Thursday, November 02, 2006

E. M. Forster – ‘Howards End’

Howards End is about the artistic temperament, and how it fits into a society of practical but unimaginative men. It’s about the conflict between art and society, and between art and life. It’s about personal morality and personal relations, and the difference between alert, alive relations and tired, inhibited ones. It says: some people are better than others. It says: practicality has some value, having built us our civilisation; impracticality more, because it knows (or can sense) how to live. It’s about the way people speak, and the things they unconsciously give away as they do so. It’s at once insubstantial, because it turns on events and situations which the outer world would not even recognise as such, and the stuff of life itself: its principal characters, the sisters Margaret and Helen Schlegel, are sustained through the buffeting of the life’s events (romantic entanglements, death, illness, the loss of their home) by the kind of inner life familiar to anyone who ever got past arguing with their siblings.

Anyone? Perhaps not. Howard’s End is nothing if not particular. It may generalise, and suggest extrapolations from its own depictions (Leonard Bast especially is more sign than character, with his poverty and aspirations, standing ‘at the extreme verge of gentility’ (p.31)), but it creates its own types to generalise about. It takes on what might be termed the morality of art, or of imagination, or of spirituality. A morality which does not say, it is wrong to smack a child and right to give to charity, but rather: it is wrong to grow up entirely, and right to contemplate. Margaret, for instance, feels the importance of houses (the book is named after the one she has the most affinity for), the space they give and the permanence. At a crisis point near the end of the book, Margaret and Helen, at Howards End, surrounded by furniture which has been moved from their old house at Wickham Place, and not knowing when they will see one another again nor how things exactly stand between them, silently decide to rearrange the chairs, and a healing process begins. The action signals a shared past and a shared sensibility. A similar but broader view is expressed in this passage:

The feudal ownership of land did bring dignity, whereas the modern ownership of movables is reducing us again to a nomadic horde. We are reverting to the civilization of luggage, and historians of the future will note how the middle classes accreted possessions without taking root in the earth, and may find in this the secret of their imaginative poverty. (p. 107)

Howards End stands at the threshold of a new age, remarkably similar to the one at which we find ourselves 96 years on. Margaret’s – and the narrator’s – concerns about the loss of what makes life worthwhile (but which is impossible to tie down to a formula) chime perfectly with the internet age. One of them (I can’t find the exact quote) complains that London can stimulate but not sustain. Elsewhere the narrator says of her:

It is impossible to see modern life steadily and see it whole, and she had chosen to see it whole. (p. 115)

What has changed? The internet promotes content, the idea that all of human creation is at our fingertips. A click and a jiffy bag away. And so it is, but this at once precludes the possibility of seeing anything steadily, unless one is either extremely blinkered or has an iron will. How to find a calm island when all is flux? How to get to your own two individual feet when the ground won’t stay still? There’s no place like home anymore.

The Leonard Bast portion of the story felt at times like a slap in the face to this blog. Leonard is poor, and tries to educate himself by reading, and going to classical concerts. Only, he is too tired out by his work as an insurance clerk to give art the attention it needs – unlike the independently wealthy set with which most of the narrative is concerned. What am I doing here, if not ploughing through books in order to ward off the ill effects of a drudge job? It’s frustrating when tiredness gets the upper hand, but what are you going to do? Watch TV, go to the cinema, get your fiction compressed, is the 20th Century’s answer. Hopefully I don’t make Leonard’s mistake of thinking books are the be-all and end-all. In another passage I can’t find he is criticised for missing the point that books are intended to illuminate life, they’re not, by and large, stone tablets to be taken seriously, unquestioningly, swallowed whole after meals.

I don’t know if I’ve got across how much I love this book. It was a surprise. I’m not new to Forster, but seem to have come to him the wrong way about: first with A Passage to India and Where Angels Fear to Tread, then after a gap of some years The Longest Journey and A Room with a View, after Zadie Smith wrote about him in The Guardian while she was writing On Beauty. It’s because that book’s on my shelf that I read this one now. Where the others were (increasingly in the order I read them) immaculate, pained, English, Howards End was, within about 30 pages, one of my favourite books. That slightly farcical opening reminded me of Wodehouse, more so than any of the daft situations people get into in the other books (e.g. Miss Quested’s cave escapade in A Passage to India). About all of them it could be said: great backgrounds, silly story. This is not a flaw, as Forster’s subject is the minutiae of English manners (especially with regard to flirting), and the terrible personal consequences which can spring from politeness and propriety. Howards End plays the silliness for laughs much more successfully than Forster manages elsewhere. His authorial voice is stronger, it makes sense for On Beauty (which is going to have a tough time measuring up to this) to be titled as though an essay, because Forster is arguing a point here. He is arguing for what he believes, about modern life, about inner life, about friendship, family, class, commerce, property. And it is an argument which, whilst beautifully made, is not going to win anybody over who was not already of a similar mind. It’s too individual, too unquantifiable. But if you want to know how to be happy, there are worse places to go for advice than Howards End.


Anonymous said...

Excellent response to Forster's great novel. I'm reading it right now. I think your response to it captures its majesty wonderfully.

The big question i'm trying to answer right now concerns the very very intrusive narrator.

Chris said...

Wow, I was in a mood with work that week, wasn't I? I think the 'intrusive' narration works really well - there is a point being argued, on behalf of sensibility (embodied by Margaret and Helen), and a part of that point is that what is good about sensibility (or what constitutes sensibility) is hard to pin down. It's something you know when you see, but not easily defined or defended. The narrator's fondness for the Schlegels and antipathy towards the Wilcoxes helps to express this, I think.

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