HOWARDS END by E M Forster
It’s corny to say a book changed your life and also, perhaps, a little hard to believe when the book concerned is not at first glance an epic firework of a thing, but a gentle, humorous, beautifully told story of two middle class families in England shortly after the turn of the century. I nonetheless lay this claim at the foot of E M Forster’s Howards End, recognised as a classic from the instant of its publication in 1910 and falling onto my desk in 1977, thanks to its selection on the curriculum for A level English.
I had always enjoyed English. Reading stories, grappling with ideas rather than facts – as a subject it had been a no-brainer when choosing what to pursue in the sixth form. My main love however, was drama. I had even been toying with the idea of becoming an actress. Studying Shakespeare and Edward Albee in the classroom, my hand was always first up in the hope of being selected to read a part. I had got through a good many novels by then too – stuff like Dickens and Hardy (O level syllabus) and anything off my parents’ shelves that looked promisingly racy (Nabokov, Murdoch, Amis) – but Howards End was the first book which utterly, totally, from the first word to the very last, STOLE MY HEART.
You could say (at the risk of even greater corn) that I fell in love….not with the Schlegel sisters themselves of course, or poor Leonard Bast, or the Wilcoxes (ballsy and noisy apart from the first, elusive, mystical Mrs Wilcox,) or even the beautiful, spiritually-infused bricks and mortar of Howards End itself. And I certainly entertained no private passion for E M Forster, who was famously gay and somewhat forlorn and even a little seedy when it came to his own quests for fulfilment beyond the business of writing. No, what engaged me from that memorable opening line – ‘One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister’ – was Forster’s story and the truths that rang out from it. I had read great narratives and I had read worthy sentiments, but it wasn’t until Howards End that I experienced the power emanating from a perfect fusion of the two.
My A level copy of the book is trampled with biro, most of it simply marvelling at the sanity, the wisdom, the humour, the breathtaking perceptions, rather than offering any helpful pointers towards constructing a well-argued essay. But as I came to see, the real ingenuity lay in how Forster had woven all those component parts together, binding them with his trademark, effortless imagery and a page-turner of a story that still makes me laugh out loud just as often as I reach for the Kleenex. Wow. Such simple ingredients, such a magnificent concoction; small wonder that by the second page my sixteen-year-old attitude had shifted from a lazy interest to something more akin to awe.
And Forster was so good at being right too! Not just about big tangible things like the pollutant threats of modern life (motor cars, sprawling towns etc) to the tranquillity of the English countryside and the lives of those occupying it, but also about the much more subtle business of society needing those very same things in order to thrive. The busy, manly Wilcoxes, so focused on outward appearances, their lives full of ‘telegrams and anger’, may seem like the ones doing all the harm, but they have much to offer too, as the Schlegel sisters realise, Margaret in particular. It’s why she falls in love with Henry. The world, she sees, needs the Wilcox brand of self-belief and energy, just as much as it needs her own and Helen’s gentler, more overtly cultured, self-awareness. And, even more cleverly, Forster recognised that human relationships need these same two elements as well. Being able to connect them is the key, as the alluring, elusive first Mrs Wilcox seemed to know so well and as Margaret learns – painfully – in her stead: “Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted…”
Thirty years on and that phrase still gives me goose-bumps, for being so powerfully true and for resonating with the clunk of my sixteen year old intellect, making its first lurching move into a new world.
The down-side to any sort of falling in love, however, (be it with a person or a book) is that it has a tendency to make one possessive. Which is why, even when given the simple request to select a novel for this piece, my first instinct was to pick something for which I felt less intense emotional attachment. Something like The Poisonwood Bible, say, or Birdsong, or Middlemarch, all of which I have enriched me greatly. For the shameful truth is that, hidden somewhere deep inside me, lurks the dark, clinging, selfish lover’s conviction that Howards End is mine, that no one could understand or love it so well and therefore should not have the audacity to try. When Zadie Smith’s On Beauty hit the shelves, I felt as if she had trespassed on private, hallowed ground; substituting the word ‘emails’ for ‘letters’ in her version of that wonderfully brief, wonderfully alluring opening line…how DARE she…?
I apologise, of course. Zadie Smith clearly has the right to turn her accomplished hand to anything she chooses, as does any writer. (In greener, less prudent days, I once made copious notes on the plot of Hamlet, with the idea of converting it into a snappy novel…happily, good sense intervened.) Howards End is a wonder to be treasured, savoured, discussed, used as any occupant of the planet sees fit. My head knows this, it’s just my heart that won’t comply. First Love gets you like that, changing your life, grabbing you in the gut, never letting go.