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Monday, May 11, 2009

Howards End

Spending four years as an English major has made me leery of novels which are described as being about one of the major "issues" that get grad students over-heated and leave people who want to enjoy books in the lurch. I learned the hard way that college courses featuring the words Class, Labor, Gender, or The Other were to be avoided at all costs, especially as there is such a high incidence of Jane Austen in them.

Howards End refers to the ancestral home of Mrs. Wilcox, who on her deathbed decides to leave the home to Margaret Schlegel, rather than to her own family. Because the request is not in her will, the family ignores it. This sounds like a set-up for much conflict and tension, but really it isn't. It is some 250 pages before Margaret ever finds out about her dead friend's final request. Instead the novel focuses on the relationship between the two families after the widower Wilcox decides he wants to marry Margaret, upsetting his children and Margaret's emotional sister Helen, who had once been spurned by the younger Wilcox. Along the way there is much in the way of dinner-time conversation and social events, but dreadfully little activity.

E.M. Forster's Howards End isn't quite so Austen-tacious as to make me run for the hills, but it is clearly about Class, and the difficulty of relations between people of different social levels, even though in this case the difference between the industrious Wilcox family and intellectual Schlegels seems rather small. Much like the novels of Austen and The Other Women Writers I Avoided Like Hell in College, there is much too much in this novel about manners and social graces, and because of the time in which it was written, there is an artificial unreality surrounding these characters. Most of the characters seem stuffy, stilted and unhuman, even though Forster does nobly struggle to introduce though intimation the unmentionable.

For all that it pertains to be about, class and art and the inability of human beings to "only connect"- to feel empathy for and see the humanity in others- Howards End still feels decidedly small. The plot is astonishingly thin, and gives the impression that Forster inflated 70 pages of story into a 300-page novel rather than try to trim it down to a short story. There are numerous and unintelligible intrusions from the impersonal narrator, and innumerable philosophical digressions of Forster's put into the mouths of his characters. Allusions are made to a legion of contemporary artists, composers and writers, a scant few of which are names familiar to the modern-day reader. All in all, there is a lot of material to wade through before you get to the good stuff.

There is indeed good stuff here, there just isn't as much as there is in A Passage to India, my previous encounter with Forster. Margaret Schlegel is a very admirable character, strong-willed and determined to stay independent despite her role as a wife. Forster's motto for the novel, the much-quoted "Only Connect" is a good lesson worth remembering, and is passionately invoked in the argument between Margaret and Wilcox which serves as the novel's climax. Overall, though, a largely unimpressive reading experience, which narrowly squeaks into the "tolerable" range with a 5.2 out of 10.

Next? Well, I've already started on Midnight's Children, and I suppose sometime I'll have to go back and finish Rabbit at Rest.

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