Sunday, December 7, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Howards End by E.M. Forster

I thought I would probably throw in the towel on the Back-to-the-Classics Challenge after completing the required books, leaving the last two optional books unread. I hated to give in, but with so little time left, I had trouble summoning up the necessary enthusiasm. And then I read Vanessa and her Sister by Priya Parmar. This marvelous book swept me up in the doings of the Bloomsbury Set which included E.M. Forster. In the course of the novel, other characters discussed in passing what Forster was doing and cheered his literary success. After that, I couldn’t ignore Howards End on my Classics Challenge list. It is my "classic adapted into a movie." I know I saw the movie many years ago, but couldn’t tell you one thing about it. So, onward to the book.

Howards End by E.M. Forster is a very pretty book, steeped in its own ideas. Forster puts those ideas into the mouths and hearts of its main characters, primarily Margaret Schlegel but also her younger sister, Helen. These girls, who are independently wealthy, of mixed English and German descent but living in London (with their brother Tibby) have essentially raised themselves and appear to be modeled somewhat after the Stephen family, complete with evenings at home where young people gather to chatter about art, philosophy, politics, and literature. Margaret and Helen are quite consumed with culture.

Their paths cross with that of the Wilcoxes, a more robust English family, also wealthy, but whose money comes from industry not from inheritance. Helen has a very brief, very impulsive, and very mistaken romantic interlude with the youngest son Paul, which is over before it is half begun. Ruth Wilcox, the extremely gracious matriarch, owns a home called Howards End on the outskirts of London. After the failed romance, the Wilcoxes pass out of the lives of the Schlegels.

But they pass back in again. This time it is Margaret and Ruth who become friends.

In the meantime, Margaret and Helen have also become acquainted with a young man, a clerk, named Leonard Bast, who is teetering on the edge of poverty but who yearns to have higher minded ideals than he can afford. The acquaintance is very slight, but Leonard is destined to keep crossing paths with the Schlegels just as the Wilcoxes are.

A good deal happens to these families over the years and we are to assume that they each have a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, and a great deal happens to London as the city grows and sprawls, but the novel skims over extraneous people, and boils the events down to their essence. The lives of these three families circle each other and intertwine. Eventually, they are rooted at Howards End.

The plotting is not overly complex–compared to, say, the plotlines of Balzac (a classics challenge favorite of mine.) It is a dreamy, introspective novel with characters who like to chew over their thoughts and admire the scenery. Their great dramatic scenes are fairly subdued. But the book draws you in. It’s hypnotic. And now I want to watch the movie again to see how it compares.


  1. I love this book, as well as the movie. I think I should re-read it actually, since I read it way back in high school!

    Speaking of Forster, you might want to look into Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year. The book is fictionalized look at the life of Forster. As I mentioned in a previous comment, I'm generally not one to read novels about artists, but this one is definitely going on my wish list.

  2. Your review has made me really want to try this, but I did not have a good experience with Passage to India. Maybe I will see if I can get hold of a library copy first...

  3. Thanks for the review; this is one of the classics I have not read yet. I came into 2014 hoping to read some of the great books that I've missed but, as usual, I didn't do a very good job of staying focused on that goal. I did finally manage to get through "Moby Dick" but was so underwhelmed by that classic that I didn't pick up another until recently. I'll be finishing up "Madame Bovary" today and have very much enjoyed it. I am really surprised that a book written in the 1850s could have been as realistic and frank as this one is about sex, suicide, religion, etc. It was a groundbreaking novel.

  4. Very nice review. I've added this book to my TBR list.