Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Book Review - E.M. Forster's Howards End

Howards End by E.M. Forster
Published by: Book-of-the-Month Club
Publication Date: 1910
Format: Hardcover, 461 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Margaret and Helen Schlegel met Mr. and Mrs. Wilcox while abroad. Now back in England the two sisters have been invited to the Wilcox's country house, Howards End. Margaret can not make it, but Helen not only falls in love with the house and the family, but with the youngest son, Paul. The imprudent love affair is over before it has begun, but it creates a tension between the two families. That tension is increased by the Wilcoxes taking a house opposite the Schlegels in London. But the unexpected happens, Margaret and Mrs. Wilcox become dear friends. They confide in each other and Mrs. Wilcox is saddened to hear that the Schlegels will lose their home shortly because the lease is up and the block of houses is scheduled for demolition. Mrs. Wilcox asks Margaret to go to Howards End with her on the spur of the moment, they are about ready to embark when the whole Wilcox family returns home, and their journey to Howards End will never happen. Mrs. Wilcox dies just weeks later. In a note she asks that her family give Margaret Howards End. Not knowing about the impending loss of her home, the Wilcoxes dismiss it as the whim of a dying woman. But the death of Mrs. Wilcox doesn't stop the intercourse between the two families and eventually Margaret ends up marrying Mrs. Wilcox's widower, Henry. This new relationship strains the two families, but nothing will strain them more than one man, Leonard Bast. The Schlegel's met him at a concert where Helen accidentally stole his umbrella. Helen took him up as a pet cause and her family's influence leads this man closer and closer to the brink of destruction. Could one man destroy everything? Or could one woman destroy one man utterly?

It happens so rarely to me that I often forget that it can happen. That feeling while re-reading a book that all is not right. You have this sense of the curtain being drawn back and the wizard being exposed. I can't think of anything worse for a reader than to be disillusioned by a previously loved book. Worse, you don't have any idea how you had come to revere it so in the first place. You even start to question if it's you. Not just that you've probably changed in the years since you first read it, but more than that, you start wondering if you're in a bad mood and you don't know it. Did something happen to tick you off that is somehow seeping into your enjoyment of the book? You start soul searching, trying to find the why, when perhaps it's not you and it really is the book. That is how things stand with me and Howards End at the moment. In fact, if you had asked me prior to right now what are my favorite books of all time, Howards End would have been one of them. Five stars all the way, praise the glory. Yet I should have known better. I should have had an inkling that this would happen. Most changes of opinion aren't foreshadowed by some event that you think insignificant at the time, but this one was. Years ago when the DVD for Merchant and Ivory's production of Howards End was finally released by Criterion I eagerly ripped off the wrapping, sat down and was bored stiff. While I'm not going to go into the film adaptation at the moment, the scales were falling from my eyes and I should have seen that my change in opinion as regards the film might herald a change in opinion as regards the book. Howards End is a muddled mess of ideas and theories and cant and talk talk talk wherein nothing ever comes of the talking. Big topics are handled badly, there's a smug pretension prevalent throughout and I can't help thinking that it's like high schoolers sitting around thinking they're SO DEEP because they're talking about philosophy and the plight of the third world, when really they know nothing.

What struck me first and foremost was the book's preoccupation with money. Yes, it's to be expected with the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes, being rich, and their interactions with the Basts, who aren't just lower-middle-class, but eventually destitute. But it goes beyond this. It goes to Margaret musing about how wonderful money is and how she's on this lovely little island oasis and all those who are struggling are just below the surface. Because obviously the poor are drowning souls. Ugh. Then her and her discussion group talk about what they can do, theoretically, for all those "deserving" poor. Concert tickets, and seaside holidays, and education, for all that spare time they have while scraping by! Because that's all she or her friends are capable of. Talking about it. Being smug and satisfied and content with their lot while never actually doing anything for anyone. And even if they did, it would be something useless to the "deserving" poor, ie a seaside holiday. What makes Margaret so damn superior? Condescending bitch. She could actually go out and do something good, but does she? NO! She's just all talk talk talk. I'm on my lovely island, money really is so wonderful don't you think? At times I almost thought she'd break into the song by Kander and Ebb from Cabaret "Money" because obviously money makes Margaret's world go round. In fact, what proof do we have that Margaret isn't the money grubbing opportunist that Mr. Wilcox's children fear she is? Yes, she's always encouraging him to give his children money, but he's a freakin' millionaire! It's not like supporting his children is even going to make a dent in his fortunes. Oh, this really does add a different spin on things... I think it actually makes more sense than any other reason put forward for the union of Margaret and Henry...

As for those "deserving" poor, let's look to those pathetic Basts. Leonard and his wife Jacky were doing OK. They were struggling along, but surviving. The Schlegels enter their life and everything goes to hell. Because Helen takes the stupid ideas of Margaret and their group and actually tries to help the Basts without actually understanding their situation. She comes in like a gale force wind and destroys everything. This shows so clearly that you just shouldn't meddle in things you don't understand. I don't know if Forster was trying to make a point, but all it pointed out to me was how much I hated the main characters. Helen is so holier than thou, here let me drag you off to confront the man who did you wrong. But it wasn't Henry that did them wrong, it was Helen and Margaret forcing this rumor of Henry's on Leonard. Leave the poor man alone! The worst is after Helen has inadvertently taken everything away from the Basts, destroyed the morale and hope of this couple, she then leaves them behind in the country, never thinking how they are to get home. She has brought them to the brink of destitution, and then by skipping out on them, they are pushed that final inch to full destruction. She is such a self centered ignorant interfering bitch, how can ANYONE like her? She even seduces Leonard and destroys all his personal worth, with him actually welcoming death! And how much thought do any of the Schlegels give to Leonard after the confrontation at Oniton? Negligible. And after his death? Hey, they seem to view his death as logical and inevitable. As for Jacky? Never a backward glance. These people are reprehensible!

But then, the book has a rather odd grasp of death. It seems to be 100% endorsing that our reward in the afterlife is better than anything on earth. That the concept, not the reality, of death makes us strive to be better people. Excuse me? It's not that I don't disagree with this. I mean, the whole afterlife, that's your own belief, but the inevitability of death should make us try to be better, do better, help one another. And that is totally not upheld by the actions of any of the characters in the book. If they actually believe this, then every single one of them is going to burn in hell for hypocrisy and more importantly, for actually leading to a man's death. Because they are ALL responsible for the death of Leonard Bast. Each and every single one of them. It doesn't matter if Charles Wilcox delivered the blow in, what I must say, is the most convoluted scene in the book, each and every one of them is responsible for that death. Yet, aside from Charles who ends up serving three years in prison, and Henry who's morale is destroyed with the imprisonment of his son, everyone else is just, hey ho, it's all rainbows and puppies and oh, who cares if one of the lower classes is dead, life goes on, don'tcha know? What is with the cavalier attitude? Is it that weird stoic German in them that they keep alluding to? Or is it just Forster throwing in another death right at the end to shake us up, but he just didn't know how to handle it? Let's face it, this whole book is a muddle, so should this further muddle be a surprise?

Though I have saved the best for last. The view of women as, well, basically there to support their husbands and have no thoughts of their own. You MIGHT think that this isn't actually the point of the book, Helen and Margaret are rather outre and independent, but look what happens to Margaret when she gets engaged? It's like she's had a brain transplant, or as the book says, the glass or whatever came down between her and her husband and the rest of the world, blah blah blah. She's basically been "upgraded" into a robot. It's all, Henry may say this and that and be a total dick, but I know deep down that's not him. We never see into Henry's head. My guess? He's a dick! There is no proof to the contrary, just Margaret's vain justifications for her husband's actions. Plus what experience does Forster have with marriage or with women? He seems to be drawing on what the male ideal is, but with no experience of that ideal in actuality. Ugh. And least we forget Mrs. Wilcox, a woman who wouldn't burden her family with her death and had one wish, that Howards End be given to Margaret. Of course she didn't really mean that, why would a woman do something so foolish? Obviously her family knew her better, and let's just ignore a dying woman's request. Let's just shove all the unpleasantness under the carpet and worship our husbands and be there just for them and be only as original as it suits them and their life. Because that's the point of life right? Margaret may have started to regret it for one moment, and that moment was gone in a flash and let's take care of Henry, he's had a rough time of it for a millionaire with two successful marriages and lots of houses and cars and blurg. Enough already. Seriously, if my house hadn't lost power and I had nothing else to do this book would never have been finished. I was the true idiot to ever think this was a good book.


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