Most great novels address the question of how we ought to live, but few do so as explicitly as E. M. Forster's Howards End. Although the novel's narrator often suspends the narrative in order to insert what amount to brief essays, the book never suggests a philosophical tract disguised as a novel. The political, economic, and social issues on which the narrator ruminates have an organic relationship to the situations in which the novel's characters find themselves, and the real consequences of how one chooses to think about these issues are always clear, sometimes painfully so. The degree to which Forster successfully weaves together these two elements of Howards End, its essayistic passages and its straightforward narrative, suggests that, at least in art, it is possible to achieve a synthesis of seemingly incompatible, even contradictory modes of processing experience. In other words, Forster's novel enacts what Margaret Schlegel, its main character, passionately advocates: "Only connect!" (p. 159).
It isn't until halfway through the novel, however, that Margaret comes to this understanding of what both individual and societal well-being require. An inheritance provides Margaret, as well as her sister Helen and her brother Tibby, with a comfortable, though not extravagant, living in London. Their German father and English mother taught them to value the life of the mind above all else; anything that could be apprehended with the senses, measured, or subjected to empirical judgment was to be regarded with suspicion, if not derided. As she and her siblings become entangled with the wealthier, less cultured Wilcox family, Margaret begins to find her family's way of looking at the world too confining. Margaret and Helen had met Ruth and Henry Wilcox on a trip abroad, and, as the novel opens, Helen is visiting them at Howards End, a house that has come to the Wilcoxes through Ruth's family. For a moment, Helen believes that she has fallen in love with Paul, one of their sons. When Helen joins the Wilcoxes for breakfast and Paul appears to her "mad with terror in case I said the wrong thing," she recoils entirely from both him and his family, believing that they were "a fraud, just a wall of newspapers and motor-cars and golf-clubs, and that if it fell I should find nothing behind it but panic and emptiness" (p. 22).
Although awkward at first, an intense friendship between Margaret and Mrs. Wilcox emerges from Helen and Paul's fleeting attraction to one another. Mrs. Wilcox appears in only a few scenes before she dies suddenly, yet she looms over the entire novel. After her funeral, her family receives a letter, apparently written on her deathbed, in which she asks that Howards End be given to Margaret; the family chooses to keep the letter a secret. Why Mrs. Wilcox makes this request is perhaps the most intriguing question the novel presents. Trying to answer it leads immediately to another question, what does Mrs. Wilcox represent, particularly to Margaret? Margaret's thoughts concerning her are so suggestive of some profound meaning inhering in her that they almost portray her as the very ground on which meaning itself rests. Comparing Mrs. Wilcox to herself and her friends, Margaret is "conscious of a personality that transcended their own and dwarfed their activities" (p. 65). Margaret thinks that Mrs. Wilcox enabled her to see "a little more clearly than hitherto what a human being is" (p. 88). Near the end of the novel, Margaret says to Helen that "you and I and Henry are only fragments of that woman's mind. She knows everything. She is everything" (p. 268).
Whatever the reasons for it may be, her friendship with Mrs. Wilcox causes Margaret to hold less tightly to some of her own family's certainties. After Mrs. Wilcox's death, Margaret feels "she could take an interest in the survivors" (p. 88). Although her long held beliefs might dictate it, she finds she cannot "despise" the life that the Wilcoxes represent: "It fostered such virtues as neatness, decision and obedience, virtues of the second rank, no doubt, but they have formed our civilization" (p. 88). Margaret comes to believe that "money is the warp of the world," and that the woof is "something that isn't money, one can't say more" (p. 111), while Helen never stops believing that "personal relations are the important thing for ever and ever, and not this outer life of telegrams and anger"(p. 148). Margaret's motivation for her decision to marry Mr. Wilcox is as hard to pin down as the basis of her response to Mrs. Wilcox. When Helen questions Margaret about her decision, she admits that she does not love Mr. Wilcox, but is "pretty sure" she will (p. 148). Later, Margaret thinks that "the more she let herself love him the more chance was there that he would set his soul in order"(p. 187). The narrator's words suggest that Margaret's marriage somehow puts her at odds with herself. Does she restrain the love she feels for Mr. Wilcox because he proves unable to "connect"? It would seem she gives up this hope for him when his unsympathetic response to Helen's out-of-wedlock pregnancy provokes her to leave him. But, with no explanation ever offered to the reader, Margaret changes her mind.
That the father of Helen's child proves to be Leonard Bast makes his part in the novel all the more difficult to interpret. A chance encounter at a concert brings the insurance clerk into the Schlegel sisters' world, where he becomes a kind of social experiment. The sisters wish to test their notions about whether culture itself is an antidote to poverty or is simply irrelevant, and in any event unattainable, in the absence of a reasonable income. When Leonard loses his job after acting on information that Mr. Wilcox gives to Margaret and Helen, this question comes to seem less urgent than the question of responsibility for the conditions endured by the most unfortunate. As Leonard says, "Poetry's nothing" (p. 194). If the novel suggests an appropriate response to his situation, perhaps it is somewhere between that of Mr. Wilcox, who believes no one is to blame for the effects of the "great impersonal forces"(p. 164) that shape society, and Helen, who sends Leonard five thousand pounds, which he refuses. He apparently dies of heart disease moments after Charles Wilcox assaults him with a sword for fathering Helen's child. Is his death an indictment of those who, like Mr. Wilcox, consider poverty inevitable? Is it an indictment of the rigid moral system that prompts Charles to confront Leonard? We might also wonder whether the child he conceives with Helen mitigates his death by implying that there is a natural, or even a spiritual, human destiny that societal brutalities cannot completely overwhelm.
The fact that Margaret finally inherits Howards End casts over the novel's conclusion a sense of things being made right: "There was something uncanny in her triumph. She, who had never expected to conquer anyone, had charged straight through these Wilcoxes and broken up their lives" (p. 291). When Mr. Wilcox tells her about Mrs. Wilcox's unfulfilled request and asks her if he was wrong to ignore it, Margaret tells him he was not. Margaret might be showing compassion to a dying man, the abstraction of moral judgment seeming less important to her in this moment than the comfort of her husband's conscience. Or she might be acknowledging, indirectly, a kind of mystery that lies at the heart of experience and limits the usefulness of moral judgments. As the narrator observes earlier in the novel, "Life is indeed dangerous, but not in the way morality would have us believe. It is indeed unmanageable, but the essence of it is not a battle. It is unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty" (p. 91), This characterization of life seems consistent with the enigmatic serenity into which the novels events resolve themselves.
Born in London on January 1, 1879, Edward Morgan Forster was only one when his father, an architect, died of consumption. In 1883, raising Forster with the help of his paternal aunts and a circle of friends, his mother moved to Rooksnest, a house in the English countryside. The house was very dear to Forster, and his memories of it served as material for Howards End. After ten years at Rooksnest, the family moved to Tonbridge Wells, a suburb of London, where Forster attended public school before entering King's College, Cambridge, in 1897. In coming to terms with his homosexuality, Forster fell in love with another student, an experience he wrote about in his novel Maurice, finished in 1914 but not published until 1971, after his death.
Upon leaving Cambridge, Forster devoted himself to his writing career. His first three novels, Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), The Longest Journey (1907), and A Room with a View (1908), were favorably reviewed, but it was Howards End, published in 1910, that first earned him a reputation as an important literary figure. The novel is a more ambitious treatment of themes that appeared in the earlier novels as well; Forster is especially concerned with the dehumanizing effects of a capitalist society that degrades social responsibility and connection to the natural world.
Forster spent three years during World War I working for the Red Cross in Alexandria, Egypt. In 1921, he journeyed to India for the second time (he first visited in 1912). His experiences there inspired A Passage to India (1924), his last novel and, in the opinion of some critics, his greatest.
In Forster's later years, he continued to be identified with the values expressed in his novels, personal relationships, the life of the imagination, and tolerance. Forster was the first president of England's National Council on Civil Liberties, and he testified at the trial overturning the ban on D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. In 1946, King's College awarded Forster an honorary fellowship; he remained in Cambridge until his death in 1970. In addition to novels, short stories, a biography, and books about India and Egypt, Forster wrote Aspects of the Novel (1927), an influential book of literary criticism, and he co-wrote, with Eric Crozier, the libretto for Benjamin Britten's opera Billy Budd (1951).
Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility (1811)
Austen's first novel examines love through the experiences of two very different sisters, Marianne, whose impulsiveness and openness leave her socially and emotionally vulnerable, and Elinor, whose cautiousness conceals her equally passionate romantic longing.
D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love (1920)
The romantic relationships of two sisters in an English coal-mining town, Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen, lead them to profound insights into the nature of love, sexuality, and the fierce tensions that accompany human intimacy.
Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited (1945)
Charles Ryder recollects his relationships with the Marchmains, a wealthy, dysfunctional family whose lives are emblematic of the social upheaval and decline of the aristocratic class in England between the two world wars.
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927)
In this landmark modernist novel, two visits, ten years apart, to the Ramsay's summer home illuminate not only the complex dynamics of a family, but also the need for reconciliation between the opposing forces that usually mark the limitations of perception, masculine and feminine, rational and spiritual, prosaic and artistic.