Howards End is a novel of conflicts. Or, rather, juxtapositions. Forster’s injunction to us, the subtitle of the novel, is ‘Only connect…’, and he proceeds to lay out a number of apparent opposites which we must reconcile, which we must understand the important of bringing together.
Sense and sensibility (sort of)
Centrally, we have the dazzling Schlegel sisters, and the worldly Wilcoxes, who respectively stand for the intellectual, the intuitive, beauty, and (in contrast) the commercial, the practical, tangible achievement. The Basts (or, more specifically, Leonard Bast), who are essential though not prominent in the story, lie struggling between the two, and seem actually to embody, and ultimately be sacrificed to, this conflict.
This is not, however, a reason emotion dichotomy, not least because our lovely Miss Schlegels, the elder Margaret especially, display a remarkable clear-headedness and practicality which often trumps the stubborn, narrow-minded Wilcox view. Moreover, ‘emotion’ as it is commonly placed in opposition to ‘reason’ (and, typically, as a female and a lesser attribute) does not accurately describe the intelligent and admirable sensibility and access to a higher consciousness which the Schlegels’ appreciation of art, beauty, and passion affords them. Rather, as Forster so evocatively and precisely puts it, the connection that must be made is of ‘the prose in us with the passion’.
And, finally, the conflict cannot be so simply reduced because Margaret does not stand for, or on, one side of the question. The truth of this book is that
The business man who assumes that this life is everything, and the mystic who asserts that it is nothing, fail, on this side and on that, to hit the truth
and it is Margaret who represents the determined attempt to find and advocate a middle path on which truth and happiness can be found. In her marriage, she takes a conscious and decisive step, fully aware of the conflict, and striving to reconcile it. She actively and knowingly endeavours to achieve this connection of sensibleness and sentiment on a number of levels. Essential to the inner life of the individual, it is also the means of realising a truly sublime, almost transcendent human relationship:
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.
In society, too, the author and the heroine of Howards End recognise the necessity and benefits of practical commercialist individualism, but beseech that joy in life, uplifting intellectual fulfilment, meaningful interaction and love not be sacrificed to it. ‘Only connect’, too, is about challenging a harmful lack of empathy in society because it is ‘those who cannot connect who hasten to cast the first stone’.
A balanced and brilliant heroine
Neither the purely intellectual nor the purely worldly can triumph, but Forster shows that it is the sentiment and sympathy which Margaret embodies that allows her to connect the two opposing forces within herself, and enable others to do so. She creates, crosses, and helps those around her to ‘the building of the rainbow bridge’ which spans the banks of the two territories. It is in this sense that Margaret, as the agent of Forster’s vision, is our hero, and it is evident from the get-go that Forster adores his creation. Despite the third-person omniscient narration, despite the focus on three different families, this is very much Margaret’s story. Early on, he gives us an idiosyncratic, original, and beautiful consideration of Euston from her perspective, as if forcing us to note that we’re seeing things from the view of someone extraordinarily insightful and brilliant:
she had strong feelings about the various railway termini. They are our gates to the glorious and the unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, to them, alas! we return … And he is a chilly Londoner who does not endow his stations with some personality, and extend to them, however shyly, the emotions of fear and love.
And after her marriage Forster is compelled, apparently, by the sheer force of Margaret’s being and his adoration of her to follow her practice of using her husband’s Christian name: ‘or, as I must now call him, Henry’. She and her sister together, ‘the Miss Schlegels’ whom Leonard Bast so reveres, are an astounding pair to be contended with, perhaps because they connect (as per Forster’s opening injunction) with one another in a way which no other characters do.
The sisters are certainly unconventional. The spectacularly-drawn Aunt Juley, a loveable minor character worthy, indeed, of Austen, “consider[s] you odd girls … and very wonderful girls”. Their fire, their cleverness, their passion is offset by the practical world around them (in another of Forster’s subtle pleas for combination and connection):
Not out of them are the shows of history erected: the world would be a gray, bloodless place were it entirely composed of Miss Schlegels. But, the world being what it is, perhaps they shine out in it like stars.
Margaret is, therefore, an interesting study from a feminist viewpoint. Her shrewdity, resolution, integrity, and determined independence qualify her as the ultimate ‘strong heroine’, and I’m amazed that the recent TV adaptation (otherwise fantastic) omitted to capitalise on the episode of her jumping out of a car in which the odious Charles Wilcox is protectively driving her away from the scene of a collision with a cat, which is a remarkable act of frustrated rebellion and show of spirit. In this she contrasts the women with whom Forster surrounds her, from the empty-headed Dolly who gets no charity – ‘a rubbishy little creature, and she knew it’ – to the angelic, self-sacrificing Mrs Wilcox, whose unremarkable departure from the world – ‘How easily she slipped out of life!’ – Margaret holds to be ‘an almost culpable indifference to earthly fame.’
Whilst acutely aware that submission is sometimes necessary to achieve one’s ends in patriarchy, she recognises the difficulty of retaining autonomy and authenticity in so doing:
In dealing with a Wilcox, how tempting it was to lapse from comradeship, and to give him the kind of woman that he desired!
But Forster repeatedly reassures us that there is no risk of her selfhood ever being subsumed, even in a marriage to an arch patriarch, perhaps because she has no illusions, perhaps because she knows what her powers can achieve. Whilst Helen quietly laments that “One would lose something” in marriage, Margaret declares an essential independence of which Clarissa Dalloway would be proud:
“I don’t intend him, or any man or any woman, to be all my life – good heavens, no! There are heaps of things in me that he doesn’t, and shall never, understand.”
And Forster reassures us that even the domineering Wilcoxes have no real control over her:
A younger woman might have resented his masterly ways, but Margaret had too firm a grip of life to make a fuss. She was, in her own way, as masterly.
Margaret’s power and mastery make her the symbol for a further conflict which Forster establishes: that between the male and female. As Lionel Trilling comments, ‘the Eternal Feminine [must take] complete control of the England which the masculine outer life has so sadly muddled’. The prose and passion are, and not accidentally it would seem, initially divided along the lines of gender, and so Margaret feels that ‘she was fighting for women against men’. Not in a suffragette sense, because ‘She did not care about rights’, but in the emotional, spiritual sense that she cannot let the masculine, the business-headed, invade: ‘if men came into Howards End it would be over her body.’
Howards End and Howards End
Because, of course, the book is named after a house, and not a woman. Howards End itself is another embodiment of connected prose and passion. It is here that characters can live united once they have crossed that rainbow bridge connecting prose and passion. The house lies distant from the city’s commercial bustle, and yet is surrounded by the more romantic and beautiful, but nonetheless busy, industry of agriculture. It is here that ‘truer relationships beyond the limits that fetter us now’ can be forged, here that the business man and the mystic can live in harmony, and their future generations grow up side by side.
Lionel Trilling writes that the unfortunate position of Forster’s other novels is that they are all ‘by the author of Howards End’, because it is his work of genius. Not having read any other Forster, I couldn’t agree or disagree. But I suspect that whilst Forster’s fantastic characterisation, the subtle humour which defines his narrative style – as in a plethora of examples such as, ‘Tibby, with rare self-effacement, fell asleep’ – and the beautiful description which occasionally litters his narrative, as when ‘the grey brows of the evening flushed a little, and were cleft with one scarlet frown’ might be found elsewhere, this plea for connection, this heroine, this beauty are unique to Howards End.