When The Intellectuals Met The Capitalists in Edwardian England
I finally managed to get through another classic as part of the Reading England event in which I am participating. I extremely pleased that I had planned on reading this book in May and after many months I have adhered to my reading plan. After several months of stop/start, it is good to finish some books that I have wanted to read and have not been able to for various reasons! Anyway, moving on, let’s get down to the book – it is Howard’s End by E.M. Forster.
The only EM Forster book I had read was (Sigh! Naturally!) The Passage to India; I read it when I was 17 and did not like it one bit and considered it pretentious. But at my advanced age of 33 I have realized that it does not help to hang to all opinions formulated as a teenager and some experience shows have been proved quite wrong! Therefore I was moderately open to reading another work by EM Forester and ventured boldly forward and plunged myself into Howard’s End.
The book is set in Edwardian England of 1910 and follows the lives and experience of the Schlegel sisters – Margaret and Helen. Brought up in an atmosphere of art and literature with financial independence, the two sisters have surrounded themselves with a music, literature, theater, travel etc and live at Wickham Place in London with their younger brother Tilby. The rhythm of their lives undergo a change when Helen, the younger sister visits the Wilcox family, who, the Schlegels had met during a trip to Germany and are invited by Mrs Wilcox to visit them at Howard’s End and enters into a hasty engagement with the younger son, Paul. Though the engagement is broken off the same day, it puts the two families on uncomfortable grounds; however honest sincere friendship between Mrs. Wilcox and Margret that began from the trip in Germany and continued despite the broken engagement, help cement relations and sustain even after Mrs. Wilcox’s death. Mr. Wilcox soon starts socializing with the Schlegel sisters and basis an insider tip, they convince an acquaintance of theirs Leonard Bast, a young clerk who aspires for better things, to leave his position in an insurance company and seek employment elsewhere, since Mr. Wilcox is convinced that the insurance company is going to be dissolved. Mr. Wilcox and Margaret soon develop a healthy respect for each other which turns to love and they decide to get married. Helen does not like Mr. Wilcox, considering him materialistic, and especially after it turned out that Leonard Bast who had left his insurance company of the advice of the sisters had lost his new job due to retrenchment and the Insurance company was not going to be dissolved; and is aggrieved by the fact that her sister is marrying him, despite knowing the kind of harm Mr. Wilcox did to Mr.Bast. Despite Helen’s staunch dislike, the wedding date is is set for September, after Evie, Mr. Wilcox’s daughter is married. However on the eve of Evie’s wedding, series of events are set rolling by Helen that would change the lives of Wilcoxs and Schlegels forever, bending and breaking relations and forging truths that come back from actions in the past for everyone to dwell on!
What can I say about the book except that I was stumped! I was mesmerized and all the while reading the book, there were so many instance of “Hey! That is so true!” EM Forster had written an extremely intelligent, sensitive and intuitive book. The book that forces the reader to see the apparent truth and succinctly point out, what most of us ignore or choose to not really give attention to because, while obvious, it is also uncomfortable! Like -“I believe we shall come to care about people less and less, Helen. The more people one knows the easier it becomes to replace them. It’s one of the curses of London. I quite expect to end my life caring most for a place.” Or Culture had worked in her own case, but during the last few weeks she had doubted whether it humanized the majority, so wide and so widening is the gulf that stretches between the natural and the philosophic man, so many the good chaps who are wrecked in trying to cross it. The plot beautifully brings out the two ends of the Edwardian society – The Wilcoxes – hardworking, intelligent folks who get things done and the intellectuals Schlegels who represent all that intransient and intangible – art, music and books! Despite all the “material’ considerations of Wilcoxes, Foster shows them is a very positive light as a class of people because of whom countries become nations and nations empire. “If Wilcoxes hadn’t worked and died in England for thousands of years, you and I couldn’t sit here without having our throats cut. There would be no trains, no ships to carry us literary people about in, no fields even. Just savagery. No–perhaps not even that. Without their spirit life might never have moved out of protoplasm. More and more do I refuse to draw my income and sneer at those who guarantee it!” The characters are wonderfully woven and even when they fall, they redeem themselves by some other act of kindness. In Margaret Schlegel especially, Forster created one of the most brilliant heroines of all times – she is intelligent, intuitive, with bottomless capacity to understand and guide human behavior, forgiving and generous with a body of solid morals, capable of standing alone against the world when need be! Forster through the character of Margaret Schlegel comes out blazing in support of women emancipation and their right to be treated as equals. Finally, I cannot help but feel that this book is an Forster’s ode to England – England and its natural beauty is described and referred to all through the book , in all its glory and beauty.
It’s a wonderful book and I am so glad to have read it….its filled with such wonderful instinctive truths that I had more underlines in this book, than any that I have lately! I could share all of them with you, but I rather you read it holistically to grasp the wonderful brilliance of this book!