Tuesday, 15 February 2011

the first Mrs Wilcox

Howards End.  E.M. Forster.  Another I have just re-read after quite a few years, thanks to the Gutenberg Project and free e-book downloads.  Written in 1910 and seeming newer than that, like all great English novels it is about class and money.  Like almost all English novels, great or not, it is about houses and property.  Howards End is the name of a house.  For anyone who has not read it (or seen the 1990s film with Emma Thompson) it is about two sisters and a brother who have money and who are cultured and interested in issues of the day (Theosophy is mentioned at one stage), their interaction over a number of years with the Wilcox family, the father of which has made money, and with the Bast couple, who have no money at all.  The real poor however make no appearance at all in this book.  Forster is on record as saying that the poor live in "the abyss".  The Schlegel sisters  (half German and hence slightly outside the class system, as their English aunt often muses) talk about money almost all the time, usually to congratulate themselves on the fact that they have it, and so can spend their time with books and music and dinner-party discussions.  Mr Wilcox does not talk about money, but does talk about property, and about business, rather a lot.  He has a saintly wife who dies.  Howards End belonged to her and she wanted the Schlegels to have it.   Leonard Bast talks not about property but about books.  He is patronised and sneered at by both sisters, one of whom has his child, a plot shift you really don't see coming, and is killed by books when a bookcase falls on his head.  But the three households keep coming together, some of them have affairs with each other, some of them marry each other, and there is a great deal of house-hunting and furniture-moving and discussion of chiffoniers and marble-topped tables and picture frames.  There's quite a bit of gender politics too, which is largely what makes the book seem new, and which is still fresh today.  I suppose Forster was writing about England, represented by the house, Howards End, and in a way by the saintly first Mrs Wilcox, who is descended from the yeomanry of England.  In the end the solid money-maker Mr Wilcox breaks down and needs to be looked after, one of his sons goes to prison, and the Schlegel sisters frolic in the sunlit meadows of Howards End, safe in the knowledge that their money protects them from offices and bailiffs, and from the lonely death of Leonard Bast among the books.

I am not charitable towards this book, and the characters in it, because they are all deeply unpleasant and unattractive, with the possible exception of Mrs Bast, an uneducated rather overweight woman who has a past, if not a present, as a bit of a slapper, and who likes a drink a bit too much.  But it is one of the greatest things ever written about England.  "Only connect" says Margaret Schlegel, who connects with nobody.  "Concentrate", says Mr Wilcox, who becomes vague.  He knew what he was on about, did old E.M.

You better read this.  Despite what I say.  

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

It is good, I agree - but I think that A Passage to India is better.

Unfortunately - especially following the publication of last year's biography - much critical writing about EM Forster now concentrates upon the posthumous ( and slight) novel, Maurice - with its attendant pointers to Forster's own homosexuality.

Mrs Moore and the Boom is worth it, definitely - as is the whole Adela Quested/Ronny stuff and all the stuff about the club and the Raj.

Useful forerunner from that point of view to Staying On by Paul Scott. Also worth a read or re-read is the little talked about Forster novel The Longest Journey. Ricky is a very interesting character indeed.

Augustus Carp said...

Jane, Howard's End also has one of the best descriptions of music in English literature - Forster describes a trip to the Queen's Hall to hear a Beethoven concert, and Leonard Bast's transportation of delight in hearing it. Worth reading for that section alone.

Sauti Ndogo said...

Paul Scott was a better writer than Forster. I was struck by this comment from Francis King, reviewing last year's biography of Forster (by Wendy Moffat):

"... over the years I have become aware of flaws in both the writing and the character [of Forster]...

"A Passage to India contains so much that is superb; but increasingly I wonder whether all those ambiguities — what really happened in the caves, why did Mrs Moore have that sudden breakdown, were Fielding and Aziz in love with each other? — resulted not from intention but from a panicky inability to decide how to proceed to a satisfactory end."

Jane Griffiths said...

Yes, The Longest Journey, must re-read, that was terrifically interesting stuff

Anonymous said...

Apropos of nothing - but just on books - I am, at the moment, reading South Riding by Winifred Holtby - best friend of Shirley William's mother.

A rather florid admirer has called it a '20th century Middlemarch'. Well - no.

But when we get away from the rather predictable borrowings from Jane Eyre (mad wife in asylum) it is quite interesting - largely because of its depiction of local government. Nothign changes there, I am afraid.

Would be interested to hear what others think of this book........

Free Thinker said...

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