Howards End by E. M. Forster
“Who shall inherit England?” is a quote most synonymous with E. M. Forster’s work, ‘Howards End,’ even if it wasn’t spoken by a character within the novel, or used within the narration of the plot. However, Lionel Trilling, the creator of the quote with reference to Forster and ‘Howards End,’ suggested that it was a question within the novel that Forster was alluding to – not necessarily answering. The question, though, ‘Who shall inherit England?’ is something that bears great importance within the novel as it delves into England’s social life and all of the conventions, bouts of deviance, and the consequences in each situation. The novel explores worlds colliding, worlds co-existing and worlds dying.
‘Howards End’ takes place during the early twentieth century, exploring the upper and lower social classes within three families in English society. The novel explores the relationship between the Schlegel sisters (with an occasional mention of their younger brother Tibby), who have been orphaned – before the novel begins. With the sibling relationship, readers are introduced to two different families via Helen Schlegel, who, at the novels start, is at Howards End with the Wilcox family (the residents). With this connection, the novel explores further friendships made between the Schlegel’s and the Wilcox’s, and how the two families are so different – yet so much in the novel depends on the reliance and connection between the two. As Helen’s relationship with the Wilcox family fades into a memory worth blushing at, she brings into their midst a young bank clerk Leonard Bast. Whilst Helen is aiding Leonard in his discovery of arts, culture and literature, Margaret Schlegel, the eldest of the sisters, has rekindled the relationship between the Wilcox’s and the Schlegel’s with a particular interest in Mrs. Ruth Wilcox. When Ruth Wilcox dies, she leaves the house – Howards End – to Margaret, and this sets in motion the tragedies, truths and sensibilities within the plot.
‘Howards End’ focuses on the integration of worlds, or social classes. The major focus is between the Schlegel’s and the Wilcox’s, however there is the attempted integration of the Bast family which has its tragic consequences. While the two major families belong to the upper social class of English social life, they are very different in their practices and views, which makes it seem wholly unlikely for their union at different points in the novel. The Schlegel sisters (and brother) represent the cultural and intellectual part of the upper class, and what makes this so intriguing is the fact that they’re women. In a way, they’re almost a challenge to pre-existing conventions. On the other hand, the Wilcox’s represent the pragmatic side of the upper class – very much focused on materialistic things rather than the enjoyment of arts and literature. The two worlds, whilst being so very different, are brought together, combined and live side by side.
While the central concern of the novel lies between Schlegel’s and the Wilcox’s, it also has an interest in Leonard Bast who represents the lower class of English society. When Helen brings him into the midst of the Schlegel household, she begins to help him in his path of self-discovery and self-improvement through literature and art. However, while Helen thinks she is doing a genuine good deed, she’s the catalyst to his downfall towards the end of the novel, a downfall which sees the death of culture in a man who only ever wanted to impress and achieve.
While Forster’s novel draws on the opportunities and complications of English social life, it also dabbles in romance, comedy, tragedy and betrayal. The novel poses questions, seeks answers and presents solutions – even though they may seem unconventional within their respective classes. Most of all, it still seeks to answer the question, ‘Who shall inherit England?’ Is it the lower class that may have the chance to rise up and challenge the upper classes? Or do the upper classes keep their England by making it impossible for the lower classes to attain anything that will better their life chances? The answer to the question is explored throughout the novel, but the greatest thing is that Forster leaves you with a cloudy head and the task of making the call yourself.