This book is #65 on my Classics Club list.
Right. I didn’t have a whole lot to say about Howards End, so I decided to go away and read some reviews to see what other people are saying about the book. And it seems like all the reviews, positive or negative, seem to more or less agree on a few main points:
1. The novel is about class. Some other stuff too, but people mostly seem to agree that it’s about class. Because there’s three families, and two of them are rich enough and marry one another, and one is not. This is all very sad and tragic and allows Forster to make some profound comments on the way that class works in the twentieth century. Don’t ask me what they are, I just know they’re profound.
2. Margaret and Helen, the two sisters who are the novel’s protagonists, are pretty much what would happen if Jane Austen’s Elinor and Marianne Dashwood had heard about the Women’s Movement, didn’t have an exhausting depressive mother and an annoyingly precocious sister to drag them down, and had gotten far friendlier with Mr Willoughby than nineteenth-century culture would have approved of (or, as it turns out, early twentieth-century culture).
3. Nobody, no matter how fond they become of a person in the few short weeks leading up to their untimely death, really expects that scribbling ‘I want my new BFF to have my massive country house, honest, screw you my biological children and long-time successors’ will actually give said BFF a moral right to the property.
4. Forster wrote a novel about a family (the Schlegels) of German ancestry living in England at the beginning of the twentieth century… only a few years before World War I broke out. Remember the world before everyone was deeply suspicious of anybody who pronounced the word ‘that’ as ‘zat’? E.M. Forster does.
5. And finally and most importantly: What’s with the fact that the title doesn’t have an apostrophe?
By the way, this last and incredibly important question does not, as far as I can tell, have a satisfying answer, apart from “because that’s how Forster wrote it, nerd”. If anybody knows differently, my inbox is yearning to receive the answer to this burning question. (And is it just me or did that sound incredibly, and entirely unintentionally, dirty?)
So: class, inheritance, Germans. I’m sure there’s lots to occupy a diligent reviewer, but since I am far from diligent, I’ll just focus on one thing about the book. Like so many other reviewers, I found Forster’s strange writing style both frustrating and likeable. Lionel Trilling, the literary critic, said that Forster “is sometimes irritating in his refusal to be great” (“Forster and the Liberal Imagination”), which is actually a pretty good way of summarising Forster’s style. His writing is frustratingly inconsistent. He jumps from down-to-earth description of everyday activities to surprisingly deep ponderings that seem to pop up out of nowhere and leave you bewildered. This kind of writing really throws you, because for readers who are interested in the way that a plot unfolds, Forster’s book leaves you in constant fear of unexpected philosophy running out in front of you and getting all over your windshield.
But I enjoyed Howards End. I don’t know that I could write a deep and insightful review of it, but I know I enjoyed it. And so while this review may, on the one hand, be seen as evidence that abandoning literary studies and getting a ‘real job’ rots your critical thinking capacities, or could just be evidence that I am entirely lacking in creative spirit and should probably have taken up, I don’t know, accountancy or something, I still feel justified in publishing it. If only to throw my two (entirely unoriginal) cents in. Okay, maybe more like one-and-a-half cents. The point is, and at the risk of sounding like I’m doing a product endorsement, Howards End is good. I’m blowed if I know how or why, but it’s good. Whether it’s the insightful analysis of the British class system or the debates it sparks about proper punctuation, Howards End is good. Read it yourself and find out why!
Rating: 4.5 Stars