About the Author
His first two novels, Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905) and The Longest Journey (1907), were both poorly received, and it was not until the publication of Howards End, in 1910, that Forster achieved his first major success as a novelist, with the work many considered his finest creation.
Forster first visited India during 1912 and 1913, and after three years as a noncombatant in Alexandria, Egypt, during World War I and several years in England, he returned for an extended visit in 1921. From those experiences came his most celebrated novel, A Passage to India, his darkest and most probing work and perhaps the best novel about India written by a foreigner.
As a man of letters , Forster was honored during and after World War II for his resistance to any and all forms of tyranny and totalitarianism, and King’s College awarded him a permanent fellowship in 1949. Forster spent his later years at Cambridge writing and teaching, and died at Coventry, England, on June 7, 1970. His novel, Maurice, written several decades earlier, was published posthumously in 1971.
Date of Birth:January 1, 1879
Date of Death:June 7, 1970
Place of Birth:London
Place of Death:Coventry, England
Education:B. A. in classics, King's College, Cambridge, 1900; B. A. in history, 1901; M.A., 1910
Read an Excerpt
ONE MAY as well begin with Helen's letters to her sister.
It isn't going to be what we expected. It is old and little, and altogether delightful—red brick. We can scarcely pack in as it is, and the dear knows what will happen when Paul (younger son) arrives tomorrow. From hall you go right or left into dining-room or drawing-room. Hall itself is practically a room. You open another door in it, and there are the stairs going up in a sort of tunnel to the first-floor. Three bed-rooms in a row there, and three attics in a row above. That isn't all the house really, but it's all that one notices—nine windows as you look up from the front garden.
Then there's a very big wych-elm—to the left as you look up—leaning a little over the house, and standing on the boundary between the garden and meadow. I quite love that tree already. Also ordinary elms, oaks—no nastier than ordinary oaks—pear-trees, apple-trees, and a vine. No silver birches, though. However, I must get on to my host and hostess. I only wanted to show that it isn't the least what we expected. Why did we settle that their house would be all gables and wiggles, and their garden all gamboge-coloured paths? I believe simply because we associate them with expensive hotels—Mrs. Wilcox trailing in beautiful dresses down long corridors, Mr. Wilcox bullying porters, etc. We females are that unjust.
I shall be back Saturday; will let you know train later. They are as angry as I am that you did not come too; really Tibby is too tiresome, he starts a new mortal disease every month. How could he have got hay fever in London? and even if he could, it seems hard that you should give up a visit to hear a schoolboy sneeze. Tell him that Charles Wilcox (the son who is here) has hay fever too, but he's brave, and gets quite cross when we inquire after it. Men like the Wilcoxes would do Tibby a power of good. But you won't agree, and I'd better change the subject.
This long letter is because I'm writing before breakfast. Oh, the beautiful vine leaves! The house is covered with a vine. I looked out earlier, and Mrs. Wilcox was already in the garden. She evidently loves it. No wonder she sometimes looks tired. She was watching the large red poppies come out. Then she walked off the lawn to the meadow, whose corner to the right I can just see. Trail, trail, went her long dress over the sopping grass, and she came back with her hands full of the hay that was cut yesterday—I suppose for rabbits or something, as she kept on smelling it. The air here is delicious. Later on I heard the noise of croquet balls, and looked out again, and it was Charles Wilcox practising; they are keen on all games. Presently he started sneezing and had to stop. Then I hear more clicketing, and it is Mr. Wilcox practising, and then, "a-tissue, a-tissue": he has to stop too. Then Evie comes out, and does some calisthenic exercises on a machine that is tacked on to a greengage-tree—they put everything to use—and then she says "a-tissue," and in she goes. And finally Mrs. Wilcox reappears, trail, trail, still smelling hay and looking at the flowers. I inflict all this on you because once you said that life is sometimes life and sometimes only a drama, and one must learn to distinguish t'other from which, and up to now I have always put that down as "Meg's clever nonsense." But this morning, it really does seem not life but a play, and it did amuse me enormously to watch the W's. Now Mrs. Wilcox has come in.
I am going to wear [omission]. Last night Mrs. Wilcox wore an [omission], and Evie [omission]. So it isn't exactly a go-as-you-please place, and if you shut your eyes it still seems the wiggly hotel that we expected. Not if you open them. The dog-roses are too sweet. There is a great hedge of them over the lawn—magnificently tall, so that they fall down in garlands, and nice and thin at the bottom, so that you can see ducks through it and a cow. These belong to the farm, which is the only house near us. There goes the breakfast gong. Much love. Modified love to Tibby. Love to Aunt Juley; how good of her to come and keep you company, but what a bore. Burn this. Will write again
I am having a glorious time. I like them all. Mrs. Wilcox, if quieter than in Germany, is sweeter than ever, and I never saw anything like her steady unselfishness, and the best of it is that the others do not take advantage of her. They are the very happiest, jolliest family that you can imagine. I do really feel that we are making friends. The fun of it is that they think me a noodle, and say so—at least, Mr. Wilcox does—and when that happens, and one doesn't mind, it's a pretty sure test, isn't it? He says the most horrid things about women's suffrage so nicely, and when I said I believed in equality he just folded his arms and gave me such a setting down as I've never had. Meg, shall we ever learn to talk less? I never felt so ashamed of myself in my life. I couldn't point to a time when men had been equal, nor even to a time when the wish to be equal had made them happier in other ways. I couldn't say a word. I had just picked up the notion that equality is good from some book—probably from poetry, or you. Anyhow, it's been knocked into pieces, and, like all people who are really strong, Mr. Wilcox did it without hurting me. On the other hand, I laugh at them for catching hay fever. We live like fighting-cocks, and Charles takes us out every day in the motor—a tomb with trees in it, a hermit's house, a wonderful road that was made by the Kings of Mercia—tennis—a cricket match—bridge—and at night we squeeze up in this lovely house. The whole clan's here now—it's like a rabbit warren. Evie is a dear. They want me to stop over Sunday—I suppose it won't matter if I do. Marvellous weather and the view's marvellous—views westward to the high ground. Thank you for your letter. Burn this.
Dearest, dearest Meg,—I do not know what you will say: Paul and I are in love—the younger son who only came here Wednesday.
MARGARET GLANCED at her sister's note and pushed it over the breakfast-table to her aunt. There was a moment's hush, and then the flood-gates opened.
"I can tell you nothing, Aunt Juley. I know no more than you do. We met—we only met the father and mother abroad last spring. I know so little that I didn't even know their son's name. It's all so—" She waved her hand and laughed a little.
"In that case it is far too sudden."
"Who knows, Aunt Juley, who knows?"
"But, Margaret dear, I mean we mustn't be unpractical now that we've come to facts. It is too sudden, surely."
"But Margaret dear—"
"I'll go for her other letters," said Margaret. "No, I won't, I'll finish my breakfast. In fact, I haven't them. We met the Wilcoxes on an awful expedition that we made from Heidelberg to Speyer. Helen and I had got it into our heads that there was a grand old cathedral at Speyer—the Archbishop of Speyer was one of the seven electors—you know—'Speyer, Maintz, and Koln.' Those three sees once commanded the Rhine Valley and got it the name of Priest Street."
"I still feel quite uneasy about this business, Margaret."
"The train crossed by a bridge of boats, and at first sight it looked quite fine. But oh, in five minutes we had seen the whole thing. The cathedral had been ruined, absolutely ruined, by restoration; not an inch left of the original structure. We wasted a whole day, and came across the Wilcoxes as we were eating our sandwiches in the public gardens. They too, poor things, had been taken in—they were actually stopping at Speyer—and they rather liked Helen insisting that they must fly with us to Heidelberg. As a matter of fact, they did come on next day. We all took some drives together. They knew us well enough to ask Helen to come and see them—at least, I was asked too, but Tibby's illness prevented me, so last Monday she went alone. That's all. You know as much as I do now. It's a young man out of the unknown. She was to have come back Saturday, but put off till Monday, perhaps on account of—I don't know."
She broke off, and listened to the sounds of a London morning. Their house was in Wickham Place, and fairly quiet, for a lofty promontory of buildings separated it from the main thoroughfare. One had the sense of a backwater, or rather of an estuary, whose waters flowed in from the invisible sea, and ebbed into a profound silence while the waves without were still beating. Though the promontory consisted of flats—expensive, with cavernous entrance halls, full of concierges and palms—it fulfilled its purpose, and gained for the older houses opposite a certain measure of peace. These, too, would be swept away in time, and another promontory would rise upon their site, as humanity piled itself higher and higher on the precious soil of London.
Mrs. Munt had her own method of interpreting her nieces. She decided that Margaret was a little hysterical, and was trying to gain time by a torrent of talk. Feeling very diplomatic, she lamented the fate of Speyer, and declared that never, never should she be so misguided as to visit it, and added of her own accord that the principles of restoration were ill understood in Germany. "The Germans," she said, "are too thorough, and this is all very well sometimes, but at other times it does not do."
"Exactly," said Margaret; "Germans are too thorough." And her eyes began to shine.
"Of course I regard you Schlegels as English," said Mrs. Munt hastily—"English to the backbone."
Margaret leaned forward and stroked her hand.
"And that reminds me—Helen's letter—"
"Oh, yes, Aunt Juley, I am thinking all right about Helen's letter. I know—I must go down and see her. I am thinking about her all right. I am meaning to go down."
"But go with some plan," said Mrs. Munt, admitting into her kindly voice a note of exasperation. "
Margaret, if I may interfere, don't be taken by surprise. What do you think of the Wilcoxes? Are they our sort? Are they likely people? Could they appreciate Helen, who is to my mind a very special sort of person? Do they care about Literature and Art? That is most important when you come to think of it. Literature and Art. Most important. How old would the son be? She says 'younger son.' Would he be in a position to marry? Is he likely to make Helen happy? Did you gather—"
"I gathered nothing."
They began to talk at once.
"Then in that case—"
"In that case I can make no plans, don't you see."
"On the contrary—"
"I hate plans. I hate lines of action. Helen isn't a baby."
"Then in that case, my dear, why go down?"
Margaret was silent. If her aunt could not see why she must go down, she was not going to tell her. She was not going to say: "I love my dear sister; I must be near her at this crisis of her life." The affections are more reticent than the passions, and their expression more subtle. If she herself should ever fall in love with a man, she, like Helen, would proclaim it from the house-tops, but as she only loved a sister she used the voiceless language of sympathy.
"I consider you odd girls," continued Mrs. Munt, "and very wonderful girls, and in many ways far older than your years. But—you won't be offended?—frankly I feel you are not up to this business. It requires an older person. Dear, I have nothing to call me back to Swanage." She spread out her plump arms. "I am all at your disposal. Let me go down to this house whose name I forget instead of you."
"Aunt Juley"—she jumped up and kissed her—"I must, must go to Howards End myself. You don't exactly understand, though I can never thank you properly for offering."
"I do understand," retorted Mrs. Munt, with immense confidence. "I go down in no spirit of interference, but to make inquiries. Inquiries are necessary. Now, I am going to be rude. You would say the wrong thing; to a certainty you would. In your anxiety for Helen's happiness you would offend the whole of these Wilcoxes by asking one of your impetuous questions—not that one minds offending them."
"I shall ask no questions. I have it in Helen's writing that she and a man are in love. There is no question to ask as long as she keeps to that. All the rest isn't worth a straw. A long engagement if you like, but inquiries, questions, plans, lines of action—no, Aunt Juley, no."
Away she hurried, not beautiful, not supremely brilliant, but filled with something that took the place of both qualities—something best described as a profound vivacity, a continual and sincere response to all that she encountered in her path through life.
"If Helen had written the same to me about a shop-assistant or a penniless clerk—"
"Dear Margaret, do come into the library and shut the door. Your good maids are dusting the banisters."
"—or if she had wanted to marry the man who calls for Carter Paterson, I should have said the same." Then, with one of those turns that convinced her aunt that she was not mad really and convinced observers of another type that she was not a barren theorist, she added: "Though in the case of Carter Paterson I should want it to be a very long engagement indeed, I must say."
"I should think so," said Mrs. Munt; "and, indeed, I can scarcely follow you. Now, just imagine if you said anything of that sort to the Wilcoxes. I understand it, but most good people would think you mad. Imagine how disconcerting for Helen! What is wanted is a person who will go slowly, slowly in this business, and see how things are and where they are likely to lead to."
Margaret was down on this.
"But you implied just now that the engagement must be broken off."
"I think probably it must; but slowly."
"Can you break an engagement off slowly?" Her eyes lit up. "What's an engagement made of, do you suppose? I think it's made of some hard stuff, that may snap, but can't break. It is different to the other ties of life. They stretch or bend. They admit of degree. They're different."
Reading Group Guide
"The more people one knows, the easier it is to replace them. It is one of the curses of London. I quite expect to end my life caring most for a place."
The place that E. M. Forster loved so deeply that he made it the centerpiece of one of his best-loved novels was a country house just north of London called Rooksnest. From the moment he moved in with his mother at age four, "I took it to my heart and hoped . . . that I would live and die there." Much more than just a house, for Forster, Rooksnest came to represent English country values—a connection to place, a respect for individuality, and a commitment to the contemplative life—that were increasingly threatened by the urbanization and industrialization sweeping Edwardian England. Forster's childhood idyll was to last only ten years, for at fourteen he moved with his mother to the newly fashionable bourgeois suburb of Tonbridge Wells, home to many members of the growing business class that would become a central concern of his fiction.
In Tonbridge Wells, Forster met families who, like the Wilcoxes of Howards End, were energetic capitalists focused on motorcars and moneymaking. And if Tonbridge Wells gave rise to the Wilcoxes, Cambridge was the likely birthplace of the other central family of Howards End, the Schlegels. It was as a university student at King's College that Forster was first inspired by the liberal humanism of philosopher George Moore, who advocated the contemplation of beauty and the cultivation of personal relations as a spiritual antidote to the rootless, mechanistic ethos of his age. Forster, together with the young men who would later form the Bloomsbury group of writers (Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, and Leonard Woolf, among others), embraced this challenge to traditional religious morality and to the growing commercial spirit of the time. Forster spent some of his happiest days in this company, a lifestyle mirrored in the Schlegels' passion for art, friendship, and the life of the mind.
Yet, like the Schlegel sisters, he was not completely satisfied by life among the London literati. More importantly, he was starting to understand the practicality of conformist values, of "social conventions, economic trend, efficiency," and he grew acutely aware of the limitations of liberal ideals. The Bloomsbury group's sitting-room debates and fashionable walking-parties were for Forster too narrow, too disdainful of the economic and material conditions that made their way of life possible. Against this backdrop, the character of Margaret emerged—her curious attraction to Henry, her appreciation of money, her pragmatism. Unlike her sister Helen, whose brief entrancement with the dynamic Wilcox men quickly evolves into contempt for them, Margaret, like the man who created her, envisions a marriage of soul and body, country and city, passion and prose, culture and commerce.
While Forster created the Wilcox and Schlegel families and the England they inhabit from his own experiences, the interior lives of Leonard Bast and Jacky were drawn purely from imagination. Leonard, a poor insurance clerk only a few steps removed from his rural, working-class roots, hopes to "come to Culture suddenly, much as the Revivalist hopes to come to Jesus." To Forster, who believed that "the character of the English is essentially middle-class," it was people like Leonard and the Wilcoxes—aspiring to wealth, political power, and culture—who would eventually "inherit" England, not the dying aristocratic class of the Schlegels nor the working classes. Forster used Leonard's connection with the Schlegels as the social conscience of the book. As critic Wilfred Stone wrote, "Just as [Leonard] stands on the edge of the social 'abyss,' so he affords the Schlegels a glimpse into it— increasing both their 'panic and emptiness' and their guilt over class and money."
Because Forster did not keep comprehensive journals during his most fertile period as a writer and later destroyed some of his diaries, it is not possible to trace the entire composition of Howards End. It is known that the outline for the book crystallized sometime in 1908, about two years after Forster made a trip to the countryside to spend time with the Postens, an oddly matched stockbroker and his clever, cultured second wife who provided the immediate model for the relationship between Henry and Margaret. In a journal entry of February 1910, Forster wrote, "Am grinding out my novel into a contrast between money and death—the latter is truly an ally of the personal against the mechanical." Clearly the advancing machine age was at the forefront of Forster's consciousness at the time. With the social issues of man versus machine, country versus city, and culture versus money weighing on his mind, Forster completed his fourth novel. Published in November 1910, Howards End was greeted with glorious reviews, making Forster a literary star.
Over the years, Howards End has remained one of Forster's most beloved novels. Few works combine social comedy and political commentary with the skillful characterizations seen in the Schlegel sisters. Writing during a time of lively discussion about his country's socioeconomic conditions, Forster conceived the work as a "condition-of-England novel," a work designed to enter Edwardian debates about wealth and poverty, art and pragmatism, country life and urban sprawl that would not have sounded unfamiliar in Thatcher's England or Reagan's America. Forster, with a comic suspicion of the dogmas championed by liberals and conservatives alike, provides a distinctly humanistic perspective on some of the central debates of his time and ours.
Ultimately, Howards End is the most optimistic expression of Forster's unique vision, a sensibility that transcends the temporal confines of his novel. Its richly drawn characters and the struggles they face—to maintain human connection in an increasingly depersonalized society, to find a spiritual home in the world—are still as current as they were at the beginning of the twentieth century.
ABOUT THE E.M. FORSTER
Edward Morgan Forster was born on New Year's Day, 1879, in Dorset Square, London, the second child (the first died soon after birth) of middle-class parents, Edward Llewellyn Forster, a Cambridge graduate and architect, and Alice Clara "Lily" Whichelo. When his son was just one, Forster's father died after a long battle with consumption, leaving the family little money and making Lily a widow at twenty-five. Unwilling to live with relatives and unable to afford a London apartment, Lily moved to a house in the English countryside, Rooksnest, where she devoted herself to her son. At Rooksnest, Forster's life was spent in the nurturing, overprotective "haze of elderly ladies" that included paternal aunts and Lily's friends, and he formed a deep emotional attachment to the place, drawing later on the memories for Howards End.
When Forster was fourteen years old, he and Lily faced the disheartening news that their lease at Rooksnest was up, and they sadly moved to the suburb of Tonbridge Wells. Here, Forster attended the boarding school as a day boy, with classics as his major study. At Tonbridge he wrote for the school newspaper and won several awards for his essays, but nonetheless it was here, a place that contrasted so sharply with his happy home life, where his feelings of being an outsider hardened into an abiding distaste for the English school system.
Forster's intellectual and social life blossomed when, in 1897, he entered King's College, Cambridge. With the guidance and encouragement of his classics professor, Forster grew to admire the modern European writers Tolstoy, Proust, and Ibsen, and began to test his own powers as a writer. It was during these years, too, that he first began to acknowledge his homosexuality, falling in love with another undergraduate, H. O. Meredith, who would be the center of his posthumously published novel Maurice (finished in 1914). Meredith helped Forster become a member of the "Apostles," the university's foremost discussion group, where he formed friendships with many of the intellectuals later associated with the Bloomsbury group in London.
In 1901, with his formal education over and uncertain about a career, Forster, accompanied by Lily, set off on a year-long trip to Italy to study Italian history, language, art, and literature, and to work on a novel-in-progress. In 1903 he published his first short story, "Albergo Empedocle," and soon thereafter started to write for the Independent Review, a social and political journal founded by his Cambridge friends, to which he would contribute regularly for many years. His first three published novels, Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), The Longest Journey (1907), and A Room with a View (1908) received generally favorable reviews and made him a minor literary celebrity, but not until the publication of Howards End (1910) did Forster achieve major acclaim as a writer.
During 1912 and 1913 Forster journeyed to India, beginning a lifelong fascination with the subcontinent. A return journey to India in 1921 provided the inspiration for A Passage to India (1924), which was hailed as a masterpiece on publication. After writing five novels in succession, then ending a fourteen-year hiatus with A Passage to India, Forster retired as a novelist at the age of forty-five.
He spent the second half of his life as a voracious reader, reviewer, and supporter of young writers such as J. R. Ackerley and Eudora Welty. A prominent public intellectual, Forster became the first president of England's National Council on Civil Liberties and was a lifelong spokesman for personal and political tolerance, testifying in the trial that successfully overturned the ban on D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. King's College awarded Forster an honorary fellowship in 1946, and he spent the rest of his years in Cambridge. Leading an active literary and social life to the end, Forster died in 1970 at age 91.
- The differences between the two Schlegel sisters are highlighted in their reactions to Beethoven: Helen "can see heroes and shipwrecks in the music's flood," while Margaret "can see only the music." Discuss the disparity in their outlooks and how this leads to disagreements, for example, over Leonard Bast and Henry Wilcox.
- Given Forster's portrayal of Henry Wilcox, what do you think attracts Margaret to him? Why does she accept his proposal of marriage, even though she admits to her sister that she does not love him? Does she grow to love him in the end?
- Compared to more radical modernist contemporaries like D. H. Lawrence and Ford Madox Ford, Forster's retention of the omniscient narrator appears conservative and traditional. Yet the narrator's "omniscience" is distinctively qualified and tentative: "It is rather a moment when the commentator should step forward. Ought the Wilcoxes to have offered their home to Margaret? I think not." Whose viewpoint (or viewpoints) does the narrator convey?
- The juxtaposition of masculine principles (money, logic, conquest, the external life) and feminine principles (spirit, intuition, accommodation, the inner life) is perhaps best embodied in the characters of Henry and Helen. Margaret, however, is less stereotypically feminine and maternal, saying "I do not love children. I am thankful I have none." The narrator tells us that "On the whole she sided with men as they are." When Margaret ultimately "charged straight through these Wilcoxes" and united Helen and Henry at Howards End, was it a victory in the masculine or feminine mode?
- Leonard Bast is portrayed as a spiritual orphan, "sucked into the town" and loosed from the moorings of his working-class origins. Are the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels responsible for his death? To what extent is his ascent from poverty hindered by his own personal limitations and ambitions?
- Although Forster's work is not conventionally religious, he frequently expresses a deep spirituality. Discuss the spiritual outlook expressed in Margaret's contemplation on love (Chapter XX), Mrs. Wilcox's bond with the English countryside, and Helen's "mind that readily shreds the visible."
- "I'm broken—I'm ended," says Henry Wilcox as he contemplates his son's imminent arrest near the end of the book. Has Henry in fact changed at the end of the novel? Have his values been transformed by his marriage to Margaret? Before their marriage the narrator asserts that Henry "did alter her character—a little." Is that true?
- In the final chapter, Margaret and Helen's vista from Howards End is spoiled only by the "red rust" in the distance, the mark of London encroaching on the pristine landscape. Discuss Forster's view of technology and his hope for a civilization that will "rest on the earth."
- Images of water are repeatedly evoked in Howards End to suggest the dynamic ebb and flow of life, "progress," and the rush of time. London is a place where "all the qualities, good, bad, and indifferent, [are] streaming away." Contrast these images with the farm house, wych-elm, and meadow that bind the characters to the earth and the past.
- "More and more," Margaret protests, "do I refuse to draw my income and sneer at those who guarantee it. . . . Hurray for riches!" Margaret's vigorous defense of the material basis of her lifestyle, a defense that shocks some of her family and friends, reflects Forster's own reexamination of the antibusiness, antimaterialist sentiments he had imbibed during his university education. How do her comments highlight the limitations of both the intellectuals' and the capitalists' attitudes toward wealth? Why can't she and her family ultimately help the Leonard Basts of the world— let alone the "unthinkable" poorer classes—financially?
- On the surface, Ruth Wilcox is very different from Margaret Schlegel: unworldly, apolitical, more easily accepting of her husband's ways and views. On what basis does she sense such a close bond with Margaret and come to see her as the proper "spiritual heir" of Howards End? What does Margaret mean when she says to Helen, "I feel that you and I and Henry are only fragments of that woman's mind"?