I’ve always had a fondness for books about houses. The Fall of the House of Usher is one of the scariest (and will be reviewed here once I get up the nerve to reread it), but there are others that come to mind: Brideshead Revisited, Bleak House, Wuthering Heights, A House for Mr. Biswas. Houses have personalities – what would Gone With the Wind be without Tara? And can you imagine Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre anywhere but Thornfield Hall? There’s the wonderful Manderley, haunted by the ghost of Rebecca, and the mansion on Long Island built by Jay Gatsby, as a physical symbol of his love for Daisy Buchanan. (More on that next week.) And in Satis House, Dickens created the perfect dwelling for the wildly eccentric Miss Havisham – it’s impossible to imagine her surrounded by her decaying wedding finery in a bungalow in Surrey.
Howards End is not as stately as or as decrepit as any of these; it’s a cottage in the English countryside, a converted barn, actually, and loved only by the frail and ethereal Ruth Wilcox, who has lived there since she was a child. Her husband, Henry, doesn’t think much of the place. It’s too small – “picturesque enough, but not a place to live in”. But there’s a reason E. M. Forster used the name of the house for the title: Howards End is the spiritual heart of the book. It represents everything that is precious and real in an England that is rapidly reinventing itself at the turn of the 20th Century. And not, in Forster’s opinion, for the better.
The Schlegel sisters give a lot of thought to these changes. Margaret, or Meg, is the oldest and she and her sister, Helen, while not rich, have enough money to indulge in literary and artistic pursuits. Cultured, artistic and well-read, they’re committed to “personal relations”:
“In their own fashion they cared deeply about politics, though not as politicians would have us care; they desired that public life should mirror whatever is good in the life within. Temperance, tolerance, and sexual equality were intelligible cries to them; whereas they did not follow our Forward Policy in Thibet with the keen attention that it merits, and would at times dismiss the whole British Empire with a puzzled, if reverent, sigh.”
The Schlegels and the Wilcoxes appear, at least in the beginning, to represent opposing points on the spectrum. Henry Wilcox, in particular, is a man of the Modern Age. Forster refers to him as “the man who had carved money out of Greece and Africa, and bought forests from the natives for a few bottles of gin”. Materialistic, pragmatic, and opinionated, he doesn’t concern himself much with anything he can’t buy or sell: “He lived for the five minutes that have past, and the five to come; he had the business mind”. His children, Charles, Paul and Evie, are cut from the same cloth. These are the kind of people who, while not unkind or ungenerous, see humanity in terms of “us” and “them”.
As different as they are, circumstances bring them together. Having met during a walking holiday in Europe, the sisters are invited to spend a few days at Howards End. Because Tibby, their younger brother, isn’t well, Margaret begs off and Helen goes on her own. During the visit, she has a brief romantic encounter with Paul Wilcox, the younger son. It turns out badly, causing embarrassment to all concerned, and the Schlegels determine to stay well away from the wealthy Wilcox family in future. Which, they assume, will be easy, seeing as they have neither friends, family, nor interests in common.
However, not long afterwards, the sisters are shocked to learn that Henry and Ruth Wilcox have taken a flat in London directly across the street. In order to avoid any unpleasantness, Helen makes an impromptu visit to her cousin, Frieda, in Germany. When Margaret goes to visit Mrs. Wilcox she learns that Paul has gone off to Nigeria and Ruth and her husband have taken the flat to be in London for their daughter Evie’s wedding. The older woman talks of Howards End – the meadow, the flowers, and the giant wych-elm, “the finest wych-elm in Hertfordshire” which is thought to have magical properties. There are pigs’ teeth stuck into the trunk, about four feet from the ground, and legend is that if they chew a piece of the bark it will cure a toothache.
During a Christmas shopping trip, the subject of houses comes up once again. When Meg confides that the lease is up on their house, Wickham Place, and it will shortly be sold, the older woman is horrified. On an impulse, Ruth invites Margaret to come with her to Howards End. However, just as they’re preparing to board the train, Henry and Evie turn up and the visit is postponed. Not long afterwards, Ruth dies, leaving a handwritten note saying she wants Howards End to go to Margaret. Her family, assuming she was not in her right mind when she wrote it, or had been unduly influenced by the Schlegels, toss the note into the fire.
In the meantime, another figure has entered the picture. Because of a mix-up during a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the Schlegels are introduced to an impoverished insurance clerk named Leonard Bast. Leonard has had none of the Schlegels’ advantages but he, too, is interested in music and literature. In normal circumstances, their paths would never have crossed. Now that they have, the sisters take up his cause. How might the young man be helped? Encountering Henry Wilcox one night on the Embankment, they seek his advice regarding Leonard’s situation. Henry says the insurance company where Leonard works is about to fail and he should get out. That information is passed along to Leonard, who quits his job, lands another, and then is let go from that one. Leonard is worse off than before, all because he listened to the Schlegels – who listened to Henry.
Gradually, Margaret and Henry develop a friendship. Although he’s stuffy, two decades older than her, and not at all idealistic, she sees him as kind and well-meaning. For his part, Henry’s attracted to Margaret’s unconventionality. When he learns that the lease is up on Wickham Place, he offers to rent her his house in London. While showing her around the place, he proposes marriage. Surprised at how happy this makes her, Margaret considers the offer and accepts. They decide to marry in the fall, after his daughter’s wedding.
In the meantime Helen visits the Basts and find them homeless, close to starving, and surviving on handouts from his relatives. Determined to embarrass Henry into doing something for them, she brings them to Evie’s wedding reception, upsetting both her sister and Henry, who recognizes Mrs. Bast as the former prostitute he had an affair with years ago in Cyprus. Believing he’s been set up, Henry breaks off his engagement with Margaret and Helen disappears, giving no reason for her departure and telling no one where she is. Before she leaves, however, she arranges to give Leonard a cheque for £5,000, which he, to his credit, refuses.
In Howards End Forster takes a hard, sometimes cynical look at English society and the stratified nature of its hierarchy. While Helen believes that connecting with others on a personal level can break through the confines of class and social conventions, Margaret is inclined to think it’s really about money. “Money pads the edges of things,” she says, “there’s never any great risk as long as you have money.” There’s an indictment here of the Schlegels and their friends: unlike the Basts, they can be as bohemian and offbeat as they like – they will always have a roof over their heads. Leonard and those like him, who make up the working poor, don’t have that option.
And so we come back to the beginning: to houses. To the security of a roof that doesn’t leak, walls that will not crumble, rent that will always be paid. Tragic events will occur before the story ends – and I won’t spoil it for you by recounting them here. But the resolution is satisfying. As Ruth Wilcox wished, Margaret and her family restore life to Howards End; the house, like “the Dude” Lebowski, will abide.