E.M. Forster and ‘Howards End’

 

Professor Peter Childs, University of Goucestershire

18 May 2010

Figure 1: E.M. Forster as a young man

Despite much praise, Forster’s early novels did not sell well and it was in 1910 that he had his first considerable success with the book that secured his reputation: Howards End. Forster's early novels situated him as an astute observer of contemporary manners and mores, which he chiefly portrayed in social comedies that have a lineage from the fiction of Jane Austen to the plays of Oscar Wilde. He shared with the latter a frustration over the unacceptability of writing openly about homosexuality and his early work concerned the restrictions placed on personal freedom by English sensibilities. His homosexual novel, Maurice, written in 1913-14, was only published posthumously in the 1970s.

As to Forster’s targets in Howards End, as early as January 1908 he was perturbed to read about an air machine. He writes in his journal:

...if I live to be old I shall see the sky as pestilential as the roads. It really is a new civilisation. I have been born at the end of the age of peace and can’t expect to feel anything but despair. Science, instead of freeing man...  is enslaving him to machines.... The little houses that I am used to will be swept away, the fields will stink of petrol, and the air will shatter the stars. (Journals)

This was the year before Bleriot was the first person to fly the Channel. And seems prophetic in the same way that Forster’s 1909 short story ‘The Machine Stops’ predicts a future of isolated people in pods connected by wires and tubes.  The novel is also a warning against ‘the great Wilcox peril’ of advancing commerce and consumerism, but Forster, alongside the intellectual Margaret Schlegel in the novel, sees the need for the world of business and trade alongside intellect and the imagination. Margaret tells her sister Helen:

“If Wilcoxes hadn't worked and died in England for thousands of years, you and I couldn't sit here without having our throats cut.  There would be no trains, no ships to carry us literary people about in, no fields even.  Just savagery. No--perhaps not even that.  Without their spirit life might never have moved out of protoplasm.  More and more do I refuse to draw my income and sneer at those who guarantee it.” (ch.19)

 

Figure 2: Original 1910 title page of Howards End

Wishing to connect the outer and inner life, Forster wishes to see the reconciliation of culture and commerce. Consequently, he supports, to different extents, the continuation of the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels in the novel, but he has little need for Leonard Basts, who he thinks should have stayed on the land:

Hints of robustness survived in [Leonard], more than a hint of primitive good looks, and Margaret, noting the spine that might have been straight, and the chest that might have broadened, wondered whether it paid to give up the glory of the animal for a tail coat and a couple of ideas. (ch.14)

There is almost a eugenicist element to this as Forster later contrasts Leonard unfavourably with other types of people. Leonard’s death seems like a comment on the weakness of this breed of subterranean city clerks and as Leonard walks towards Howards End at the close of the book he passes some labourers:

‘they were men of the first type ... They are England’s hope. Clumsily they carry forward the torch of the sun, until such time as the nation sees fit to take it up. Half clodhopper, half board-school prig, they can still throw back to a nobler stock, and breed yeomen.’ (ch.41)

Because of its similar themes concerning the state of the nation and who shall inherit Howards End as a metonym for the country, Forster’s novel is sometimes considered a novel about ‘the Condition of England’, a phrase of Carlyle’s from the 1840s often linked to books in that decade like Elizabeth Gaskell’s.

The Liberal MP C.F.G. Masterman had written an admiring review of A Room with a View, Forster’s previous novel from 1908, at the same time as he was writing articles for the Independent magazine. Forster was impressed by Masterman’s social conscience and if there is any factual book that is a counterpart to Howards End it is the assembly of these articles in Masterman’s 1909 book The Condition of England. Masterman described: ‘common humanity condemned to monotonous toil and mirthless pleasure, with no intelligible advance in gentleness and the art of living.’ Like Masterman’s book, Howards End is in part also a meditation on the question ‘whither England’ and Forster based the house Howards End on his own childhood home Rooksnest near Stevenage.

 

Figure 3: Forster’s childhood home of Rooksnest

Partly inspired by both Forster’s and H.G. Wells’s vision of a society threatened by social disintegration and fragmentation, Masterman’s book begins with a preface that opens with a quotation from Wells’s 1909 novel Tono-Bungay: ‘I've got to a time of life when the only theories that interest me are generalisations about realities.’ Masterman say that his book is an attempt ‘to estimate some of these "realities" in the life of contemporary England.’ As such it is sometimes seen as a political, religious and social state-of-the-nation study to sit alongside Forster’s concerns over the human cost of petrol-driven machines and Wells’s novel about (as he described in his 1925 preface) ‘the contemporary social and political system in Great Britain, an old and degenerating system, tried and strained by new inventions and new ideas’. Tono-Bungay was subtitled ‘A Study of Commerce’ when first serialised but it is as much a meditation on the ‘cancerous’ and ‘tumourous’ growth of the city, similarly lamented in Howards End as the red rust of the metropolis taking over the country(side), and the scramble for African resources that is paralleled by the Wilcoxes’ Imperial and West African rubber company.

A novel of the middle-classes with little to say about the upper and lower sections of society, Howards End nevertheless remains an important study of the ‘death of Liberal England’ and of the twilight years before the Great War.  It is evidently an anxious book about change and transition, like contemporary works by Wells and Lawrence, but it is also a novel intimately and illuminatingly concerned with the connections between private and public worlds.  With the arguable exception of Conrad’s best work, it ranks alongside any other twentieth-century English novel published before 1914 and its concern with the modern forces encroaching on familiar patterns of living places it in the line of critiques connecting Hardy, who spoke of the incipient ‘ache of modernism’ to Lawrence, who dramatised its effects.                                                                                               

Peter Childs