Howards End by E. M. Forster

Howards End

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.

Rating: 3/5

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Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor by Rosina Harrison

Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor 

Rosina Harrison (Autobiography)

Rosina (Rose) Harrison was born in 1899 in a little village near Ripon in Yorkshire.  The daughter of a stonesman and a laundrymaid and the eldest of four children, Rose had but one desire in life: to travel.  In her 35 years of service to Lady Astor—Nancy Witcher Langhorne Astor, Viscountess Astor—Rose would not only travel the world, but she would become an integral part of the prestigious Astor family (“the landlords of New York”).  This is Rose’s life—told in her own words—that spans several wars, a coronation, 1,000-person receptions, misplaced jewelry, a missing sable tie, and a loving friendship that would endure all of these and more.

Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor is a lady maid’s personal account of a life filled with dignitaries, disagreements, devotion, and discovery.  Fans of the British television series Upstairs, Downstairs or Amazon Prime’s Downton Abbey will appreciate this behind-the-scenes perspective into the lives of both the aristocracy and their attendants.  Through Rose, we gain an appreciation of what it is to work for someone whose heart is charitable, but whose tongue is often sharp and cruel; we experience dinners with Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, Gandhi, Winston Churchill, and George Bernard Shaw; we see how entertaining is not just an event, but an industry; we understand that the key to a beautiful floral arrangement is to consult with Nature herself; and we learn the correct way to “pop” a champagne cork (gently unscrew the cork, cover it with a napkin, and then by tilting the bottle to one side, the cork will come out easily and quietly).  

Rose is an entertaining look into the innerworkings of the wealthy and those who keep the gears of this expensive and vast machine greased and operating flawlessly.  While no employer/employee relationship is without its ups and downs, the respect, dependency, and devotion between Rose and Lady Astor spanned over three decades and showed us the meaning of perseverance and the value of loyalty. 

Rose Harrison died at the age of 90 in 1989.  Although she never married nor had any children, hers was a life fulfilled and a dream attained.  When Rose was asked by Bobbie Shaw (Lady Astor’s son by her first marriage) what she would like most in this world, Rose replied, after a moment’s hesitation, “To live my life over again”.  In her autobiography, published in 1975, she wrote that her answer would be the same. 

Lady Astor enjoyed a close twenty-year friendship with playwright George Bernard Shaw and so it seems fitting that I end this review with a quote of his that I think adequately sums up the life of Rosina Harrison: “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”  Rose created a full and satisfying life through her employment and friendship with Lady Astor.  She gave as good as she got and quickly became a respected and trusted confidante to a woman who was the second elected female Member of Parliament, but the first to take her seat.  Not bad for a spunky Yorkshire girl who thought that life couldn’t get any better than luxuriating in the family’s hip bath.

Rating: 4/5

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