I decided that it was time to re-read one of my old favourites, so picked E. M. Forster’s Howards End off the bookshelf.
I first read this wonderful novel eight year ago and it had a big impact on me. I also saw and loved the 1992 film adaptation, staring Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, and Helena Bonham Carter, which to my mind is one of the very best literary novel film adaptations.
Now, as about a million people have no doubt already written lengthy and detailed reviews of this novel, I shall not attempt anything of the sort here. What I’ll do instead is just mention some of the things that I love about this novel.
A sensitive and intelligent exploration of a theme. Turn over the front cover of this novel and on the title page you see Forster’s memorable epigraph: “Only connect…” and the whole of the novel can indeed be seen as an exploration of our deep desire to truly connect with others, as well as the myriad ways in which this desire can get frustrated.
Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.
There are also many other important themes intelligently explored in the novel, including those of sex and of class and of our quest for meaning in life.
Brilliant characters. Two of the principal characters are the half-German Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen, who are so vividly alive in their exploration of culture, beauty, and the arts. Their financial and intellectual independence lead them to explore many of life’s questions in bold and original ways. Contrasted with the Schlegels, are the wealthy Wilcoxes, who are almost entirely focused on practical matters and business and maintaining conventional values. Then there is the poor Leonard Bast who yearns for more out of life than his poverty allows him. The interplay between these and other characters in the novel is really what makes it so memorable.
They had nothing in common but the English language, and tried by its help to express what neither of them understood.
For despite all of the many misunderstandings and strongly held opposing views, we also see these characters do come together and truly connect – at least some of the time.
A finely written plot. E. M. Forster is such a great novelist. In this, as in his other novels, he clearly has his whole story mapped out precisely in his mind from the beginning and uses every scene, every piece of dialogue, indeed every word to layer up his themes and move forward his plot. The way that the different characters move from initial acquaintance with one another to friendship then to greater or lesser degrees of trauma and separation, and then finally to closure is also superbly handled.
Looking back on the past six months, Margaret realized the chaotic nature of our daily life, and its difference from the orderly sequence that has been fabricated by historians. Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere. With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes.
Beautiful, passionate writing. This is a joy to read. There are many, many sections that could be quoted from this novel. Here is just one typical exchange, which exemplifies the lively exploration of life and the human condition contained within this novel:
If we lived for ever, what you say would be true. But we have to die, we have to leave life presently. Injustice and greed would be the real thing if we lived for ever. As it is, we must hold to other things, because Death is coming. I love death – not morbidly, but because He explains. He shows me the emptiness of Money. Death and Money are the eternal foes. Not Death and Life. . . . Death destroys a man: the idea of Death saves him.
If you enjoyed this, you might also E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View, or A Passage to India (which I now definitely want to re-read!)
I’ll finish with one final quote:
Science explained people, but could not understand them.