Sunday, August 15, 2010

Re-examining E.M. Forster

When pressed, I always include E.M. Forster on my list of favorite authors. But then a friend quoted the "Only connect" passage from Howards End, a book I haven't ever managed to read, despite it being Forster's best known work. I decided it was time. And really I hadn't read anything by him in maybe ten years.

"Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die."

I first encountered E.M. Forster around the time that I read all the other English novelists, my senior year in high school. It was also around that time that I saw the movie adaptation of The Wings of a Dove in the old Roseway Theater in downtown Portland, which also took me on a Henry James reading spree.

I'd have to go back and read A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread to know for sure, but I think what 18 year old me loved about Forster was how desperately romantic it all was. Young people breaking out of their expected roles to fall in love with unexpected people, usually while living abroad. That was, of course, very appealing. And Forster has this way of inserting Great Thoughts on the Universe in between dialogue and plot, and I think these really resonated with the girl getting ready to go to college and start living her life.

What 18-year-old me didn't really notice was the incredible sexism in Forster's novels. Since I'm just a reader of Forster and not a scholar, I'd like to assume that the comments on men dominating women, anti-womens suffrage, and on female domestic roles were to make a point; that he included strong, intelligent women against traditional bumbling men to show that the cultural assumptions were wrong, but honestly I don't know if that's true. Now that I've written it, I feel like I'm trying hard to justify the passion I had for his work.

Even now, while annoyed by the silly female characters in Howard's End, it still pulled at something internal for me. Forster has a knack for creating moments of emotional resonance. Of course the novel doesn't just remark on gender roles, but on the classes within society, capitalism, and empire. At the heart, though, are the relationships, between people, and in this case between people and a special house called Howard's End.

Margaret and Helen are two sisters who take care of each other as well as their younger brother Tibby. Their parents died while they were fairly young, but they are financially stable, giving them no idea of the hardships of struggling to make ends meet. This is what adds to them coming across as silly and careless. They take music and travel for granted, in fact Helen expresses more than once how she would be devastated without these things.

"Not to move about the world would kill me."

When Helen discusses settling down vs. adventure with Mr. Bast:

"If I could only get work - something regular to do. Then it wouldn't be so bad again. I don't trouble after books as I used. I can imagine that with regular work we should settle down again. It stops one thinking."
"Settle down to what?"
"Oh, just settle down."
"And that's to be life!" said Helen, with a catch in her throat. "How can you, with all the beautiful things to see and do - with music - with walking at night -."

These moments are surely what redeem Howard's End for me. I forget about the sexism, the oppression, and the unfairness of what life was during that time. I think deep down I'm still a little starry eyed.


  1. I always enjoyed it for its whole death of the gentry theme, but, yes, there are definitely problems of gender representation.

    Well said!

  2. In my 50 years of reading I've gone from admiring Forster to detesting him. I cannot stand the way he characterizes women.


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