Genre: society novel
Topics: gender, class, appearances
Guest review by Liz Inskip-Paulk:
So – I did have to take some deep breaths right from the start when I saw that the book title was “Howards End” (with no apostrophe), but once I had leapt that hurdle, it was ok. (Deep breaths are a wonderful thing for a Grammar Nerd. Ha.)
I have been dying to read some EM Forster books since a long time ago, at least ten years or so, but for some reason or another, I hadn’t picked one up. Then, the other day, saw it on a list of classics that another bookie person was reading and thought now was the time.
Basically, a story that revolves around the ongoing fate of Howards End, a country house whose ownership links three different families, it is also a book to be read on two levels. On one level, is the basic plot of wealthy High Society families in London during the Gilded Age (a la Wharton books) and all their machinations with regard to appropriate marriages and friends etc. And then on the other level, is Forster mucking about with turn-of-the-century symbolism of class roles, gender roles, and the overarching worry of this time in UK history: where is England going? Will it remain structured as two classes of rich people and poor people or will Socialism win the day? (This was before WWI had even occurred and wasn’t even a speck on the horizon at this point.) With England just finishing up the years of the Industrial Revolution (where business and money were Kings), it must have been rather a worrying time for the people at the top of the business heap. Would socialism come and take everything that they worked for and believed in?
The story focuses on three groups of people: the Wilcox family, a wealthy business-oriented family (who represent commerce); the Schlegel artistic and intellectual family (who represent the arts and thinking etc.), and then the Bast family who are at the bottom of the heap, money-wise and education-wise. The family who links the two extremes on this scale is the Schlegel daughters who, through a chance meeting on vacation on the Continent, happen to make the acquaintance of the wealthy Wilcox family. Actually, accident plays a big role in how the Schlegels meet the Basts as well…
So, as you can see, the book doesn’t just question gender roles and society in general, but is also philosophical in many ways, discussing the roles and importance of business/commerce and the arts – is one better than the other? A discussion, I think, that continues to this day and age if you think about funding in schools etc across the nation.
The book also throws Imperialism into the mix as well – what role did England have on colonizing the rest of the world? How would it continue? What would it mean?... Lots to think about, and it’s clear that there were strong winds of change at this time in the world – look at Wharton, James, Forster, Chopin (Kate)…
Haven’t actually told you much about the actual plot, but suffice to say, it’s about who will marry who, and when and where, and who will inherit what. I thought the plot was actually more of a vehicle or a framework for Forster to hang his deeper questions on – the future of England and its role in the world, the questioning of commerce vs. art, gender roles…
This was a good read. The story held together very well, and characters were believable and realistic. When I was reading the story itself, all these philosophical strands were there in the background, but the story itself came first. It wasn’t until afterward that I was struck with all the deep thoughts about the book itself so all this questioning about life is only in the background for the most part. (Forster occasionally makes forays and digression into philosophical questions, but it’s not too distracting.)
Forster wrote quite a few books, but after he published his last novel in 1924, he didn’t write another novel for the next 46 years. He lived in one of the halls at a college in Cambridge and apparently sat around doing not much for decades. (Unless someone knows differently?) I think he authored some literary crit. articles, but nothing major. He died in 1970 in the family house of his long-term partner.