Reflections on Howard’s End

Howard’s End is a house in Hertfordshire with special powers: “It kills what is dreadful and makes what is beautiful live.” It features at the beginning and end of Forster’s great novel set at the beginning of the 20th century and exerts its presence throughout.

My reflections here give away the plot, and the plot is important in this book.

Howard’s End is the home of the Wilcox’s, an artless family of business people. The mother, Mrs Wilcox, doesn’t quite fit with her family, and we know that she must be special because she loves Howard’s End. The rest of the Wilcox’s don’t. At the beginning of the novel, Helen, the youngest of two Schlegel sisters, is staying in the house. We read her letters home to Margaret, her older sister, and her Aunt Juley. The Schlegels are rich, half German, intellectual, bold almost Bohemian, and lovers of the arts. Their parents are dead, but the two sisters and a dreamy younger brother live together in London.

While at Howard’s End, Helen, who is 18, is kissed by Paul Wilcox, the younger brother of Charles. In such a repressed society a snatched kiss is hugely significant. Helen will remember the kiss all her life and imagines herself in love and that she will marry Paul. He’s ashamed and can’t look at her the next day. Charles is outraged. Mrs Wilcox smooths things over.

Margaret becomes friends with Mr Wilcox, but suddenly Mrs Wilcox dies. We learn that she wanted Margaret to inherit Howard’s End, but the Wilcox ‘s keep this to themselves.

Another character, a young man called Bast, meets the Schlegel sisters at a concert. Helen takes his umbrella by mistake, and as he’s poor he comes to retrieve it. The sisters are delighted by him when they discover he reads books and was bold enough to walk the Surrey hills all night. He’s scared off by the sisters, but we learn that he’s married to an older woman, who is not respectable. Although central to the plot she’s a caricature not a character.

Margaret becomes closer to Mr Wilcox, and at some point realises she loves him. He’s effective at business but obtuse about everything else, while Margaret is a deep thinking empathetic woman. Her love for him seems implausible, but she (likeForster) admires men of action who have built up the Empire.

Wilcox in a throwaway comment lets the sisters know that the company where Bast works is about to smash. They urge him to leave and get another job, which he does–but for a cut in pay. Then he’s laid off, and we learn that Wilcox misinformed them about the original company. Helen, who has no time for Wilcox, is furious. Margaret forgives Wilcox, whom she is now marrying.

The first climax of the book comes at the wedding in Shropshire of Wilcox’s daughter, Evie. It passes off well enough, but in the aftermath Helen appears with Bast and his wife. She wants Wilcox to give him a job. But it emerges that Bast’s wife was once Wilcox’s mistress. He has ruined her. We are not surprised that Wilcox would have a mistress or that he would discard her. Margaret is shocked but decides to forgive her husband. It’s because she’s relatively unconventional that she’s willing to do so. A normal, more conventional woman would not.

Margaret not Wilcox sends Bast and his wife away. Helen is so appalled–more, we think, for Wilcox refusing to give Bast a job than his misconduct–that she leaves the country, refusing to see anybody. Her behaviour seems extreme, but we know that Helen is different and has strong views.

The final climax occurs at Howard’s End. Margaret has been a few times and come to love the house. The Schlegels are having to give up their house in London, and Wilcox agrees that their furniture and possessions can be stored at Howard’s End. A slightly crazy old woman looks after the empty house and is in some ways the spirit of the house. She unpacks the furniture and books because she wants the house to feel alive again. Margaret visits to sort things out but is taken by seeing her own furniture and books in the house.

Helen returns briefly to collect some books, but she doesn’t want to see anybody. Wilcox suggests that they surprise her at Howard’s End when she is collecting the books. They do and discover that she is “with child,” something truly appalling for an unmarried woman. Helen wants to spend a night at Howard’s End and wants Margaret to stay with her. Margaret goes back to sort things with her husband, including getting consent for Helen and her to stay in his house. In perhaps the most important scene in the book Wilcox says that he cannot forgive Helen as Margaret has forgiven him. She decides that she cannot live with him but will move abroad with Helen.

The night at Howard’s End is filled with poetry, but in the meantime we encounter Charles and Bast. Charles, as we would expect, is furious and wants to disown Helen and horsewhip whoever made her pregnant. It was Bast who made her pregnant on that night in Shropshire. They had been through a great drama together and stayed up late talking in the hotel. We know that they were attracted to each other, and in 2016 we don’t find it surprising that they made love. We recognise too that it was probably mutual, and it may even have been that Helen took the lead.

But Bast is mortified by what he has done, without even knowing that Helen became pregnant. He feels the need to confess, and who better to confess to than Mr and Mrs Wilcox. He finds that they have a house near Hitchin and travels there, arriving the morning after Margaret and Helen have spent the night in Howard’s End. Charles arrives as well, and in just a few sentences Charles has beaten and killed Bast. Charles is convicted of manslaughter and sent to prison for three years.

The timing of all this is highly improbable, but the improbability didn’t spoil the book for me,

The final chapter is a year later. Margaret, Helen, and Wilcox are all living at Howard’s End with the baby. The countryside is perfect. Wilcox and Helen have come to like each other, and Wilcox has left the house to Margaret, who will leave it to her nephew.

Howard’s End has killed Bast and his remorse, Charles’s unbearable righteousness, and Wilcox’s hypocrisy and pride; and it is making the child, the sisters and their love, and the Wilcoxs’ marriage live.

Forster created a complex, often improbable, plot, but I found myself racing along at the end, wanting to know what would happen to the characters. Forster is somebody who set great store by physical love, and you feel he would have approved our age where there aren’t the same prohibitions around sex. He, a homosexual, suffered himself from the prejudices of his age, and this book rages against both the manners and the hypocrisy.

I’m not convinced it’s a greater book than Passage to India or Room With a View, both of which I’ve read in the past year. My Forster reading is now over, and I doubt that I’ll read any of the books again.


Quotes from the book:

Any human being lies nearer to the unseen than any organisation.

We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or poet.

To them Howard’s End was a house; they could not know that to her it had been a spirit.

It is thus, if there is any rule, that we ought to die—neither as victim nor as fanatic, but as the seafarer who can greet with an equal eye the deep that he is entering, and the shore that he must leave.

Life is indeed dangerous, but not in the way morality would have us believe. It is indeed unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty.

True insight began just where his intelligence ended.

Does it pay to give up the glory of the animal for a tail coat and a couple of ideas?

The astonishing glass shade…that interposes between married couples and the world.

He cannot comprehend another’s infinity; he is conscious only of his own—flying sunbeam, falling rose, pebble that asks for one quiet plunge below the fretting interplay of space and time. He knows that he will survive at the end of things, and be gathered by Fate as a jewel from the slime, and be handed with admiration round the assembly of gods. “Men did produce this,” they will say, and, saying, they will give men immortality.

But Margaret saw Death stripped of any false romance; whatever the idea of Death may contain, the process can be trivial and hideous.

I cannot fit in with England as I know it. I have done something that the English never pardon. It would not be right for them to pardon it. So I must live where I am not known.

I know of things they can’t know of, and so do you. We know that there’s poetry. We know that there’s death.

Had she ever loved in the noblest way, where man and woman, having lost themselves in sex, desire to lose sex in comradeship?

Sane sound Englishmen building up empires, levelling all the world into what they call common sense. But mention Death to them and they’re offended, because Death’s really Imperial, and He cries out against them for ever.

Death destroys a man: the idea of Death saves him. Behind the coffins and the skeletons that stay on the vulgar mind lies something so immense that all that is great in us responds to it. Men of the world may recoil from the charnel house that they will one day enter, but Love knows better. Death is his foe, but his peer, and in their age-long struggle the thews of Love have been strengthened, and is vision cleared, until there is no one who can stand against him.

The human soul will be merged, if it be merged at all, with the stars and the sea.

Howards End - BTS



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