get wrong.
Brideshead indeed. As in Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, the representatives of two English families of different social classes meet in unplanned ways – and the lower class gets to watch as the higher class very nearly self-destructs. Like Charles Ryder, Helen, the younger of the Schlegels, falls in love “not with an individual, but with a family,” and for a time it overwhelms her solid liberal intellectual foundation:
The energy of the Wilcoxes had fascinated her, had created new images of beauty in her responsive mind. To be all day with them in the open air, to sleep at night under their roof, had seemed the supreme joy of life, and had led to that abandonment of personality that is a possible prelude to love. She had liked giving in to Mr. Wilcox, or Evie, or Charles; she had liked being told that her notions of life were sheltered or academic … one by one the Schlegel fetiches had been overthrown, and, though professing to defend them, she had rejoiced. When Mr. Wilcox said that one sound man of business did more good to the world than a dozen of your social reformers, she had swallowed the curious assertion without a gasp, and had leant back luxuriously among the cushions of his motor-car. When Charles had said: “Why be so polite to servants? They don’t understand it,” she had not given the Schlegel retort of: “If they don’t understand it, I do.” No; she had vowed to be less polite to servants in the future. “I am swathed in cant,” she thought, “and it is good for me to be stripped of it.”
She eventually recalls herself to most of the well-grounded gentle and considered ideas that her Wilcox-infatuation at first prompts her to consider ‘cant,’ but only after a great deal of the particular kind of intellectual hashing and re-hashing that make Howards End such an endlessly invigorating novel. The Schlegels are forever mouth-piecing philosophical set-pieces of Forster himself – and forever commenting on it when they do, as when Magaret, the older and wiser Schlegel sister, opines in haste:
“Of course I have everything to learn – absolutely everything – just as much as Helen. Life’s very difficult and full of surprises. At any event, I’ve got as far as that. To be humble and kind, to go straight ahead, to love people rather than pity them, to remember the submerged – well, one can’t do all these things at once, worse luck, because they’re so contradictory. It’s then that proportion comes in – to live by proportion. Don’t Begin with proportion. Only prigs do that. Let proportion come in as a last resource, when the better things have failed, and a deadlock – Gracious me, I’ve started preaching!”
Yes she has, and readers wouldn’t have it any other way. Everybody in Howards End preaches (with the possible exception of the powerfully-drawn and saintly Wilcox materfamilias Ruth, although even she gets in her fair share of stem-winding), and that most certainly includes Forster himself. In a heroically rococo gesture (one that would have been immediately recognizable to Fielding but must leave people like Ishiguro completely befuddled), the narrative voice of Forster’s novel, in addition to telling us what’s happening, is forever interrupting to tell us – well, whatever’s on its mind at the moment. Most of these interruptions are also well-worn and oft-practiced Forsterisms, and all of them are intellectually evocative:
Why has not England a great mythology? Our folklore has never advanced beyond daintiness, and the greater melodies about our countryside have all been issued through the pipes of Greece. Deep and true as the native imagination can be, it seems to have failed here. It has stopped with the witches and the fairies. It cannot vivify one fraction of a summer field, or give names to half a dozen stars. England still waits for the supreme moment of her literature – for the great poet who shall voice her, or, better still, for the thousand little poets whose voices shall pass into our common talk.
Here, at least as far as it goes, the narrator is wrong (or, more likely, willfully coy): the great mythology of England is its novels, that imaginative geography unequalled by the literature of any nation, past or present, in the history of the world. The road to Canterbury … Elsinore … Utopia …Wuthering Heights … Barsetshire … Northanger Abbey … Middlemarch … Totleigh Towers … Brideshead … the Shire … How poor the literary world would be, if not for the ‘great mythology’ bestowed on it by England. One hundred years ago, that mythology received the hugely vital addition of Howards End, and that anonymous post-itter was right: virtually every single page of it is worth treasuring. Those of you who haven’t read it should put it on your shortest list. And those of you who have read it can take it from me: the re-reading is marvelous.