The casting for Merchant and Ivory’s 1985 film adaptation of E. M.
Forster’s Howard’s End was brilliant. A young Emma Thompson played the earnest Margaret Schlegel flawlessly. And who but the talented, middle-aged Anthony Hopkins could have performed the quintessential Edwardian man of business, Henry Wilcox, with such conviction? Margaret’s world of uplifting thought and kindness contrasts unforgettably with Henry’s world of earned income and promotion of the exploitive system on which the British Empire depended. The core theme of Howard’s End is well known to devotees of English literature. Forster spelled it out in the novel’s epigraph, “only connect.” For England to survive, Margaret’s world of culture and Henry’s world of commerce – of telegrams and anger, as the author writes – must fuse.
Recognized as a major British writer, E.M. Forster (1879 – 1970) inhabits the same pantheon as Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence. Critics disagree over whether his 1924 A Passage to India or Howard’s End, written in 1910, is the better novel. Like all works of fiction Howard’s End has autobiographical aspects. Forster’s Father died when he was an infant, and his mother never remarried. As a result the most intense and significant emotional tie to his childhood and for a long time afterword was to his widowed mother. As author and critic David Lodge writes: “In psychoanalytical terms it was a classic scenario for the development of a homosexual temperament.”
From ages four to 14, the happiest period in his childhood, Forster and his mother lived in a country house in Hertfordshire, some 25 miles north of London. This was to become the model for Howard’s End, the marvelously symbolic farmhouse in his novel. As a student at Cambridge, Forster enthusiastically adopted a philosophy popular among the students. Embedded in this viewpoint was the idea that affectionate personal relations and the contemplation of beauty were the ultimate forms of the good life. A version of this truth was to become the fictional Schlegels’ underpinning.
It is impossible to exaggerate the impact of Cambridge on Forster’s intellectual development and therefore on his writing. David Lodge relates:
“As a young man he found Cambridge a kind of ideal society – privileged but not ostentatiously affluent, dedicated to the pursuit of truth and beauty, steeped in tradition, and housed in beautiful ancient buildings…It was at Cambridge that Forster recognized his homosexual orientation, though some years passed before he experienced his first physical relationship.”
Set in England in the years immediately prior to the outbreak of World War I, Howard’s End features an absorbing story in straightforward, chronological order. The Schlegel sisters Margaret and Helen are clever, cultured and idealistic. The sisters are half German and have an easy familiarity with continental Europe. Both their parents are dead. The young women have private incomes, which allow them to pursue their interests in high culture and personal relations without having to work for their living. Their lives, like Forster’s at Cambridge, were “privileged but not ostentatiously affluent, dedicated to the pursuit of truth and beauty.” Margaret, the elder, is more clear-sighted and selfless than the volatile, egocentric, impulsive Helen. Living in a London house called Wickham Place with their younger brother, Tibby, and at least one servant, they enjoy a degree of independence unusual for unmarried women of the period.
In contrast, the Wilcoxes belong to the prosperous, commercial bourgeoisie. Henry Wilcox has lifted himself and his family to the top of their social class through his success as a businessman. He has acquired a farmhouse some 25 miles out of London, called Howard’s End, through his wife’s inheritance, but it does not satisfy his social ambitions, and throughout the book he is restlessly seeking a more pretentious home. As a family the Wilcoxes are polar opposites of the Schlegels: politically conservative, patriotic, imperialist, patriarchal, materialistic and conventional in manners. Motor cars and sports dominate their conversations. Though Mrs. Wilcox dutifully participates in family activities and seems to display no intellectual curiosity, she appears to be a gentler person. She associates all that is most valuable in life with the country, and all that is most threatening with the city. Her dying early in the story from a long-concealed illness suggests to David Lodge that she has in some sense been “killed” by her marriage to Henry.
Prior to the opening of the novel, the two families meet while touring a cathedral in Europe. Now, as the narrative begins Helen Schlegel is visiting the enchanting Howard’s End. Following a whirl-wind but doomed romance with Paul, the Wilcoxes’ youngest son, she is disillusioned. Helen sends her sister a pithy telegram: “All over…tell no one. Helen.”
She feels that “the whole Wilcox family is 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.”
Once Forster has established the two families, he introduces Leonard Bast, a masterfully depicted character who is pivotal to the plot. Bast, a lower-middle-class insurance clerk, struggles resolutely to improve his mind and to become genteel despite his lack of education, leisure and funds. Helen and Bast happen to attend the same London concert, and, typical of her impetuous actions, she inadvertently leaves with his umbrella, which he cannot afford to replace. Consequently he chases after her to Wickham Place.
David Lodge notes:
“The eagerness of the Schlegel sisters to be nice to Bast; his bafflement at their skittish chatter and free and easy manners; the unbridgeable gap of experience, assumptions and economic status between him and them – all these things are captured and communicated by Forster with an exquisite lightness of touch and economy of means.”
As the narrative proceeds, the Wilcoxes rent a flat directly across the street from the Schlegel’s London house. Though ostensibly they have nothing in common, Margaret befriends Ruth Wilcox. At one point Ruth and Margaret plan to travel by train to Howard’s End, but at the last minute the trip is cancelled. Soon after this Ruth Wilcox dies, leaving a note expressing her wish that Margaret should inherit Howard’s End. The bereaved Wilcoxes gather together, and, reprehensibly, decide to ignore the note.
Surprisingly, Henry Wilcox begins to court Margaret, a development that meets with Helen’s ardent disapproval. The sisters seek Henry’s advice on improving Bast’s situation, but the result is that Bast ends up without a job. Henry had heard rumors about a possible bankruptcy at the insurance company that had for several years employed the young man. The Schlegel women relate this fact to Bast who resigns his position and goes to work for another company. That company, in turn, terminates him when its business slows down. By the time Henry and Margaret wed, Bast and his wife Jacky are on the very edge of the abyss of poverty because of Henry’s recommendation, and Helen is outraged.
Here the narrative takes a theatrical turn. Helen drags the Basts to Henry and Margaret’s newly purchased manor house in Wales. The Wilcoxes, in grand style, are celebrating the wedding of Henry and Ruth’s daughter, Evie. Jacky, tipsy from sneaking champagne, reveals that years ago, while living in South Africa, she had been Henry’s mistress. Helen tries to use this astonishing revelation to embarrass Henry into giving the Basts a sum of money. Though Margaret supports her husband’s refusal to give into “blackmail,” her marriage to Henry is, of course, irrevocably damaged.
With Jacky conveniently passed out from drink, Helen and Bast sleep together and conceive a child. Because as an unwed woman she must hide her condition, Helen moves to Germany without telling her sister, and Margaret is unable to understand the estrangement. But as Helen nears the end of her pregnancy, Margaret tempts her to Howard’s End, and learns that her sister is expecting Leonard Bast’s child. Henry – all lofty morality – shows us what a hypocrite he is when he refuses to allow the unwed Helen to stay at Howard’s End. It never crosses his mind that his sordid affair with Jacky was every bit as adulterous as Helen and Bast’s extramarital relations.
The plot now ratchets up from theatrical to melodramatic. Intending to confess to Margaret that he is the father of Helen’s child, the pitiful Leonard Bast travels to Howard’s End. Margaret is not there. Instead he is welcomed by the older Wilcox son, Charles – a bully and a blunderer – who believes Bast to be a vile person and fair game because of his relations with Helen. Charles strikes him a blow with a sword, and Bast dies not from the blow, nor from the bookcase that topples over on him, but from a weak heart. Experienced readers will not miss the irony in the books showering down on the dying man. Indeed, in his life books had promised Bast so much and given him so little.
In the end Henry Wilcox is a broken man but, unfortunately, not a changed man. Ruth Wilcox gets her wish after all; in dividing up his considerable estate, Henry leaves Howard’s End to his wife Margaret. From her it will pass to the toddler we glimpse in the final chapter, the son of Helen Schlegel and Leonard Bast. If we, like most critics, perceive the house as a symbol representing England itself, then we must believe that an alliance of Schlegels and Wilcoxes has inherited England. In other words, a fusion of society’s sensitive elements and its practical elements will prevail. This is the book’s core theme and basic truth.
Because Forster illuminates such truths and because he so perfectly captures the manners and morals of English middle-class society in the decade before World War I, we forgive the novel’s shortcomings. Critics cite the reliance on implausible coincidences in propelling the plot forward: for example, the Wilcoxes move into a flat across the street from the Schlegel home; Jacky Bast turns out to be Henry’s former mistress; and Leonard Bast arrives at Howard’s End just when Charles is there alone with a saber handy.
Moreover, Forster fails to persuade us that Margaret would marry Henry. By the time she meets Henry she has been developed as a complex, realistic, three-dimensional character who would undoubtedly seek an intellectual man, one interested in the exchange of ideas and the improvement of his mind. Henry’s business acumen would not necessarily impress her, and she did not need his money.
Somehow the flaws don’t matter because we identify intensely with the characters and keep turning the pages to learn their fates. Forster wrote from experience, but clearly he often engaged his phenomenal imagination. Asked late in his life if he had ever written about a situation of which he had no personal experience, Forster replied “the home life of Leonard and Jacky Bast in Howard’s End.” Yet he made that component of the novel remarkably credible.