I’ve just finished re-reading another of my Top 5 books (which are, for the record, The Story of Holly and Ivy, A Little Princess, Villette, Howard’s End, and Vanity Fair). I have a long and not always pleasant history with Howard’s End. When the movie was released my mother took me to see it in the theater, and I loathed it. I took this loathing back to my junior high English class, and expressed it when my arch-enemy praised the film. I was roundly sneered upon and told that I “wasn’t mature enough” by both the arch-enemy and the English teacher. None of this made me feel well-disposed toward the possibility of reading the book, so I didn’t.
Then in college I took an Edwardian novels class, and it became unavoidable. I settled down with the critical edition the professor had picked out and read it.
And loved it.
As soon as I finished it, I read it again. I marked it up. I re-read it every few months; I still do re-read it every few months. It’s one of my Top Five, you know?
And for the class, after having read the book, we watched the film, and again I loathed it. I don’t mind seeing Jude Law and Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in my mind as I read the book, but somehow, the movie manages to lose everything that is warm and charming and mysterious about the story. It isn’t that Forster can’t be successfully translated onto film, because A Room With A View does just that brilliantly; it’s that whoever made this film had no sense of humor at all.
So, almost twenty years, one B.A. in Victorian & Edwardian novels, one M.A. in new philology, one Ph.D., and a dozen re-readings later, I’m sorry to inform my arch-enemy and junior high school English teacher that I still LOATHE that movie. Obviously I haven’t matured.
About the book, though: one of the things that keeps drawing me back to it are the wonderful cozy scenes at Wickham Place, full of tea-times and clever talk. The other thing is that I do not understand the book. I feel sure that Forster is getting at something, but quite what he’s getting at has always eluded me. This time around, though, I got something more.
Interestingly, I’m getting something more because in the last couple of years I have spent some time thinking about Forster’s naughty novel Maurice, at the end of which two homosexual men run off to find a place, somewhere in the woods, where they can live in their own way, unbothered by society. Howard’s End, amazingly, is exactly the same. It is a portrait of people who are ruined by the rules and pressures and expectations of society, and who fortunately have the means to escape it entirely–each in their own separate way, some intentionally and some not. Death, incarceration, motherhood, old age, and sensible necessity force Wilcoxes, Basts, and Schlegels out of London and into Hampshire. Without the ceaseless, irritating ebb and flow of families and city, all of these people become–in their own ways–human.
I’m proud of myself this time around because I have at least managed to understand the book more thoroughly than the person who wrote the introduction to it, in my edition. That person is interested in Henry and Margaret’s sex life, which is judged to be no good because when Miss Avery shows Margaret the bassinet at Howard’s End, Margaret “turns away without speaking.” This person missed the scene in which Margaret doesn’t get along with Dolly’s children, and also her ending monologue about the million subtle differences between people that give life color–her own difference being that she does not like children. Not only was Mr. Introduction distastefully obsessed with sex, but he blundered into the same inhuman path as Capitalism, Urbanism, and Society, in assuming that Margeret must of course want children, and be upset because she expected none.
I am satisfied with this re-reading, and looking forward to the next. Do have a spin yourself–it isn’t a long book, and some of it is delightful. Let me know what you think.