Hi, all! So I look up and realize that it’s been three months since I’ve posted on my blog. I even missed by blogversary in July. Like for many of you, the past months have been a challenge due to the pandemic. Add to that dealing with debilitating pain from an old root canal that decided to fail—TWICE—as well as prepping for a possible hurricane strike and computer problems that left me without one for a couple of weeks. 2020 is just going to 2020, I guess. I’m fortunate enough to be able to do my job from home. I hope to begin blogging more regularly and even to have another blogathon soon. Stay safe and healthy!
The first time I ever heard of the book Howards End by E.M. Forster was in the movie Educating Rita. Rita, a working-class hairdresser with academic aspirations, is given the book. She makes several jokes about the title.
While I had always read classic literature outside of school assignments, Forster was not one of the authors I had ever picked up. When the Merchant/Ivory version of Howards End came out in 1992, I thought, “Oh, that story about a man’s butt!”
Howards End is not a man’s behind, but a house. It is owned by a Mrs. Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave). The Wilcoxes are an upper class family that is enriching itself by buying up property all over England and seeking to enlarge their fortunes in various locations around the still-large British Empire. They cross paths several times with the Schlegel family, an upper middle-class family comprising of orphaned sisters Margaret (Thompson), Helen (Helena Bohnam Carter), and brother Tibby (Adrian Ross Magenty).
The Schlegels are half German and half English, into literature, art, and philosophy. By a pure happenstance, into their lives enters a young, humble clerk, Leonard Bast (Samuel West) who is also interested in literature and art. The sisters see him as a man who deserves to rise up in the world.
When the Wilcoxes move across the street, Margaret befriends Ruth Wilcox, becoming almost a companion to her while her family is scattered in various places. Ruth extols the beauty of her home Howards End, and is determined to show it to Margaret. She is too ill to do so, and on her deathbed writes a note leaving Howards End to Margaret.
Ruth’s husband Henry (Anthony Hopkins) meets with his children and daughter-in-law. They are puzzled and angered by the notion of Ruth leaving the house to a stranger. They rationalize destroying the note.
Sometime later, the Schlegels once again take up with the Wilcoxes. Soon, Margaret is surprised and pleased to receive a marriage proposal from Henry. His children are once again enraged, especially because of the incident with their mother’s dying wish.
The three families continue to intermingle to the point of tragedy, as a casual, off-handed remark by Henry Wilcox leads to Leonard Bast losing employment and facing starvation and ruin. Helen’s well-meaning attempts to help Leonard lead to an even more tragic event that impacts all three families.
When I watched the recent (and also quite excellent) miniseries version of the book, my mother asked me what on earth is this story about.
It is very allegorical. Forster set out to write about who would end up inheriting England—the upwardly-mobile upper class, represented by the Wilcoxes, the artistic, intellectual upper middle class, like the Schlegels, or the working class, like the Basts. Edwardian England was at a crossroads in many senses. During this period there was a strong pull toward traditional views and other just as strong pulls towards modernity.
For instance, (the obvious attractions of even an aging Anthony Hopkins aside) it is supremely puzzling why someone like Margaret would marry Henry. Not only marry him, overlook the eventually revealed fact that he seduced Leonard’s wife Jacky (Nicola Buffett) when she was only 16 years old. Even though Margaret and Helen have a modern outlook, Margaret still feels the pressure to marry, and likely grabs onto Henry as her last chance.
Henry seems charmed by Margaret’s modernity, but also praises her for knowing when not to cross the line. Until she is forced to choose between her marriage and Helen, Margaret carefully navigates between present and past attitudes to keep her husband.
Even though they hold different views about many things, Margaret and Ruth Wilcox become dear friends before the latter dies. They are bound together by Howards End, before Margaret even steps foot on the property. The Schlegels are forced to face the changing world because their own house is being torn down and they must move, which spurs Ruth to leave Howards End to Margaret. The other Wilcoxes don’t really want Howards End for themselves. Their sense of privilege simply won’t let them relinquish something they feel is rightfully theirs.
The production for Howards End, like most Merchant/Ivory films, is impeccable (besides a Best Actress win for Thompson, the film won Oscars for Adapted Screenplay and Art Direction). The acting, superb. James Ivory is not noted as a great director among critics, but I think he is very underrated. There is one scene where at a moment of deep desperation and sadness, Henry needs to let his son know he loves him. You see his hand coming out of the frame to shake hands with him, the one and only way he has ever shown him affection.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who wrote the screenplay, is arguably one of the greatest screenwriters of adapted works. She stayed very true to the authors’ themes while allowing Ivory to tell a cinematic story. England, in a way, is as a vital character in this movie as it is in the book.
In the end, Forster seems to be saying that the Wilcoxes of England would be forced to step aside—somewhat—to make room for the Schlegels, and if not Leonard Bast, at least his descendants. History seems to have confirmed that view. But far from merely telling an allegory, he created a rich canvas with compelling characters, which were translated on film brilliantly by Ivory, Jhabvala, and a superb cast.