Monday, January 24, 2011

Decades 2010 Challenge: Howards End

Yes, yes. I'm still finishing up last year's challenge reviews. What can I say? It was a busy December. Now January has flown by and I can see February from here, and I'm still working on it. As the saying goes: How do you eat the elephant? One bite at a time.

I've read some rave reviews about this book, which is generally acknowledged as Forster's masterpiece. While I enjoyed it, I can't say I was bowled over. Forster is a master of subtlety, and sometimes I'm not sufficiently engaged to appreciate the full impact of what he's portraying. I'll probably put this down for a re-read in the future.

Forster presents the nouveau riche, robustly capitalistic Wilcox family, in contrast to the Schlegel sisters, artsy bluestocking types who interact with the Wilcoxes in various ways, running the gamut from friendship to romance and back again. In the middle Forster places Leonard Bast, an impoverished clerk of Dickensian stamp, a casualty of this clash of classes.

While these characters are well-developed, they embody not only the contrast between new and old ways of being but the tension between the outer and inner life, commerce and intellect, sentiment and practicality, urban and pastoral. So they get a little talky and preachy from time to time. Their speeches are nicely written and quite persuasive, but they also stop the action in its tracks. Foster adds a dash of humor and some truly excellent writing about musical performance to the mix, so overall this is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

One aspect that I particularly like is Forster's portrayal of Howards End, the house itself, and the heartfelt devotion that Mrs. Wilcox feels for it. As Mrs. Wilcox's ancestral home, it became part of the Wilcox estate when she married into the family, the last of the Howard line. The Wilcox men treat the house disdainfully, but Mrs. Wilcox cherishes it and it provides a grounding center for much of the action. The house itself is almost a character in this book, uniquely situated, surrounded by fields, paired with a mysterious tree, with a whispering influence that enlightens any who have ears to hear. It's no accident that the book takes its title from the name of the house.

Excerpt (Margaret Schlegel remembers Mrs. Wilcox):

I feel that [we] are only fragments of that woman's mind. She knows everything. She is everything. She is the house, and the tree that leans over it. People have their own deaths as well as their own lives, and even if there is nothing beyond death, we shall differ in our nothingness. I cannot believe that knowledge such as hers will perish with knowledge such as mine. She knew about realities. She knew when people were in love, though she was not in the room. I don't doubt that she knew when Henry deceived her.

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