The Norton Critical Edition of E.M. Forster's Howards End (1910)

Howards End

  • Author:  E.M. Forster  (1879  –  1970)
  • Rank:  #45
  • Published:  1910
  • Publisher:  Edward Arnold
  • Pages:  243  (Norton Critical Edition)
  • First Line:  “One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister.”
  • Last Line:  ” ‘The field’s cut!’ Helen cried excitedly – ‘the big meadow!  We’ve seen it to the very end, and it’ll be such a crop of hay as never!’ “
  • ML Edition:  paperback (1999 – Top 100 Novels edition); paperback classics
  • Film Version:  1970 – tv; 1992  (**** – dir. James Ivory)
  • Acclaim:  Modern Library Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century #38
  • First Read:  Spring, 1993

The Novel:  Howards End is so magnificent that it not only was marvelously adapted to film, it not only survived being completely re-written in a modern version, but it actually was able to adapt so well that the modern version is itself an excellent novel (Zadie Smith’s On Beauty – one of the best examples ever of taking a story and re-working it to the modern era and making it her own while also leaving it very much Forster’s).  It inspired Lionel Trilling to write “E.M. Forster is for me the only living novelist who can be read again and again and who, after each reading, gives me what few writers can give us after our first days of novel-reading, the sensation of having learned something.”

It begins, so marvelously, with those letters.  Immediately we are dropped into the depth of Helen’s emotions.  We understand her youth, her tempestuousness, her intense fragility.  It is not so surprising that within a few pages, after we have stepped away from the letters to learn that Helen has already abandoned the love affair that opens the novel.  We can understand what drew Helen to the nearly absent Paul (“But the poetry of that kiss the wonder of it, the magic that there was in life for hours after it – who can describe that?  It is so easy for an Englishman to sneer at these chance collisions of human beings.  To the insular cynic and the insular moralist they offer an equal opportunity.”), it is the same romantic soul of Lucy Honeychurch from Forster’s previous novel, A Room with a View, but she also has that German sensibility.  She is a wonderful character, a more emotional version of her older sister Meg (how appropriate, really that Emma Thompson should have played both Margaret Schlegel and Elinor Dashwood – both of them older versions of the younger sister who must keep their emotions in check).  And we are no more surprised by her eventual circumstances than we are by the sudden end of her affair.  She is the one, after all, who says “One is certain of nothing but the truth of one’s own emotions.”

But Helen is only a part of Howards End.  There is Meg, of course, the smart sister who eventually makes a pragmatic choice that allows her to keep moving forward.  There is serendipity to the choice, of course, as she will learn in the final pages.  It draws her closer to this house that she feels an affinity for without ever having seen it.  Mrs. Wilcox, her predecessor in both possessor of the house and the husband understood this about Meg, which was why she had chosen her:  “To them Howards End was a house: they could not know that to her it had been a spirit, for which she sought a spiritual heir.”

It is in the handling of Mrs. Wilcox that Forster uses all the gifts at his command.  For we get wonderful, deep descriptions of her and we begin to learn who she is and enjoy the blooming friendship between her and Meg.  We follow them through their aborted attempt to go see Howards End, a chapter which ends “Mrs. Wilcox walked out of King’s Cross between her husband and daughter, listening to both of them.”  Then we open the next chapter with “The funeral was over.”  Forster does not make us go through every step.  We take his journey with him and follow through the gaps to a deeper understanding than an author like George Eliot, who would felt the need the fill thirty pages between these two lines.  Perhaps the difference between them is best expressed in this one line, one of the best lines that Forster, or any other English language writer ever put to page:  “They had nothing in common but the English language, and tried by its help to express what neither of them understood.”

The Oscar-winning Merchant-Ivory adaptation of Howards End (1992)

The Film:  “It’s time for legislation decreeing that no one be allowed to make a screen adaptation of a novel of any quality whatsoever if Ismail Merchant, James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala are available, and if they elect to do the job.  Trespassers should be prosecuted, possibly condemned, sentenced to watch ‘Adam Bede’ on ‘Masterpiece Theater’ for five to seven years.”  So began Vincent Canby in his review of Howards End in The New York Times.  There is, of course, the irony that the single best film version of a Forster novel was actually made by David Lean, but Lean had died the year before, so Canby can be forgiven on that front.  And this really is a gorgeous piece of film-making that takes Forster’s best novel and gives it a nice home.

The most vital part of the film is the casting.  It would seem surprising, at first glance, to look read A Room with a View and imagine the same actress playing both Lucy Honeychurch and Helen Schlegel, but in some ways, Helen is the Lucy with a further education.  She carries many of the same passions and falls for some of the same temptations – in fact, her quick turn away from the Wilcoxes is not so dissimilar to Lucy’s eventual rejection of her priggish fiancee.  And Helen Bonham-Carter, who had done such a good job as Lucy, gives one of her best performances as Helen.  Then there are the two choices for Mr. and Mrs. Wilcox.  Is there any actor better suited to this most English of all characters than Anthony Hopkins, fresh off his Oscar winning turn in Silence of the Lambs, reminding everyone of his full range?  And Vanessa Redgrave is so well suited to the woman whose soul has a home that she was (rightfully) nominated for an Oscar for an extremely short performance.

But, as anyone who has ever seen the film knows, this is all about Emma Thompson.  She is actually fourth billed on the poster – mostly known at the time for being Kenneth Branagh’s wife and starring in his Henry V and Dead Again.  But she masters Meg and her English sense and her German sensibility (a few years before she would win the Oscar for that).  In the charming, yet odd scene where Mr. Wilcox proposes, a scene so bizarre in the book, yet so natural on film and handled so well by her that the Oscar and pretty much every other award just tumbled into her lap.  Her charm is so evident throughout that there was never any question of Mr. Wilcox proposing (and for those who thought the romance odd, how they must have been thrown off when it was repeated the next year in The Remains of the Day).

The Merchant-Ivory team (often with writer Jhabvala) made many fine films during the decades of their collaboration, yet the two best of them were the Forster adaptations (their adaptation of Forster’s posthumous novel Maurice is also worth seeking out).  They understood his language, understood his ironic distance from British society and managed to repeat what I would have thought impossible – his skill to make the upper-middle class of British society and their romantic foibles interesting.