“The face – the face does not signify. It was the face of the photograph, but older, and the teeth were not so numerous as the photographer had suggested and certainly not so white. Yes, Jacky was past her prime, whatever that prime may have been. She was descending quicker than most into the colourless years, and the look in her eyes confessed it….She was now a massive woman of thirty three…”
I read this unflattering description of poor, ridiculous Jacky Bast on the day after my 32nd birthday. Sometimes it’s funny when authors are scathingly cruel to their characters; on this particular day, when I was stuffed full of wine and cake and meditating sadly on my own descent into the ‘colourless years’, it was less than reassuring!
It’s now a week later and I’m totes over it. I’m also not the sort to let my hurt feelings colour this review. Having said that, I must admit that I was roughly 75% through this book before I started to enjoy it. Until then it had felt like a monumentally long, hard chore. I struggled to keep up with the chattering Schlegels, I disliked the Basts, I hated the Wilcoxes and I was bored by all the talk… It just seemed to be going nowhere, very slowly. I knew, though, that this was a bit unfair of me and the real issue at the heart of my boredom was the fact that I was tired and just wanted something easy to read, not a 461 page monster about post-Victorian England. Really, I was at fault.
In situations such as this there’s often only one course of action. I knew that part of the problem was that I’d been grabbing 15 minutes of reading time here and there throughout the week and this will never do. I needed to devote some proper time to Howards End in order to give it a fair chance. So I cleared my schedule, made some tea, and retired to bed three hours earlier than normal. By the time I turned out the light I was nearing the end of the book and feeling much happier about the whole thing. In fact, I was kind of excited to see what would happen next. As a result, this is a much more positive review than it would have been if I’d written it before Thursday evening.
“I felt for a moment that the whole Wilcox family was a fraud, just a wall of newspapers and motor-cars and golf-clubs, and that if it fell I should find nothing behind it but panic and emptiness.”
The ‘Howards End’ of the title is the cherished childhood home of kindly Mrs Wilcox. Knowing her husband and children don’t have a deep connection to the place, she decides to bequeath it to a young woman she’s only met a handful of times. In the opinionated Margaret Schlegel, Mrs Wilcox detects someone who’ll connect with Howards End, someone who’ll appreciate a sense of belonging there. Margaret and her sister Helen are of German descent and they’re everything Mrs Wilcox’s husband and children dislike: liberal, emancipated, intellectual, idealistic… They attend debating societies, hike over the mountains with backpacks, argue over social reform and become overwhelmed with emotion at the opera. They’ve also recently taken on the task of improving the lot of an impoverished insurance clerk named Leonard Bast, whom they believe has the spark of greatness within him. The Wilcoxes, on the other hand, are pragmatic capitalists who’ve made their money in the colonies. The two families don’t have much in common but Margaret Schlegel finds herself increasingly drawn to the Wilcoxes, and to Howards End.
Oh, those Schlegels. Are they pretentious? I’m not sure, but I liked them, even when they were talking nine to the dozen about things I wasn’t sure I understood, even when they were inadvertently antagonising the Wilcoxes and patronising the Basts. They’re a little naïve maybe, or ‘impractical’ as they put it, but their desire to bridge that divide between the poetry and prose in life, to feel ‘connected’, puts them in sharp contrast to the cold, materialistic Wilcoxes. It’s the reason Margaret marries her husband and why Helen becomes so insistent about the injustices inflicted upon the Basts. In fact, the contrast might be a little too sharp. Like Helen, I found it a little hard to believe in Margaret’s marriage; did she actually love him? Why?! It made little sense to me but maybe I missed the point here.
On the whole I really liked the lyrical writing style. It felt very similar in this sense to A Passage To India, which I loved. I did think, however, that the writing felt a little uneven in places. At times it’s pretty conversational, chatty almost – Forster refers to himself as the narrator and asks the reader to excuse these Schlegels and their funny German ways – but there are a great many passages which feel quite dense and overly poetic. It’s almost as if Forster forgot about addressing the reader half way through.
As I said, it took me a really long time to get into this book and I was on the verge of giving up on more than one occasion. I’m glad I persisted; it was worth it for that wonderfully powerful ending. The final scenes didn’t make any of the relationships any clearer to me but I could see that some of the characters were the better for it, that they’d learned some important lessons about empathy, charity and forgiveness. That makes it sound a bit trite, sorry. It’s not meant to. All I mean is that I started to feel a bit more connected, a little less like a Wilcox and more like a Schlegel. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it in the end. It was worth persevering.