Go to Table of ContentsE. M. Forster's Howards End: An Interpretation

by Rob Doll

© 2002-2010


By the end of 1910 E. M. Forster had achieved remarkable literary success.  He was thirty-one years old and had published four novels in six years.  The appearance of Howards End in October of that year caused one reviewer to remark that he "seems to us to have arrived, and, if he never writes another line, his niche should be secure." A even more enthusiastic reviewer called him "one of the great novelists. His stories are not about life. They are life. His plots are absorbing because his characters are real; he does not create them, but observes them."

In Forster's first three novels the middle class, of whose character and values he disapproved, had been represented by suburban widows and their children, by school teachers, clergymen, and people living on inherited incomes. The Herritons, Honeychurches, Pembrokes, Vyses, Bebees, and others live off the fruits of commerce and business, but they are not directly connected to the sources of their income. By the time Forster came to write his fourth novel, Howards End, he had realized that the influence of the middle class was greater than its relatively weak representatives in the previous fiction might indicate. In Howards End Forster expands his portrayal of the middle class to include strong, active characters—the Wilcoxes—and presents a stark picture of the kind of world these people were bringing into being. Like his short story "The Machine Stops," which was published the year before, the novel prophesied some of the horrors to come in the 20th century. In Howards End Forster sees quite plainly the coming dominance of commerce and finance, and foresees with disturbing accuracy what this domination would do to the world both physically and socially.

Associated with the Wilcoxes throughout the novel and used by Forster as one of the primary images for the influence of middle-class culture, is the automobile. These machines appear only incidentally, if at all, in the earlier novels; they are pervasive in Howards End. At the beginning of Chapter 13 Forster describes their effect in London:

And month by month the roads smelt more strongly of petrol, and were more difficult to cross, and human beings heard each other speak with greater difficulty, breathed less of the air, and saw less of the sky. Nature withdrew: the leaves were falling by midsummer; the sun shone through dirt with an admired obscurity.

It is the Wilcoxes and their class that have produced the modern civilization of which London is a product and symbol; and it is the Wilcoxes' cars that have filled the air with fumes. The Wilcoxes have the "colonial spirit"; Henry makes his money—and he is rich—from the Imperial and West African Rubber Company. Rubber, of course, was needed primarily to make tires for cars. Henry has spent his time in the colonies and has sent out his son Paul in turn. The same spirit with which the Wilcoxes have conquered the world has an influence at home, where the Wilcoxes are constantly changing houses and motoring about between them: Ducie Street, Oniton, Wickham Place, the house planned in Sussex. Not only in their habit of changing homes, but also in their leisure activities the Wilcoxes are colonial; their idea of a holiday is a motor tour. They speed in their "throbbing stinking" car down country roads, throwing up dust and endangering man and animal alike. At the end of Chapter 10, when Evie and Mr. Wilcox meet Margaret Schlegel and Mrs. Wilcox at the train station, they have just returned from a motor trip which was cut short by an accident. Evie gaily tells how "our car . . . ran A-1 as far as Ripon," where "a wretched horse and cart" and "a fool of a driver" got in the way. The old and the new have crashed; Mr. Wilcox is unconcerned about the human dimension of the event. He doesn't mention what happened to the cart and driver, saying only, "As we've insured against third-party risks, it won't so much matter—." The financial entailments of auto ownership, which distance the owner from the very real physical impact of the machine, reflect the general dehumanization.

The world of Howards End is one of "everyone moving," of "continual flux." As Margaret says, "London was but a foretaste of this nomadic civilization which is altering human nature so profoundly, and throws upon personal relations a stress greater than they have ever born before." The rootlessness of the Wilcox existence is reflected in their character. They live the "outer life . . . in which telegrams and anger count." The novel itself, which is full of letters and telegrams that shouldn't have been sent, or which are not received in time, or which are misinterpreted, reflects the growing difficulty of human communication. For the Wilcoxes "love means marriage settlements, death, death duties." Their typical family scene is a discussion of business matters, stocks and bonds, insurance settlements, the settlement of a will. Henry Wilcox, like others of his class, sees life "steadily. He never bothered over the mysterious or the private." As he says at one point, "I am not a fellow who bothers about my own inside." "Outwardly," Forster tells us, he is "cheerful, reliable, and brave"; practical and efficient, he treats "marriage like a funeral, item by item, never raising his eyes to the whole." Because the Wilcoxes do not see life whole, do not see that there is another life where personal relations are supreme, where "one is certain of nothing but the truth of ones own emotions," they are "just a wall of newspapers and motorcars and golf clubs" behind which lies nothing but "panic and emptiness."

Forster sees "the Great Wilcox Peril" as the nearly inexorable force of the future. Charles Wilcox, the novel's greatest devotee of motoring, receives an automobile as a wedding present. Forster presents a picture of Charles and his wife at home,

sitting in deck-chairs, and their motor is regarding them placidly from its garage across the lawn. A short-frocked edition of Charles also regards them placidly; a perambulator edition is squeaking; a third edition is expected shortly. Nature is turning out Wilcoxes in this peaceful abode, so that they may inherit the earth.

Opposite to the life of the Wilcoxes, who "have no part . . . in any place" and whose homelessness is reflected in the emptiness of their character, is another kind of life, represented by Henry's wife, Ruth. The house called Howards End was brought into the Wilcox family when Henry married Ruth Howard. She was the last of the Howards; "things went on until there were no men." Ruth is the last survivor of a family that has lived on the land in one house for centuries. As Margaret Schlegel comes to understand later, "In these English farms, if anywhere, one might see life steadily and see it whole, group in one vision its transitoriness and its eternal youth, connect—connect without bitterness until all men are brothers." Mrs. Wilcox lives with and loves the Wilcoxes, yet she retains her connection to the past and to the earth—a connection which for Forster is tantamount to the inner life and the life of personal relations. The house in the novel is modeled on Forster's own childhood home Rooksnest, which is located near Stevenage north of London and where Forster and his mother lived from 1883-93:Forster's childhood home Rooksnest, the model for Howards End

Unlike her husband and sons, who have hay fever, Mrs. Wilcox loves the meadow at Howards End; Helen describes her "with hands full of the hay that was cut yesterday . . . smelling it." Again unlike her husband, Mrs. Wilcox knows about the pigs' teeth in the trunk of the wych-elm that overhangs the house: "There are pigs' teeth stuck into the trunk, about four feet from the ground. The country people put them in long ago, and they think that if they chew a piece of the bark, it will cure the toothache. The teeth are almost grown over now, and no one comes to the tree." Mrs. Wilcox's spirit inhabits the tree like a dryad, for when Paul and Helen kiss under its branches, Mrs. Wilcox somehow knows. As in Forster's earlier novels and short stories, a nearness to earth and nature here symbolizes a life of relations untrammeled by social complexity and artificiality. Forster saw the yeoman or peasant of the past as unalienated from the source and sustenance of his life and from his fellows.

Mrs. Wilcox's marriage to Henry is an emblem of the traditional coexistence of the two kinds of life—a coexistence which Forster realizes may be coming to an end. The death of Mrs. Wilcox brings a literal end to the Howard Family; the question posed by the novel is whether the disposition of her house will bring the end of what she stands for. Even before she dies, a garage has replaced the paddock for the pony. If inheritance is uninterrupted, the house will pass to Charles Wilcox and will become, indeed, the Howards' end. Before she dies, however, Mrs. Wilcox finds a spiritual heir in the person of Margaret Schlegel, and she leaves a note asking her husband to give the house to Margaret. The dramatic conflict in the novel lies in the resolution of the problem of who shall inherit Howards End.

The Schlegels are educated, intelligent, and sensitive people, who believe that "one is certain of nothing but the truth of ones own emotions" and that "personal relations are the real life." Thus they exhibit many attributes that were characteristic of Bloomsbury. Indeed, Forster's portrait of the Schlegels, reminds many readers of Virginia and Vanessa Stephens, although Forster himself claims that he had Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson's sisters in mind as models. In any case, "they desired that public life should mirror whatever is good in the life within." Since "it is impossible to see modern life steadily and see it whole," Margaret "had chosen to see it whole." But the public life of England and the modern world mirrors the vagrancy of the outer life of the the Wilcoxes, with its core of "panic and emptiness." This very Wilcoxism forces the Schlegels to move out of their family home of thirty years, which is to be built into flats to supply the expanding population of London. Helen and Margaret Schlegel's search for a new house—which eventually ends when they move into Howards End—coincides with their love affairs with Leonard Bast and Henry Wilcox, respectively.

Leonard Bast is an unfortunate human victim of the Great Wilcox Peril. He lies at the lower end of the middle class: he is a petty clerk, living in a "makeshift" home whose heater throws out "metallic fumes" not unlike the petrol fumes in the London Streets. He eats "dusty crumbs", dusted no doubt by the filth constantly thrown up by cars of the Wilcox's and their kind. His wife, Jackie, is also a victim of the Wilcoxes' "colonial spirit"; she was formerly a prostitute in the colonies, where she had in fact been of service to Henry Wilcox himself many years before. Leonard is "grandson to the shepherd or ploughboy whom civilization had sucked into the town; as one of the thousands who have lost the life of the body and failed to reach the life of the spirit." Leonard tries to achieve the life of the spirit through art and literature. Having tea with the Schlegels, he tells them how in a certain book "you get back to the Earth." Like Rickie Elliot, who had internalized the defects of the world of his father, Leonard has become a victim of the modern world. He tries to see life whole, to get back to his roots in the earth, but he fails, dying of "heart disease" when he is assaulted by Charles Wilcox. Ironically, as he dies, "books fell over him in a shower."

Because of the casual advice of Mr. Wilcox, Leonard had been financially ruined, as in the longer run his life had been ruined by the social forces represented by the Wilcoxes. Helen's idealistic attempt to help him leads to a night of love and eventually to a child; these in turn lead to guilt on Leonard's part and a sort of wandering, homeless cosmopolitanism for Helen.

Where Helen's lovemaking has been "romance"—a response which Forster sees as increasingly difficult in the modern world—Margaret's is "prose." As he falls in love with Henry Wilcox, Margaret moves towards an understanding and sympathy for the Wilcox way of life:

If Wilcoxes hadn't worked and died in England for thousands of years, you [Helen] 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.

Margaret realizes that the "outer life" of the Wilcoxes "was to remain a real force." Of the "seen and the unseen," the outer life and the inner, she writes in a letter to Helen, "Our business is not to contrast the two, but to reconcile them." In her love for Henry Margaret is moving towards the vision of Mrs. Wilcox. But Margaret seems to realize that the outer life of the Wilcoxes has become so powerful and expansive that it cannot exist peacefully beside the life of personal relations and personal emotional truth. Wilcoxes are changing the world, and in order to preserve the double vision of Ruth Wilcox, Mr. Wilcox must be made to see that he has an inner life. This is what Margaret tries to do.

The morning after she has accepted Henry's offer of marriage, Margaret decides,

She might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. . . . It did not seem so difficult. She need trouble him with no gift of her own. She would only point out the salvation that was latent in his own soul, and in the soul of every man. 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 height. Live in fragments no longer.

Margaret's attempt to make Henry connect is carried out specifically when she tries to make him see that his affair with Jackie is the same as Helen's affair with Leonard Bast. It is not simply a question of Henry's admitting that he hypocritically practices a double standard of morality. Leonard Bast has been ruined by Henry—in the immediate sense of losing his job and in the larger sense of being a victim of the Wilcox world. Jackie, too, has similarly been ruined by the Wilcoxes. It is because Henry has ruined Leonard that Helen becomes involved with him; and Leonard had married the ex-prostitute more from pity than from love. For Henry to connect himself to the affair of Helen and Leonard would be to see into the meaning of his life as a direct vector of harm as well as a symbol of alienating forces in the modern world. "You shall see the connection if it kills you, Henry," cries Margaret.

Henry does not connect it all until Charles's attempt to turn Helen and Margaret out of Howards End results in the death of Leonard and the potential prosecution of Charles. Henry turns down the opportunity to take the car and walks to the police station. Later, when Margaret throws the car keys to Henry, he leaves them lying "on the sunlit slope of grass." For the moment, at least, nature is triumphing over the motorcar. Mr. Wilcox says,

"Charles may go to prison. . . . I'm broken—I'm ended." No sudden warmth arose in her [Margaret]. She did not see that to break him was her only hope. She did not enfold the sufferer in her arms. But all through that day and the next a new life began to move. The verdict was brought in. Charles was committed for trial. It was against all reason that he should be punished, but the law, being made in his image, sentenced him to three years' imprisonment. Then Henry's fortress gave way. . . . She took him down to Howards End to recruit.

Henry has made the connection, but only at the expense of being broken; in this sense, then, the reconciliation attempted in Howards End is a failure.

In the end the Schlegels have found a home in Howards End; but Margaret's marriage has not successfully brought about a merger of the inner life and the outer. For her and Helen, "The inner life had paid." But Henry has not really achieved the inner life; his hay fever still keeps him inside while the meadow is being cut. Margaret observes that she and Helen and Henry "are only fragments" of Mrs. Wilcox's mind; these fragments have been joined only tenuously. It has been established that Margaret will inherit the house and that Helen's son will inherit it in turn. As the farm boy Tom takes her son into the meadow to play, Helen says, "They're going to be life-long friends." Like Rickie Elliot, whose weak heart brought death but whose stories were affirmed by the continuing life of Stephen Wonham, so is Leonard Bast's longing to return to the earth fulfilled in the life of his son. Behind the joy and optimism of the last sentence of the novel, however, are serious reservations on Forster's part. "The big meadow! We've seen to the very end, and it'll be such a crop of hay as never." The sentence may have a literal meaning not at first apparent; namely, that this will be the biggest crop ever; there will never again be a crop as big, for, as Helen says a little earlier,

"All the same, London's creeping."  She pointed over the meadow—over eight or nine meadows, but at the end of them was a red rust. . . .  And London is only part of something else, I'm afraid.  Life's going to be melted down, all over the world.

Charles Wilcox, with his hay fever, will get out of prison, probably hating the Schlegels all the more. Unlike Charles and his like, who "breed like rabbits," Henry and Margaret will have no children, and Helen will apparently have no more. To compete with the many young Charleses is only one bastard child.


Go to Table of Contents