Howards End and On Beauty: Understanding Smith’s Parallels
Even without reading the acknowledgments in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, it is extremely apparent that she derives her inspiration from E. M. Forster’s Howards End. From the first line, the reader is able to start drawing parallels between the two novels. Surprisingly, Smith did not borrow her title from Forster’s novel. Instead, it comes from Elaine Scarry’s essay, On Beauty and Being Just, which begins with the claim that “Beauty brings copies of itself into being” (Scarry 3). With this, Smith is nodding to the beauty of Forster’s novel by beautifully imitating it in a modern-day American version. While she takes a modern approach to Forster’s condition-of-England novel, she maintains the central characters and conflicts that pervade the classic novel. Smith’s novel, like Forster’s classic, concentrates on the conflicts between two families from opposite ends of the ethical and political spectrum. These clashes present the reader with significant insight into the issues of the time. Just as Forster addresses issues of class and feminism in his novel, Smith tackles issues such as race, opportunity and intellect. Through her use of similar characters, plot points and reactions to beauty, Smith revamps the classic novel originally written by Forster.
Smith constructed main characters that are easily recognizable as modern, American versions of Forster’s English characters. Both novels center on the thoughts of the main heroine. Smith’s leading lady, Kiki Belsey, is obviously a reconstruction of the intellectual, liberal Margaret Schlegel. While the similarities between the two are startling, Smith created Kiki as a stronger female figure than Margaret. Although Margaret was extremely progressive and liberal for her place and time in history, she compromises some of her core beliefs and values in order to appease her husband. Kiki, on the other hand, refuses to make concessions on her ideas on marriage and love, which ultimately leads to her separation from her husband. Smith indicates that this refusal is the mark of a true strong, independent woman. While the majority of the Smith’s characters are transpositions of Forster’s, she believes that some players were so complex that she felt it necessary to divide them into multiple people. Furthermore, it is obvious that Smith is less forgiving of her morally corrupt characters than Forster. While Henry Wilcox is hardly a likeable character, the two subsets of him are much more devious. Collectively, the two embody the infidelity and arrogance present in Henry’s behavior. Separately, each one adopts different aspects of Henry’s flawed nature. Monty Kipps represents the superiority and conservative aspects of Wilcox’s personality. His traditionalist views on class structure and women’s rights are reflected in Kipps’s ideas on race and affirmative action. Howard Belsey, on the other hand, represents the ignorance that makes Henry such an unlikeable character. Furthermore, Carl Thomas is a beautiful, hip hop rapper that represents the lower class, just like Leonard Bast. Both men are aspiring and reaching for culture and higher class, which ultimately leads to their loss of identity during the process.
Along with characters, Smith also heavily borrowed from Forster’s plot in Howards End. Although some of Smith’s scenes are startlingly similar to Forster’s, she tends to put a modern spin on Forster’s outdated tale. There are obvious transformations, such as Helen’s letters evolving into Jerome’s emails. Both novels open with similar lines introducing these forms of communication. Smith opens with, “One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father” (3) while Forster states “One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister” (2). Even though these two lines seem incredibly similar, Smith goes on to further adjust Forster’s plot to fit a modern American family. While class structure was a huge part of English life during the early twentieth-century, it is not an issue that is as well defined in the United States during the 1990s when On Beauty is set. Instead, Smith transforms class to an issue of race and educational opportunity. These issues are not only much more realistic for an interracial family living in the Northeast but are also more relatable to her modern audience. Furthermore, perhaps the most ironic aspect of Smith’s novel is how she ended her novel. Howards End ended with Margaret finally obtaining her possession, the house Howards End, which answers many issues presented throughout the novel. By finally obtaining her pastoral inheritance, Margaret discovers the primary basis of her identity and answers the question of who will inherit England. Likewise, Smith ended her novel with a literal translation of Howard’s end. When Kiki leaves Howard, he discovers that his identity begins and ends with his wife. Like Margaret, he also inherits a house, along with the children and all the responsibilities they entail. Smith subtly employs Zora’s mouth to speak on the idea of placing such importance on a pastoral setting. Zora warns against “falling into pastoral fallacy” that is simply “a depoliticized reification” (218). She believes that this idealization of landscapes is the opposite of what intellectuals should believe. Even though Smith ended her story with this ironic and cynical approach, both novels leave the ending open to a hopefulness for the future.
Smith, like Forster, utilizes beauty and her characters’ reactions in order to comment on their distinct personalities. In Forster’s novel, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony exposes each character’s inner thoughts about beauty and life. While Margaret attentively listens to the music, Helen pictures “a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end” (Forster 46). Likewise, Smith uses classical music to expose the true nature of her characters. Howard, who is known for his inability to truly value beautiful art, simply sleeps through the masterpiece. Zora attempts to analyze the music by listening to a commentary simultaneously, which reflects her habit of “[living] through footnotes” (Smith 70). Jerome, on the other hand, is emotionally moved by the music. Considering his sensitive nature and deep connection to Christianity, it is understandable that he would be the most moved by the piece. Like Helen, Kiki imagines inspired illustrations to accompany the music, such as apes and mermaids. The fact that she is not an intellectual allows her to see past the academia that surrounds Mozart’s work. This open mind allows her to appreciate the music for what it truly is rather than dissect is, like her daughter, or completely ignore it, like her husband. Music is not the only way that Smith reveals the complexity of her characters. Paintings are also a major focus of Smith’s novel. Howard, an art history professor, cannot acknowledge the beauty of anything in life, which Jerome diagnoses as “a denial of joy” (Smith 236). Carlene’s Haitian painting inspires many different reactions from Smith’s characters. Each character loved the painting for different reasons; Monty for monetary motives and Levi for political implications. Other than Carlene, Kiki is the only one who actually enjoys the painting for its emotional and aesthetic effect. Both Forster and Smith realize the importance and magic of beauty. The endings of both novels result in a beautiful possession, either the house or the painting, which bestows a sort of magic or understanding on the main character. In Forster’s work, Margaret gains Howards End just as she is forced to decide how to deal with Helen and her fatherless child. When faced with issues of feminism and morality, she takes inspiration from Howards End to confront the challenges and support her family. Likewise, Kiki discovers the painting in the exact moment that she is faced with her husband’s devious infidelity. Like Helen, Kiki is challenged with this problem, but is able to overcome jealous in favor of reconciliation. This charming notion, that beauty conquers all, is prevalent throughout both literary works.
Smith’s parallel use of characters, plot and reactions not only renovates Forster’s classic novel, but also places a significant importance on the magic of beauty. Considering mimicry is the highest form of flattery, it is apparent that Smith holds Foster in high regard. Beauty, according to author Catherine Lanone, is “to deem something beautiful means to fetishize it, to dehistoricize and depoliticize both art and perception”. Howard definitely has a problem with accepting this idea of beauty which relates to his inability to simply “like the tomato”. However, Margaret has no issue fetishizing the beauty of Howards End, just as Kiki can recognize and depoliticize the beauty of Carlene’s painting. Smith expertly weaves a modern tale out of a British classic. When writing an essay on Forster, Smith comments, “There is no bigger crime in the English comic novel than thinking you are right”. She manages to prove her point in her re-creation of Forster’s novel. Howard, who never admits his wrongdoing, pays the ultimate price for his vanity. He loses his wife, potentially his job, as well as his self-respect. All in all, it is obvious that Smith’s high esteem for Forster inspired her to write a stunning novel that skillfully addresses the issues that plague modern interracial families in a beautiful, artful manner.
Forster, E. M. Howards End. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2002. Print.
Lanone, Catherine. “Mediating multi-cultural muddle: E. M. Forster meets Zadie Smith.” Cairn.info 60.2 (2007) : n. pag. Web. 7 April 2015.
Scarry, Elaine. On Beauty and Being Fair. The Tanner Lectures delivered at Yale University, March 25 and 26, 1998.
Smith, Zadie. “Love, Actually.” TheGuardian: Winner of the Pulitzer prize (2003) : n. pag. Web. 6 April 2015.
Smith, Zadie. On Beauty. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.
Outside the Drawing Room
Few subjects seem better suited for traditional Victorian drawing room conversation than that of social class. Written in 1910, E.M. Forster’s Howards End has just enough Victorian influence to concern itself with the struggles of social class, while simultaneously being just Edwardian enough for Forster to peer out of the drawing room into England’s future. Throughout the novel, Forster contrasts the wealthy Schlegel and Wilcox families with the economically struggling Basts. Forster gradually intertwines the three families, blurring social lines and using their ultimate confluence to represent the hope of a kind of classless Utopia in England’s future.
The Schlegel and Wilcox families both represent the privileged upper class, with their main contrast being in ideology. While the Schlegels adhere to liberal, emotionally driven ideas based on art and literature, the Wilcoxes represent a more traditional, materialistic background. Margaret summarizes these ideological differences, remarking of the Wilcoxes, “Personal relations, that we think supreme, are not supreme there. There love means marriage settlements, death, death duties” (18). From the beginning, the Wilcox family is obviously associated with money, with Helen herself admitting to instinctively “associat[ing] them with expensive hotels” (1). Although the Schlegels also come from a privileged background, their observations of the Wilcoxes cause them to fear the threat wealth poses to their idealism. Helen confesses to fearing that behind their money, “the whole Wilcox family was a fraud, just a wall of newspapers and motor-cars and golf-clubs, and that if it fell I should find nothing behind it but panic and emptiness” (17). Margaret, too, fears the power of her own wealth, remarking, “You and I and the Wilcoxes stand upon money as upon islands. Last night… I began to think that the very soul of the world is economic, and that the lowest abyss is not the absence of love, but the absence of coin” (42). Here, Margaret laments society’s dependence on wealth, echoing the earlier fear that “this outer life, though obviously horrid, often seems the real one,” as there may truly be nothing behind their wealth but “panic and emptiness” (18). In uniting the Schlegels and Wilcoxes through the marriage of Margaret and Henry, Forster attempts to dispel this fear of panic and emptiness, suggesting that as England continues to change, the lines between materialism and idealism will blur, resulting in a society in which “personal relations” carry as much weight as “telegrams and anger” (18).
Forster’s ultimate confluence of social classes, however, is not possible without its third party, Leonard Bast. Unlike the wealthy Schlegel and Wilcox families, Leonard stands “at the extreme verge of gentility. He was not in the abyss, but he could see it” (31). While the Schlegels fear that wealth may overpower their ideals of culture and “personal relations,” Leonard believes that he can only attain wealth through culture, feeling that he is “obliged to assert gentility, lest he slip into the abyss” (32). However, although Leonard has clear ambitions, his social status continuously frustrates his quest for culture, causing him to question “how it was possible to catch up with leisured women who had been reading steadily from childhood” (27). Throughout the novel, Leonard’s interactions with the wealthier families repeatedly end in disaster, ultimately leading to Leonard’s death. In presenting Leonard as a tragic figure who never achieves his cultural aspirations, Forster concedes that, during Leonard’s lifetime, it is in fact not possible for people of lower social classes to “catch up” with the wealthy.
However, as with the Schlegels and Wilcoxes, Forster does not stop at England’s present, but rather paints a portrait of his hope for England’s future. Although Leonard Bast himself is incapable of social mobility, his ambitions come to a kind of secondhand fruition through his son with Helen. Leonard Bast’s son is born into the novel’s utopian confluence of Schlegelian idealism and Wilcoxian wealth, representing a new generation of Englishmen. The baby functions as a symbol of Forster’s quest for social harmony, solidified by the promise that the privileged baby and the young servant boy, Tom, “are going to be lifelong friends” (240). Although Leonard Bast himself is a tragic representation of England’s present social structure, his son’s presence within the ultimate union of the Schlegels and Wilcoxes illustrates Forster’s hope for a socially harmonious English future.
In literature, social class is an almost comically Victorian subject, immediately calling to mind images of Dickensian orphans and Brontësque governesses. While the novel at many times conjures an image of Forster engrossed in drawing room conversation with George Eliot and Anthony Trollope, its ending proves that Forster belongs to a different generation of writers. In Howards End, Forster puts down his tea just long enough to glance out of the drawing room into England’s future.
Howards End: The Idealist of Modernism
Though it is universally acknowledged that art is subjective, literary critic and philosopher Georg Lukacs offered his opinions on what form art ought to take. In his essay “The Ideology of Modernism,” Lukacs wrote negatively against the modernist movement in literature. He describes traditional art as assuming that there is meaning to human existence (1229), whereas modern literature and art is devoid of substance and meaning, or worse, it promotes an ideal and neglects reality. He states, “in realistic literature, each descriptive detail is both individual and typical. Modern allegory, and modernist ideology, however, deny the typical” (1230). Lukacs does not see human existence reflected back through modernist art. As a result of this, Lukacs concludes “modernism means not the enrichment, but the negation of art” (1232). E. M. Forster wrote his acclaimed Howards End right at a transitional period from traditional Edwardian literature towards literary modernism. Forster writes with the effect to allow the reader to be exposed to and explore modernist ideals behind the safety of tradition. As a result, his novel overwhelmingly reads as a traditional novel, with modernist concerns embodied by certain characters.
Howards End represents the transitional period it finds itself in through its vastly different characters. The Schlegel sisters represent an upper middle class that is able to fit into both an elitist, capitalist society, embodied by the Wilcox family, and a lower class, but modernist way of thinking through Leonard Bast. As much as the Wilcox family represents elitism and “old money,” Leonard Bast fits the description offered by Lukacs of a modernist man. Lukacs explains that, “The ontological view governing the image of man in the work of leading modernist writers is…this. Man, for these writers, is by nature solitary, asocial, unable to enter into relationships with other human beings” (1219). In Howards End, Bast encounters such difficulties with his relationships with others and his attempts to climb the social ladder. From his natural distrust of others, whether this fear is warranted or not, his consistently finding himself in situations he doesn’t want to be in with people he does not want to be with, even feeling “trapped” in his marriage, the reader is continuously told that Bast has an inability to form normal social relationships or to “fit in” with society, even though it does not seem to be for lack of trying.
According to Lukacs, modernism is a form that attempts to capture the demise of capitalism by its focus on individual alienation from society and fellow man. He explains, “Man is reduced to a sequence of unrelated experiential fragments; he is as inexplicable to others as to himself” (1222). Conversely, Lukacs sees realism as the form of writing that offers a true portrait of man in relation to their socio economic standing while rooting them accurately in a historical setting. Traditional literature places a character within context, yet the absence of place is a trend in modernist literature. Lukacs explains, “By destroying the complex tissue of man’s relations with his environment, it furthers the dissolution of personality” (1223). However, Forster’s text does not destroy potential problems the characters may feel with their environment, in fact, his text highlights the importance of place for all characters, many of whom have their identities entangled with their homesteads. In Howards End, both the upper class Shelegels and the lower class Bast experience a lack of place, in both physical homesteads, and through blurred class identities. These feelings of disillusionment are reflective of the re-urbanization of London, and the loneliness felt by its inhabitants as a result. The narrator of Howards End describes the city with the following scene:
A block of flats, constructed with extreme cheapness, towered on either hand. Farther down the road two more blocks were being built, and beyond these an old house was being demolished to create another pair. It was the kind of scene that may be observed all over London… bricks and mortar rising and falling the relentlessness of the water in a fountain, as the city receives more and more men upon her soil. (41)
Howards End makes modernist commentary on the disintegration of London. Old buildings are demolished to make room for an expanding middle class, and it negatively affects the characters that are currently situated in upper middle class and high class society. Describing London, Margaret Schlegel notes that, “the population still rose, but what was the quality of the men born” (99) and later decries “I hate this continual flux of London. It is an epitome of us at our worst- eternal formlessness; all the qualities, good and bad, and indifferent, streaming away…” (167). Though Ms. Schlegel is an upper middle class woman, she will find herself married to an elite man by the end of the novel. It is fitting, therefore, that she finds the socioeconomic unrest in London to be an unstable setting for her, as it allegorically represents economic shifts taking place in her own life.
In addition to removing the character from a significant setting, modernist literature wipes away a character’s unique history. Lukacs explains, “Negation of history takes two different forms in modernist literature. First, the hero is strictly confined within the limits of his own experience… Secondly, the hero himself is without personal history. He is ‘thrown-into-the-world,’ meaninglessly…(Lukacs 1220).” In Howards End, characters are shaped by their history, class, money, and politics. An overview of the last ten years of Margaret’s life is provided by the narrator, who asserts “surely, if experience is attainable, she had attained it” (67). Even Leonard Bast has hints of a history, though his character is the one that appears most “thrown into the world,” his helplessness evokes sympathy and drives the plot. Forster does not remove characters from their history, although his modern London often coincides with a modernist one, and his characters learn the hard way that history cannot compete with the present moment, which is all there is in modernism.
Perhaps the most notable characteristic of modernism is how the movement addresses the idea of potentiality. According to Lukacs, “Potentiality, seen abstractly or subjectively- is richer than actual life… Modern subjectivism, taking these imagined possibilities for actual complexity of life, oscillates between melancholy and fascination” (1220). While Lukacs condemns modernism for its inability to appreciate “real” life, he discounts the fact that melancholy, nostalgia, and anxiety of the future are all real experiences of the human condition, and should be regarded as so in literature. Forster uses his traditional characters to speak against this idea of potentiality by removing some of the glamor from the elite Wilcox family. According to Helen Schlegel, “I felt for a moment that the whole Wilcox family was a fraud, just a wall of newspapers and motor-cars and golf-clubs, and that if it fell I should find nothing behind it but panic and emptiness” (21). Here Helen attributes the Wilcox’s material possessions and class as a smoke screen, hiding the real human fears and emotions the family has buried. The family uses their materialism to mask the experience of living actual life, unable to communicate or relate to one another. The Schlegels, one step lower economically than the Wilcox family, are able to see that the grass is not always greener, and with a modern sensibility they see living up to ones potentiality as potentially empty.
Modernism alone does not simply root an individual in a state of dissatisfaction and unrest, and heroes of traditional literature experience the same desires that Lukacs discredits as casualties of modernist potentiality. In Howards End, Leonard Bast best exemplifies this unrest and desire for potentiality from a modern perspective. Internally Bast laments, “Oh, to acquire culture!.. But it would take one years… how was it possible to catch up with leisured women, who had been reading steadily from childhood? (34),” and he is able to admit to himself that he will never quite reach that potential. Of course, one issue holding him back is the fact that he was not raised with money. Money undoubtedly effects potential. The Schlegel sisters understand this, seen with the following statement. Margaret comments, “But Helen and I, we ought to remember, when we are tempted to criticize others… the poor cannot always reach those whom they want to love, and they can hardly ever escape from those whom they love no longer. We rich can” (54). Both modernist Bast and the traditional Schlegel’s must acknowledge the role that money, or lack thereof, plays an enormous role throughout their lives. The rich are privileged in their wealth, and the poor are truly in want of it.
The narrator describes Leonard Bast’s unrest with his socioeconomic position in life. He is written as “inferior to most rich people… not as courteous as the average rich man, nor as intelligent, nor as healthy, nor as loveable. His mind and his body had alike been underfed, because he was poor, and because he was modern they were always craving better food” (40). Bast fails to reach his “potential” as a condition of being modern. The narrator seems to be commenting that this drive for “something more” seems to be the exact thing that holds his character back. Despite his attempts to fall into the right crowd socially, make the right career moves, and to find love, nothing goes exactly the way Bast had planned, he often seems lost and out of control of his own life.
This too falls in with Lukacs ideas of modernism, and the critic explains that “As the ideology of most modernist writers assert the unalterability of outward reality… human activity is…rendered impotent and robbed of meaning” (1227). Though Bast more represents the “modernist man” in Howards End, other characters in seem to find humanity lacking in importance, especially the wealthy. Of Mrs. Wilcox, the narrator notes that her voice “suggested that pictures, concerts, and people are all of small and equal value” (63). Additionally, Margaret states, “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” (119). In Forster’s novel, human activity is only lacking importance when one is wealthy enough to afford to see life as meaningless. In that case the individual, something so important to the modernist man, is replaceable, and even worse, a commodity to collect.
Lukacs may fall somewhere in between when examining the text of Howards End as an Edwardian or modernist piece, however, it is important to note some of the downfalls of his theories on modernism. His belief that writing must be written realistically in order to accurately portray man does not allow for change, growth, or the evolution of the written word. It pigeon holds the artist and humanity creatively, and artist have always charismatically rallied against having rules imposed on them when it comes to their art.
Without the freedom to break rules, novels like Howards End would never get written. Though it is arguable where Forster’s loyalties really lie, he writes his characters in a way that embodies many voices that were in a “modernist” London. Perhaps Forster’s overall views on capitalism and elitism are summed up in a passage near the end of Howards End. The narrator states, “…the Imperialist is not what he thinks or seems. He is a destroyer. He prepares the way for cosmopolitanism, and though his ambitions may be fulfilled, the earth he inherits will be grey” (300). Forster and Lukacs both interpret the materialist world the modernist man inhabits as a bleak and unfulfilling one driven by capitalism. Assuming the unnamed narrator is Forster’s voice of reason interjecting into the story, the reader hears the same message Lukacs delivered in his essay. Materialism is unfulfilling, elitism is empty, modernism is riddled with flaws, and yet the unrest within tradition cannot be ignored. Forster presented such topics hidden behind the veil of a traditional novel, allowing readers to become exposed to modernist sentiment, perhaps whether they realized it or not.
Forster, E.M. Howards End. 2013: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, London.
Lukacs, Gyorgy. “The Ideology of Modernism.” The Novel: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1900-2000. Ed. Dorothy J. Hale. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006. 394-412.
Family Ties and Nineteenth Century England
E.M. Forester’s Howards End illustrates the social interaction between economic classes present in nineteenth century England. Forester’s novel focuses specifically on England’s middle class on several varying levels: the upper middle class, which is further categorized into two groups, those of new money and those of old money, and the lower middle class. Forester embodies each of these social factions through one of the novel’s three major families, the Schlegals, Wilcoxes and Basts. Throughout the novel, Forester shows that each family, despite profession and monetary worth, deserves a stake in the future of England, which is metaphorically represented by the Wilcox’s country home, Howards End. Forester, through characterization, relationships, and social connections, uses these three families to convey his own views towards the path nineteenth century English society should follow en route to economic and society prosperity and which social grouping stands to ultimately inherit England. Margaret and Helen Schlegal represent old English traditions and money. Given their annual six hundred pound inheritance, it is unnecessary for either sister to work. This void of employment leaves the sisters time to indulge themselves in practices of idealism and intellectualism, mainly in the realms of art and literature. This preoccupation with the arts develops another focus for the Schlegal sisters, the importance of maintaining connections in every aspect of life. “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed for the isolation that is life to either, will die” (Forester 159). While somewhat vague, this idea of connection is prevalent in many facets of existence. Both sisters busy themselves, maintaining social connections with others, connections with the arts, and spiritual connections with the world in which they are immersed. It is this idea of connection that links Margaret Schlegal with Ruth Wilcox and her family. While Mrs. Wilcox shares the same spirituality and sense of tradition as the Schlegals, she is the dark horse of the entrepreneurial and materialistic Wilcox family. The Wilcox family represents the opposing side of England’s upper middle class, the catalysts of England’s Industrial Revolution. “The Schlegals represent the humane liberal culture, the fine civilization of cultivated personal intercourse, while the Wilcoxes have built the [British] Empire; they represent the short-haired executive type – obtuse, egotistical, unscrupulous, cowards spiritually, self-deceivers and successful” (Levenson 309). Unlike the Schlegals, the Wilcoxes do not stand to inherit an annual income and therefore must work to earn their wealth. This necessity for employment disallows the Wilcoxes time to focus on the importance of art and literature, which causes them to lose sight of English ideals and traditions. Instead, an emphasis on work and money-making causes a fixation around the ideals of materialism and accumulation to develop. Unlike the Schlegals, the Wilcoxes are not concerned with social or spiritual connections. Instead, the Wilcoxes motto is “Concentrate” (Forester 160). While marginally unclear, this concentration arguably focuses on the realms of business, profit and material accumulation. This clash of traditional and industrial ideals causes a rift to develop in English society. In terms of the novel, Forester personifies this social conflict by juxtaposing the Schlegals and the Wilcoxes. He uses their interactions and evolutions to present his personal views concerning the fate of English society. In an attempt to recreate a more realistic social circle, Forester also includes Leonard Bast and his lover, Jacky, to portray the lowest sector of England’s middle class. Unlike the Wilcoxes, the Basts do not reap the same monetary benefits of a capitalist England. Despite his efforts, Leonard is trapped in a dead-end and low paying job, a far cry from the colonial conquests of the Wilcoxes. He and his lover do not lead the lavish lives of either the Schlegals or the Wilcoxes and instead endure a rather meager existence. Forester’s inclusion of the Basts is important for several reasons. First, in spite of his efforts to improve himself, Leonard does not have the means to progress his place in society. Through Bast, Forester demonstrates and criticizes the rigidity of the British hierarchical scale. However, at the end of the novel, Leonard is somewhat assimilated into upper class through his relationship with Helen Schlegal. While his deliberate efforts to gain social ground are in vain, Helen offers the Basts and the rest of the lower class a chance of social gain by lending part of herself to Leonard through their relationship. Forester nudges open the door of opportunity for the lower classes when he creates a scenario for Helen and Leonard’s illegitimate child to potentially inherit Howards End, or, metaphorically, England. Each of these three families represents varying dimensions of British society. Using his novel, Forester unites these far-reaching social classes and begins to tear down the structure of England’s caste system. Through a multitude of relationships and connections, each family and its members blend to create a less rigid social system, allowing for more mobility. The key to Forester’s plan for society is that no social group reigns over another, instead each sector becomes interdependent on the others. Through this integration, Forester believes a more productive and prosperous England will develop. One of the most important relationships in Howards End involves Margaret Schlegal and Ruth Wilcox. This friendship lays the initial framework for the entire novel. Unlike her family, Mrs. Wilcox embodies the ideals of Old English aristocracy. Rather than in business or enterprise, she places great value on the traditions of family and the home. “To be parted from your house, your father’s house-it oughtn’t to be allowed. It is worse than dying” (Forester 71). Upon meeting Margaret Schlegal, Mrs. Wilcox is immediately drawn to her similar sense of tradition. Mrs. Wilcox perceives this bond to be so strong that she alters her will and leaves Howards End to Margaret, rather than to her own family. Keeping with the novel’s symbolism, Mrs. Wilcox demonstrates her desire to keep England (Howards End) immersed in Old England and its traditions. However, upon further consideration, the presence of contradiction within this potential inheritance shows Forester’s skepticism that traditional England can prevail. Despite Mrs. Wilcox’s love for England and tradition, she inadvertently leaves Howards End to a successor of mixed descent. Margaret, while embodying the values of England, is not a complete product of it. While she is described by her aunt as being “English to the backbone” (Forester 7), Margaret and her siblings are actually of both English and German heritage. In her attempt to adhere to tradition, Mrs. Wilcox has unintentionally left her beloved home to an outsider. Another source of hypocrisy stems from the idea of family lineage. Old English tradition calls for valuable familial possessions to be kept within the confines of the family and to be passed on to subsequent generations. In her attempt to preserve Old English tradition, Mrs. Wilcox breaks it by leaving her home to a person outside of her family. This situation foreshadows the impending fall of Old England later in the novel. Following a short, but important, friendship with Margaret, Mrs. Wilcox dies fairly early in the novel. Forester writes, “Ah, the old sort was dying out” (Forester 75). Her death characterizes the final fall for the aristocratic class. This demise sets the stage for Mr. Wilcox and England’s industrial class to seize power. While this ascension to power is not instant or lasting, their momentary hold is nonetheless firm. Following Mrs. Wilcox’s death, Mr. Wilcox and his immediate family assemble to carry out her will. The family is shocked to discover that Margaret Schlegal is set to inherit Howards End. However, this scene symbolizes the transition of power from Old England to Industrial England. Despite Mrs. Wilcox’s wishes to pass Howards End to Margaret and prolong traditional England’s rule, Mr. Wilcox intervenes and reroutes the power to the business class by deciding to keep Howards End in the family. This highlights industrial England’s rapid acquisition of power. In a very short time, Mr. Wilcox gains possession of Howards End from his wife, or symbolically, industry and business have become the controllers of England and Old England ceases to exist. Mrs. Wilcox death also sparks another vital relationship in the novel between Mr. Wilcox and Margaret. This union is notable because it is Forester beginning to unite the worlds of intellectualism and materialism. Initially, Margaret allows Mr. Wilcox to feel that he possesses the upper hand. “A younger woman might have resented his masterly ways, but Margaret had too firm a grip on life to make a fuss. She was, in her own way, as masterly. If he was a fortress, she was a mountain peak” (Forester 156). Despite Mr. Wilcox’s perceived superiority, Margaret maintains confidence in her equality, in spite of what she leads him to believe. Regardless of her confidence, Margaret realizes that her future monetary well-being hinges upon Mr. Wilcox and the business class. “Despite her reticence, Margaret eventually realizes that the Wilcoxes and the commercial community provide the financial island upon which the intellectual stands” (Thomson 124). This reinforces Forester’s idea of class interdependence. While Margaret is intent on maintaining her intellectual roots and preserving the traditions of England, she is aware that without embracing industry, the class of old money will come to an end when their annual inheritances run out. This failure to assimilate will undoubtedly lead to absolute power for the commercial class and the loss of English tradition forever. In order to preserve the past to some extent, Margaret realizes that the financial support that Mr. Wilcox provides is necessary to keep her and her peers afloat. Through this relationship, Forester establishes a level of equal importance between those of new money and those of old. The interdependence of the two will eventually lead to economic and social prosperity for England in the future. Arguably, the unification of the two aforementioned groups is relatively simply. However, Forester includes the Basts to represent the lowest sector of England’s middle class. Without anything to offer the rest of society, it is unclear as to how this group will avoid slipping through the cracks of English society, as it has nothing to contribute. Forester remedies this conflict with the philanthropic Helen Schlegal. Consumed with the idea of personal connections and relationships, Helen feels personally responsible for the faulty advice Leonard received which ultimately leads to his unemployment. Rather than disregard Leonard as an unimportant pauper, Helen honors her friendship to Bast and becomes determined to help him. This dedication to Leonard quickly blossoms into a romantic relationship between the two and ultimately results in an illegitimate child. Despite his virtual scarcity in the text, the child is the most important character in term of Forester’s overall message. Before the birth of the child, Leonard Bast “is killed by the Schlegals’ sword in the house of the Wilcoxes” (Delbaere-Garant 102). While no one is directly responsible for his death (although Charles Wilcox is criminally charged), both the Schlegals and the Wilcoxes indirectly contribute to the death in terms of means and location. Forester shows us that Leonard is “a victim of the class war” (Delbaere-Garant 102). However, Leonard’s death is not in vain and represents the death of the lower class as it previously existed. Along with Leonard, England’s rigid hierarchical system dies as well. While Leonard is dead, part of him remains in him and Helen’s child. Leonard alone could not pull himself out of social and economic despair, with the help of Helen, Leonard and the lower class gain opportunity through the baby. This is another paradigm of Forester’s class interdependence. Without the upper classes, the lower class cannot flourish. However, with a little help and opportunity, possibilities arise and class structure becomes less firm. The child’s most important symbolic purpose comes at the novel’s end. After Leonard’s death, Margaret, Mr. Wilcox, Helen and her child all move into Howards End. The symbolic ramifications of this scenario are evident. Each inhabitant represents a different place on the social spectrum: Margaret and Helen the intellectual class, Mr. Wilcox the industrial class and the child a combination of all three, all of whom come together to happily occupy Howards End, or England. Forester tells us that this class unification and interdependence are optimal for England’s future. When the Wilcoxes have sole possession of Howards End, it falls apart and begins to deteriorate. Forester warns the reader that if England becomes too preoccupied with industry, the essence and beauty of England will be lost. After Helen and Margaret are displaced from Wickham Place, all of their belongings are move to Howards End. While the Schlegals belongings fill the house, “the house is dead” (Forester 251). Similarly, Forester again warns the reader that if the intellectuals do not take an active role in England and simply take up place in an industrial run society, it will still fall. Forester chooses to end the novel with each class playing an active role in Howards End; he is stressing class integration. The house is most alive when it is occupied by all three families. Forester takes this idea a step further when Margaret inherits Howards End. However, this return to Old England is short lived. Upon Margaret’s death, Howards End will be inherited by Helen and Leonard’s child. Since the child represents all of England’s social classes, Forester is sending the reader a message. Howards End is alive and functioning while occupied by Helen, Margaret, Mr. Wilcox and the baby. England will be prosperous when all of its classes can unite. However, by leaving the baby to inherit Howards End, Forester makes a more emphatic claim. The baby represents an absence of class in that it cannot be classified into one of England’s pre-established groups. Through this inheritance, Forester calls for the eventually abolition of social structure. According to Forester, maximum prosperity for England lies in a classless environment. Arguably, Howards End was written to answer the question “Who will inherit England?” Upon completing and considering Forester’s work, it becomes evident it will not belong to a single sector of society. Forester tells the reader that the new England will have room to accommodate everyone.
A Case for Umbrellas: Examining Practicality in Howards End
At the end of the Victorian era and into the modern age, everything seemed to be up for debate, including deepest held values. A strong clash was particularly felt between the social and economic classes. The upper class, with the security of wealth, clung to intellectualism and idealistic virtues. The lower classes, without the luxury of financial security, were forced to focus on earning their living. For those in the middle classes, the modern age created an environment of struggle between wanting to improve oneself intellectually but also providing for oneself financially. E.M. Forster wedged his novel Howards End into this age of conflicting values. His characters are forced to grapple with these changing values, particularly the character Leonard Bast, a lower-middle class insurance sales clerk who attempts to better himself. In an encounter with the upper-class Schlegel family, Leonard seeks intellectual stimulation as a way to escape his social and economic disparity. While Leonard may play the part of an intellectual for a short time, in the end, he always returns to practical matters. He cannot evade the survival instinct to keep bread on the table, no matter how wonderful the intellectual world seems. Howards End thus presents a case for practicality. Forster gives space to the seemingly mundane to give it value. Leonard’s character reinstates the value of practical matters behind the veil of intellectualism in the modern period.
Leonard is introduced to the novel by means of an object: a seemingly insignificantumbrella. At a performance of Beethoven music, Helen Schlegel accidentally walks off with Leonard’s umbrella. This umbrella may seem like an ordinary object, but for Leonard, it is of the utmost importance. The umbrella represents the world of practicality, Leonard’s world. An umbrella is an ordinary, simple device that protects us from rain. But literarily, it reveals the underlying separation of the classes. The upper-class would not give the umbrella any second thought. The Schlegels, as part of the upper class, will focus on intellectual debate rather than practical matters. Why should they spend time worrying about such trivialities as an umbrella? But this simple object becomes the center of Leonard’s fixations. We will see that even as he tries to engage in the “higher” form of intellectualism, he cannot fully change his focus. The umbrella, the representation of the practical world, will invade his attempts to “better” himself. Leonard’s attempt to retrieve his umbrella will bring into the open the hidden barriers between the social classes and the philosophical and practical world.
Leonard seeks out the Schlegels’ place of residence to try to retrieve his lost umbrella.What seems like a chance encounter reveals something important to us about Leonard’s character: he does not have the luxury of carelessness. When Leonard finds Margaret, she tells him, “My sister is so careless” (31). Helen is careless about umbrellas because she can afford to be. She causes this problem for Leonard because she does not check to see if the umbrella she picks up is hers. When Leonard informs Margaret that her sister has taken his umbrella, Margaret is apologetic. Leonard responds, “It isn’t of any consequence” (30). However, this statement is simply a formality. The narrator reveals that Leonard is “in truth, a little uneasy about his umbrella” (30). Leonard cannot afford to be careless about his possessions and is naturally uneasy about them. Any member of the upper-class in this situation would buy a new umbrella, not fretting over this small loss. But Leonard does not have this option. For him, every small possession is important. To lose an umbrella may mean a large cut in his paycheck. His attempt to retrieve the umbrella sets Leonard apart from the backdrop of the upper-class characters, casting him into a unique space in the novel, one we should give our attention.
We see some of Leonard’s situation revealed in the simple action of trying to get hisumbrella back. More of his character is exposed in his conversation with the Schlegels. After the concert, Leonard attempts to engage in an intellectual discussion with the Schlegels. The family discusses Brahms and Beethoven, diving into a heated discussion about the merits of art. Tibby, the person in the family who knows music the best, rattles off a series of questions, “What is the good of the Arts if they are interchangeable? What is the good of the ear if it tells you the same as the eye?” (32). To Leonard, these assertions sound like a foreign language. The speeches “fluttered away from the young man like birds” (33). He longs to be able to engage in this conversation, to join the ranks of these upper-class idealists. He wishes, “If only he could talk like this, he would have caught the world. Oh to acquire culture! Oh, to pronounce names correctly!” (33). Leonard idealizes the Schlegels and sees them as a golden embodiment of culture and knowledge. He sees their discussion as access to “the world.” He longs to know of music and discuss with them, not for the sake of knowing music itself, but to be able “to pronounce words correctly.” He wants to have knowledge for the sake of impressing others, for the sake of boosting his cultural identity. Leonard wants to engage in this debate to escape the worries of umbrellas and practicality.
But try as he might to join this conversation, Leonard is unable to escape his place inhis community. He cannot focus his attention on art because “he could not quite forget about his stolen umbrella” (33). Leonard’s umbrella is the “real trouble. Behind Monet and Debussy the umbrella persisted, with the steady beat of a drum.” Talk of Monet and Debussy seems to be a mask Leonard puts on, but behind it remains his true identity in the world of practicality. He talks of art with the Schlegels, but true thoughts center on his umbrella. This representation of the working sphere invades Leonard’s mind and cannot let him forget his true place in society. He belongs to the class who must worry about umbrellas. At the end of the day, it does not matter if Leonard can pronounce names correctly. He needs his umbrella back.
This conversation exposes not only the inner drive towards practicality but also the emptiness of scholarly discussion. The Schlegels devalue art by experiencing it for the purpose of impressing other people. The Schlegels discuss music and recite names of composers, but their conversation does not have any real merit. As readers, we experience the emptiness of their talk. Tibby’s comments, for example, show his knowledge of music but not an appreciation for it. He intentionally asserts his technical knowledge of music for what seems like the purpose of showing off. “But surely you haven’t forgotten the drum steadily beating on the low C, Aunt Juley?” (32). Tibby’s knowledge does not seem to have a use besides inserting itself into conversation. The Schlegels’ conversation is empty, intellectual talk. The center of the plot and the action rests not on the concert and their talk about it but on the stolen umbrella. The umbrella drives the plot, and by centering attention on it, Forster both reveals the uselessness of inflated intellectualism and gives value to the mundane.
Meaningless chatter is not the only way to devalue art. Leonard devalues art by treating it like a to-do list. Leonard wishes he could “catch up” with the Schlegels and their knowledge. He wishes:Oh to be well informed, discoursing at ease on every subject the lady started! But it would take one years. With an hour at lunch and a few shattered hours in the evening, how was it possible to catch up with leisured women, who had been steadily reading from childhood? (33)
But Leonard does not really want to understand great artists; he just wants to able to say their names and impress others. Leonard feels he has to know certain names in order to be properly cultured. But this kind of thinking robs art of any merit. Art and scholarly debate do have a place, but Forster shows us they are not the ultimate reality. Many people do not have the luxury of epitomizing intellectualism. We cannot give our full attention to idealism because in doing so, we lose our umbrellas. We lose our sense of practicality. What seems trivial has worth. The Leonard Basts of the world and their umbrellas have as much value as the Schlegels. Both art and practicality must be in their proper place to receive full value.
Leonard encounters the struggle between arts and practicality at the beginning of the text. In the end, he stops trying to gain footing in the philosophical world because he sees the value of practical matters. Towards the end of the novel, Leonard and Helen argue about what matters most in life. Leonard has lost his job and is forced to focus closely on his financial affairs. He tells Helen, “I can imagine that with regular work we should settle down again” (200). Helen is offended for she wants Leonard to continue to pursue beauty. “And that’s to be life!” she says. “How can you, with all the beautiful things to see and do— with music— with walking at night—” (200). Helen is still transfixed with the philosophical world. But Leonard asserts, “My books are back again, thanks to you, but they’ll never be the same to me again, and I shan’t ever again think walking in the woods is wonderful. . . Because I see one must have money” (200). Leonard is right to make this statement. In intellectual circles, we want to deny our need for money and pursue “higher” causes. But the need to put bread on the table will always be there.
Helen, like many of us, wants to argue with Leonard and says he is wrong. He says to her, “I wish I was wrong. . . the real thing’s money and the rest is all a dream” (200). Perhaps Leonard takes his argument too far. Helen seeks the beautiful things of the world, and this is a good thing. The rest is not “all a dream,” but we can understand Leonard’s sentiment. We can certainly make “the rest” a dream by devaluing art and robbing it of its substance. If we seek beauty for the sake of impressing others and not for the experience itself, we miss the point. We still must give Leonard’s side of things some credit. Helen is upset that “settling down” is “to be life,” but it is a part of life, one we cannot deny (200). Leonard sees that though his “books are back,” he still has to focus on earning a living. Books are of little use when one is out of a job. This is not a welcomed statement in the intellectual community, but it is still true. All the books in the world will not make a decent wage for us. Both books and money must have their proper place.
The umbrellas come back to haunt Leonard once again in this scene with Helen:
Leonard looked at her wondering, and had the sense of great things sweeping out of the shrouded night. But he could not receive them, because his heart was full of little things. As the lost umbrella had spoilt the concert at Queen’s Hall, so the lost situation was obscuring the diviner harmonies now. (201)
The narrator comments here that the “little things” Leonard focuses on take up too much space in his mind for the “diviner harmonies” to fit. But perhaps the little things take up space because they do matter. The “little things” demand attention from Leonard because they are important too. Leonard is upset that he cannot focus on what seems to be higher, but he forgets the value of little things. What seems to be trivial demands its own importance in our lives. If we give our trivialities proper attention, then perhaps we can fit the “diviner” things into the space of our lives as well.
Forster gives unusual attention to “little things,” to umbrellas and to the character of Leonard Bast. The space taken by the seemingly mundane my puzzle readers, but Forster draws our attention to them to once again give them value. We cannot forget the mundane, ordinary things of life. Howards End becomes a voice for people like Leonard, for the middle class struggling in the awkward, in-between place of philosophy and practicality. Somewhere there is a balance between these two worlds. Forster’s characters never seem to find it, but perhaps we can. As readers we can seek intellectual stimulation, but we must not forget about our umbrellas.