Howard’s End by E.M. Forster is overrun with characters who have clever thoughts and conversation about Nature, Literature, Art and other Capitalised Ideals, although these intellectually blessed characters were generally short of common sense, to the detriment of themselves and other characters whose more ordinary thoughts were more in keeping with my own.
I read Where Angels Fear to Tread by this author and enjoyed the writing style and the story, but did not like the characters any better than those in Howard’s End.
Howard’s End follows the lives of the Schlegel and the Wilcox families who meet while travelling on the Continent (I guess there is no need to say when this story is set after using the term “travelling on the Continent”). Sisters Margaret and Helen Schlegel have a large enough income to indulge in Clever Thoughts, but they are fascinated by the self-made, buttoned-up Wilcox clan to the point where Helen entered into a hasty and soon regretted engagement with the younger Wilcox son.
The engagement ends as quickly as it begun and the two families would not have met again except that the Wilcox’s took a house in London across the road from the Schlegel’s. Mrs Wilcox and Margaret form a friendship and when Mrs Wilcox dies suddenly, the Wilcox family were angry to learn she left her family home, Howard’s End, on a whim to Margaret. As Mrs Wilcox’s wish was not formalised in a will, the Wilcox’s did not action the wish and Margaret herself was unaware of the bequest.
A few years after Mrs Wilcox’s death Mr Wilcox began courting Margaret, who agreed to marry him for reasons I found difficult to understand. Personally, I would have been put off by his horrible cigar breath during the first kiss, but Margaret professes to Understand and Respect who Mr Wilcox is as a Man. Mr Wilcox’s children, however, were unhappy with their father’s choice of Margaret.
Margaret’s younger sister Helen was the type to interfere and cause trouble wherever she went, most significantly when she and Margaret became involved in the life of Leonard Bast, a poor clerk they met by accident at a concert and took an interest in. Leonard’s common-law wife Jacky had an unexpected connection with the Wilcox family too.
The differences between the three families seemed insurmountable to me for them to have been connected socially, but these differences in their outlooks were the whole point of the novel. The different standards for men and women, the extreme divide between the rich and the poor, the stiff English nature of the Wilcox’s compared to the expressive, romantic nature of the half-German Schlegel’s, even the differences between the love of the city and the country. “Only connect” is the most well-known quote from this novel.
My irritation with the characters, who mostly had unlikeable natures (excluding Mrs Wilcox and Margaret), meant that I struggled to like this story. The Schlegel’s Big Ideas drove me mad, while the Wilcox’s weren’t my type either. Funnily enough, I think I related best to poor Leonard Bast, whose only aim was to improve himself culturally.
Regardless of my general dislike of the characters, I can Respect and Admire the Beauty of the Writing. The story is also fascinating in that Mr Wilcox believes a war with Germany is coming (Howard’s End was written several years before World War One broke out). The author delighted me by suggesting in Howard’s End that in 100 years, it would be unthinkable for a woman not to work. Woohoo!