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[personal profile] mtvessel
June 2015
Howards End - E.M. Forster - Penguin, 2012
* * *
"Only connect!" is this novel's most famous line, though that wasn't the message that I took away from it. The phrase appears in a passage which describes the intention of the protagonist Margaret, a woman with a strong cultural and spiritual inner life, to persuade her materialistic and emotionally repressed fiancé Henry to open up to the richness of the world around him. She fails, and similarly for me the novel doesn't quite succeed, perhaps because Forster is a little too like Henry himself.

The story concerns three families: the upper class Wilcoxes, whose matriarch owns the eponymous family house, the middle-class Schlegels, and the lower class Basts. It sounds like the setup for a sitcom and that is more or less how it starts, as Helen Schlegel, Margaret's impulsive younger sister, goes to stay with the Wilcoxes at Howards End and falls in love with the youngest son John. An aunt is promptly dispatched to stop her doing anything stupid, but she arrives to find that the engagement is already off, having lasted less than twenty four hours. Similarly, Leonard Bast is introduced when Helen inadvertantly steals his umbrella during a concert. The relationships between the three families gradually develop, with Leonard being encouraged by the Schlegels to better himself and Margaret being adopted as a companion by Mrs Wilcox, well-meaning acts that have tragic consequences.

In style it is not a million miles from Middlemarch, with frequent authorial asides to explain the characters' motivations or make observations about Edwardian life. There is an ironic detachment that disguises the book's emotional beats, and for me this worked rather too well. The characters are chatty but I found it difficult to care that deeply about them. Poor hapless Leonard is the only truly sympathetic character; Margaret is not bad, but as the "only connect" passage indicates, entirely too keen on educating people into her idealised version of what they could be rather than letting them be themselves. The other characters are either snobby or annoying.

In fact, I would say that the message of this novel is precisely the opposite of the one that is usually assigned to it, and rather conservative - given what happens, the only sensible conclusion is that connecting to others outside your social class or level of education doesn't do yourself or them any good. Perhaps I have failed to plumb the depths of Forster's irony, but that's how it came across to me.

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