Transition to Modernism: Forster, Howard’s End
I’m so pleased that this was our first book because I enjoyed it so much. I hope that the other works can live up to the high expectations that it set! My first impressions, formed in the first fifty page chunk of the book, were that Forster writes women remarkably well, particularly the sister relationship, and that I hope that Mrs. Wilcox will become a major character. (Langland and Martin/Piggford offer some possible explanation to his understanding of women, as both indicate that he was brought up primarily by his mother and a number of aunts. See Langland 438 and MP 11.) While she did, in a way, become a major influence in the book, I was quite disappointed to find that the majority of the book was to be without her, at least physically. I was drawn in by her connection to the land and her connection to Howard’s End. The way Forster presented her, especially the scene where she carried around the piece of hay and smelled it, just drew me in. She seemed almost unreal, especially considering the other people in her family, none of which were particularly likeable. I liked both Meg and Helen. I liked Meg right from the start; she reminded me of another Meg from one of my favorite childhood books, A Wrinkle in Time, as both are older, bookish and protective of their younger siblings. It took more time for me to really like Helen, though I did as the book progressed. Initially, she seemed considerably less bright than Meg. I felt that she evolved as the plot evolved.
It was easy to see why this book was selected for the transitional week. To me, the most important events/changes involved in modernism were (in order) 1) the industrial revolution/mass production/commercialism and 2) World War I. These are all present in the book. Obviously WWI has not begun, being that the book was published in 1910. Nevertheless, Forster is clearly aware of tensions that exist in international politics, most keenly between Britain and Germany. This is mentioned several times, particularly in the first half of the book. In a way, this tension can be seen between the Schlegels (somewhat German) and the Wilcoxes (all British). Forster discusses the problems between these two powers even more directly though. (See page 47: “… just as the remark ‘England and Germany are bound to fight,’ renders war a little more likely each time that it is made, and is therefore made the more readily by the gutter press of either nation.”)
The mixed ideas of the industrial revolution, mass production and commercialism are an even bigger theme in the book. To me, Forster seems resistant to these. (I think Jameson would agree with me, calling Forster “at best a closet modernist.” See 454.) He seems to see the state of London as an indicator of what we call Modernism, and he is none too pleased with the way it is changing. (Thacker points out that London was undergoing extensive construction just prior to 1914. See 47.) A big example is what is going to happen to Wickham Place. It is to be torn down to make space to build apartments, thereby making smaller, impersonal areas for working people to live while making more money for the landowner. He is critical of this entire situation and sees it as doing no one any good. (See page 109.) His description of Leonard Bast describes how city life and the way the world has changed has had an effect on people: “…a young man, colourless, toneless, who already the mournful eyes above a drooping moustache that are so common in London, and that haunt the streets of the city like accustoming presences. One guessed him as the third generation, grandson to the shepherd or ploughboy whom civilization had sucked into the town; as one of the thousands who have lost the life of the body and failed to reach the life of the spirit.” (84) Leonard seems to symbolize what happens to these people with little means in the cities as “progress” forces them there to find jobs in some unpleasant industry or another. My favorite quote, which seems to summarize how Forster feels about London and what it has become, comes from Chapter XVII: “London only stimulates, it cannot sustain…” (109) This is in contrast, it would seem, to the more bucolic lifestyle of Howard’s End, which is itself in danger at the end of the book, as indicated by the “red rust” glow on the horizon at the end of the book. (240) (Thacker seems to think that Forster seeks to “connect” cities and the countryside. See 49. I’m not sure I agree with this. I don’t think Forster has any good feelings toward cities. At least, I saw little evidence of that in the book. Still, Thacker does characterize Forster’s urban tone as “crabby,” so we are at least somewhat on the same page. See 50. I like that way of describing the tone.) Still, Forster has some hope that society will shake off this “progress” that seems to have overtaken it, as indicated by Meg’s speech about the “craze for motion.” (240)
In Thacker’s article, two things in particular got my attention. First, he noted that the constant movement of the characters among different houses emphasizes “how modernity disrupts a stable sense of place.” (55) This is a fantastic observation that I had not considered but with which I agree wholeheartedly. Second, I enjoyed his discussion of the role of cars in the book, which I also had not considered. Thacker connects the car to financial privilege and sees it as a symbol of “ ‘new civilization’ .” (65) I think he is correct on both assertions.
Forster also seems to be struggling with the role of women. I was unsure what his feelings toward feminism were, but I think that he must have believed that women are the equal of men. (Langland sees the opposition between the male and female characters as sort of the backbone of the book. See 441. It is certainly a theme, but I disagree that it is the central theme.) Otherwise, why write Meg as he did? He recognizes that there is still something Victorian about the way men treat women, and Meg recognizes it too. She allows it to go on when it suits her purposes, but when she really needs to speak up about something, she does it. (Langland also recognizes that Meg stands out, noting that she can turn her fake feminine actions into a “lever” when it suits her purposes. See 443.) Similarly, Forster is concerned about class divides. This seems to be presented in the situations with the Basts. He doesn’t seem to know what to do about the problems, but he is concerned about them. There is also something in the background about Britain as an empire and what is going on in the colonies. The Wilcoxes are the main people involved in these concerns, as they have made at least some of their money in rubber. Paul Wilcox spends most of the book in Nigeria, presumably working for the family business. (See page 82.)
In all, I really enjoyed the book. I find that I always enjoy books more that have a happy ending, and this one did, at least to me. I was not at all bothered by what happened to Leonard and Charles; in fact, I think both got what they deserved. I was especially pleased that the sisters were reunited, and that Meg ended up living at Howard’s End as Mrs. Wilcox meant for it to be.