Howards End – E.M. Forster
Penguin Books, 1989
Sisters Margaret and Helen Schlegel are daughters of a new era, torn between the revolutionary suffragette movement and the stability of a good marriage, between their socialist principles and the inherited wealth that turns their support into a hypocrisy. When a chance meeting introduces them to the Wilcoxes, a family cemented in traditional values and distrustful of change, it seems the polar opposites of the two families will inevitably drive them apart. Instead a connection develops that will challenge the very heart of each sister’s beliefs and turn them onto paths they never anticipated.
I read A Room with a View earlier this year and was impressed by the gentle poignancy of an early 20th century narrative that defended a woman’s right to choose her own life, especially as it was written by a man. Having also read Susan Hill’s memoir Howards End is on the Landing, I decided this was the next example of Forster’s work that I would read. First published in 1910, it is described in the blurb of my library’s Penguin paperback as one of the great English novels, a work of subtle characterisation and unobtrusive symbolism. Perhaps it was too subtle for me. The writing is very skilful and there are moments of powerful poignancy, but it lacks the charm I liked in A Room with a View, and the plot was too meandering to hold my attention. Also, although I realise a book must be judged within its historical context, I was taken aback by the sexist, racist and classist overtones that infused the story to the point where they were impossible to overlook. Howards End is a book that just cannot transcend its own time.