E. M. Forster (Adult Classic Fiction)
Considered by many to be Forster’s masterpiece, Howards End is the story of three families in early 20th century England: the Wilcoxes—wealthy, classist, and materialistic capitalists who bear no responsibility for their wrongful actions; the Schlegels—well-intentioned, learned, middle-class siblings who believe in personal accountability and are willing to defy societal protocols to do what is right; and the Basts—lower-class and poor, they seek a better way of life that always seems to be just out of reach.
Just shy of 250 pages, this book took me an inordinate amount of time to finish. The reason is probably best summed up by American economist Herbert A. Simon when he said, “…a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
For me, one of the trickiest things about writing book reviews is that I try to take into account when the book was written, as well as its audience and intent. I refuse to be THAT reviewer who reads a children’s book and then writes that a talking dog is utterly unrealistic. However, I take into equal account how the book made ME feel. Did I connect with the story and characters? Did it leave an impression? Most importantly, is it a story that I would read again?
There is no doubt that Forster accurately depicts the political, social, and philosophical landscape of post-Victorian England and that his elaborate descriptions and attention to detail were the ultimate, exotic passport for his readers when it was published in 1910; however, the deluge of details are simply overwhelming and drowned out, what I felt, was the overall message of the story. Near the very end of the book, when asked about the health of her husband, eldest sibling Margaret Schlegel said to her sister Helen, “Not ill. Eternally tired. He has worked very hard all his life, and noticed nothing.” Both the Wilcoxes and the Basts were so blinded by trying to be better versions of themselves, that they failed to see the bigger picture—Henry Wilcox denying a dying wish to maintain control or Leonard Bast refusing an act of benevolence to maintain an ideology.
The one saving grace of this book is Margaret Schlegel—the matriarch of her little family. Her resistance to yield to patriarchal and societal rules and demands is her greatest virtue and an ever-present point of contention in her marriage. She is loyal, direct, tactful, and resolute and although she longs for equality, she understands well enough why some women “prefer influence to rights”.
Howards End is indeed a beautiful book and worthy of critical praise. Unfortunately, I agree with Aesop in that It is possible to have too much of a good thing. Less is more sometimes.
* Book cover image attributed to: www.abebooks.com
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