Modern Library Revue: #38 Howards End

May 27, 2014 | 2 books mentioned 4 6 min read

I borrowed Howards End from my local university library, an early edition in a sturdy and narrow-margined library binding. Pages from these kinds of books don’t tear — over half centuries and quarter centuries of tugging and smoothing and creasing by grubby fingers, they achieve a fine cloth-like texture that no e-reader can hope to replicate. I think that libraries are worth our patronage for the feeling of these pages alone. They are the impressions worn by feet on the path to the Parthenon. They are the pig’s teeth wedged in a wych-elm by superstitious peasants.

People who love books are always telling high school students that reading opens doors, that old books will surprise you with their sudden relevance, the startling light they can cast onto your own life. This is such a true thing about reading that it feels stupid to say of one or another book that it reminded you of a feeling you’ve had, or that its themes resonate in the present day.  On this front, Howards End should have lots to say to me. Like its Miss Schlegels, I am a bookish, opinionated lady with claims to progressive values. Like that of the Schlegels, my imperial nation is rife with inequality, class division, and economic precarity for the Leonard Bast class of people with aspirations but no advantages. Even the search for a suitable lodging is familiar: “We are reverting to the civilisation of luggage, and historians of the future will note how the middle classes accreted possessions without taking root in the earth, and may find in this the secret of their imaginative poverty.” There is much to which I can relate. But Howards End makes me think instead about things that are different and gone — farmland and buildings and ideals and ways of thinking and kinds of conversation and styles of beautiful writing.

coverThere is a painful, almost superfluously beautiful quality to Forster’s writing that attracts me to this book even while I find that Forster’s class sensibility, fine as it is and perfect in Passage to India (revued here), ultimately can’t do the necessary and make Leonard Bast a real person. He dies, as he lived, a silly, pitiful, and unprepossessing little man. (This may be a failure of imagination on my end, but it is difficult to see how Helen Schlegel could be so susceptible to his obscure charm as to succumb utterly to it in a hotel sitting-room.)  But if Passage to India showed Forster at his most pointed about people, Howards End is his ode to places (and not only the place for which it is named):

Shropshire had not the reticence of Hertfordshire. Though robbed of half its magic by swift movement, it still conveyed the sense of hills…Having picked up another guest, they turned southward, avoiding the greater mountains, but conscious of an occasional summit, rounded and mild, whose colouring differed in quality from that of the lower earth, and whose contours altered more slowly. Quiet mysteries were in progress behind those tossing horizons: the West, as ever, was retreating with some secret which may not be worth the discovery, but which no practical man will ever discover.

Forster’s writing mixes poetry and aphorism in a way that makes whatever he writes sound totally convincing and meaningful, even if, for all I know, it is nonsense. Of Margaret Schlegel’s gradual retiring from society, he writes, “It was doubtless a pity not to keep up with Wedekind or John, but some closing of the gates is inevitable after thirty, if the mind itself is to become a creative power.” Of life he writes, “It is indeed unmanageable, but the essence of it is not a battle. It is unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty.” People write in all kinds of good ways, but it is a tragedy that nobody writes like this anymore.

Howards End, published 1910, is technically a pre-war novel in the WWI sense, and it frequently invites you to think of it on those terms (“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”). A few years later, the stolid Wilcox men who form the upstanding backbone of British society in Margaret’s perception would be largely unavailable for theoretical debates with liberated young women; they would likely be dead, along with nearly a million of their compatriots, or maimed, along with the rest.

coverThat said, another book in my pile this spring had me thinking about a different war. Just after Howards End I read W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, a book whose construction around a portentous negative space has the effect of drawing all neighboring books into its central darkness, like a dying star. Everything becomes tinged with this darkness. (I have also been working through the novels of Anita Brookner, many of which feature Jews so thoroughly English that their eastern European origins signify only as a piece of ponderous furniture or a grandmother’s accent, and I began to wonder if these novels, too — if all novels — are actually about the Holocaust.)

And yet Austerlitz and the second World War seemed to form a fitting complement to Howards End — the latter’s interest in civilization and the built environment and the natural world and material culture slotting into Sebald’s voids in the same realms. The character Austerlitz has spent in his life in “investigations into the history of architecture and civilization,” and the novel Austerlitz is full of symbolic architectural monstrosities — “the accumulation of stone blocks” — and spaces stuffed with meaning. The novel’s narrator describes London, its “districts…crisscrossed by innumerable streets and railway lines, crowding ever more closely together as they marched east and north, one reef of buildings above the next and then the next, and so on, far beyond Holloway and Highbury…” I was reminded of Margaret Schlegel’s similar impression of London as she puzzles through her sister Helen’s disappearance: “The mask fell off the city, and she saw it for what it really is — a caricature of infinity…” She searches in St. Paul’s, “whose dome stands out of the welter so bravely, as if preaching the gospel. But within, St. Paul’s is as its surroundings — echoes and whispers, inaudible songs, invisible mosaics, wet footmarks crossing and recrossing the floor. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice: it points us back to London.”

I didn’t see clearly what a tender and hopeful book Howards End is until I read Austerlitz. And a sad one. It’s a prelapsarian mirror image. How devastating Forster’s observation about the “civilisation of luggage” becomes when you consider the eventual mounds of plundered luggage sitting in warehouses around Europe. Or Mrs. Wilcox’s lament: “Can what they call civilisation be right, if people mayn’t die in the room where they were born?” How poignant half-German Margaret is, with her belief in the “salvation that was latent…in the soul of every man.” How sad to contemplate her mantra, “Only connect,” in the context of Austerlitz’s dead mama and papa and his abrupt transformation to a little Welsh boy. How sentimental Forster seems when he writes that:

London was but a foretaste of this nomadic civilisation which is altering human nature so profoundly, and throws upon personal relations a stress greater than they have ever borne before. Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they once exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone. May Love be equal to the task!

I have always found there to be something lumpy and friendly and comforting about Howards End — it’s like a big, old sweater. But I see that there is something a little weird about that. I yank it away from Austerlitz’s gravitational pull, and I don’t quite see now why it should feel like such a hopeful, tender, happy novel, when it leaves a dead man and an imprisoned man and a crumpled man in its wake. Perhaps because it’s sort of a feminine triumphal. Fighting for her right to spend the night with her pregnant sister in Howards End, Margaret Schlegel delivers the most just and crushing indictment of misogyny and the double standard ever written. And she gets her way, and the dead Mrs. Wilcox gets her way, and the men die or are locked up or have a nervous breakdown, each condition divesting its victim of all former imperiousness and other unsavory qualities. The women win, and they get their beautifully cozy pastoral unwed mothers’ commune, an easy distance from London. They found a Home, and they will “create new sanctities” in it. It does sound nice.

In my sturdy library copy, generations of readers have penciled their notes and little stars. I tip my hat to the analytical one, a Marxist no doubt, who helped me to see that Leonard Bast’s ignorance of the Sunday paper signified “commodifying, economizing knowledge at every turn!” I raise a glass to the one who wrote of Leonard’s meager dwelling that it is “projected fake, shallow, comme moi!” I applaud the one who pointed out succinctly on the penultimate page that Margaret’s husband “becomes a pussy.” We are all more alike than we are different.

Only connect, and all that.


is a contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State. You can read more of her writing at


  1. Thank you for this review. Howards End is my favorite novel (and Forster my favorite author). I have read it many times and have also struggled with how Leonard Bast doesn’t feel “real” at various–although I would say not ALL–points. He seems very real and vivid to me in the beginning of the story,: his concern over the umbrella, his class consciousness and fear that he’s being made fun of by the knowledgeable and educated Schlegel sisters, his account of walking through the night trying to steer by the pole star. I really understand him in these moments with all of his aspirations but inability to realize them. He does fades as the book goes on, but I think that can be attributed to his own storyline as he fails to thrive in life. Although perhaps I’m just being generous in saying so.

    I have also thought a lot about the non-romance of his short-lived affair with Helen. I don’t so much see her succumbing to his charms. She has always been beyond/above him, and they both seemed comfortable with that. It’s a relationship defined by her pity and his admiration. Except for in that one moment when they become more equal as he would, but ultimately cannot, protect her from sharing his own disillusionment. If Leonard still fails to impress here, I blame Helen (whom I adore) for her inability to see him as real.

    And thank you for this: “People write in all kinds of good ways, but it is a tragedy that nobody writes like this anymore.” I couldn’t agree more.

  2. SB, thank you for your comment, which I found illuminating. I think I have been a bit unjust to Bast and Forster. Regarding Helen, I guess the point of their strange coupling is that Helen doesn’t really know Leonard at all–or not all the things about him to which the reader is privy, at any rate. To her he’s a repository for ideals/guilt/sympathy/sorrow over the world’s injustice, etc.–“her pity,” as you say. (And since I’m evidently preoccupied with the idea that Leonard is just too fussy and anxious to be sexy, I should remember that sex is not always totally founded upon the animal side of things.)

    And I had actually forgotten that one of the things that I like and admire about Forster elsewhere is that he is willing to write across great divides in a way that I think modern readers/writers are (I think rightly) frightened to do because it’s presumptuous. Now people seem mostly to write about people who look like they do and act like they do. Forster had both the courage and the ability to, um, connect, which is one of the reasons he is great, even if it also means that he is sometimes unkind or unjust. And perhaps/definitely part of the reason I find him unkind to Leonard is that I suffer from a modern anxiety about presuming on someone else’s experience, particularly a person who is not my class, color, etc. Ergo, since I found Leonard unlikable, I blamed Forster for his characterization.

    Anyway, thanks for reading and for the thoughtful comment.

  3. Thanks so much for your response, Lydia! I am unforgivably indulgent when it comes to Forster. Because he does it so beautifully, I forget that he is being cruel sometimes.

    I think what you said here is very true: “And I had actually forgotten that one of the things that I like and admire about Forster elsewhere is that he is willing to write across great divides in a way that I think modern readers/writers are (I think rightly) frightened to do because it’s presumptuous.” I suppose such a thing was more acceptable a century ago? I would probably bristle at a contemporary author doing something similar, but the distance of time and culture makes it easier to focus on his meaning and ignore his presumptions. And so for me Howards End sits in a very sweet spot where it has enough relevance to reflect a way to be in the world without reflecting (or offending) my exact world.

    I wonder what Forster may have felt about Leonard Bast? If he would have thought he’d succeeded in creating someone sympathetic, likeable, tragic, etc.? Although it doesn’t necessarily say anything about Leonard as an individual, it comes across at the end as a small triumph that his son will inherit Howards End, which does at least speak to Forster’s beliefs about a changing, equalizing England.

    But there is something I want to try to articulate about how I read Forster, although I might not have quite the right words for it. It is that I am willing to forgive him various transgressions in part because I sense that he conceives of most of his characters with a sympathy that allows us as readers to forgive them—or at least to attempt to understand them, which approaches forgiveness. They are all clearly human and products of their society, and when someone like Margaret can have compassion for Henry Wilcox, who am I to deny it to Forster, who denies it to no one?

    Another reason (which of course I don’t know to be true) is that I imagine Forster would be among the first to say he doesn’t always succeed at perfectly expressing his larger ideas, like how the meanness of poverty stunts individual potential, as do divisions of class, culture, and education; therefore it is social constructs but not people that are really unlikeable. I also think (again with no evidence) that Forster might readily admit that he is not great, but only very, very good. And that maybe a slight lack of faith in both himself and his readers leads him overstep at times when he would be better off pulling back.

    Something about the way he writes makes me believe in his effort, though. I’m so glad he attempted something huge and meaningful, and his failure to bring it off absolutely perfectly feels poignant and makes me love him even more.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.