“Howards End” by E.M Forster

Let’s be honest – by now, there can be no stone left unturned at Howards End. Still, I wanted to share a few of those things which have been making me think this week.

It is a story of three families – the art-loving, intellectual Schlegels; the practical, wealthy, unimaginative Wilcox’s and the lower-middle-class, struggling Basts – and is, of course, famous for being the novel in which Forster used the phrase “only connect.”  The families’ stories intertwine, there are connections sought and rejected; and through the Schlegels’ insistence, there is a constant search for truth and understanding.

I was struck firstly by how much Forster’s writing reminded me of a kind of Homeric epic. He deploys stock phrases throughout – there are references to “telegrams and anger”, to the “ropes of life”, to “goblins”, “Art and Literature.” Like the “rosy-fingered dawn” which punctuates the Odyssey, the repetitions root the story and give it an epic rhythm. Nautical imagery abounds, and Forster certainly creates the sensation that the characters are on a perpetual journey home – to Howards End. The measured, lyrical repetitions also have the benefit of freeing up the characters to make the connections Forster values. They are not caught up in the language of the novelist – instead they ride the waves from familiar phrase to familiar phrase, occasionally meeting midway.

The language also lets the novel breath, and allows the light of comedy to creep across a heartbreaking story. It seemed to me that, other than the occasions in which the families are forced together by unfortunate circumstances, the greatest connections happen during the lighter moments, when Forster lets them laugh. The relationship between Margaret and Wilcox, for example, so often floundering in miscommunication, seems most sincere when they embrace the absurdity of everyday life. The first time he kisses her she is so taken aback that she screams, which is a wonderfully funny image, and there are passages like:

“She accepted, and could not repress a little tremor; it would be her first real love scene. But as she put on her hat she burst out laughing. Love was so unlike the article served up in books…”

“He did not kiss her, for the hour was half past twelve, and the car was passing by the stables of Buckingham Palace.”

Charles Wilcox, the most unpleasant character in the book and also the most isolated, is particularly described as having no sense of humour, whereas dear Aunt Juley – often misguided but genuinely having the best interests of her beloved nieces at heart – is given delightful, funny little passages.

“”Look! cried Aunt Juley…”Stand where I stand, and you will see the pony-cart coming. I see the pony-cart coming.”

They stood and saw the pony-cart coming.”

And Margaret and Helen, who connect most readily and sincerely both to one another and to the rest of the world, are often said to be laughing. I loved that about this novel. For that seems to me to reach the heart of what it means to connect with someone – one belly-laugh is worth ten times an earnest conversation about the meaning of life. Laughter is the great leveller – we can all tell when someone is putting it on – but if it is genuine, then there are few things which create such an instant bond.

Putting comedy to one side for a moment, there were also elements of this novel which reminded me very much of Henry James’ “The Portrait of a Lady.” Isabel Archer, like the Schlegels, longs to see all of the world as it truly is, and to find her place in it. And, like the Schlegels, she finds that connection is neither simple nor easy. In Henry James people see one another as though they had come together “in some bright stretch of a desert”, and for men and women in particular, the effort to find one another is likened to two people climbing up opposite sides of a garden wall:

“On reaching the top she found herself face to face with a gentleman engaged in a like calculation at the same moment, and the two enquirers had remained confronted on their ladders.”

In Forster’s novel, Howards End is the thing. Whatever the vagaries, pain and miscommunication of human interaction, one’s true home remains a sanctuary, the place where you can truly connect to the books, pictures, furniture of your childhood, where talking is unnecessary and there are no barriers to comfort. I could even say it is like Antal Szerb’s “Third Tower” – a connection to a place can be a true balm, and alleviate a sense of loneliness in a way that a difficult husband or distant sister cannot. For Isabel Archer, too, Rome is, in the end, her salvation from the pathological cruelty of her husband. It is not so much that it is a turning away from human things to the inanimate – more that the places we love are a palimpsest, or like the rings of an old tree – every life which has passed through them has left its mark, and there is at the same time no risk of the awkwardness of misconstruction which can blight relations with our living peers. I had not thought about this in many years, but having  just dug up my final year dissertation it seems that Forster’s Howards End and James’ Italy offer something similar to their heroines. As I wrote at the time:

The other is by Rome, where there is no threat of the misrepresentation occasioned by human eyes. Here, she [Isabel] embraces a dialogue, but with decaying buildings and ghostly voices.… It is only in Isabel that there is any chance of healthy, fully realised familiarity; and that is with a city, into whose history she can add her own voice, her own unanswered prayers…. As James wrote to his brother William, upon his arrival in Rome, ‘I went reeling and moaning thro’ the streets in a fever of enjoyment…At last – for the first time – I live!’ 

So: to me, and very simply, Forster is urging us to look for laughter, and like Odysseus, to find and enjoy our homes. Life’s tragedies will always inspire connection, but in those moments when we’re simply cresting the waves from “telegrams and anger” to “telegrams and anger”, we can always find intimacy in comedy, and our “Third Tower.”

“From the garden came laughter. “Here they are at last!” exclaimed Henry, disengaging himself with a smile. Helen rushed into the gloom, holding Tom by one hand and carrying her baby on the other. There were shouts of infectious joy.”

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