Sorry to disappoint anyone looking for a literature essay- this is more of a comment on social context
While our main concern here is the social and historical lessons that we can glean from this text, it is crucial to remember that this is by no means a manifesto or piece of political polemic. As with any well rounded novel, it conjures the whole spectrum of human existence and emotion, from love and romance to greed and skulduggery. It is not for the historian to take a professional interest in such matters (although rumour has it that some may dabble in such activities in their own time). So, is it possible then to disentangle the story of two singular families from Forster’s underlying subtext? Indeed, can they be viewed as separate, or is one a necessary vehicle for the other? It could be argued that Forster is a much more potent storyteller than essayist, and therefore has wisely chosen to communicate his ideas through fiction, to a much more powerful effect than he could choose to via direct rhetoric. His characterisations also afford him the luxury of anonymity. He can not directly be held responsible for the ideas held within, for there is a natural ambiguity between his thoughts and those of his creations.
Howards End is principally a novel about class, and the period of transition from one type of world to another. This is not to say that it does not contain other themes. Gender, and more particularly, suffrage, are key elements, and yet they do not dominate the story, they represent only interesting side issues. Perhaps this is a result of hindsight. Time has diminished, at least in a British context, the importance of such ideology. This is not to say that the great debate over the genders is passed, but rather that it has progressed beyond the fundamental issues that Forster writes about. Ideas of equality and opportunity are largely taken for granted in the western world, it is just the fine details of their implementation that remain contentious. The continuing prevalence of social inequality in our world is what makes this book seem so relevant today. Forster is unsentimental about class. He neither glorifies the rich nor romanticises the poor, and although he can see qualities in both upper, lower and middle class culture, he also sees them as deeply flawed. His dismissal of the working class, “We are not concerned with the very poor, for they unthinkable”, might seem shocking to today’s audience. In truth, in the context of his day, Forster was being more reasonable than we might suspect. Literature was by no means an interest of the working class, and therefore he sees no reason why literature should show an interest in them. Therefore, his definitions of poverty and standing (or at least those of his characters), are deeply relativistic. We see the class divide largely from above, to the extent that we forget how thin a strata of society his characters represent. Forster’s dismissal of the majority of the population means that the world he describes becomes larger by proportion. Therefore, to the Schlegels and the Wilcoxs, Leonard Bast is a creature of a different caste, a borderline “untouchable”. However, when we consider that Bast is a literate, non-manual worker, living in a flat with a piano and bookshelves, we can see that wider context of 1900’s London, he is in fact a man that many would aspire to be, what we might now term “lower middle class”. This makes something of a mockery of the families’ strongly held social views. Helen and Margaret’s cries for “equality” suddenly ring hollow when they consider a man such as this worthy of pity and charity.
Forster, whether aware of it or not, was writing of a world teetering on the cusp of a new age. His talk of houses “dying” could possibly be taken as a metaphor for the terminal illness that had afflicted Old Money in British society. Forster, of course, could not have known precisely how this was to happen, and how quickly the death knell was to come, but in places he is fascinatingly prophetic. He talks of the growing press antagonism toward Germany, and there is a scattering of anti-German sentiment, albeit on the part of the characters. However, largely this comes down to petty racism and suspicion, not exactly representative of the enveloping hatred that would develop in the following forty years. What Forster seems to be predicting is a more gradual decline in the presence of the Schlegel Sisters over the coming century, rather than the massive social upheavals that the war and inter-war period would swiftly bring. On the other hand, how we choose to perceive the Wilcox family can lead us to differing conclusions. In terms of social attitudes and mannerisms, they would seem to fit a similarly dying breed. They belong to that distinctly Victorian mindset of superiority, be it social, racial, imperial or intellectual. Alternatively, they can be viewed as embodying the ascendant social force of their times. Practical, hard-nosed and industrious, they embody the virtues of pragmatism that typified the growth of America as the world’s leading power. The sentiment “Art and Literature, except when conducive to the strengthening the character, is nonsense”, echoes Thomas Edison’s famous dismissal of poetry and philosophy as “Ninny stuff”. Yet can Forster, an writer by profession, share such views? He seems to place art beyond the realm of the practical, and believes that it does not need to serve a functional, mechanistic purpose to be worthwhile. The artist is able to lift the spirit to a higher plane.
Taking these ideas further, Howards End could be interpreted as an allegory for the divergence of thought that took place over the 19th century. The continuation of enlightenment, rationalistic thinking from the previous era, and the growth of its counterweight, romanticism. The science and economics of the Wilcoxs run at odds with the spirituality and aestheticism of the Schlegels, and yet they manage (in a manner), to coexist. One suggestion made by Forster is that for those with money, such stances are essentially superficial; neither has to deal with the realities of daily life, and therefore can afford to adopt “high handed” ideological positions. “The truth is that there is a greater outer life that you and I have never touched”. To the Schlegel sisters, the façade of gentility that they occupy, is more real than reality itself, the place that Helen refers to as possessing “grit”. Forster obviously does not believe that life can be lived from such lofty heights. “The world would be a grey, bloodless place if it were composed entirely of Miss Schlegels”. On the other hand, the “realism” of the Wilcoxs can seem bloody minded, and crude to the point of witlessness, “The uneducated classes are so stupid”.
Whether consciously or not, Forster hits on a key theme that prevails in any period of change. As the old order fades into irrelevance, and the new is still in the early stages of germination (Harry Truman’s “New World Order” perhaps?), there is a void, or perhaps more accurately a fissure, between the two ages. It is into this chasm that Leonard Bast falls, belonging to neither age, not identifying himself with either class. “The angel of Democracy had arisen, enshadowing the classes with leathern wings, proclaiming, “All men are equal. All men, that is to say, who possess umbrellas”. Had Bast lived a few decades earlier, or indeed a few decades later, in all probability he would have had a defined station in life, or at least comfortably occupied a social niche. He now finds himself in age when men in his position are expected to create their own destiny, to fashion their own opportunities, for which he lacks both the intellect and the skills. The Schlegel sisters, more idealistic in their theory than in practice, consider it a worthy cause to try and help this young man. Yet, they treat him the way one might tend to a wounded animal; with sympathy, but no expectation that the creature can understand their motivations.
Howards End is both a book of its time, and one of timeless relevance. In terms of its style, cultural context and social comment, it serves as a eulogy for a world which, for better or worse, is now forever lost to us. As with any fiction, we should perhaps be reluctant to ascribe it great importance as a historical record, but as a snapshot of a time and place, it is magnificent. As with any piece of theoretical anthropology, we must remain conscious of its subjectivity, and yet we cannot fail to learn from it. Even if Forster’s assumptions and characterisations are, at times, fundamentally flawed, they are none the less an insight into the general human condition. It is insights such as these that are so often aspired to, and so rarely achieved.