Howards End is Forster’s attempt to explore the social, political, cultural, and philosophical changes that were in force at the turn of the 20th century. Using three families – the Wilcoxes, the Schlegels, and the Basts, he writes an intricate story expounding the changes that were slowly engulfing England during the Edwardian era.
The three families Forster has used for his story represent three sectors. The Wilcoxes are the solid, materialistic, and practical imperialists. They are the rich upper middle class who keep the economic wheel of England going and who control the working ethics. They represent more or less Victorian conventional rigidity. The Schlegels are the intellectual and cultural idealists. They are a different sector of the upper middle class. They represent the modern visionary. And the Basts represent the underprivileged or rather “victimized” lower middle class who lack the wealth and culture to better them. Through his story, Forster forces these three families on one another and exposes the class difference and inherent hypocrisy of the conventional rich.
Forster favours the themes of class difference and hypocrisy and as I’ve already mentioned they play a major role in Howards End too. This is very much expressed through Wilcoxes’ treatment towards the Schlegels and the Basts and at times Schlegels’ treatment towards Basts. But the most important theme was the philosophical debate on what was life? Was it the outer world of “telegrams and anger” as Forster called it or the inner world of personal relations and emotions? Margaret Schlegel thinks life’s glory is “only to connect” meaning the connection with people personally and emotionally while Henry Wilcox thinks that only “concentration” which is the rigid, conventional, and emotionally devoid conduct of the outer world is the “real life”. This was quite an interesting and in-depth debate of which Forster chooses the winner to be the philosophy of “connecting”.
One criticism against Forster is that the characters he brings into his novels are not likable. This was perhaps true in A Passage to India but in both A Room with a View and Howards End such criticism is groundless. In Howards End, the personal growth of the characters developed and altered their personalities so much that at the end I was able to like them very much. However, out of all I favoured the Schlegel sisters – the strong but emotional and romantic Margaret and the emotional yet impulsive Helen. I also ended up liking the rigid, emotionally devoid hypocritical Henry Wilcox who was properly humbled by reason of personal tragedy.
There was a lot of symbolism at play in the novel. And so much importance was given to the different houses through which the personalities of the characters were expressed. Howards End, the property on which the novel derives the title, was practically a symbol for England. Written at a time when England was slowly coming out of convention and moving towards liberalism, Forster raises the question to whom England belongs? Howards End finally belongs to Henry, Margaret, Helen, and Helen’s son from Leonard Bast. And symbolically this indicates a merging of classes obscuring the boundaries. This perhaps was Forster’s prophecy as to the collapse of the class system in the future.
And it is also noteworthy to mention at this point that it was Margaret Schlegel/Wilcox who unites the opposing factions at the end. It is as if Forster saw a woman or rather women as being the deciding factor in changing the conventional English society into a more liberal and tolerant one. Forster was one of the early feminists and his feminist perspective is clearly displayed here.
Finally, it would be quite amiss if I don’t comment on Forster’s writing. It is exquisite. The poetic and flowery prose and the beautiful metaphors made it an exceedingly pleasurable read. The colourful and picturesque description made the writing more in line with Victorian times. I felt Forster’s writing in the Howards End to be a tribute to the great Victorian literature.
The reading was absolutely a pleasure. I enjoyed it very much. Many say that Howards End is Forster’s masterpiece. And I heartily agree.