Edward Morgan Forster was born on January 1, 1879, in Coventry, England. His father died when he was only a year and a half old, leaving him in the care of his mother and a devoted circle of female relatives. He and his mother lived at Rooksnest, their beloved country house near Stevenage in Hertfordshire. After a rather unhappy adolescence as a student at Tonbridge School, Forster enrolled at Cambridge University, where he flourished.
When Howards End was published in 1910, critics generally agreed it surpassed E. M. Forster’s earlier novels. Forster had arrived as an important author, and the public and critics eagerly anticipated his next novel. But fourteen years elapsed before the publication of A Passage to India, which would also be the last novel published during his lifetime. Forster’s novels are all considered classics, with Howards End and A Passage to India regarded as his best works. Like all of Forster’s early novels, Howards End concerns itself with Edwardian society. As a member of the upper-middle class, Forster had keen insight into its attitudes and social mores, which he expertly rendered in the novel. His humanistic values and interest in personal relationships inform all of his books, and are revealed in the major themes of Howards End: connection between the inner and outer life and between people, the future of England, and class conflicts. Howards End has been called a parable; indeed, its symbolism reaches almost mythic proportions at various points in the novel. Although elements of the plot construction have been problematic for some critics, Forster’s character creation and development is almost unanimously given the highest praise.
The various locales represented in Howards End are related to the theme of inheritance and speculation regarding which of England’s landscapes-countryside, city, or suburbs-will claim the future. During the Edwardian era, a great migration from the countryside to the city transpired, mainly because England was shifting from an agrarian nation to an industrialized nation. London, in particular, was growing at an alarming rate, and a great deal of rebuilding and restructuring of the city occurred. New modes of transportation, such as the automobile, tramcars, autobuses, and the subway, allowed people more mobility than ever before. Urban and suburban development, or “sprawl,” followed the subway and tramway lines. The novel is wary of this type of progress and movement, preferring the stability of the country life and homes like Howards End versus the impersonal, chaotic world of London.
A major theme in Howards End is connection-connection between private and public life, connection between individuals-and how difficult it is to create and sustain these connections. The story of Howards End focuses mainly on two families: the Schlegels, who represent intellectualism, imagination, and idealism-the inner life of the mind-and the Wilcoxes, who represent English practicality, expansionism, commercialism, and the external world of business and politics. For the Schlegels, personal relationships precede public ones and the individual is more important than any organization. For the Wilcoxes, the reverse is true; social formalities and the rules of the business world reign supreme.
Howards End is a highly symbolic novel; many critics have described it as parable with archetypal or mythic characters. The Wilcoxes symbolize the practical, materialistic, enterprising sort of people who have contributed to England’s prosperity and strengthened the empire. The Schlegels symbolize the intellectual and artistic types who possess humanistic values and recognize the importance of the spirit. Margaret and Henry’s marriage demonstrates the relationship between these two personalities, emphasizing a balance between the two. Of all the Wilcoxes, Ruth is the only one who does not fit the Wilcox “mold.” She is withdrawn from modern life, intuitive, spiritual, and not at all intellectual, but as Lionel Trilling states, representative of traditional values and ancestral knowledge. Along with Miss Avery, the caretaker of Howards End, Ruth Wilcox symbolizes the importance of the human connection to nature and the earth. The wych elm tree with the pig’s teeth, the vine, and the hayfield at Howards End also emphasize this connection. The movement of the seasons and the rhythms of nature are contrasted to the senseless movement of the modern, industrialized city, symbolized by the motorcar. The motorcar is never portrayed in a very attractive light: chaos and confusion seem to follow it everywhere, as in the scene where Charles hits the cat.
Howards End is set in the Edwardian era, so named after King Edward VII of England. Although his reign spanned only nine years, from 1901 to 1910, many historians extend the period to the start of the World War I in 1914, because of the influence of the king’s personality on the attitude of the day; his hedonism characterized the era. He loved ceremonial and state occasions and enjoyed extravagant entertaining; in fact, one of his first undertakings as king was to redecorate the royal palaces. An avid sportsman, King Edward particularly enjoyed horse racing, hunting, and “motoring.” Motoring, essentially viewed as a sport in the early years of Edward’s reign, quickly became an indispensable part of everyday life. In Howards End, the Wilcoxes rely quite heavily on their motor.
VII TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. What were the forces that led to World War I, and what was Britain’s involvement?
In Forster’s first novel, Where Angels Fear To Tread, (1905) he contrasts the vibrant, free life of Italians with the artificial, hypocritical and bourgeois life of the suburban Londoners who visit an Italian village. In A Room with a View, issued in 1908, Forster focuses on a young woman’s love affair and her struggle with Victorian conventions. Forster continued his exploration of English society, this time in the context of colonial India, with his last and most highly regarded novel, A Passage to India (1924). Howards End was adapted for the stage by Lance Sieveking and Richard Cottrell and was produced in London in 1967. A BBC production of Howards End, adapted by Pauline Macaulay, was broadcast in 1970.