It has often been my experience that rereading a book that was important to me at earlier times in life is something like lying on the analyst’s couch. The narrative I have had by heart for years is suddenly called into alarming question. It seems that I’ve misremembered quite a lot about this or that character or this or that plot turn — they met here in New York, I was so sure it was Rome; the time was 1870, I thought it was 1900; and the mother did what to the protagonist? Yet the world still drops away while I’m reading and I can’t help marveling, “If I got this wrong, and this and this wrong, how come the book still has me in its grip?”
“Howards End,” written by E. M. Forster and published in 1910, has proven just such a book for me. I read it when I was in college and now, many decades later, have reread it only to find myself dismayed not only by how much I got wrong but by how much in the book is wrong — the sexual naïveté, the rhetorical posturing, the hand from the grave all read like hokum today — and yet how absorbing this novel of novels still is!
The time is the turn of the 20th century, the place England, the characters three distinct families, all of whom interact at a moment in history when railways, factories and urban development are destroying a pastoral England the upper classes value inordinately. Margaret and Helen Schlegel are a pair of progressive-minded, independently wealthy sisters; the Wilcoxes, a family of philistine industrialists deeply sure of their morals and their income; Leonard Bast and his wife, Jacky, a depressed clerk and a former prostitute. Howards End is a house in the country that becomes a mystical symbol of the beauty and gentility of that fast-disappearing world. The question of who will own it — for which read England’s social future — dominates the book. Meanwhile: Margaret Schlegel most improbably marries Henry Wilcox (the patriarch); Helen Schlegel even more improbably sleeps with Leonard Bast and becomes pregnant; Jacky turns out to have been Henry’s mistress; Leonard dies of heart failure after an attack by the eldest Wilcox son, who then goes to jail; and the book ends with all the major characters living happily ever after at Howards End.
It is a truism that every great book survives the literary and cultural conventions of its time and place because the emotional intelligence in it speaks to a reader a hundred years down the road. If I read a Hardy novel, for instance, I ignore the melodramatics — the lost letter, the unexpected storm — because the depth and clarity of Hardy’s understanding carries me well past it. With “Howards End,” I now found I could not get beyond the implausible plot turns; repeatedly, they stopped me in my tracks, even as they seemed to stop Forster himself. When the plot served him least, he gave his characters speeches that were clearly meant to signal his intentions but did not; some inchoateness there that deepened rather than dispelled a lack of clarity. It was as though the writing was speaking in code, the writer’s wisdom operating somewhere behind the prose rather than emerging from it.
Suddenly I realized that I’d been here before. I remembered how struck I was as a student by the sense that something was stirring in the writer that he himself could not work out on the page. At the time, it was this very incapacity that seemed to infuse the novel with mystery and significance. My literary young heart felt something profound afoot, and it knew the thrill of awe and pity. Now, some 40-odd years later, here I was looking once again at the very same conundrum. I no longer found it either profound or mysterious, but yes, it was still delivering awe and pity.
Forster was 31 years old when “Howards End” appeared, at which time he was a closeted homosexual and a virgin who knew nothing of how erotic relations worked — with any combination of partners. His ignorance weighed on him, and in his imagination sex achieved a mythical power that became symbolic of all in human existence that one could feel but not express, imagine but not realize. His fearfulness was such that until now he had known neither passion nor love; what he did know was yearning. This yearning energized his work but also limited it. In time he lost his virginity, but sex alone did not provide experience. Anxiety — that frozen sea within — still made it impossible for him to dive deep into the kind of desire that leads to self-knowledge; and without self-knowledge all remains murk and isolation. It was this sense of frozen solitariness, I now realized, that had colored all of Forster’s thought and feeling, and in time supplied him his signature concern: “Only connect!” Rereading “Howards End,” it was now easy to see that it is the writer’s own arrested development that haunts Forster’s work, and that which makes it moving.
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