Monday, June 8, 2020

Forsterland: Howards End

Matthew Macfadyen and Hayley Atwell in the BBC's Howards End (2017).

I approached the 2017 BBC adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End, which landed on Masterpiece Theatre last season, with some trepidation, just as I did the 1992 Merchant Ivory movie version. That’s because I’m in thrall to the book; which is one of my half-dozen favorite novels in the world. In it, as in his A Passage to India (published in 1924), the form of the Victorian novel collides, brilliantly but lingeringly, with the twentieth century. Howards End is beautifully constructed, but it isn’t a mechanical triumph like the great works of Forster’s predecessors (Dickens, Eliot, Hardy) that it takes off from. Forster gets himself into perilous territory – into issues he can’t bring into harmony in the final pages. And the book is, I think, more immense, more moving and of course more modern, because he can’t. It begins as a Jane Austenesque high comedy. Helen Schlegel, the impetuous younger daughter of a German-English family, goes off on a country weekend and falls in love with the younger son of her hosts, Ruth and Henry Wilcox. At least she thinks she has; in fact, it’s the whole Wilcox family she’s enamored with, and Paul, she realizes almost immediately, is just the convenient outlet for her unaccustomed feelings. Helen, her older sister Margaret and her kid brother Tibby – orphans – form a throbbing intellectual enclave that interacts with the world in an entirely different way from the Wilcoxes, who belong to the new business aristocracy, and Helen is fascinated by their style at first. Margaret explains the real difference to Helen:
The truth is that there is a great outer life that you and I have never touched – a life in which telegrams and anger count. Personal relations, that we think supreme, are not supreme there. There love means marriage settlements, death, death duties. So far I’m clear. But here’s my difficulty. This outer life, though obviously horrid, often seems the real one – there’s grit in it. It does breed character.
In the embarrassing aftermath of the momentary romantic tangle between Helen and Paul, Helen loses her quickly formed affection for the Wilcox world and shrinks in revulsion from their unpoetic pragmatism. But then, unexpectedly, Henry Wilcox rents the London house across the way from the Schlegels’, and Margaret finds herself drawn to the family – through Ruth, who, in her last months, forms an attachment to her that exerts an extraordinary influence on the younger woman.