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Stopping at “Howard’s End”

March 24, 2010
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Emma and Helena as Margaret and Helen in "Howard's End"

In Edwardian English, “stopping” means “staying over.” I’ve just surfaced from a weeks’-long visit to Howard’s End, the 1908 E.M. Forster novel best known as the basis for a famously lush Merchant Ivory film made in 1992. I saw the movie, but remember very little beyond the dark eyes and winsome curls of Helena Bonham-Carter’s pre-Goth youth. So delving into the novel felt refreshing, especially while commuting downtown by train in the mornings, abruptly shifting between Forster’s feverish philosophizing and the fluorescent-lit, “please-stand-clear-of-the-moving-doors” sterility of Metro. (The contrast was especially ironic given Forster’s preoccupations with trekking, trams and trains as authentic ways to take in one’s surroundings, and his corresponding fear that the automobile was mauling not just the English countryside, but the way Englishmen perceived it.)

Forster’s story concerns the two maiden Schlegel sisters. Bohemian and independently wealthy, they take seriously the burdens of their class, devoting hours to debates on matters like whether it is better to use one’s money to endow lending libraries or simply to give away large sums to individual paupers. The story begins when they meet the bourgeois Wilcox family. Soon after, they meet Leonard Bast, a low-born clerk. A three-way gestalt clash ensues.

I know: Sounds gripping. When I read it on the way home, I dozed off.

Still, I tootled along rather patiently for the first hundred pages or so (“Next stop: Farragut North. This is the red line … “), idly following Forster’s meanderings on character and society, class and the peculiar personality of the English countryside. The pace lulled me into a dutiful sense of reading the book for Atmosphere and Character alone: London is myriad. Margaret is firm-minded. Helen is flighty. Mr. Wilcox sees people only for their uses while the Schlegels are impelled to connect, “only connect.” A sense of Destiny hung heavy over it all, but not much happened.

Just as I was about to start reaching for the morning papers instead, though, Mrs. Wilcox died, and the story picked up. I began pulling out my cloth-covered library copy (it even had an old-fashioned ribbon bookmark) on the afternoon train, too. I was finally reading for plot.

That was when I realized Forster was the Tom Wolfe of his day and this his Bonfire of the Vanities — building up the Masters of the Edwardian Universe only to see them brought down by forces larger than themselves. Melodrama ensues. Yes, there are well-established Reasons for the sturm and drang. Still, with so much action after all that dutiful slogging, I almost felt cheap: Was this just a trashy beach read, after all?

So sue me.

Now I must rent the movie. More to come.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 25, 2010 2:58 pm

    No comment on Forster, but what’s your take on Georgette Heyer? I’ve just picked up one of her novels, having never read anything of her before but deciding to be reckless and follow the recommendations of Michael Dirda. So far, I’m surprisingly entertained, especially by the language itself.

    • March 25, 2010 4:02 pm

      Gracious, Diane — my readers are so much better read than I am! I am writing it on my hand right now: Look up Heyer. Good thing I don’t wash, because it sometimes takes a while for meto follow up on these things. (Ask AngloFiles Story Contest winner Steve Graubart, who could have sown and harvested an entire tea crop in the time it took me to find his prize of an Assam brew.)

      Back on the lit front, there’s also, per my old school friend, Eva, Zadie Smith (essays AND novel, On Beauty) to add to the stack beside my pillow.

      I actually did read a good bit of Smith’s “White Teeth” before giving up: too self-consciously “observant,” and I disliked every character. But I’d be interested in her essay on Forster and what Eva tells me is either a send-up of — or homage to — him, in On Beauty.

      All thumbs: Sent from my iPhone, (202) 486-7645.

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