E.M. Forster, Howards End (1910)

Edward Morgan Forster was born in London on 1 January 1879.  His father died of consumption before Forster was two years old, and he was raised by his mother and a great aunt. Forster was educated at Tonbridge School and King's College,  Cambridge. He traveled extensively, throughout Italy, Egypt, and India.

It was at this point that EM Forster seriously began to write.  He had several short stories published in journals such as the Independent Review and his first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), was published when he was only 26 years old.  The "most brilliant, most dramatic and the most passionate of his works" (Lionel Trilling) and his most autobiographical novel, The Longest Journey, was published two years later.  A Room with a View followed in 1908, the first part having been written years earlier when the author was in Italy.  When Howards End (1910) was published, Forster was established as a respected and economically successful writer. He became a part of the Bloomsbury Group, "a set of Bohemian thinkers and doers who revolted against the manners and morals of Victorian England" (Jerry Carroll).  Besides Forster, other members of the Bloomsbury Group included Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, Dora Carrington and Lytton Strachey.

E.M. Forster's last novel, A Passage to India (1924) is based on his experiences traveling in India and depicts the complicated reaction to the British Raj.  Called "a classic on the strange and tragic fact of history and life in India" (Lowes Dickenson), it cemented his literary reputation.

The remainder of his life was devoted to a wide range of literary activities; over many years he took a firm stand against censorship, involving himself in the work of PEN and the NCCL, of which he became the first president.   He campaigned in 1928 against the suppression of R. Hall's The Well of Loneliness, and appeared in 1960 as a witness for the defense in the trial of the publishers of D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. In 1927 he delivered the Clark lectures at Cambridge printed the same year as Aspects of the Novel; his tone in these was in his own words "informal, indeed talkative," and they contain the celebrated comment, "Yes--oh dear yes--the novel tells a story."  Thus, despite only writing relatively few novels, E.M. Forster has been acknowledged as one of the 20th century's greatest literary figures.

Overall, Forester's work is marked by its critique of the morals and attitudes of England's upper classes. In 1953, Forster was granted membership in the Order of Companions of Honor by Queen Elizabeth II, and in 1969, he received the Order of Merit.  Forster died on 7 June 1970 in Coventry aged 91.  Maurice, written between 1913 and 1914, was published posthumously in accordance with his wishes.

The house that figures prominently in Howards End is modeled on the house where he spent his childhood, Rooksnest.  Forster's description of the house and his childhood there can be found at http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/Exhibit/6747/rooksnest.html.  Most critics believe that by the end of the novel the house functions as a symbol of human dignity and endurance.

Howards End deals with personal relationships and conflicting values. On the one hand are the Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen, and their brother Tibby, who care about civilized living, music, literature, and conversation with their friends; on the other, the Wilcoxes, Henry and his children Charles, Paul, and Evie, who are concerned with the business side of life and distrust emotions and imagination.

"Only Connect," Forster's key aphorism, informs this novel about an English country house and its influence on the lives of the wealthy and materialistic Wilcoxes; the cultured, idealistic Schlegel sisters; and the poor bank clerk Leonard Bast. Bringing together people from different classes and nations by way of sympathetic insight and understanding, Howards End eloquently addresses the question "Who shall inherit England?" (Lionel Trilling).

Electronic Sources:
E-texts of the novel can be found at the HTI Modern English Collection.  One of the best all-round sources I've found is the page by Becky Bradley and Claire Gunnels for the Kingwood College Library.  You might also check out the unofficial E.M. Forster homepage, Only Connect.  Heiko Zimmerman's site, Aspects of E.M. Foster, includes a broad range of material on Forster, as does Jaye Cooper's A Passage through Forster.   Michael J. Hoffman's article on the literary friendship of Forster and Virginia Woolf adds insight to the works of both writers and Sidney Perkowitz's "Connecting with E.M. Forster" speaks to Forster's continued relevance.

Study Questions:

1. Consider Howards End as a "realistic novel" or as a "romantic novel."  Identify three aspects of the novel to support each view.  Is there an aspect that is allegorical?

2. Consider the symbolism of the characters: what is each of them most associated with? How do they interact together or with people unlike them? What happens when you take one of them out of their "natural habitat"?

3. The theme of "panic and emptiness" relates to the Wilcoxes, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, and Nietzsche. To Lionel Trilling, one of the first serious Forster scholars, "panic and emptiness" was the "modern doom." Explain what Forster and Trilling mean.

4. Trilling also called this a novel of the "class war," but one that stayed within the confines of the middle class, which in England includes a wide range. What does Forster mean when he says he is "not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable..." (47).

5. Consider Leonard Bast's refusal of money from Helen. Why does he do it? What would you do in his situation?

6. Why do Helen and Margaret "take up" Leonard Bast? What are their motives, desires, and expectations? How does their background and their status as liberal intellectuals influence their actions? What does it mean to them to be "liberal" and "intellectual"? What is the narrator's attitude toward their actions?

7. If this is a novel of the class war, it is also a novel of the sex war, or conflict between the sexes. Why does Margaret align with Henry? Discuss her motivations as a person and her function in the novel.

8. Trilling said the novel asks the question, "Who will inherit England?" How does the novel answer that question?

Lynn M. Alexander, May 2001
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