Howards End by E. M. Forster

1910. Bantam. Paperback. 271 pages.

From: the public library

For the challenge: Read 19 Books Older than I am

In a nutshell:

Helen and Margaret Schlegel are a pair of vibrantly intelligent sisters.  They live comfortably in London, enjoying the arts and participating in intellectual discussions with like-minded friends and acquaintances.  At the book’s start, Helen is visiting the Wilcox family at their home, Howards End.  The Schlegels and the Wilcox family had become acquainted while both families were traveling in Germany.  The Wilcoxes are very different from the Schlegels – more conventional and ‘practical.’  The two families seem fated to be intertwined, in ways that are unexpected and sometimes uncomfortable, as each family has suspicions about the ‘ways’ of the other family.


I read E. M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread when I was a teenager, but hardly recall the experience.  So Howards End almost feels like the first true read I’ve had of Forster.

Although there is a definite plot in Howards End, its themes and writing were what I liked the most.  I particularly resonated with Forster’s musings on belonging to a place.  For the past five years, I have lived in several different dwellings and will likely move to a new one next year.  I have some affection for my current apartment, but I dream of living – and staying – in a place that I love.  Forster’s book thus struck a chord with me.

Forster’s comments on the subject of moving still seem relevant for example:

When a move is imminent, furniture becomes ridiculous . . . Chairs, tables, pictures, books, that had rumbled down to them through the generations, must rumble forward again like a slide of rubbish to which she longed to give the final push and send toppling into the sea . . . We are reverting to the civilization of luggage, and historians of the future will note how the middle classes accreted possessions without taking root in the earth, and may find in this the secret of their imaginative poverty.

p. 117-118

Very little of the book takes place at Howards End.  Instead the house operates mostly as a beckoning symbol of belonging to a place.  Only one of the Wilcox family members truly treasures Howards End.  Most of them see it as merely a place on which to add ‘improvements.’

The Wilcoxes seemed familiar to me.  Margaret Schlegel thinks of the Wilcoxes, particularly the senior Mr. Wilcox, as having their “hands on the ropes.”  It’s a recurring phrase meaning those who are ‘in the know’, who do not flounder for direction, but set off purposefully on a stable career or life path.  And yet on the flipside, the Wilcoxes have no toleration or even understanding for the slightest eccentricity.  Margaret’s compassion for a child that has lost its pet is an emotional extravagance.  The Schlegel sisters are judged to have read books that “suitable for men only.”  Maybe I haven’t run into people with the latter opinion, but I’ve certainly encountered people who are startlingly judgmental about the most innocuous of oddities.

The Schlegel sisters have their own follies of course.  Margaret Schlegel gives in too much to her fiancee, for example, all the while thinking that each little surrender ‘doesn’t really matter’ and that her inner self remains untouched by these.  But it’s the little things that whittle us away, of course.

There are many more themes and ideas to be explored in Howards End.  By saying so, I hope I don’t imply that my reading experience was some sort of academic exercise.  These were themes that engaged me personally, not in a scholarly fashion.  And there is good humor in Forster’s writing too.  Take this fun snippet:

[Charles] and Dolly are sitting in deck-chairs, and their motor is regarding them placidly from its garage across the lawn.  A short-frocked edition of Charles also regards them placidly, a perambulator edition is squeaking; a third edition is expected shortly.  Nature is turning out Wilcoxes in this peaceful abode, so that they may inherit the earth.

p. 146

I know there is a film adaptation with Helena Bonham Carter and Emma Thompson, that I would be interesting in seeing.  It would be missing Forster’s writing and commentary but I’d be interested in how the filmmakers and cast interpret the characters, as my impressions of them in the book were quite changeable.

Others’ reviews:

A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook – “Howards End is the kind of book that leaves one overwhelmed with its ambitious scope, and that the omnipresence of symbols renders one misgiving as to where to begin interpreting the meanings.”

Amused, Bemused and Confused – “This book is both a microscope and a telescope.  It looks into people’s innermost motivations, and then swings right out to ask some basic, essential questions.  What is art?  What is beauty?  What is England?”

Love, Laughter and a Touch of Insanity – “The character development wasn’t half bad, but I found the writing a little confusing and very anticlimactic. The last couple of chapters were the best in the book, but I thought the writing was boring and without passion.”


Filed under Book Review

4 responses to “Howards End by E. M. Forster

  1. I read Forster’s Room with a View a few years ago, and I thought the writing was very good indeed. I wasn’t crazy about the book as a whole though — not enough happened. It sounds like this one is perhaps the same way?

    • The book starts off with strife and goings-on, settles down for a while with slower plot development, and then towards the end there’s a payoff with lots of things happening. At least that’s how I’d characterize it. Others may see it differently.

  2. Nan

    This is one of my top five favorite books of all time. I have my original little copy and a few years ago bought the Barnes & Noble edition just because it was so beautiful. It is a marvel because it can be read in a studied manner, paying attention to symbols and all, but it can also be read as simply a wonderful story with fascinating characters. And the film version is super. Emma Thompson was born to portray Margaret.

    • Great to hear the thoughts of someone for whom Howards End is a favorite! I love Emma Thompson, so your comment on the film makes me want to watch it even more. 🙂

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