Mary Hooper has been writing for about 20 years and has written about 80 books. She now writes only historical fiction for young adults (and ordinary adults). Her latest books are By Royal Command, which concerns a maid at the household of Dr Dee, the Tudor magician, and Newes from the Dead, which is the true story of Anne Green, hanged in Oxford in 1650 for infanticide, sent for dissection and found to be alive when the surgeons lifted the lid of her coffin. Mary was born in Barnes (very near where Dr Dee lived) and now lives in Henley-on-Thames. Here she writes about E.M. Forster's Howards End.
Mary Hooper on Howards End by E.M. Forster
I originally approached E.M. Forster's Howards End with some trepidation. I didn’t do a degree until I was forty, and not having read any Good Literature I had no prior knowledge of the classics (apart from Dickens) and thus no firm foundation from which to draw. Faced with Moby Dick, Heart of Darkness, Portrait of a Lady and anything at all by George Eliot, I had despaired. I just couldn't see what they were getting at.
And then (we were not working chronologically) we had to read Howards End and from that first throwaway, casual, enticing opening: 'One may as well begin with Helen's letters to her sister', I was hooked. Oh yes, thank goodness, I thought, do let's begin there; what a treat to read someone else's letters. And reading them, I immediately got a flavour of the whole and an insight into their lives. I was smitten and eager to know more about the agreeable-sounding Schlegel sisters.
The book was written almost exactly 100 years ago and paints a fascinating picture of England just before the Great War. It contrasts and compares the lives of three groups of people: the intellectual Schlegels - Helen and Margaret - the bombastic Wilcox family, and the would-be intellectual Leonard Bast and his girlfriend Jacky. Forster does not just go for the obvious target and so one by one, each group is brought into the spotlight and has its weaknesses exposed: the aunt who 'collected new ideas as a squirrel collects nuts, and was especially attracted by those that are portable', effete brother Tibby lying so far back in his chair that 'he extended in a horizontal line from knees to throat', and the Wilcoxes' maroon leather armchairs looking as if a motor car had spawned. I found the fact that humour was employed in these asides tremendously pleasing. Yes, Dickens is funny, but there aren't a lot of laughs in Middlemarch (and the fact that Virginia Woolf said it was the first novel for grown-up people says it all for me).
Howards End is intimate in its telling domestic detail, yet its overall reach is tremendous. It speaks of the love between men and women, but also stands against the motor car, the encroachment of cities upon the countryside, the industrialization of the country, and asks, who will inherit England? Which social class will predominate?
Central to the plot and symbolic to these weighty questions is the house named Howards End, where Helen Schlegel writes her letters at the beginning of the book. Her sister Margaret is left the house when Mrs Wilcox dies, but the canny Wilcox family keep it from her. With the house as a background, Forster intertwines the lives of all his characters until a part of each of them touches the existence of the others. A series of seemingly unrelated events - an umbrella taken by mistake after a concert, a bequest scribbled on a scrap of paper, a visiting card found by a suspicious wife, a piece of advice passed on with alarming consequences - and the web draws ever tighter.
The epigraph of the book is 'Only Connect' and this is the most important and overriding theme of the novel. When I read it for the first time, it seemed to me that this might be the solution to all the world's problems. People are entreated to connect on every level: the world of business with the world of the intellect, the monk with the beast, the poetic with the practical, the unseen with the seen, the inner life (the Schlegels) with the outer life (the Wilcoxes). The Schlegels, determinedly liberal with their conversational gambits which 'delightful people dart after with cries of joy', are directly opposed to the Wilcoxes, who have no truck with anything emanating from the heart and lead lives of 'telegrams and anger'. Only Margaret can see clearly enough to know that both types of life are necessary for the world to keep turning and that a country dominated by one or other would be impossible. In the story with which we are concerned, either the Wilcox or the Schlegel family must prevail, or a way of connecting them must be found.
The pivot, the epicentre, of this theme (which in other hands I fear might have been all high-flying philosophy and no action) comes when Mr Wilcox refuses to realize the connection between his taking of a prostitute (for which Margaret has already forgiven him) and Helen Schlegel's being pregnant and unmarried. These lines, 'He had refused to connect, on the clearest issue that can be laid before a man, and their love must take the consequences', are central. Margaret decides to leave him and only accepts him back later, when circumstances have emasculated and broken him.
The plot is compelling and full of incident, but so is the telling of it. Every few pages one can find something to ponder over, a truth to take away and cherish. At the conclusion of the novel, the polar opposites of the inner and outer life are united as Mr Wilcox, Helen and Margaret come to live together in Howards End, the house that was destined to be Margaret's all along. The answer to the question, 'Who shall inherit England?' is the ultimate connection: the posthumously-born child of Leonard Bast and Helen.
How cleverly Forster has fitted these pieces together; how I should have loved to see his plot plan.