Sunday, August 19, 2012

Howard's End, by E.M. Forster

Howard's End has joined Lolita on my list of classic novels that I will read at least once a decade, and I predict that each reading (or listening) will reveal new joys. I'm sure I read A Room with a View when I was younger, too young to appreciate it, but this Forster gem just glistens. The plot, the characters, the settings, the prose...  Published in 1910, Howard's End comes across as both startlingly modern and yet charmingly nostalgic, set solidly in Europe before the great wars. It's deliciously atmospheric, mixing substance with wit. I sometimes finish novels with the morbid wish that I could have written them; I would sell my soul for a fraction of E.M. Forster's style.

This time I listened to the book, read by John Franklyn-Robbins, often so absorbed that I was lucky to have gotten off the bus at the right stop. As with Lolita, Howard's End is a magnificent audio book, and no less stunning to read in print. They are two very different but wonderful experiences.

Forster's cast includes the Wilcox family, owners of Howard's End, Mrs. Wilcox's beloved house in the country. Mr. Wilcox is a pragmatic and gruff businessman; his sons Paul and Charles will acquire his black-and-white world view.  Mrs. Wilcox is more ethereal, drifting through her gardens, loving her witch elm tree, neither really here nor there.

The Schlegel family is quite something else. Well-to-do, having inherited wealth from their German father, they are educated and intelligent, creative and full of verve. They question societal norms and are quick to rail at perceived injustice. Margaret and Helen are progressive women, going to clubs to debate social issues; Theobald, nicknamed Tibby, has gone up to Oxford to study linguistics. Or religion. Or, well, just anything, really, to keep his mind occupied.

Then we have the Basts, Leonard and Jackie, who flail about at the lower end of the London food chain. Leonard is a decent young man, and he has a good mind, but that's not enough to get him out of the tenuous state in which he subsists as a clerk in this firm or that. Jackie, his companion-turned-wife is a woman of ill repute who is desperate only to survive.

The intersections of these characters provide the rich plot, with all its class and gender tensions, with the Schlegel sisters in the middle of it all. Forster's England encouraged people to mix with those of their own class, but he, as a member of the brilliant and slightly bohemian Bloomsbury Group, resisted these boundaries. The novel opens with a succinct epigraph:  "Only connect."

The Schlegels and the Wilcoxes first meet on a tour of Germany. As the novel opens, Helen Schlegel is visiting the Wilcox family at Howard's End, where she has a brief and silly flirtation with younger son, Paul Wilcox. Much later, having overcome the drama of that incident, Margaret Schlegel befriends the quiet, other-worldly Mrs. Wilcox, who invites her to Howard's End. Margaret initially refuses the invitation but then senses that she has been rash and has missed an important opportunity. She dashes off to board the train, and the two women meet at the house that is so precious to one of them.

Much to everyone's shock, Mrs. Wilcox weakens and dies shortly thereafter, having mentioned nothing to her family about her illness. Margaret Schlegel is uncannily grieved at the death of her new friend. This family now seems very linked indeed with her own, despite all their differences.  Mrs. Wilcox had very quietly made a monumental impact.
She was parting from these Wilcoxes for the second time. Paul and his mother, ripple and great wave, had flowed into her life and ebbed out of it for ever. The ripple had left no traces behind: the wave had strewn at her feet fragments torn from the unknown. A curious seeker, she stood for a while at the verge of the sea that tells so little, but tells a little, and watched the outgoing of this last tremendous tide. Her friend had vanished in agony, but not, she believed, in degradation. Her withdrawal had hinted at other things besides disease and pain. Some leave our life with tears, others with an insane frigidity; Mrs. Wilcox had taken the middle course, which only rarer natures can pursue. She had kept proportion. She had told a little of her grim secret to her friends, but not too much; she had shut up her heart – almost, but not entirely. 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.
 The last word – whatever it would be – had certainly not been said in Hilton churchyard. She had not died there. A funeral is not death, any more than baptism is birth or marriage union. All three are the clumsy devices, coming now too late, now too early, by which Society would register the quick motions of man. In Margaret's eyes Mrs. Wilcox had escaped registration. She had gone out of life vividly, her own way, and no dust was so truly dust as the contents of that heavy coffin, lowered with ceremonial until it rested on the dust of the earth, no flowers so utterly wasted as the chrysanthemums that the frost must have withered before morning.
The Schlegel sisters meet Leonard Bast at a concert of Beethoven's music, and one of them inadvertently leaves the concert hall with Leonard's umbrella. When he meets them again to collect it, they both recognise him as a vibrant spirit, oppressed by his social status. They try to maintain contact with him, and when Mr. Wilcox casually mentions that the firm for which Leonard works is in imminent financial peril, the sisters feel they must intervene. They invite him for tea.
Leonard accepted the invitation to tea next Saturday. But he was right; the visit proved a conspicuous failure.
  "Sugar?" said Margaret.
  "Cake?" said Helen. "The big cake or the little deadlies? I'm afraid you thought my letter rather odd, but we'll explain – we aren't odd, really – not affected, really. We're over-expressive: that's all."
  As a lady's lap-dog Leonard did not excel. He was not an Italian, still less a Frenchman, in whose blood there runs the very spirit of persiflage and of gracious repartee. His wit was the Cockney's; it opened no doors into imagination, and Helen was drawn up short by "The more a lady has to say, the better," administered waggishly.
  "Oh, yes," she said.
  "Ladies brighten – "
  "Yes, I know. The darlings are regular sunbeams. Let me give you a plate."
  "How do you like your work?" interposed Margaret.
  He, too, was drawn up short. He would not have these women prying into his work. They were Romance, and so was the room to which he had at last penetrated, with the queer sketches of people bathing upon its walls, and so were the very tea-cups, with their delicate borders of wild strawberries. But he would not let Romance interfere with his life. There is the devil to pay then.
  "Oh, well enough," he answered.
persiflage:  1750-60, <French, derivative of persifler, to banter. Equivalent to per+siffler, to whistle or hiss, < late Latin sifilare, for Latin sibilare, sibilant.
Trivial gossip is most often hissed and whistled, isn't it? Perfect onomatopoeia.  

The connection between the Wilcoxes, Schlegels and Basts grows only more entangled after Mrs. Wilcox's death. In her illness, she had scribbled a note indicating that she would like to leave Howard's End to Margaret Schlegel. The Wilcox children object furiously, and their father decides that the scrawled message has no legal standing. Shortly afterward, he finds himself proposing marriage to Margaret. They are an odd couple -- he is much older, she more emotionally charged -- but they do develop fondness, respect and tenderness for each other. Passion is not part of the picture, but that is most likely for the best. His proposal is akin to a congenial business arrangement. And, of course, they are so very English.
He bent nearer; the sentence died unfinished. Margaret's head turned very stupid, and the inside of it seemed to revolve like the beacon in a lighthouse. He did not kiss her, for the hour was half-past twelve, and the car was passing by the stables of Buckingham Palace.
I will most likely reach for the print version of this glorious book in the next year or two. If the film version with Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham-Carter crosses my path, I won't avoid it, either.  But can it possibly sparkle like the book?

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