Literary Arcadia Literature and other things

Howard’s End

My first post of the new year!

I enjoyed Howard’s End.  I am not surprised that I did – I like Forster in general and A Passage to India is on my top-ten-favorite-novels list.

Howard’s End is about English society during the Edwardian Age (c. 1901 to 1910, although some consider it lasted through the end of WWI).  It shows a cross-section of English society during that time, through the stories of the commercial/bourgeois Wilcox’s, the upper class intellectual Schlegel’s, and the poor working-class Bast’s.  These three families coming (or to be more accurate, crashing) together produce interesting and sometimes disastrous results, but it is indicative of the rapid changes that rocked Edwardian England.

Most of the novel revolves around characters struggling to connect to others, to emerge above the rigid social structure of England at the time.  The cultured Schlegel’s regularly attend the symphony, while Leonard Bast is taking an afternoon off from his clerk job.  They meet and discuss the music, and the differences in education and social class are readily apparent to both.  As Leonard observed; “[Ms. Schlegel's] speeches fluttered away from [him] like birds.  If only he could talk like this, he would have caught the world.  Oh, to acquire culture!  Oh, to pronounce foreign names correctly!  Oh, to be well informed, discoursing at ease on every subject that a lady started!  But it would take one years.  With an hour at lunch and a few scattered hours in the evening, how was it possible to catch up with leisured women who had been reading steadily from childhood?”.

It is a sad truth about Edwardian society; despite the desire to be educated or cultured, there is no chance for anyone of the lower classes to achieve those goals- they have neither the time or money to invest.  This harsh system allowed England to create a class of workers that helped the country become a manufacturing powerhouse and rapidly expand their empire, but even as this lower class was being created and molded, there were many who protested.  The Schlegel sisters felt that it was their duty to discuss and join committees that censured the conditions of the poor, barely realizing that it was their money alone that allowed them to have the time to attend all these committees and the education to discuss the issues with erudition.

Despite everyone trying so very hard, the Bast’s and the Schlegel’s are not compatible, especially when Helen Schlegel decides to become the Bast’s patroness.  Helen is too prying and acts too high-handed, Leonard too resentful of his own situation and those he perceives as superior.  Leonard’s wife is too indiscreet.  Despite all differences, the Schlegel’s decide to take Mr. Bast “under their wing” – the results are a disaster.

The connection between the Schlegel’s and the Wilcox’s does not turn out to be quite so disastrous, although it is arguably more interesting.  These two families are more equal; they are similar in their education and economic status.  The main differences between the two families, and why much of the conflict between them emerges, is the differences in attitude; towards culture, towards other people, and towards their own position in society.  The Wilcox’s are more worldly and more interested in material gain, while the Schlegel’s are more interested in culture and intellectual pursuits,  but are supremely naive.  They are actors, playing out the eternal battle between art and the sublime and the mercenary commercial system- what “cultured” people want to focus on, and what gives them the means to achieve it.

In the end the only characters to emerge relatively unscathed are the ones that embrace, or at least accept, both their own situation and the changes that will inevitably occur in their society very soon.

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