Howards End (Review)

Labels: Great Works

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Howards End
E. M. Forster, 1910
355 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
September 2007

It took the lushly produced Merchant-Ivory* films to springboard E.M. Forster into a literary household name. Before that, he occupied a well-regarded but quiet niche in the pantheon of English authors.

We appreciate Forster because he tells such darn good stories while tackling serious social issues, primarily England's rigid class system, colonialism, homosexuality—and, always-always, hypocrisy.

In Howards End Forster sets up two opposing forces: a life of intellect versus materialism. Lest you think the work is a dry compendium of ideas, Forster throws in a cast of engaging characters and a delicious social milieu set in Edwardian England.

The Schlegel family represents a life of spiritual, creative, and intellectual values; the Wilcox family represents a life devoted to acquisition of wealth that ignores any responsibility for the greater public good. Margaret Schlegel, the eldest sister, becomes the book's central character as she attempts to bridge the gap between the two worlds.

Forster uses metaphors to reinforce his themes; some are heavy handed, but there's one I love— the ancient wych elm that towers over the Howards End house. Symbols (see LitCourse 9) represent concepts hard to pin down with precise language, something I'm afraid to try here. But for starters think of rootedness that stretches skyward, connecting nurturing soil with the powerful sun. Start there...but don't stop there.

Somehow though, absent the Hollywood films—and his masterpiece, A Passage to India—I’m not sure we’d still be reading a whole lot of E.M. Forster today. Howards End in particular doesn’t really plumb the ideas he puts forth, doesn’t do the digging of a first-rate writer. And some of the writing, at times, feels a bit overwrought and unimaginative.

Perhaps that's just being crabby because, overall, I enjoyed Howards End and recommend it. So read it! And then, for a real workout, read On Beauty— Zadie Smith's brilliant take on Howards End, her favorite book.

See our Reading Guide for Howards End.

* Merchant-Ivory films: Room with a View (1986); Maurice (1987), Howards End (1992). A Passage to India (1984) was directed by David Lean.

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