E. M. Forster was not a prolific author. He is well known to students of fiction, however, as a thorough critic as well as an important novelist in his own right, and his Aspects of the Novel (1927) is a major contribution to study in that field. Prior to his best work of fiction, A Passage to India (1924), Howards End was ranked as his most mature novel. Particularly important in Forster’s fiction are his subtle and complete characterizations, his deft use of irony, the careful plotting of action, and the contrasts between illusion and reality. Howards End is second only to A Passage to India in illustrating these characteristics.
The country house has long been an important image and symbol in English literature. From its appearance in an early seventeenth century poem such as Ben Jonson’s “To Penshurst,” to its celebration by Alexander Pope in the eighteenth century, to its centrality in the nineteenth century fiction of Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, and Henry James, to its prominence in the modern works of E. M. Forster and Evelyn Waugh, the manor house has provided not only a dramatic setting but also an embodiment of certain social, moral, and spiritual values. Despite its various literary manifestations, the apotheosis of the country estate is in essence a reaction against the introduction of the mercantile ethic, its manifestation in the phenomenon of industrialism, and the consequent growth of large cities. It is, in brief, a nostalgic image for a way of life, based on the land, that possesses a definite social hierarchy and takes its rhythms from nature. While it pays special homage to individuality, intellect, and imagination, its chief virtues are the classical ones of restraint and moderation. The country house, therefore, is a correlative for a human ideal that found its first flowering in the Renaissance.
In addition to these attributes, the house in Forster’s novel Howards End represents an image of cultural unity. The book’s epigraph, “Only connect . . . ,” suggests the major theme and describes the prescription required to bring about moral health to Edwardian England. To Forster, this society, on the verge of becoming completely urbanized and industrialized, is fractured, lacking order and direction. He looks toward the traditional values embodied in Howards End for a solution to this dilemma.
Three principal forces are at work in Howards End. The first is embodied in the Schlegel family, which stands for the past, art, imagination, and culture; second are the Wilcoxes, representing the present, practical intelligence, and business acumen; the third points to the future and is found in the parvenu, Leonard Bast. The drama of the novel resides primarily in the conflict between the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes, both solid middle-class families, for the right to direct England’s future—or at least to determine its dominant values. Leonard, a member of the working class and always on the periphery, is seemingly lost in the shuffle. He is without manners, culture, and business sense, yet he aspires to the center of power, held jointly by the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes. After his ignominious death “resolves” the conflict between the two families, it is, ironically, his illegitimate child, conceived by Helen Schlegel in an act of moral protest against the establishment, who will inherit Howards End and—readers may infer—the spoils of the battlefield, the future of England.
From the beginning, it appears that these three forces have nothing in common. Margaret, Helen, and their brother celebrate the “poetic” inner self, the passion of existence, while despising the world of telegrams, profit and loss, and machines. That world, peopled and directed by their rivals, Henry Wilcox and his son, Charles, dedicates itself to practicality, to the “prose” of life, as Forster phrases it. Although he is not fully a part of either, Leonard does have one foot in each; he is a small-business clerk, yet he...
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