Howards End – E M Forster

26 March 2012
Chapters 1-5, as far as the loss of the umbrella
Some quick first impressions. Ok, I’ve read the novel before and seen the James Ivory film… but not in the last ten years or more. Are the Schlegel sisters unbearable? We see Helen’s middle-class confidence and willingness to pigeonhole people in her letters to Margaret in Chapter 1. I’d forgotten how much hinges on her impetuosity: the ‘love’ for the younger Wilcox son that fizzles out almost as soon as it starts, but not soon enough to prevent her from sending a two-line letter announcing it. Forster makes it clear that he isn’t going to rest the whole plot on the crossing of telegrams next morning that leads to the almost immediate arrival of the interfering Aunt Juley at Howards End, but it has introduced this sheltered girl who doesn’t know nearly as much as she thinks, to an entirely new world: ‘New ideas had burst upon her like a thunder clap, and by them and by her reverberations she had been stunned.’

This comes after her return from the Wilcoxes’ place at Howards End at the beginning of Chapter 4, and by Chapter 5 it’s Helen’s accidental taking of a certain young man’s umbrella that introduces a new element. We don’t even know his name yet, but ‘the boy’, as Forster often calls him, represents another stratum of middle class life in England before the First World War. He fussily helps Margaret downstairs at the concert hall, and Forster lets us in on her thoughts: ‘his class was near enough her own for its manners to vex her.’ We’re in and out of his thoughts and Margaret’s as they weigh one another up. He is completely out of his depth, feels at sea in this world of ‘leisured ladies’ who have the time to get to grips with music and books in ways he simply can’t in ‘an hour at lunch and a few shattered hours in the evening.’

Forster is going to make the idea of culture work hard in this novel. We’ve had the views of Wilcox, or Helen’s satirical take on the uselessness of art as he sees it; the views of the sisters’ German father, a naturalised Englishman now dead for some years, who found his own level in Germany’s complex strata of intellectual thought; the hesitant efforts of the young man after the concert; and, of course, the endless reflections of the Schlegel sisters and their younger brother Tibby, taken to an extreme in Forster’s presentation of Helen’s imagining of a Beethoven movement in terms of goblins and elephants. The narrator, almost a character in himself, is – or puts on an act of being – an indulgent acquaintance, allowing the goblins and elephants riff to enter his own description of the music. This is the same narrator who, in the novel’s opening line, decides ‘One may as well begin with Helen’s letters….’ Who is this ‘one’? And is he to be trusted?

29 March
Chapters 5 (end) to 16
No, he isn’t. The narrator. To be trusted. The voice he reminds me of most strongly is the one in Middlemarch, the one George Eliot uses to make her hugely confident pronouncements not only about her characters but about the human condition in general. Forster often does the same thing here – Chapter 12, I remember, seems to be full of them – although he has made his narrator, I suspect deliberately, less well behaved. He is worldly, sometimes cynical, like some chap in evening dress out with pals of the same class. He can say what he wants, is capable of an atrocity like the one that opens Chapter 6: ‘We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet.’ He’s not above addressing the reader satirically: ‘You may laugh at him, you who have slept nights on the veldt, with your rifle beside you and all the atmosphere of adventure past….’ It might be only half-serious, but he knows we know what he means: Leonard Bast’s attempt to climb out of his rut has consisted of no more than an aimless nocturnal walk out from the suburbs of London. Forster has made him faintly ridiculous, and his narrator has as much fun describing his chronic dissatisfactions as he earlier had describing Jacky, the woman he later marries, in terms of cheap showiness. ‘She seemed all strings and bell-pulls–ribbons, chains, bead necklaces that clinked and caught–and a boa of azure feathers hung round her neck.’

What’s going on? I’m going to re-read some of it, and I’ll get back to you.

31 March
Chapters 5 (end) to 16, again
Is this a 19th Century novel really? I know it was published in 1910, and I know Forster has his characters constantly looking forward to the new century – one of Leonard Bast’s nodding acquaintances mentions a prediction about the population in 1960 – but the presence of that George Eliot-like authoritative voice, there to persuade us that, yes, human psychology really does allow for this kind of behaviour, makes the novel seem a long way from modernism: we’re familiar with sagacious-sounding declarations like these. Forster might be pushing the boundaries of the authorial ‘I’ a bit further than usual, but it’s hardly experimental, and his pronouncements are there to do the necessary job of moving things along.

Early in Chapter 12, when Forster wants to prepare us to move into a new phase following Mrs Wilcox’s death, we get this: ‘A funeral is not death, any more than baptism is birth or marriage union…’ and we’re away into the realm of new relationships: the Wilcoxes aren’t going away. The same chapter ends with a long paragraph placed there, I assume, to prepare us for surprises: ‘Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere…. It is unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty.’ Between these two sentences come another 127 words of similar stuff. Forster is preparing us for the re-entry of Leonard Bast into the story, and the responses to him of the upper-middle class characters. I’m impressed by how clever it is.

But it’s time to get to grips with the plot. There’s a lot of it, and some of the methods Forster uses to bring people together might also seem like those of a 19th Century novelist. What he does is make people’s attempts to disentangle themselves into the glue that sticks them closer together. This happens right from Chapter 1: as soon as Aunt Juley launches into the Wilcoxes in her unnecessary attempt to rescue Helen, she’s establishing the Schlegel sisters more firmly in their field of view. By deciding not to return to the Schlegels, but nevertheless taking Margaret’s visiting-card, Leonard Bast later becomes a much bigger feature in their lives. Crossing telegrams, the umbrella taken by mistake, the impulsive offering of a visiting-card that becomes the emblem of something that divides Bast and his wife; the Wilcoxes’ move to London, to a flat directly opposite where the sisters live; at least three unexpected meetings with Mr Wilcox, that establish him in their lives as strongly as Bast, with the third of them bringing these two men together in the same room: all these things are in the long-established toolkit for novelists…

…and I’ll shut up about them, because they aren’t what’s interesting. They are there to bring characters together who, despite the agonising of the liberal-minded characters, are kept utterly separate in class-ridden London. The separation is not accidental: most of Forster’s characters are congenitally suspicious of the other classes. It is a part of Bast’s unworldliness that he suspects Helen of stealing his umbrella deliberately, part of Aunt Juley’s small-mindedness that she assumes he will be seeking to pilfer something from the house. At Howards End it’s easy to dismiss the obnoxious Charles’s complaints about the laziness and routine insolence of the staff, but later his father is concerned that the Schlegels are in contact with a man like Bast. It leads to a disagreement – ‘Excuse me, Miss Schlegel, but I know the type’ – and, as he leaves the house with his daughter his concern, however patronising it might sound, is genuine: ‘Girls like that oughtn’t to live alone in London. Until they marry, they ought to have someone to look after them.’ To him, London is a dangerous place, and rigid class divisions are necessary battle-lines.

(This being the novel it is, the disagreement between Margaret and Mr Wilcox serves to make them more interested in each other. Forster has told us about a different relationship in which a similar thing often happens: ‘Charles and his father sometimes disagreed. But they always parted with an increased regard for one another.’ Watch this space.)

I’m jumping the gun. The accidental coming together of Wilcox and Bast takes place in Chapter 16, and a lot has happened by then. Once the Wilcoxes have taken their flat in London – this is immediately after the stolen umbrella incident – things move quickly into the next phase. There’s some plot business that causes Margaret to visit Mrs Wilcox, who is having one of the days in bed which, if we’re not paying attention, seems self-indulgent. Typically in this novel, what brings them together is an attempt to keep them separate: the fussy Aunt Juley persuades Margaret that it would be better for Helen’s sake, and Mrs W’s reply to Margaret’s letter makes her realise it was a mistake. Hence the visit. (Before this, the Wilcoxes have become the ‘W’s’ to the Schlegel sisters, representatives of an uncultured bourgeoisie they want nothing to do with, so Forster needs the prop of Margaret’s ill-advised first letter.)

Mrs Wilcox can see something of value in Margaret and, despite her own lack of interest in what the Schlegels like, becomes her friend. There’s a fateful shopping trip – I call it fateful because Forster laces his descriptions of London with Satanic visions of darkness and fog, and Mrs W’s journey in the lift to her flat is extraordinary: ‘And into what a heaven – a vault as of hell, sooty black, from which soots descended!’ During the day, Margaret realises that for this woman, Howards End is everything, and Forster joins in on the mythologising: the villagers used to hammer pigs’ teeth into its magical wych elm to cure toothache…. In deciding not to accept Mrs W’s invitation to go that day – guess what – Margaret establishes her bona fides: she runs to see Mrs W to change her mind, and is forced to follow her to the railway station. They don’t go, but…

…following the small-scale narrative coup that opens the next chapter – ‘The funeral was over’ – there’s the reading of Mrs Wilcox’s will. It’s as expected, except for another favourite 19th Century trope: the handwritten codicil. She would like Margaret to have Howards End. Cue family consultations among the Wilcoxes – only they have seen the note – followed, eventually, by its being thrown on the fire. They have ignored the woman’s dying wish – and Forster decides that ‘It is … a moment when the commentator should step forward. Ought the Wilcoxes to have offered their home to Margaret? I think not. The appeal was too flimsy.’ And so on. He’s right – the note is in pencil, hasty, not witnessed– but… but there’s Margaret again, in their sights. She is later surprised when she gets a ‘vinaigrette’ from – guess – Mr Wilcox. Ah.

Two years pass, and we’re into that transitional Chapter 12. Forster hasn’t mentioned Leonard Bast since showing us the squalor of his home life in Chapter 6, and his re-entry comes via that little visiting-card. In fact, it comes via what seems to Helen, and later to Tibby, like a low-life comedy episode. A woman has arrived, searching for her husband – ‘Lan, or Len’, so she’s soon ‘Mrs Lanolin’ to Helen, snobbish in ways that Margaret definitely isn’t – and she turns out to be Mrs Bast. Later, he arrives to clear up the misunderstanding… and this is where culture rears its head again after being rather dormant since the early chapters. Or, more specifically, culture and money. Margaret is the only one of her class who realises that money is the ‘warp’ of life. This is a phrase she uses later in the evening of Leonard Bast’s visit, during a debate that Forster brings in at this point in order to expand on what has gone on between the Schlegels and the young man.

The sisters, and perhaps especially Helen, are taken by the story of his night-time walk. There’s something earthy, not quite civilised about him – they imagine him as the grandson of strong peasant stock, and they aren’t interested when he wants to talk about books. He wants to cite novelists and other writers, but it falls flat: Helen, especially, is sarcastic. Only his real experience attracts them, making him ‘better than Jefferies’, one of the obscure writers he mentions. He craves the connection they offer to a different world, and is later painfully appreciative of the meeting… but the divide is too great, and they decide not to do it again.

In the debate afterwards, Margaret suggests that money – and only money – would make a difference to the Leonard Basts of this world. This is the crux of the novel, because we know she’s right. The debate is about what a philanthropist might do to help ‘the poor’, and Margaret is struck that everyone has schemes – libraries, art galleries – and no one accepts the obvious. The poor remain where they are because, like him, they have to spend all their time and energy on making a living. It’s as though she’s been inside his head in those early chapters, when he decides to save a penny after the expensive concert by walking back to his south London basement.

On the way home, the sisters have one of those chance encounters with Mr Wilcox. The tide is on the turn at Chelsea – a fact that must be significant, although I haven’t worked out why yet – and they talk about the debate. What is it about Mr Wilcox? There seem to be two levels to him, the man of the world – with the emphasis on man, and the emphasis also on of the world – and then there’s the life of emotion, his sensitive side. The top level, which is the only one that Helen can see, pushes down the lower one until it’s practically invisible. But not to Margaret…. As I said, watch this space. He is gently mocking of the ladies and their debates, but is practical about Leonard Bast: when he hears that he works for the Porphyrion he advises that he leave, soon.

Some days later, when they invite the young man to tea to tell him of what they know, he is frustrated. As they attempt to advise him – which he misunderstands as fishing for insider information – he quotes literature, desperate to get back to the world that seems to be closing its doors to him. And guess what? Wilcox arrives, and Leonard Bast feels more excluded than ever. He feels used, leaves in a bad temper, and they feel desperate pity. He’s been little more than an intellectual exercise for them so far, but now he’s become someone they feel they need to help.

Two-fifths of the way through the novel, all the major players seem to be taking their places. I wonder how Forster will drag Leonard Bast in next time….

2 April
Chapters 17-22
These chapters take us just beyond the half-way point of the novel, and it feels like the end of Part 1. Margaret has accepted Mr Wilcox’s proposal of marriage, and… it’s nothing like its 19th Century fictional counterpart. Three weeks ago, by coincidence, I was reading about another Margaret, in Gaskell’s North and South. The captain of industry, previously not terribly in tune either with his own emotions or his employees, can keep silent no longer: ‘His voice was hoarse, and trembling with tender passion, as he said––
This doesn’t happen in Howards End, and she remarks on how marriage proposals in reality are not at all like those in novels. Later, there is a kiss – their first, a fact that is mind-boggling to a 21st Century reader – but this Margaret, unlike the one in North and South, has had no transforming effect on her capitalist: she might appeal to his better, more emotional nature but there’s a limit to how far she can go. Just after the famous section in Chapter 22 in which her motto of ‘Only connect!’ is given its only outing in the novel, Forster is blunt: ‘…she failed. For there was one quality in Henry for which she was never prepared, however much she reminded herself of it: his obtuseness.’

(Forster is keen to insist on Margaret’s strength, despite this apparent setback. He is a fortress but, fortunately, she is as strong in a different way. Unlike him, she is comfortable in the public realm, is ‘a mountain peak, whom all might tread, but whom the snows made nightly virginal.’ Goodness.)

One of the interesting things about these chapters is the way that Forster forces a wedge between the Schlegel sisters. They’ve always been different, but in a scene like the most recent one with Leonard Bast it’s no great surprise that for him they ‘still remained a composite Indian god, whose waving arms and contradictory speeches were the product of a single mind.’ We know he’s wrong – in almost every way, he still doesn’t get where they’re coming from – but we also know what he means…. So Forster has a job to do if he’s to perform the surgery of separating them. He needs it to be plausible for Margaret to go through with something that is unthinkable for Helen.

For a start, he makes sure that after the accidental meeting with Leonard Bast, Mr Wilcox always sees Margaret without Helen. There’s an invitation, ostensibly from Evie Wilcox, to lunch at Simpson’s. And it turns into one of those times in which she is able to appreciate his qualities, however different from her own they might be. (This is something that Helen can never do, and I’ll come back to it – because Margaret has to.) Their talk comes around to houses, because the Schlegels have to move, and have nowhere to move to yet. Forster uses people’s attitudes to houses as a signpost to their spiritual or emotional natures. We know about Mrs Wilcox, who was born at Howards End and for whom a move would be ‘worse than dying’. Margaret feels nothing like that, until the move is imminent, when she begins to be sentimental. Mr Wilcox… well, guess. In a later conversation, he denies any attachment to Howards End. (He mentions the wych-elm only in the context of not wanting it to be spoilt by a tenant, and is mystified when Margaret remarks on the pigs’ teeth.) I’ll get back to houses as well, starting with…

…the way that Mr Wilcox uses his own, up for rent, as a pretext for getting Margaret to see him again. The meeting there is utterly formal and business-like. She even asks how big a particular room is, and he tells her, to the nearest half-foot. But… Margaret had suspected he might propose as soon as his letter arrived, and he does, of course, despite this being only their second meeting since the disagreement over Leonard Bast. Wilcox knows what he wants and goes for it. Margaret, with her determination to connect, really does know what he is like, but thinks they can do one another good: ‘Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted….’ She hopes.

How much more do I need to say? Aunt Munt – i.e. Aunt Juley – seems ok with it. Helen is appalled when she first understands that Margaret is going to accept, repeating ‘Don’t!’ so often that Margaret tells her off for sounding ignorant. She has no interest in what Henry Wilcox represents, does not admit, as Margaret insists, that Britain’s success – and their own wealth – is based on the work of people like him. Even after she is over the first shock, she simply doesn’t see, imagines that Margaret is flattered as she herself was flattered by Paul all those years ago. ‘Rubbish!’ says Margaret, and we can see how far they have moved apart.

It comes to another head over – guess who. Leonard Bast is mentioned, as is his resignation from the Porphyrion. Wilcox remarks that it’s ‘not a bad business’, and Helen is appalled: it’s less than two weeks since he warned them that it was about to crash, and… and so on. She berates him for putting a young man into a position where he accepted a job elsewhere at a lower salary, but he is calm. His bland denials of any fault sound terribly complacent – a word that Forster himself uses – as he lectures Helen on what he sees as the facts of economic life: ‘Don’t take up that sentimental attitude over the poor. See that she doesn’t, Margaret.’

And it’s beginning to look, to the reader’s chagrin, that Margaret really is going to try to see to it that she doesn’t. As Margaret says – she’s talking about arguing ‘political economy’ with Wilcox – it’ll end in a cry.

4 April
Chapters 23-29
This feels like the end of another section: Margaret and Henry – Wilcox, as was – the Shropshire years. Except it isn’t years, it’s a single weekend. And Forster has told us that as she leaves, Margaret will never see ‘Oniton’ again. This is a pity, because she loves the place, just as she loves Howards End, which she’s recently seen for the first time. She doesn’t know it, but as she is making plans to settle at Oniton – getting to know the vicar, loving the sunrises – Henry has already decided that it won’t do. It’s too far from anywhere, doesn’t come up to scratch in lots of little ways. Rather like Howards End, then… and we see how the theme of characters’ spiritual worth (or whatever) being defined by their attitude to houses has become even more firmly established. For Margaret it’s all about a sense of place. For the Wilcoxes, all of them, it’s all about the value of property. In her optimistic way, Margaret is always willing to see these as necessary adjuncts to one another: she is pleased to note that when he found Howards End practically falling to pieces when he married, he spent time and money on getting it fixed up. You can’t have nice places without some practical common sense, and all that.

There’s also a lot of pastoral description in these chapters. It’s something that Forster first gets into at the time when Margaret receives the letter from Wilcox that is ostensibly about the Schlegels taking on his house. They are staying with Aunt Munt in Swanage, and Forster constantly places his characters within a landscape. Often it’s small-scale, with the excursion-steamer in the bay hooting for trade as Margaret’s aunt and cousin wait for her above the railway line. But sometimes he sets them in a far wider context, as in the long paragraph that opens Chapter 19. It starts at ‘the final section of the Purbeck Hills’ and ends with a flourish: ‘the imagination swells, spreads, and deepens, until it becomes geographic and encircles England.’

Don’t ask me what’s going on here. These middle class people scurry around the countryside – the Wilcoxes are constantly driving about in their motors, colliding with other road users with a kind of haughty disdain for anybody else’s rights, while the Schlegels get the views from the train – and I’m reminded of those travel guides from the early 20th Century. Is Forster’s view essentially the same as theirs? While he might be satirical about the Wilcoxes’ arrogant appropriation of the landscape, Forster’s England feels like the view achievable by car and first-class train travel. I can’t decide whether it’s deliberate. Leonard Bast’s single nocturnal expedition is a pathetic imitation of experiences which, in 20th Century England, are only available to the middle classes, just as his anxious reading of the right kinds of books feels like that of someone who knows this stuff isn’t really his. So who does own the land? And who owns the culture?

I’m doing what Forster keeps doing in this book: going off into territory that has nothing much to do with what the characters actually get up to. In fact, there’s quite a lot of plot in these chapters. First, Margaret has to begin the process of establishing new codes of behaviour for Helen. Chapter 23 opens with her giving her sister ‘a thorough scolding’. I’m sure it’s no accident that this is an echo of an earlier episode: Chapter 21 opens with the ever more detestable Charles scolding Dolly, the wife it’s ok for the family to treat with mild contempt. She has to learn his rules… and Helen has to learn the ‘conjugal’ rules that apply to Margaret now. If this all rings alarm bells, it’s supposed to. Helen assents, with caveats, but… fast forward a few chapters. She appears at Oniton, where Evie’s wedding reception has just taken place – with Leonard Bast and his wife in tow. And we get a coincidence that could be straight out of 19th Century novel: in Margaret’s presence, Jackie recognises Henry Wilcox. It’s clear from her manner that there has been a past sexual relationship.

To Henry’s eternal discredit, he suspects a plot. Margaret simply doesn’t understand what he’s talking about as he jabbers about the way that she has encouraged Helen to bring this woman in order to cause trouble. It’s his default social manner, part of his fortress mentality – and when he realises his mistake Margaret recognises how, having dismantled one fortress, ‘Mr. Wilcox was building a new one. He could no longer appear respectable to her, so he defended himself instead in a lurid past. It was not true repentance.’ And, reader, she forgives him. She has to perform mental contortions, but that’s what she does. As Forster presents it, we have to accept it. But Helen won’t. And her view is made more complicated by the favour she had come to ask. Leonard Bast has lost his new job, and she wants Wilcox to find him another one. Before the revelation about his past, Margaret has persuaded Wilcox to make an effort to do this. But now the Basts are dangerous to him. He knows about blackmail, and he is determined to keep as much distance as he can between them and him. His own family, especially, mustn’t know about it. Gulp.

Anything else? Lots, probably. There are conversations, inevitably, about the differences between the sexes and their roles in life. (I’m reminded of Mrs Ramsey in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, who believes that men are responsible for the ‘iron girders’ of life. In that novel as well as in this one, it is only men who can create an empire like Britain’s.) Meanwhile, in the local hotel that Margaret hastily bundles them off to, Leonard Bast speaks to Helen about how he now thinks about the culture he had once sought so avidly: ‘there’s nothing like a bailiff in the house to drive it out of you. When I saw him fingering my Ruskins and Stevensons, I seemed to see life straight real.’ He spells it out: ‘I see one must have money.’ You bet.

And, of course, there’s Howards End. Margaret, in the house alone as the others mistakenly go looking for the key, is captivated by it. In fact, at least half of Chapter 23 is devoted to her appreciation of it, of the people who have lived there, and of its almost mystical place in the landscape. Helen’s thumbnail sketch in her letter in Chapter 1 – ‘From hall you go right or left into dining-room or drawing-room’ – is no preparation for its charms… and in the next chapter, when Wilcox is there, it is she who points out what he had never heard of before: there really are pigs’ teeth in the wych-elm. The description of the tree near the end of the chapter is a hymn to ‘its particular glory’, based on its ‘comradeship’ with the house. We know already, of course, that Wilcox is completely blind to any of this. Later, at Oniton, he seems blind to almost everything. It’s no surprise that Helen gets out of there next morning without speaking to anyone. Margaret has written business-like letters to her and Leonard Bast, and off she goes.

6 April
Chapters 30-37
Houses and plot. All the other houses fall away as Forster brings Howards End right back into the frame. The Schlegels’ London house is emptied – the portentous opening of Chapter 31 is ‘Houses have their own ways of dying,’ – Tibby is in lodgings, Wilcox sells Oniton and none of the action takes place at the Wilcoxes’ London house. Of these eight chapters, three of them are set in the old house that nobody lives in any more, with more to come before the end: there are more portents, and I’ll come back to them.

As for plot: Helen offers the Basts half her fortune, is refused, and has been living in Germany ever since. The letters she’s been writing sound odd; I missed the clue that she’s been seen by no one for eight months, and won’t even go to Swanage unless her aunt is actually dying. The old woman had seemed to be at death’s door, but isn’t – so Helen, who has got as far as London, stays there. She is still being mysterious and refuses to disclose her address. Margaret is so worried she asks Wilcox for advice. Oh dear. He immediately takes it on to a new plane, in which Helen is ill and must be ‘helped’ by the medical profession. Charles is in tow, and Forster likens it to the actions of a wolf-pack. Cue the set piece scene between Margaret and Helen, at Howards End…

…Helen is there, alone, looking for the books that Margaret has told her are in storage. Margaret arrives with Wilcox, Charles and a doctor and, having gone on ahead, sees Helen on the porch. When she sees Helen rising ‘with an unfamiliar movement’ she realises she is pregnant. Whoa. Margaret has got some explaining to do… but first I’ll back-track a bit.

For a start, what about this narrator? For most of the book he’s with Margaret – his short visit with Tibby in Oxford is only to move forward the Helen storyline a little – and I’ve long wondered whether Margaret is really Forster’s alter-ego. When the narrator isn’t actually writing from her point of view – he usually is, when he isn’t giving a speech about England, or marriage, or domestic architecture – he’s certainly standing right next to her. Wilcox – ‘or, as I must now call him, Henry’ as the narrator blithely remarks once Margaret has accepted his proposal in Chapter 20 – is always described from the outside; Helen is a mystery; Leonard Bast is falling out of the frame. And this forces the reader to choose whether to identify with Margaret as well. A while back, I wrote about her forgiveness of Wilcox’s past behaviour: ‘As Forster presents it, we have to accept it.’ But do we? She gets it wrong with Helen in these chapters and only just begins to claw back some trust at Howard’s End: her judgment is not infallible, and we’ve been careless to assume that it was. Forster might sympathise with Margaret utterly, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t recognise her limitations. Her faith in men leading Britain to higher things, for instance, seems terribly naïve.

Plot. Helen has persuaded Tibby to act as her agent in London to transfer £5,000 into Leonard Bast’s account – but Bast sends back an initial cheque and will not accept anything. (The last we hear about him – for now – is that he and his wife have been evicted.) The Wilcoxes are moving house, and Howards End is being used to store packing cases… but ‘Miss Avery’, local odd woman, begins to unpack them. Cue Margaret’s second ever visit, full of mixed portents: ‘The day of her visit was exquisite, and the last of unclouded happiness that she was to have for many months.’ Mrs Avery has, basically, re-furnished the empty house with the Schlegels’ furniture and books, and Margaret can’t make her understand that this wasn’t the plan. But she doesn’t know she’s in a novel: the plan is Forster’s. After the interlude of Aunt Juley’s illness and Helen’s mysterious letters, we’re back there under different skies.

When Margaret arrives, Helen is furious at the trick that’s been played on her. It takes two chapters for them to become fully reconciled – and, reader, it’s the house that does it. Of course it is, with their furniture receiving light from the sun for the first time in 30 years: their place in London faced ‘north-west’. Margaret has, rather bravely, sent Wicox and Charles away to Charles’s house nearby, and now Helen suggests staying the night. But Margaret, ever ‘a loyal wife’ – is there a hint of impending danger in the phrase? – says she must confirm the arrangement with her husband. Ok…

…but Chapter 38 opens with another of those portents – ‘The tragedy began quietly enough’ – and that’s where I stopped reading. I have absolutely no memory of where Forster takes it from here, and I’m not going to guess.

7 April
Chapters 38-44 – to the end
I’d missed the clue of the Schlegels’ father’s unsheathed sword left on a wall at Howards End by Mrs Avery: authors don’t leave such things lying around accidentally. Is anything ever accidental in a novel? The first morning that Howards End has been used for over a year, when Charles has motored down to remind Margaret and Helen of his rights, is also the morning Leonard Bast chooses… etc. But I wrote near the start that I was going to shut up about the contents of the novelist’s kit-bag. We know about Charles’s opinion by now, following a conversation he has with his father after Margaret defies him and stays the night with Helen. For Wilcox, It isn’t about the defiance – he pretends to Charles that he and Margaret haven’t quarrelled – but ‘something far greater, the rights of property itself.’ Ah. This is Wilcox at his most obtuse…. But I need to back-track, again.

Is it a tragedy? If so, whose? Not Helen’s or Margaret’s, and not Wilcox’s despite his wife having told him, finally, exactly what she thinks of him. The Wilcoxes all survive, just, although Charles pays for the ‘thrashing’ he’d contemplated giving Leonard Bast by being sent down for three years for his manslaughter. So is it Bast’s tragedy? He hasn’t figured for ten or a dozen chapters, since the night of Evie’s wedding, and now Forster backtracks. His life is in free-fall – he has to rely on hand-outs from reluctant family members – and he feels nothing but remorse. As Forster tells us, it doesn’t occur to him that what happened in the Shropshire hotel – he’s the father of her unborn child, although he knows nothing of this – was as much Helen’s idea as his own. He is becoming unemployable, spends sleepless nights contemplating his ‘sin’… but he keeps on living, and he becomes more affectionate towards Jacky. Bast turns out all right in the end. Except…

…he feels the need to confess, and Margaret, who has metamorphosed into the novel’s moral core during these final chapters, is the one he needs to speak to. He spends some days finding out her London address, but she’s gone to Howards End – Forster lets us know it’s the day of the pursuit of Helen – and he follows. Ok. But meanwhile, Charles has been doing his own investigations, and the unworldly Tibby lets him know that Helen mentioned a Mr Bast when she saw him in Oxford – a fact that morphs in Charles’s mind into Bast having been present at the meeting. Later, after the unmistakably Wilcox-style conversation with his father, he’s fired up against the Schlegels and this ‘seducer’. He is talking to the sisters when Bast arrives, hits him with that sword he notices – and Leonard Bast drops dead of heart failure. The whole episode is – and I’m sorry to go on about it – straight out of a 19th Century novel.

Time to back-track again, to the excruciating conversation in which Wilcox decides to forbid both Margaret and Helen from staying overnight at Howards End. It’s a superb set piece, as Forster charts the way they approach ‘the abyss’. Forster lays the blame firmly at Wilcox’s feet, as though to confirm that it had always been dangerous for Margaret to throw in her lot with him. To complete the opening sentence of the chapter: ‘The tragedy began quietly enough… by the man’s deft assertion of his superiority.’ Despite Margaret’s best efforts, they plunge into that abyss – and this time, we assume, it’s for good: we know from Chapter 22, nearly half a book away, that she will ultimately fail to make him connect. She is absolutely frank with him, trying to make him admit his own transgression. ‘Only say to yourself, “What Helen has done, I’ve done.”’ He doesn’t see it, retreats into his habitual ‘fortress’ – even accusing her of contemplating blackmail again – and she goes to spend the night with Helen. The next time they speak alone together, after the death of Leonard Bast, she tells him she is leaving him. She will live with Helen in Germany.

(This is one of the clearest examples of Forster’s opinion of conventional ‘maleness’. Wilcox isn’t its apotheosis – that honour has to go to Charles – but through it he almost destroys a marriage. Margaret, who does not yet know how events will unfold, seems to have no choice but to absent herself from its influence, to go and live with Helen and her friend Monica, the ‘crude feminist’ from southern Italy. Germany, to these women, represents a kind of refuge from Wilcox-style bullying – whereas, of course, to the men of Britain it is merely a threat, represented in the throwaway line early on that ‘England and Germany are bound to fight.’ Who does Forster choose to sum it up for him? The dying Mrs Wilcox, of course, in her husband’s sarcastic appraisal of her understanding of politics: ‘I am sure that if the mothers of various nations could meet, there would be no more wars.’ She’s right, of course. It’s a fortress mentality like Wilcox’s that leads to wars.)

So, that could have been that between Margaret and Wilcox. All the signs are there that she has reached the end of the line… but no. When Wilcox speaks to the police, he is told that Charles will probably be tried for manslaughter, and… all the bluster goes out of him. After Charles’s trial and the guilty verdict, ‘Henry’s fortress gave way. He could bear no one but his wife; he shambled up to Margaret afterwards and asked her to do what she could with him.’ Loaded with connotations, that word ‘shambled’. It hints that the vigorous capitalist, certain of his own destiny, is suddenly old. And Margaret, who does not put her arms around him in his first distress, takes him to live with her and Helen at Howards End.

The house retains all its mystical power. The final chapter takes place when Helen’s child is a year old, the sun is shining – and Wilcox, immured from the outside world and the hay-fever that is the bane of all Wilcoxes, tells the family how he and Margaret are to share their fortune with them. They have no choice but to accept. Paul, the originator of Helen’s strange awakening, is back from Africa where he has spent most of the novel. Evie is there. Dolly is there. All Margaret will receive on her husband’s death is – guess. And when Dolly casually mentions that this had been Mrs Wilcox’s dying wish, Margaret is startled. Wilcox makes light of it – it was a ‘clearly fanciful’ idea – but ‘Margaret was silent. Something shook her life in its inmost recesses, and she shivered.’ Forster doesn’t say it, because he doesn’t have to, but the spirit of Howards End that Mrs Avery has always known about, has spoken to her.

Ok, it doesn’t work for me. Perhaps I’m a Wilcox at heart, because I’ve never bought into the idea of a genius loci beyond what we, as individuals with our own experiences and expectations, bring to a place. But that isn’t really the point. Forster has spent the whole novel persuading us that Howards End represents something far more significant than mere property. The house is an unchanging core at the centre of a fluid, ever-changing England: Margaret is always bemoaning the way that London seems to be changing almost daily, with buildings rising and being demolished on a whim, and Forster is sarcastic about the Wilcoxes’ inability to settle anywhere. If he wants to give us a happy ending filled with the laughter of children, why not? He wants completion, and brings it to us through Margaret’s decision to promise that Howards End will finally pass to… Helen’s child, the son of Leonard Bast.

And at last we realise that Leonard Bast’s nocturnal walk was never merely a pathetic imitation of middle class behaviour. The Schlegels – Helen in particular – were right to see that the urge came not from books, but from deep inside him. Now the son of this man, whose grandparents worked on the land – Bast tells Helen this in the hotel in Shropshire – has returned to the house created by his spiritual ancestors. (Of course, if I wanted to be sarcastic I could mention that the middle classes always have liked nice places. Margaret, who has finally learned to understand the joy of ownership, has the house as long as she lives. Bless.)

I’ve recently re-read The Great Gatsby, and I wonder if that novel could ever have been written without Howards End as an antecedent. Gatsby’s vision of a future with a reinvented self is a step on from Leonard Bast’s small-scale ambitions, but their fates are almost identical. They are both highly flawed characters, but it’s combinations of unlucky circumstances that do for both of them in the end. And who survives? The rich, that’s who. Forster lets them off, allows them contentment and reconciliation in the sunshine…. In Gatsby Fitzgerald is far less forgiving. ‘They were careless people, Tom and Daisy–they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever….’ You bet.


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