‘Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle’ (and btw by 2025 there will be 3 tonnes of plastic in the ocean for every 1 tonne of fish): E.M. Forster’s Howards End

Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs Wilcox in Howards End

Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs Wilcox in Howards End

I’m thinking about E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End, so beautifully adapted to the screen in 1992, and writing up my copious notes from the Natural Capital Forum in Edinburgh last November. Tragically, they are related. I love this novel for many reasons but especially because of Mrs Wilcox and her garden, her understanding of the power of places and their need to be cared for, and for the passage I quote from in the title of this post, which I return to below. The dangers Forster saw 100 years ago lurking in our accelerating mobility, in our increasing disconnection from the earth, are contained in the grotesque statistic quoted above: by 2025 there will be 3 tonnes of plastic for every 1 tonne of fish in the ocean.

The essence of Forster’s fourth novel, Howards End, can be summed up in the two words of its much quoted epigraph: ‘Only connect …’ Forster began work on Howards End in 1908, after he’d been reading American poet Walt Whitman, who had ‘started speaking to me’. With the force of revelation, Whitman spoke to Forster of the possibility of a connection between the unseen and the seen, between the soul and the body, passion and prose, art and money. Forster was thrilled: ‘That the spiritual world might be robust — !’ he wrote. The possibilities of a robust spiritual world are teased out in Howards End through the improbably coming together of two quite different families, one robust and one spiritual. The London lives of the Schlegels, sisters Margaret and Helen, are filled with art, literature and soirees with their bohemian friends; their wealth is inherited. The lives of the Welcomes are filled with business; they are committee men, their conversation restricted to sport and politics, their wealth earned, via the Imperial and West African Rubber Company.

The novel opens abruptly with a series of letters from Helen, the more impulsive of the Schlegel sisters, to her sister Margaret, declaring her love for the Wilcoxes, Paul Wilcox in particular. But romantic love is not destined to unite the two families. Instead, an affinity between two women, Margaret Schlegel and Mrs Wilcox, brings the families together in an unlikely fusion that ends in marriage. Margaret and Mrs Wilcox are hybrids: one not pure Schlegel spirit, the other not pure Wilcox matter.

Mrs Wilcox, like her husband, two sons and daughter, understands the value of bricks and mortar, but unlike them she is attend to the spiritual power of her house and the material world. Born at ‘Howards End’, she is profoundly connected to her home, forever wandering across the lawn with handfuls of hay, trailing her long skirts across the damp grass: ‘she seemed not to belong to the young people and their motor, but to the house, and to the tree that overshadowed it’. Howards End and Mrs Wilcox are the great moral core of Forster’s novel; they provide the sacred connection between the earth and the imagination that Forster so valued and that was being lost in a new world so intent on motion:

‘London was but a foretaste of this nomadic civilisation which is altering human nature so profoundly, and throws upon personal relationships a stress greater than they have ever had before. Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they once exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone. May Love be equal to the task!’

Margaret combines a pragmatic acceptance of the importance of money with her knowledge of the central place in life of art and friendship, the sisters’ credo. In what is a heresy to Helen, and ‘horrid’ even to Margaret herself, Margaret begins to wonder if ‘the very soul of the world is economic, and that the lowest abyss is not the absence of love, but the absence of coin’. Her realisations come from her meeting with two forces: the Wilcoxes and Leonard Bast, an impoverished insurance clerk. She begins to realise that the energy and grit of the Wilcoxes keep the world going: without them ‘life might never have moved out of protoplasm’.

The Schlegel sisters meet Leonard Bast by chance at a Beethoven concert and invite him to tea. Leonard is desperately striving to educate himself, but his attempts at culture are, like Leonard himself, doomed to failure. Leonard’s life, which Margaret would never ordinarily meet, forces her to consider the wealth she and her family take for granted: ‘You and I and the Wilcoxes stand upon money as upon islands. It is so firm beneath our feet we forget its very existence.’

The rapid changes and rampant materialism of the Edwardian world in which Forester was writing sickened him: ‘It really is a new civilization’, he wrote in 1908. ‘I have been born at the end of the age of peace and can’t expect to feel anything but despair.’ The times were characterised by a ‘craze for motion’, money and work, and the increasing activities of trade unionists and suffragettes. And a war with Germany was brewing. King Edward VII succeeded his mother Queen Victoria in 1901 and ruled until his death in 1910, a period that roughly spans the years in which Forster wrote his first four novels. Howards End was published in 1910 at the height of a constitutional crisis over the creation of a large number of new Liberal peers requested by the Liberal Prime Minister Asquith. This would have given the reforming Liberal Party the parliamentary power to wage war on poverty, much needed in an era in which 5 million people received over half the national income, while the other 38 million struggled on what remained. In this time of social reform, the first subsidised secondary education was introduced in 1902; the old-age pension in 1908; and the first truly middle-class parliament (in which most MPs worked for a living) was elected in 1906.

Howards End is about this Edwardian England, a world in transition. Here the aesthete Forster deals frankly with the material conditions of his time and the importance of money:

‘The imagination ought to play upon money and realise it vividly for it’s the — second most important thing in the world. It is so slurred over and hushed up, there is so little clear thinking—oh, political economy, of course, but so few of us think clearly about our own private incomes, and admit that independent thoughts are in nine cases out of ten the result of independent means.’

Forster was born in London in 1879 and his father, an architect, died the following year. At four, he moved with his mother to ‘Rooksnest’, a house in the country north of London where they lived for 10 years until their lease ran out. Rooksnest was the model for Howards End, and Forster described it as ‘my childhood and my safety’. After difficult schooldays, Forster went to King’s College, Cambridge, to study classics and met kindred spirits Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey and Maynard Keynes. On leaving Cambridge, Forster—having decided to become a writer—spent a year in Italy and Greece with his mother.

Back in England, Forster published his first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread, in 1905, then The Longest Journey (1907) and A Room with a View (1908). But not until the publication of Howards End in 1910 to critical acclaim did Forster become one of the most feted novelists in England. In 1912 he travelled to India, where he found his spiritual home, and returned in 1921. On the eve of the First World War Forster wrote Maurice, a novel about homosexual love, which remained unpublished until after his death. During the war Forster worked for the Red Cross in Alexandria for three years where he met the love of his life, Muhammad al-Adl. While in Egypt he also befriended the Greek poet Cavafy and later persuaded TS Eliot to publish his poems. After the war, inspired by Proust, Forster wrote his last novel, A Passage to India (1924). The year after his mother’s death in 1945 Forster was given a fellowship to King’s College and he moved to Cambridge. He died in Coventry in 1970.

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3 Responses to ‘Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle’ (and btw by 2025 there will be 3 tonnes of plastic in the ocean for every 1 tonne of fish): E.M. Forster’s Howards End

  1. Jen says:

    Its lovely when blogs are serendipitous to your own reading. Enjoyed that! Thanks Jane

  2. Pingback: ‘I will take my anguish and lay it upon the roots under the beech trees’: Virginia Woolf’s The Waves | bookish girl

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