The Howards End of E M Forster’s 1910 novel is a country house where the action begins and ends. The building itself was inspired by Rooksnest, near Stevenage, in Hertfordshire, where Forster and his widowed mother had moved in 1883. He was sent to boarding school in 1890 and his mother moved in 1893; ‘If I had been allowed to stop on there,’ he wrote in an unpublished paper from the 1930s, ‘I should have become a different person, married, and fought in the war.’
The novel’s epigraph is ‘only connect’, and its narrative tension comes from the contrast between the Schlegel and the Wilcox families. While the former are dedicated to art and the imagination, the latter are dedicated to business and imperialism. Mr Wilcox believes that ‘one sound man of business did more good to the world than a dozen of your social reformers’; the Schlegel sisters that ‘personal relations are the important thing for ever and ever, and not this outer life of telegrams and anger’.
This binary opposition is complicated when Margaret Schlegel falls in love with Henry Wilcox after his wife, Ruth, dies; the point is made that the life of the mind relies upon business to fund it. Margaret marries Henry, and Helen scandalously becomes pregnant by Leonard Bast, a married, lower-class intellectual. A degree of reconciliation comes to the families by the end of the book.
According to the critic Santanu Das, ‘the power of the novel lies in the tension between the affirmation of a pastoral England and a deep awareness of its fragility’, and its central questions are ‘how can one lead a decent and responsible life in an unequal society? Can capitalism be tempered with mercy? How democratic is “culture”?’
According to the critic Nicola Beauman, the more direct impetus of the novel was the short story ‘The Machine Stops’, which Forster had written in part as a reaction to the scientific visions of the future in H G Wells’s work. Forster’s story imagines mankind after the final triumph of machines. Forster seems more melancholic about the increasing urbanisation of life than many of his modernist contemporaries, and darkly, correctly predicts in Howards End that ‘England and Germany are bound to fight’.