Howards End and the condition of England

Barbara Morden considers social dislocation and the search for a home in E M Forster’s novel.

Like Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814) and Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852–53), E M Forster’s Howards End (1910) can be read as a ‘condition of England novel’. Common to these texts is a sustained metaphor in which the topography of landscape, gardens and houses, as well as family relationships and interpersonal dynamics signify the state of the nation at a time of crisis and change. The context for Howards End is England in the first years of the 20th century. It was a critical period in which tensions and dislocations in society and the collapse of traditional culture and values in the face of the ‘modern’ gave rise to widespread alarm.

In Forster’s novel, modernity is illustrated not only in terms of a rapid acceleration in the pace of life, represented by the automobile, but also by a perceived dangerous alienation of the urban working classes from those privileged to enjoy economic prosperity; by a widening gap between those with their ‘hands on the ropes’ of business and manufacture (the Wilcoxes) and those who read, reflect, discuss and feel (the Schlegels); by the consequent erosion of humane values in favour of brash and brittle manners; and finally, by socialist ideas and a gender crisis caused by the ‘Woman Question’. These appeared to signal a threat to social hierarchy, family stability and consequently the very basis of national and imperial power and authority.

E M Forster's draft of Howards End

Page from E M Forster's handwritten draft of Howards End, with some crossings out

Manuscript draft of Howard's End by E M Forster, with some alterations.

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Aesthetes and manly men

The type of the ‘New Woman’ is represented by the Schlegel sisters and their circle, characterised by independence and progressive ideas. Tibby, their languid brother, represents an erosion of the robust manly Englishman. Compared with Charles Wilcox, barbaric in his masculine energy, Tibby epitomises the ‘Effeminate Man’ whose preferred domestic space is the sofa and whose spiritual home is Oxford. By contrast, the Empire had been built on the ideal of the ‘Manly Man’, vigorous and heroic, the great, white hope of its imperial ambitions. Henry Wilcox represents a version of this type with his conscious patronage of women and his single-minded ambition. As the maps in his office suggest, his major business interests lie in Africa, and it is significant that it was this imperial enterprise that was to bring about inevitable conflict with Prussia, looming as an external threat throughout the book.

At the time, the English ideal of manly vigour was threatened not merely by aesthetes but also from what Kipling described as ‘the town-bred masses’, perceived as being physically weak and half-educated ‘degenerates’. Such ‘degeneracy’ was the result, some suggested, of an increasing ‘feminisation’ of culture and a consequent loss of discipline and masculinity in the nation. While ‘half-baked’ Leonard Bast represents the former, Helen Schlegel represents the toxic trend towards hysterical femininity. Henry Wilcox describes her type as ‘highly strung’, with ‘a tendency to spiritualism and those things … Musical, literary, artistic’ (ch. 35). Leonard too desires a life of books, art and music. Despite his impoverished and in many ways sordid domestic arrangements, he harbours romantic dreams, walking throughout the night to see the sunrise, and it is this that endears him to the Schlegel sisters. But to the Wilcoxes Leonard is an insult, a scoundrel and an affront to the ‘Imperial’ type. It is significant that he dies of heart failure among a pile of books, and that Charles Wilcox is tried for his manslaughter.

All of these complexities of context and text are summed up in Helen Schlegel’s vision of ‘panic and emptiness’ as she listens to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in Chapter 5 of the novel. It is her sister Margaret, however, who carries the responsibility of articulating Forster’s message: the need to see things in relationship, in proportion and whole. She is charged with the attempt to reconcile the paradoxes, tensions and conflicts of contemporary life as they are represented in the novel, most obviously by the Wilcoxes, a masculine-dominated family concerned with the outer life of money, ‘telegrams and anger’, and the Schlegels, a feminine household which cherishes the inner life of art, literature and personal relationships. ‘Our business’, she says, ‘is not to contrast the two, but to reconcile them’ (ch. 12). However, this novel does not merely present a social landscape split laterally into two opposed cultures, but longitudinally to include another dimension represented by the Basts. Leonard Bast is one of the dispossessed underclass, ‘underfed’ spiritually and physically, without rank or status (ch. 6) and his presence seriously disturbs the fragile surface of social relationships.

E M Forster's diary for 1900

Double lined page from E M Forster's diary for January 1900, with handwritten entries

Forster's diary for 1900, written when he was an undergraduate at Cambridge University, records his visits to London to see art exhibitions and plays.

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Connecting the fragments

The body of England then, is dislocated and fractured, its only hope of health lying in the construction of a ‘rainbow bridge’ to heal the rifts and dislocations, to connect and make whole, for without it ‘we are meaningless fragments … unconnected arches that have never joined’ (ch. 22). From the viewpoint of that bridge, a position shared by both Margaret Schlegel and Ruth Wilcox, things can be seen steadily and whole. It is a synthesising vision that begins with the old house itself: ‘Starting from Howards End, she attempted to realize England’ (ch. 24).

The place, Howards End, is a yeoman farm, once the economic and social foundation of England, the centre of moral and social stability, of habit and custom. It is described in the first chapter through the image of the ancient wych-elm ‘leaning a little over the house, and standing on the boundary between the garden and meadow’. The house and its ancient tree connect in a relationship that Margaret later identifies as ‘comradeship’ (ch. 24), providing a harmonious view both literal and metaphorical that is quintessentially ‘English’: ‘In these English farms, if anywhere, one might see life steadily and see it whole, group in one vision its transitoriness and its eternal youth, connect –’ (ch. 33). Humanity and stability are distilled in this place, blessed by the spirit of Mrs Wilcox, ‘trailing through the damp grass’ carrying a wisp of hay.

At a fundamental level Forster’s novel is concerned with ‘the search for a home’. Homelessness is introduced to the book with the end of the lease on Whickham Place and the Schlegels (their father a German refugee) facing a further nomadic existence. Their home will be demolished to make room for new flats as part of the reconstruction of the capital. The bricks and mortar of London, writes Forster, rise and fall in ‘continual flux’ with ‘the restlessness of the water in a fountain’ (ch. 6). Developing the ongoing imagery of water, Margaret Schlegel envisages the tide of modernity sweeping them all from their ‘moorings’. The only refuge, she comments, is to be found in the ‘islands of money’ that provide protection for those who have it: ‘Money pads the edges of things … God help those who have none’. Those others, like Leonard Bast, balance precariously on the edge of the ‘abyss’ (ch. 6), his only security a battered umbrella. Dispossessed and rootless, he is ‘looking for a real home’ (ch. 16).

Property and place

Howards End, again like Mansfield Park and Bleak House, is also about inheritance. On Ruth Wilcox’s death, who can be entrusted with Howards End? Her husband and children have no sympathy or connection with the natural landscape, signalled by their tendency to hay fever. Rather than dwelling in a home, the Wilcoxes ‘collect’ houses as commodities, buying and selling with no sentiment, holding on to the old place for the sake of the ‘rights of property’ while the ‘red rust’ of the suburbs threatens to engulf it and its landscape. For Mrs Wilcox its future must be predicated on more than simply ‘the rights of property’. It has a spiritual significance. Nonetheless, she acknowledges that while a house cannot stand by bricks and mortar alone, ‘It cannot stand without them’ (ch. 9). It is Wilcox money that has saved Howards End from total loss in the tides of change that have engulfed Miss Avery’s home and inheritance. In nominating Margaret as her legatee, she recognises in her a sensibility that will sustain the house, balancing its heritage with modernity. Her deathbed note as well as her determining spirit ‘will’ the house to Margaret to assure its future as a home and perhaps, by association, England’s survival.

There is patriotic emotion in the landscape descriptions of the novel; for instance, the view of England seen from the Purbeck Hills from where ‘system after system of our island’ roll from one’s feet and ‘the imagination swells, spreads and deepens, until it becomes geographic and encircles England’ (ch. 19). The sequence describing Shropshire on the way to Oniton (Ludlow) is equally evocative and visionary: ‘Quiet mysteries were in progress behind those tossing horizons: the west, as ever, was retreating with some secret which may not be worth the discovery, but which no practical man will ever discover’ (ch. 25). The Wilcoxes can never possess this poetic and spiritual landscape even though they may buy up its acres. Central to this pattern of the significance of place is Howards End itself, representing the epitome of Englishness – quiet, unassuming and above all grounded and secure. But is it?

Ultimately, it is Leonard Bast, the uprooted and dispossessed peasant, who proves to be the key to the novel’s pattern of connection and theme of inheritance. It is his and Helen’s illegitimate baby, a child of nature rather than a 'Son of Empire', born at the heart of the old house into a newly constituted family, who will inherit Howards End, perhaps England. But Forster makes clear through Margaret that his ‘message is not of eternity, but of hope on this side of the grave’ (ch. 24). In other words, the solution is merely temporary. There are ominous utterances throughout the book of the inevitability of war with Germany: ‘Life’s going to be melted down, all over the world’ says Helen (ch. 44). And that melting has already begun: a European shake-up suggested by their own hybrid ancestry (the name Schlegel is associated with German Romanticism) and by the foregrounding of tensions between French and German cultures with allusions to Debussy and Monet, Beethoven and Wagner (ch. 5). Consequently, England is threatened from within and without, and there can be no final resolution, only a temporary holding position; ‘the peace of the present’ (ch. 40). At the end of the novel the hay meadow offers only a limited horizon, and that must be sufficient.

Reconciling difference

Finally, Margaret Schlegel, as Forster’s spokesperson in the novel, offers a structural underpinning based on gender synthesis. Are ‘women to remain what they have been since the dawn of history?’ she asks, or might they ‘move forward a little now. I say they may. I would even admit a biological change’ (ch. 9). Childless, she is, like many authors and protagonists of modernist literature, asexual, detached, like T S Eliot’s Tiresias in The Waste Land, commentator and prophet. In this context her/Forster’s mystical sequence describing the wych-elm is highly significant:

It was a comrade, bending over the house, strength and adventure in its roots, but in its utmost fingers tenderness, and the girth, that a dozen men could not have spanned, became in the end evanescent, till pale bud clusters seemed to float in the air. It was a comrade. House and tree transcended any simile of sex. (ch. 24)

The emblem is of male as well as female transformation into an androgynous whole.

Forster was a homosexual (then a capital offence) and this shapes his narrative perspective in this and other novels. He found sympathetic endorsement of his gender position in the writings of Edward Carpenter, whose essay ‘The Intermediate Sex’ (1896) describes the homosexual as a ‘third’ sex of ‘reconcilers’, ‘connectors’, ‘interpreters of men and women to each other’. Such ‘comradeship’, he wrote, can transcend the binary conflicts of sex, culture or class through an ability to ‘command life in all its phases’: to see life steady and see it whole. Such a connecting vision, like the wych-elm framing the view of Howards End, could bring reconciliation at a time of disintegration and conflict, and more than that, give affirmation and purpose to the author himself.

Typescript of the 1932 version of Maurice by E M Forster, with autograph manuscript alterations and additions made c. 1959

Page from the typescript of the 1932 version of Maurice by E M Forster, with handwritten alterations and additions

Maurice was E M Forster's only novel dealing with homosexual love. It was only published posthumously in 1971, since male homosexuality was illegal in Britain for much of Forster's life.

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Usage terms © The Provost and Scholars of King’s College, Cambridge and The Society of Authors as the E.M. Forster Estate. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

This article originally appeared in English Review, a magazine for A-level English literature students.

  • Barbara C. Morden
  • Dr Barbara C. Morden is an established lecturer and writer with specific interest in the literary and visual arts of the modern period. She works as an Educational and Arts Consultant for the Open University and has recently written two major biographies as well as being a regular contributor to journals and periodicals on literature, art and culture.