Monday, April 12, 2010

Howards End

My first book finished since February. That's quite a dry spell for me, and I'm disappointed in myself for being so lax about my reading goals, as the end of the Modern Library list approaches. But I've honestly had better things to do these last few months. In the meantime I missed the fact that I topped 10,000 hits, which isn't too shabby since I added the counter two years ago. Thanks to all my readers who have stuck with me in spite of my absences!

Now, onto Forster.

In 2007, I was very excited about A Passage to India. I love India, in theory of course since I've never been there. But I was disappointed - I just wasn't able to get into it, and I don't know why. I had a similar problem with Kim - another Indian novel (written, of course, by another Brit) that I looked forward to but was disappointed by.

Last year, I read A Room with a View. I had once attempted to watch this movie, and was so bored by it that I just turned it off. So I wasn't expecting that it would have anything for me, and I was pretty much right. I think in my review I said that if you are a fan of very Edwardian novels, or romantic comedies, than perhaps you would like A Room with a View. In general, it's not my thing - though a few Edwardians are notable exceptions (HG Wells, Hardy, and the wonderful children’s' literature the era produced specifically).

Batting 0-2 for Forster, I came to Howards End without expectations, except perhaps to not like it. But actually, I didn’t think it was too bad. Maybe you don’t think that’s much of a complement, but it’s probably the best Forster will get out of me.

The story centers around two sisters, Margaret and Helen Schlegel. Helen is the beauty, Margaret the brains. Really, the distinction isn’t that blatantly defined, but it’s essentially the division between the two. Their lives intertwine with that of the Wilcox’s, decaying old money. Mrs. Wilcox becomes close with Margaret, and in a letter to her husband right before she died, she leaves her family home, Howard’s End, to Margaret. The Wilcox family is mildly scandalized by this, and after some legal inquiries simply ignore the request. After Mrs. Wilcox’s death, Margaret runs into Mr. Wilcox, and they eventually decide they like each other and will get married. Then some stuff happens and Helen moves to Germany. The Schlegel’s aunt falls ill, and Helen returns to England but doesn’t want anyone to see her. Margaret, believing her sister is mentally ill, stages an intervention with her husband and a doctor. Turns out that Helen doesn’t want anyone to see her because she’s pregnant. Charles Wilcox, Margaret’s step son (who I think is about Margaret’s age) is scandalized by this connection with a fallen woman, and in another series of events accidently kills the man involved while beating him with a sword. Charles goes to jail for a few years, and in the end Helen moves with Margaret and the Wilcoxes to Howard’s End. Henry decides to leave the house to Margaret. And in the end, she gets Howard’s End anyway. Fin.

I have completely ignored the Leonard/Jacky subplot, and how it connects with the Wilcox/Schlegel story, but it’s really not relevant. It adds dimension, but in a summary of a 270 page book it took me two months to read, it really doesn’t matter. The theme, Only Connect, shows the intricacies of our interconnectedness and how someone you knew decades before pops up as the wife of a guy whose umbrella your sister-in-law picked up accidently at a concert. A mini-Dance to the Music of Time, I suppose.

What struck me most about HE is the language. Forster would be going on with typical turn-of-the-century British household chit-chat, and then pull out this elegantly written, descriptive paragraph, and I think, E.M., where did that come from? I don’t remember enjoying the beautiful (and often humorous) language in the other two novels. Maybe I was just so frustrated at the plot to notice the writing.

Doing research for this post, which really didn’t amount to anything, I did learn that Zadie Smith’s On Beauty is a retelling of HE. Smith has been on my list of authors to read for quite some time, and I would love to see what she did with the story.

There’s a lot more here – the difference between classes, sexes, rural/urban, liberal/conservative, etc. Sheila O’Malley has said, “it's almost like he somehow gets the entire history of England and humanity into one book.” Most scholars say Howards End is Forster's masterpiece, which is odd because I thought that I had read that Passage to India was his masterpiece. Whatever. I thought it was the best out of the three I've read. If there was something in Howard’s End for a tired and cynical gal slugging her way through it, it mustn’t be too bad. And again, that's probably the best complement I can give Forster.

Evidence of Bookmarker Eaters