A Musing: Howards End

(c) BRIDGEMAN; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Phew. I have really excelled at picking books to read that cut me to the quick these days! Howards End is the most recent of novels to leave me both unsettled and imbued with humanity. It’s a novel masquerading as an essay, or an essay masquerading as a poem, or literature masquerading as gospel. I have been incredibly moved by this work of art.

Some people will say it’s a book about class, relationships, and what is the “right” thing to do/way to be. I agree. But I think at the heart of the book lies the really big unanswered question about The State of the World. Forster’s anxiety about the trajectory of the way things are going — exemplified by the “telegrams and anger,” “panic and emptiness,” “everyone moving,” and “continual flux” of the Wilcoxes, cars, and London — make me feel like Forster had immense psychic powers! Reading this book a little over 100 years since it was written, and knowing all that has happened this century (the wars, the technology, the industrialization, the urbanization) is so chilling. So many readers quote the “only connect” message of the novel, but for me, the crux of the issue is:

“We are reverting to the civilization of luggage, and historians of the future will note how the middle classes accreted possessions without taking root in the earth, and may find in this the secret of their imaginative poverty.” 

Howards End symbolizes connection to the past and connection to the earth that is surely leaving the England (the West, the World) of 1910. The landowners are dying, selling or breaking up their land. The working class country people are moving to the city, sometimes to succeed, but often to suffer. The intelligentsia are the do-gooders who sometimes do more harm than good. The Wilcoxes, Schlegels, and the Basts encompass the Modern problems that we’ve not solved, but only complicated. The characters in the book, and our world have had thier sacrificial lambs. Can you understand why I’m so overwrought?

“Because a thing is going strong now, it need not go strong for ever,’ she said. ‘This craze for motion has only set in during the last hundred years. It may be followed by a civilization that won’t be a movement, because it will rest on the earth. All the signs are against it now, but I can’t help hoping.” 

The end of the book leaves me with a tiny bit of hope, but thinking about what has ensued in the 100 years since it was written does not. What will the next 100 years bring?

(image: Wych Elm in Winter, William Rothenstein, 1919, oil on canvas)


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  2. Christy

    “The civilization of luggage” quote stood out to me as well when I read this book. I resonated with the theme of trying to find a place where one belongs and feels rooted (I’ve moved around a lot in my adult life.)

  3. Candiss

    Your thoughtful review definitely has me interested. I have shied from this book, thinking it was just another story about the “glamorous” marriage-hunting and gossiping and gown-acquisition of the wealthy and the casual subjugation of the servants who enable their lives of frivolity. I see that I may have completely misjudged the central point of this one, avoiding a story I might very much appreciate. I will have to give it a try.

    Thanks so much for this!

  4. Brona

    I read this so long ago now (& loved it so much I read Forster’s entire backlist over a period of 2-3 years) & your review just makes me want to read them all again – thanks for the memories 🙂

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