Howards End by E.M. Forster

howards-endThis is only the second book I’ve read by E.M. Forster – the first one being A Room with a View. With plenty of his books left to choose from, I decided that the next one I read would be Howards End, which was recommended to me by almost everyone who commented on my review of A Room with a View back in 2013!

Howards End is the story of two sisters, Margaret and Helen Schlegel, and their relationship with the Wilcox family. At the beginning of the novel, Helen – the younger and more impulsive of the two – accepts an invitation to visit Howards End, the Wilcox country home, where she becomes romantically involved with the younger son, Paul Wilcox. Although their romance is quickly broken off, the two families stay in touch and the elder Schlegel sister, the more practical and sensible Margaret, becomes good friends with Paul’s mother, Ruth.

Ruth Wilcox longs to show Margaret Howards End, feeling that her new friend will appreciate the house more than her own children do. Margaret never gets a chance to visit while Mrs Wilcox is alive, but when she dies, early in the novel, she tries to bequeath Howards End to Margaret. However, the rest of the Wilcox family choose not to inform Margaret and burn the note which describes Ruth’s dying wish, leaving Margaret none the wiser. As time goes by, Margaret gets to know Ruth’s widowed husband, Henry, and a friendship forms which soon develops into something more. Could Margaret end up living at Howards End one day after all?

Meanwhile, Helen has also made a new friend: Leonard Bast, a young insurance clerk who is married to an older woman, Jacky. Acting on advice from Henry Wilcox, the Schlegels warn Leonard that the company he works for is in trouble and that he should look for another job. Leonard follows this advice, but when things go wrong and he ends up with nothing, Helen blames Henry for his misfortunes.  Will she ever be able to forgive him?

Published in 1910, Howards End explores the relationships between these three families, each occupying a different position in the British class system. The Wilcoxes are wealthy, materialistic capitalists who have made their money from the Imperial and West African Rubber Company. The Schlegels, who are half German, are cultured, intellectual and idealistic, and apparently based on the real-life Bloomsbury Group. Finally, the lower-middle class Leonard Bast has found himself impoverished and stuggling to get by, but is trying to improve his lot in life by exposing himself to music and literature.

Class is obviously an important theme in this novel, then, but there are others too, such as gender roles and feminism. With such a variety of characters, we get a variety of views ranging from Henry Wilcox saying that “the uneducated classes are so stupid”, Mrs Wilcox’s opinion that “it is wiser to leave action and discussion to men”, and Margaret thinking to herself, “Ladies sheltering behind men, men sheltering behind servants – the whole system’s wrong.” It’s interesting to think that within a few years of this book being published, the outbreak of war in Europe and also the progress of the women’s suffrage movement would bring social change to Britain and the world Forster is describing would no longer exist.

Howards End is a beautifully written novel and a fascinating and thought-provoking one. However, I don’t think I can say that I loved it, partly because I found so many of the characters difficult to like and care about.  Although Forster himself writes about each character with warmth and empathy, I didn’t feel that I was forming a very strong connection with any of them.  I preferred A Room with a View, but I’m probably in the minority with that as so many people have told me that this one is their favourite by Forster. I’m still looking forward to reading more of his novels, though, and I think A Passage to India will be next.

27 thoughts on “Howards End by E.M. Forster

  1. Lark says:

    While I liked Howard’s End, A Room With a View is by far my favorite Forster novel. (Because it’s so funny and romantic!) In fact, it’s one of my favorite classics. But I do like the line in Howard’s End: “Only connect,” and the idea behind it. 🙂

  2. Elle says:

    A Room With a View is so easy to love that I would be quite surprised if someone told me they actually preferred any of the others. I do think Howard’s End is a brilliant and important novel, though, and it’s probably my second favourite of Forster’s. (Have you read Zadie Smith’s On Beauty? A modern updating of Howard’s End which actually works.)

      • buriedinprint says:

        I was going to ask the same thing; I found that Zadie Smith’s novel made me rethink Forster’s original (in a good way). Forster has been one of my MRE authors for many years (one of the first to make my list) and I just finished Aspects of the Novel this year, my last of his (except for short stories). It depends on the day, which I would choose as a favourite, and I enjoyed your thoughts on Howard’s End.

        • Helen says:

          I’ll definitely think about reading the Zadie Smith novel, then. I’m not sure I like Forster enough to want to read everything he wrote, but I am interested in reading A Passage to India, at least.

  3. FictionFan says:

    I haven’t read Howard’s End, but I think I actually enjoyed A Passage to India even more than A Room with a View. But then I love novels set in India so that may just be a symptom of my own prejudice. Anyway, Passage is a great book and I hope you enjoy it when you get to it.

  4. diana says:

    Certainly Howards End is my personal favourite….a short leg ahead of A Passage To India. I so much enjoy that Howards End is the main character, is the entity that determines the decisions, in fact, the fates of the people passing through it.

    • Helen says:

      I found the symbolism of the house interesting too and I would agree that it is the most important character in the book. I did enjoy Howards End although it hasn’t become a favourite, and I’m looking forward to A Passage to India.

    • Helen says:

      Forming some sort of attachment to the characters is important to me and I really didn’t like any of the people in this book. I think I liked Henry Wilcox the least.

      • whatmeread says:

        It’s been a long time for me. I remember liking the book, but the characters may have had some residual effect because I saw the movie with Emma Thompson shortly before reading the book.

  5. Sandra says:

    I have tried and abandoned both A Room with a View and Howard’s End, yet I never felt the problem was the books themselves; it was just the wrong time. I’ve always planned to give them – and Forster – another try. And only yesterday I was looking at the blurb of a novel about Forster and India which I now have no helpful recollection of. Hopefully I noted down the title somewhere! Anyway, thanks for the clear and helpful review, Helen. I’m encouraged about picking up Forster’s work again and hopeful I’ll appreciate it more second time around.

    • Helen says:

      I hope you have better luck next time if you do decide to give Forster another chance. I read a novel by Damon Galgut last year called Arctic Summer which was a fictional account of Forster’s time in India – maybe that’s the book you’re thinking of?

      • Sandra says:

        Helen, yes! That’s the one, thank you. I hadn’t read your review of it though so I clearly saw it elsewhere. I have read your review now – and have still added it to my tbr list to read perhaps, alongside Forster’s novels. I always enjoy getting a glimpse of the writer behind the books.

  6. Judy Krueger says:

    I have not read any of E M Forster’s novels. I think I would like him but he just doesn’t fit in any of my reading projects currently. I loved both of your reviews and look forward to one of Passage to India.

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