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E. M. Forster: Howards End

This is perhaps Forster’s most complex novel. It is about a love affair but a love affair, first with a family and then with a house, rather than a man and a woman. It is about the new commercial classes, who will leave ruin and despondency wherever they go. Above all, it is a novel whose hero is a house. There are two main families here. The Schlegels consist of Margaret (Meg), Helen and Theobald (Tibby). Their father was German, their mother English but they remain very English. The parents both died but Margaret resolutely decided to look after the family, despite the entreaties of her Aunt Juley. While on holiday in Germany, visiting Speyer, they meet the Wilcoxes. He is in rubber. She is the owner of a converted farm, Howards End.

On returning to England – and this is where the novel starts – Helen is invited to Howards End where she falls in love with the entire family (though nominally gets engaged to Paul, the youngest son). Her engagement to Paul lasts barely twelve hours and she soon leaves Howards End. This incident gives us the main themes of the novel. The first is the continued comparison between the two families. The Schlegels are literary and artsy, giving to charity, have left-wing political views and treat their servants well. The Wilcoxes, however, represent a class which Forster clearly despises, namely the commercial class, of right-wing views, despising the arts, treating their servants badly and believing that everyone should fend for themselves. Despite this, much of the novel is about the interaction between the two families, including one marriage. The second theme is basically that the hero of the novel is, as the title states, not a person but a house, namely Howards End.

As in many novels, some of the interactions between the two families are accidental or, more specifically, extraordinary coincidental but they soon become friendly. Mrs. Wilcox goes Christmas shopping with Margaret in a key scene, which shows up their differences but they remain relatively close. After Mrs. Wilcox’s death the family more or less gives up Howards End. The Schlegels try to rent it – the lease on their own house is expiring – but Henry Wilcox has already rented it to someone else. However, the fascination of the Schlegels for Howards End (a house they have scarcely visited) remains strong. When Henry Wilcox marries Margaret, she tries to get them to live there but the peripatetic Henry moves first to Oniton in Shropshire and then to London and looks to build a house in Sussex. However, all the time, Forster has Howards End hovering around in the background. The Schlegels store their things there and visit it, to find that the family member looking after the house has, against their will, unpacked everything. Their initial reaction is annoyance but when they see the things displayed, they are more positive. Of course, you know they will end up there but how?

There is a sub-plot of some importance, concerning Leonard and Jacky Bast. Leonard is an insurance clerk of relatively poor background but interested in art and music and therefore, when the Schlegels meet him at a concert, they take him up. Unfortunately, in the long run, it works out badly for everyone but how we get to badly is also part of Forster’s skill. In conclusion, this is Forster’s most complex and best novel and, yes, I am including A Passage to India in that assessment.

Publishing history

First published 1910 by E. Arnold