Howards End

I finished Howards End last night. I very much enjoyed reading the book, although I made the mistake of reading some of the criticism that comes with my edition right away and therefore marring the original impression I had. I have a Bedford “Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism” edition, which has a lot of essays from different schools of theory. I didn’t read much, just skimmed a bit, but I read some criticisms of the book I wasn’t ready to hear. I like to just enjoy a book for a while if I can, and then think critically about it later.

Anyway, I thought it was an enjoyable read, plot-wise, and I liked the way Forster integrated his ideas and themes into the storytelling. This, however, is something Virginia Woolf didn’t like; she says Forster’s characters aren’t really characters but are simply ways of making his point. It didn’t feel that way to me – I thought the characters were interesting and believable, most of them; that the plot was engaging, although maybe clumsy in places; and that the ideas were important and ever-present, but that they didn’t threaten to turn the whole thing into a work of sociology or philosophy, as they might. I didn’t feel like I was being preached to.

I was interested in the ecological stuff going on in the book, about how people’s relationship to the land is threatened by the fast pace of life, how the automobile changes the landscape and our relationship to it, and how the city and suburbs are encroaching on the countryside. I liked the description of Margaret’s disorientation when she rides in a “motorcar” and loses her sense of space and place. She battles against a feeling of “flux”:

Margaret was silent. Marriage had not saved her from the sense of flux. London was but a foretaste of this nomadic civilization which is altering human nature so profoundly, and throws upon personal relations a stress greater than they have ever borne 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!

I suppose one of the flaws of the book is the way Forster gets metaphysical in a vague way, like in that last sentence – what exactly does he mean by Love? But I was struck by how modern all this sounds. Trees and meadows and mountains are all too often a spectacle for us, one we see through our car windows as we speed along on highways.

Has anyone read his novel Maurice? I’m kind of curious about that one.

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Filed under Books, Fiction

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