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Howards End (thoughts)

January 2, 2009

1% ChallengeI didn’t meet E.M. Forster until last February, when I read A Room With a View (inspired, in no small part, by the fact that Pam’s book club-on the TV show The Office-read it, and I suddenly felt extra-pitiful I hadn’t). I really enjoyed it, and since my copy is an omnibus edition that also includes Howards End and Maurice, I put the former on my challenge list for the 1% Well Read Challenge.

Flash forward to about a week ago, but I casually glanced at my ‘Current Challenges’ page and noticed that I’d only read 2 of my 10 choices for that challenge, which ends in February. Cue a sudden reading spurt, of which Howards End is my latest choice. Omnibuses can be a little misleading…when I saw that the last page of Howards End was 393, I assumed that since it’s the middle novel, those page numbers included the novel before it. So, I thought to myself, a nice little bit of Forster will be a great way to begin the new year!

It turns out that this omnibus restarts page numbers with each book, so Howards End was the full 393 pages. It also turns out it was so good I didn’t care. Written and set at the turn of the century, the book follows an artistic group of siblings-Margaret, Helen, and Tibby-and their ongoing connections to a business family-the Watsons-whose several houses include Howards End. If you know anything about Forster, you know that the book explores a lot of class issues, and is heavily weighted towards the inner, emotional lives of its characters. The plot isn’t going to make many sudden jumps, and in fact the most dramatic event in the story receives almost no firsthand description. If you’re not interested in the inner thoughts of upper class Brits, Forster probably isn’t for you.

Assuming, however, that you are, Howard’s Endis magical. Margaret, Helen, and Tibby are all the kind of characters it’s easy to fall in love with-a little Bohemian, very cultured, but with some type of social conscience. They’re the kind of characters you wish you could be, so of course you’re concerned about how they’re going to end up.

One of the things I liked most was the time period. The book was published in 1910, before World War I, but one of the little tensions in the novel is that the siblings are half-British, half-German. It wasn’t a big deal in the book at all, but it did add an extra dimension. Also, while I read quite a bit of the interwar period, when flappers reigned supreme, this world, where social mores have not yet begun to change, was a wonderful juxtaposition to the free spiritedness of the siblings.

The other thing that really struck me was Forster’s deft social satire. There were moments when it reminded me of Jane Austen, the same mix of gentleness and bite, the same humour. Take this passage, when a middle-aged woman is thinking about a man she passed on the street the other day, with whom she had quarelled before:

The regrets crowded upon her: for instance, how magnificently she would have cut Charles if she had met him face to face. She had already seen him, giving an order to the porter-and very common he looked in a tall hat. But unfortunately his back was turned to her, and though she had cut his back, she could not regard this as a telling snub.

Those kind of little passages occur quite frequently through the book, and they never failed to make me smile. :)

Well, there you go. I very much enjoyed my first read of 2009, and while for some reason I expected it to not be as good as A Room With a View, it turned out to be much better!

Notable Passages
“It is the vice of a vulgar mind to be thrilled by bigness, to think that a thousand square miles are a thousand times more wonderful than one square mile, and that a million square miles are almost the same as heaven. That is not imagination. No, it kills it.”

“Give them a chance. Give them money. Don’t dole them out poetry-books and railway-tickets like babies. Give them the wherewithal to buy these things. When your Socialism comes it may be different, and we may think in terms of commodities instead of cash. Till it comes give people cash, for it is the warp of civilization, whatever the woof may be. The imagination ought to play upon money and realize it vividly, for it’s the-the second most important thing in the world. It is so slurred over and hushed up, there is so little clear thinking-oh, political economy, of course, but so few of us think clearly about our own private incomes, and admit that independent thoughts are in nine cases out of ten the result of independent means. Money: give Mr. Bast money, and don’t bother baout his ideals. He’ll pick up those for himself.”

“It was far more than an air,” said Dolly solemnly. “The floor sounds covered with books. Carhles sent me to know what is to be done, for he feels certain you don’t know.”
“Books!” cried Margaret, moved by the holy word. “Dolly, are you serious? Has she been touching our books?”

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Chelsea permalink
    January 2, 2009 1:19 pm

    Sounds like a good read! Although, I myself struggled through a Room with a View. For some reason, I must not have been in the right headspace and the inner character workings just didn’t hold my interest. I think I owe Forester another go, however, and now I may just have to start with Howards End!

  2. January 2, 2009 2:10 pm

    wow. I have never read this either and your post makes me wish that I had!

  3. January 2, 2009 2:23 pm

    I am now more glad than ever that I included this in my list of books for 2009 :)

  4. January 2, 2009 3:32 pm

    This is a great book—probably my favorite Forster. The movie, with Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, and Helena Bonham-Carter, is also quite good. It’s worth watching for the beautiful costumes alone.

  5. January 2, 2009 4:06 pm

    I second Teresa on the movie! I actually watched the movie before reading the book, not the usual order I prefer, but I still enjoyed the book very much (it helped that it had been awhile since seeing the movie).

  6. January 2, 2009 5:08 pm

    I will definitely have to read that at some point, I have Forster on my list for this year!

  7. Sarah permalink
    January 2, 2009 7:02 pm

    Along with A Room With A View, this is my favourite of Forster’s novels. I think it’s due for a re-read this year.

    The movie version is quite good as well.

  8. January 3, 2009 12:59 am

    Chelsea, Howards End is written in a more straightforward style than Room w/ a View…less spacey, if that makes sense.

    Jessica, you should! :p

    Nymeth, can’t wait to see your thoughts on it!

    Teresa, I really like all of those actors, but the book’s so good I’m not sure I can take the movie. If there are pretty clothes, though… ;)

    Sarah, good to know!

    Daphne, I think this would be better than Room w/ a View, even if the latter is more famous.

    Sarah, everyone seems pro-movie, so I might have to try it out. :)

  9. January 3, 2009 7:39 pm

    You’ve made me want to read this again, and then watch the movie again! I feel a Forster marathon coming on :)

  10. January 4, 2009 3:13 am

    Becca, ok, if you like the movie too, I’m Netflix queing it right now! I still have Maurice to read in my omnibus, then I’ll probably have to track down more Forster. Or maybe try out Evelyn Waugh…

  11. January 10, 2009 11:25 am

    I read the book once and I did enjoy it but I must admit I found parts of it longwinded (not because Forster is not an excellent writer, more because they were SO thorough at that time – no zapping from one scene to another :) ). I have seen the film several times, however, partly because I use it as a teacher, partly because I really love it. If you have not seen it, I think you should.


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