Sunday 17 February 2013

Propriety - TBR pile challenge

I picked up this very ancient and yellowed copy of Howards End by E. M. Forster from a bargain box outside a charity shop. It is quite a long time since I read such an old book (the date in this copy is 1961), it was first published in 1910. It seems to me that this story is all about propriety, that the attempts or insistence on conforming to accepted standards of behaviour or morals, is the thing that both guides and constrains the interactions of the characters.

I have to confess that my approach to the book is coloured by my love of the film and so when I read I was hearing the performances of Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter in the conversations between the two sisters. I enjoyed the book even though it felt quaint and dated, in fact it many ways that is its very appeal. The very genteel way of life led by the main characters makes for a very stress free read. In fact all the drama in the book comes from this very life, the Schlegels preoccupation with cultural activities and socialising brings them into contact with Mr Bast, and the Wilcoxes just get all het up about Howards End, a house that none of them are particularly fond of in the first place. I felt that all the characters are in some way symbolic of different aspects of Edwardian society, different political and social attitudes, and the idea of culture, in the form of literature art and music, being more widely appreciated and understood by the less educated classes (I mean from the point of view of those genteel upper-middle class types). The divides between the classes and the rules about what was and was not acceptable are all so rigorously upheld; I realise that there are still divides and still rules, but they are somehow more flexible now and it leaves me glad to live in the 21st century:

"They had been left motherless when Tibby was born, when Helen was five and Margaret herself but thirteen. It was before the passing of the Deceased Wife's Sister Bill, so Mrs Munt could without impropriety offer to go and keep house at Wickham Place." (p.14)

"Then listen! Her cab should already have arrived at Howards End. (We're a little late, but no matter.) Our first move will be to send it down to wait at the farm, as, if possible, one doesn't want a scene before servants." (p.268)

"That was Helen all over. The Wilcoxes, too, would ask a child its name, but they never told theirs in return." (p.279)

"Against the tide of his sin flowed the feeling that she was not altogether womanly. Her eyes gazed too straight; they had read books that were suitable for men only." (p. 228)

Then at the same time he is mocking these rules and regulations quite pitilessly, pointing out how much more simple life is for the free-thinking, liberal Schelgels:

"Charles stood by the riverside with folded hands, tragical, while the servant shouted, and was misunderstood by another servant in the garden. Then came a difficulty about a spring-board, and soon three people were running backwards and forwards over the meadow, with orders and counter orders and recriminations and apologies. If Margaret wanted to jump from a motor-car, she jumped; if Tibby thought paddling would benefit his ankles, he paddled; if a clerk desired adventure, he took a walk in the dark. But these athletes seemed paralysed. They could not bathe without their appliances, though the morning sun was calling and the last mists were rising from the dimpling stream." (p. 203-4)

Instead things that amused me, because of course writing at the time it was felt that society was so very modern. Here are some things they worried and complained about, that a hundred years later are still upsetting us:

"Margaret was no morbid idealist. She did not wish this spate of business and self-advertisment checked. It was only the occasion of it that struck her with amazement annually. How many of these vacillating shoppers and tired shop assistants realised that it was a divine event that drew them together...
'No I do not like Christmas on the whole,' she announced. 'In its clumsy way, it does approach Peace and Goodwill. But, oh, it is clumsier every year.' " (p.77-8)

"Month by month the roads smelt more strongly of petrol, and were more difficult to cross, and human being heard each other speak with great difficulty, breathed less of the air, and saw less of the sky." (p.102)

"You young fellows' one idea is to get into a motor. I tell you I want to walk: I'm very fond of walking." (p.306)

Some wonderful moments of descriptive writing that warm the cockles of your heart. I loved this about the difficulties of appreciating the music at a public performance:

"It is cheap, even if you hear it in the Queen's Hall, dreariest music-room in London, though not as dreary as the Free Trade Hall, Manchester; and even if you sit on the extreme left of the hall, so that the brass bumps at you before the rest of the orchestra arrives, it is still cheap." (p.31)

And this tiny moment when Christmas shopping:

"The air was white, and when they alighted it tasted like cold pennies." (p.77)

Although there are extended passages of 'tell not show' where the characters are concerned (not to mention the excessive use of exclamation points!), there are some other more subtle character portraits:

"Aunt Juley, incapable of tragedy, slipped out of life with odd little laughs and apologies for having stopped in it so long." (p.257)

(Henry Wilcox) "With a good dinner inside him and an amiable but academic woman on either flank, he felt that his hands were on all the ropes of life, and that what he did not know could not be worth knowing." (p.124)

(Charles Wilcox) "He and Dolly are sitting in deck-chairs, and their motor is regarding them placidly from its garage across the lawn. A short-frocked edition of Charles also regards them placidly; a perambulator is squeaking; a third edition is expected shortly. Nature is turning out Wilcoxes in this peaceful abode, so that they may inherit the earth." (p.173-4)

But mostly Margaret, I like her for her thoughtfulness and determination:
"Looking back on the last six months, Margaret realised the chaotic nature of our daily life, and it's difference from the orderly sequence that has been fabricated by historians. With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes. The most successful career must show a waste of strength that might have removed mountains, and the most unsuccessful is not that of the man who is taken unprepared, but of him who is prepared and is never taken. On a tragedy of that kind our national morality is duly silent. It assumes that preparation against danger is in itself a good, and that men, like nations, are the better for staggering through life fully armed. The tragedy of preparedness has scarcely been handled, save by the Greeks. Life is indeed dangerous, but not in the way morality would have us believe. It is indeed unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty.
Margaret hoped that for the future she would be less cautious, not more cautious, than she had been in the past." (p.101-2)

While ostensibly about the relations between the two families, it is a morality tale, about hypocrisy and double standards. It all left me a bit bemused as to why Margaret falls in love with such a man as Henry Wilcox; she seems determined to change him, even when she sees how stubbornly he resists her efforts. Even her final confrontation feels somewhat tempered:

"...Stupid, hypocritical, cruel - oh, contemptible! - a man who insults his wife when she's alive and cants with her memory when she's dead. A man who ruins a woman for his pleasure, and casts her off to ruin other men. And gives bad financial advice, and then says he's not responsible. these men are you. You can't recognise them, because you cannot connect. I've had enough of your unweeded kindness. I've spoiled you long enough. All you life you have been spoiled. Mrs Wilcox spoiled you. No one has ever told you what you are - muddled, criminally muddled. Men like you use repentance as a bind, so don't repent. Only say to yourself, "What Helen has done, I've done." '
'The two cases are different,' Henry stammered. His real retort was not quite ready. his brain was still in a whirl, and he wanted longer.
'In what way different? You have betrayed Mrs Wilcox, Helen only herself. You remain in society, Helen can't. You have had only pleasure, she may die. You have the insolence to talk to me of differences, Henry?'
Oh, the uselessness of it! Henry's retort came.
'I perceive you are attempting blackmail. It is scarcely a pretty weapon for a wife to use against her husband. My rule through life has been never to pay the least attention to threats, and I can only repeat what I have said before: I do not give you and your sister leave to sleep at Howards End.' " (p.287)

So what of Howards End, the house that is. It is about the idea that a home is more than bricks and mortar, more than a status symbol, more than an investment. It becomes a symbol for the 'finer feelings' of the Schlegels, for the subtle difference between ownership and possession, Helen here articulating everything she rejects about the Wilcoxes :

" 'Then because my life is great and theirs are little,' said Helen, taking fire. 'I know of things they can't know of, and so do you. We know that there's poetry. We know that there's death. They can only take them on hearsay. We know this is our house, because it feels ours. Oh, they may take the title-deeds and the doorkeys, but for this one night we are at home.'" (p.281)

Am sure we have the film somewhere, I think a Sunday afternoon on the sofa calls.


  1. I have this film buried away somewhere and now I too want to see it! Take care

  2. home becomes the symbol of finer feelings...rather cool...and honestly not sure i have seen the movie...though now i will look it up to make sure...smiles.

  3. Hi Martine. Thanks for visiting (and following) To Discover Ice! I enjoyed your analysis of Howard's End.
    I find the relationship between a book and the film of it very interesting. I think it's important to realise that the film is an entity in it's own right and does not have to slavishly follow the book (or the play eg Amadeus, Equus) it's first duty is to itself and be a good film.
    I often annoy people by whispering during a film things such as "She didn't do that in the book". Naughty, I know but I can't help myself :)
    Click here for Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’


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