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.

My Commonplace Book: December 2016

It’s time for my last Commonplace Book post of 2016. I now have twelve lovely collections of quotations and images to look back on from my year’s reading, so I think I’ll be doing this again – or something very similar – in 2017!

A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

~

Looking back on the past six months, Margaret realised the chaotic nature of our daily life, and its difference from the orderly sequence that has been fabricated by historians. Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere. With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes. The most successful career must show a waste of strength that might have removed mountains, and the most unsuccessful is not that of the man who is taken unprepared, but of him who has prepared and is never taken.

Howards End by E.M. Forster (1910)

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Time is the tricksiest of all tricksters, and I should know. I was a jester by profession, but I never had the skills of Mistress Time. She can stretch herself into a shadow that reaches so far you think it’ll never come to an end or she can shrink to the shortest of mouse-tails.

The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland (2016)

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john-wilmot

Talk, inevitably, turned to the projected portrait, and he was able to describe what he wanted. “I have it all quite plain in my mind’s eye: I stand by a table, so, and I’m holding out a laurel wreath over Strephon’s head, while turning to look out of the picture, and Strephon sits on a pile of books on a table, preferably eating them.”

“All highly symbolic. Are you sure you don’t want, say, a dwarf or a blind fiddler or any other accessory? Just yourself, and the monkey?”

Alathea by Pamela Belle (1985)

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Angel thought: What is this errand I am going on? Perhaps all this girl has told me is false; how do I know? Perhaps all I have heard of her is a lie, too. What is it that I have in common with her? Why do I like and trust her? For the same reason as I was hurt by the death of the manatee – we’re all females, slaves, helpless.

Night’s Dark Secrets by Marjorie Bowen (1936)

~

henry-vii

Somehow, he’d thought that as he got older he would achieve a measure of free will. When he was a man, he had often told himself after being chastised or set some complicated task of learning that no one would tell him what to do. Now he lay on his back in the dense forest, aware of the mist rising from the damp earth, the murmuring of men settling in for the night, and knew he was part of a story that had started long before he was born and would continue long after his death.

Accession by Livi Michael (2016)

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“Nice!” Stella’s anger overflowed suddenly. “And this is a nice bus, and what a lot of nice people we are, this nice morning.”

Marian managed a laugh. “You’re quite right. It’s a terrible word. I used it in an essay once, and my tutor made me read Northanger Abbey before I wrote another one.”

“Oh God, Jane Austen,” said Stella.

Strangers in Company by Jane Aiken Hodge (1973)

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There are misfortunes in life that no one will accept; people would rather believe in the supernatural and the impossible.

The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas (1850)

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full-moon

The moon was full and, urged by a restless excitement, she had been unable to remain in her room. She walked without conscious direction through a grove of oleanders and came out on the shore, pale gold sands silvered by the moonlight, a line of slowly curling surf white as ivory, and a sea of violet blue. Above her the Southern moon seemed huge and very near and she felt as if she could catch it in her hand.

Forget Me Not by Marjorie Bowen (1932)

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“First his secretary, seated in his master’s chair, was shot,” he said slowly. “Then his butler, who was apparently after his master’s Scotch, got poisoned. Then his chauffeur met with a very mysterious accident, and finally a man walking with him down the street got a coping stone on his head.” He sat back and regarded his companion almost triumphantly. “What do you say to that?” he demanded.

“Shocking,” said the young man. “Very bad taste on someone’s part. Rotten marksmanship, too,” he added, after some consideration. “I suppose he’s travelling for health now, like me?”

Mystery Mile by Margery Allingham (1930)

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jane_shore_-_weir_collection

She raised her eyes – they lighted on the masquer. The pressure of the people had forced him so close to her that their hands touched. Shore lent forward to speak to his father. The mysterious personage seized the occasion, pressed that gloved hand with ardour, and whispered in her ear.

“You have done unwisely – you might have been the beloved of a king.”

Jane Shore by Mary Bennett (1869)

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“There are many forms of love, Violet. One can love a parent in one way, a sibling in another, a lover, a friend, an animal…each in different ways.”

Flora watched Violet’s face as everything it contained seemed to soften and a veil fell from her eyes.

“Yes, yes! But Flora, how can we possibly choose whom we love when society dictates it?”

“Well, even though outwardly we must do as society dictates, the feelings we hold inside us may contradict that completely.”

The Shadow Sister by Lucinda Riley (2016)

~

Favourite books this month: Alathea, The Man in the Iron Mask and The Shadow Sister.

As you can see, I’m very behind with my reviews, which isn’t ideal at the start of a new year. However, I do have most of them written and scheduled to be posted throughout January. For now, I would like to wish you all a Happy New Year!

Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

Arctic Summer As someone who has only read one novel by E.M. Forster – A Room with a View – I wasn’t sure whether reading Arctic Summer would be a good idea. It’s a fictional biography of Forster, concentrating on the period during which he was working on his novel A Passage to India, so I thought it might be more sensible to wait until I had read that book first. Arctic Summer is on the list of books I need to read for my Walter Scott Prize Project, though, so when I saw it in the library I couldn’t resist picking it up and taking it home.

I should start by saying that as well as not having read much of Forster’s work, I also – before reading this novel – knew almost nothing about the man himself. The first thing I discovered was that Galgut refers to his main character not as Forster or Edward but as Morgan, which was his middle name. Forster went by this name to distinguish himself from his father, another Edward (and apparently he was originally supposed to be called Henry anyway – there was some confusion over names at the baptism).

We first meet Forster in 1912 as he sets sail on his first trip to India at the age of thirty-three. He is planning to visit his friend Syed Ross Masood, whom he had tutored in Latin several years earlier while Masood was a student in England. Forster is becoming increasingly aware that what he feels for Masood is not just friendship but also love. However, he is not entirely comfortable with his feelings yet and is plagued by doubts and frustrations; this was a time when homosexuality was neither legal nor seen as socially acceptable and we are reminded that fewer than twenty years have passed since Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment for ‘gross indecency’.

Later, during World War I, Forster travels to Egypt to work for the Red Cross, and here he falls in love again, this time with Mohammed el-Adl. His love for Masood and Mohammed forms the main focus of Arctic Summer – and this, to me, was slightly disappointing. Obviously his relationships with these two men (and others) were very important to Forster and had an influence on his writing, but I would have preferred to read a more balanced novel that also explored other aspects of his life, rather than just page after page describing his sexual experiences and desires.

I did enjoy reading about Egypt and India (the visit to the Barabar Caves was particularly memorable) and I was also pleased to see brief appearances from other writers of the period such as D.H. Lawrence and Virginia and Leonard Woolf. The writing was of a high quality too and Galgut tells Forster’s story with sensitivity and understanding. Too much of the book bored me, though, and it failed to move me as much as I would have liked and expected. I had difficulty relating the story of Morgan’s love affairs to what little I know of Forster’s writing and I think I should definitely have waited to read this until I’d at least read A Passage to India and possibly Maurice as well.

This was one of the few disappointments I’ve had during my reading from the Walter Scott Prize shortlists, but don’t let me put you off. Looking at other reviews it seems that a lot of people have read it and loved it. As I’ve mentioned, my own lack of familiarity with Forster’s life and work could have been part of my problem. If nothing else, reading Arctic Summer has made me want to read more of E.M. Forster’s novels sooner rather than later.

Turn of the Century Salon: A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

Turn of the Century Salon - February
This year I am participating in a Turn of the Century Salon hosted by Katherine of November’s Autumn. The idea of this is to read books published around the turn of the century – between the late 1880s and the early 1930s. While I do seem to have read more books from this period than I initially thought, there are still a huge number of turn of the century authors whose work I haven’t explored yet and E.M. Forster was one of those that I was most looking forward to trying for the first time.

A Room with a View is the story of Lucy Honeychurch who we first meet on a trip to Italy with her cousin, Charlotte Bartlett. Lucy and Charlotte have just arrived at the Pension Bertolini in Florence and are disappointed to find that they have been given rooms with no view of the River Arno. Two of the other English guests – a Mr Emerson and his son, George – hear them complaining and immediately offer to exchange rooms, but instead of accepting their generous offer, the rules of Edwardian society mean that Charlotte is shocked and offended by what she considers their inappropriate behaviour. During the rest of their time in Florence, Charlotte and the other middle-class English tourists dismiss the Emersons as bad-mannered and socially unacceptable but Lucy has several more encounters with them and is intrigued by their different outlook on life.

A Room with a View Back in England, their paths cross again when the Emersons move into a cottage in Lucy’s village not far from the Honeychurch home, Windy Corner. Lucy is now engaged to Cecil Vyse, a cold, pretentious man she doesn’t really love, but who is considered to be a suitable husband for her. But with George Emerson living nearby Lucy must decide whether to be true to her heart even if it means breaking the social conventions of the time.

As this is the first E.M. Forster book I’ve read, I didn’t know what to expect so I was pleased to find it was much easier to read than I had been afraid it might be. I loved the wit and warmth of Forster’s writing and I enjoyed watching Lucy’s slow development from a young woman who allows other people and society in general to dictate how she should think and behave to one who finds the courage to be herself and live her life the way she wants to live it.

The beginning of the book with the portrayal of the English in Italy made me think of The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim and as for the descriptions of Italy itself, they were beautiful and vivid:

At the same moment the ground gave way, and with a cry she fell out of the wood. Light and beauty enveloped her. She had fallen on to a little open terrace, which was covered with violets from end to end.

“Courage!” cried her companion, now standing some six feet above. “Courage and love.”

She did not answer. From her feet the ground sloped sharply into view, and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems collecting into pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam. But never again were they in such profusion; this terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth.

Forster has a sense of humour as well; the dialogue is often quite funny and he puts his characters into some amusing situations. I also loved the character names and the chapter titles (especially Chapter Six – “The Reverend Arthur Beebe, the Reverend Cuthbert Eager, Mr. Emerson, Mr. George Emerson, Miss Eleanor Lavish, Miss Charlotte Bartlett, and Miss Lucy Honeychurch Drive Out in Carriages to See a View; Italians Drive Them.”)

Published in 1908, A Room with a View was a perfect book to choose for the salon as it really does epitomise turn of the century society and a gradual move away from Victorian values into a freer, less socially constrained twentieth century.

Which of E.M. Forster’s other books should I read next?