Top critical review
2017 · edit liked it bookshelves
on 8 December 2017
by E.M. Forster
David James's review
Dec 02, 2017 · edit
Forster, EM. Howard’s End
I thought that I had finished with EMF fifty years ago, but lately have found myself turning back to the struggles of Margaret and Helen Schlegel to reconcile what Forster has memorably termed the ‘prose and the passion,’ something that he found missing in his account of English life in the pre WW1 period. My reason for reopening this, admitedly dated volume is the latest televised version of Howard’s End, billed like the persistent novels of Jane Austen as ‘a costume drama.’ The novel begins with two chatty letters from Helen to her sister Margaret extolling the virtues of Howard’s End where she is staying with the Wilcox family - and fallng in love with Paul the eldest son. This heady passion proves to be a fantasy of Helen, whose impulsive nature is to be her undoing. What she needs is more common sense, the steadying hand of the business class, such as the Wilcoxes - class is to be an insuperable problem in the book - giving plenty of scope for the author’s opinions.
Indeed, authorial nagging and advice is ever-present in the book, proving to be its undoing in my opinion. The terms ‘dated’ and ‘old-fashioned’ are not out of place as a comment on this book, which would never be used for let us say, any of the novels of Dickens or Jane Austen. Forster’s thesis that all one needs is to ‘connect the prose and the passion’ for everything in the (English) garden to be lovely wears very thin. One of Forster’s virtues is clarity, but at the cost of over-simplification. He can get away with ‘typical’ characterusation in his lighter novels, but is far too cumbersome and intrusive here. One example from dozens that could be culled illustrates Forster’s didactic capacity in his treatment of the Basts, the ill-assorted couple supposed to represent the working class - and this is a very class-consciously obsessed book. We are invited to share Leonard Bast’s cultural aspirations - he is a sort of HG Wells in embryo: He discovered that he was going bareheaded down Regent Street. London came back with a rush. Few were about at this hour, but all whom he passed looked at him with hostility that was the more impressive because it was unconscious. He put his hat on. It was too big; his head disappeared like a pudding into a basin, the ears bending outwards at the touch of the curly brim. Having adjusted the angle, however, he becomes a changed man: Thus equipped , he escaped criticism. No one felt uneasy as he titupped along the pavements, the heart of a man ticking fast in his breast.
The novel was first published in 1910, and while Bast’s aspirations to become accepted in polite society convince, his presence here is awkward, and despite Helen’s efforts to include him he remains an outsider. It is perhaps fitting that he ends by being smothered under a library of books when the bookcase collapses on him. But that belongs in the realm of irony or satire, which this book definitely does not.