EMF combines feather-light Jane Austen style drawing room comedy with a biting social commentary in a driving plot which travels inexorably towards tragedy.
The Schlegels are two sisters and a brother of independent means whose essentially frivolous lives are redeemed by a clear understanding that they are privileged and that the underprivileged who support them lead lives of struggle. Sometimes clumsily, but always with the best intentions, they try to better the lot of the poor.
They interact with the Wilcoxes. Mr Wilcox is a businessman whose fortune comes from West Africa. As a self-made man he is convinced that those who have not made it are poor through their own failures. He uses and abuses the people who work for him and his son, George, does so even more. Only his wife, who is the old money owner of Howards End, is a spiritual Schlegel.
The doom of the Wilcoxes is sealed when, in a family conference after Mrs Wilcox has died, jointly decide that her wish to leave Howards End to Margaret Schlegel should not be honoured since it has no force in law.
But then Mr Wilcox decides to marry Margaret.
Mr Wilcox is, for me, the most fascinating character. Despite being, on the surface, the brutalist Mr Moneybags he marries, twice, women who represent the good sense of upper middle class England, rooted in its soil. He may scare his children, dominate his women and fight against the quiet rural life but at the same time he marries Margaret, possibly from guilt, and at the end he retires quite gracefully.
But all the characters are great from Leonard Bast, a clerk who seeks a spiritual life in books by Ruskin which tell him how to appreciate beauty, to Mrs Bast, the buxom earth goddess he has married against the wishes of his parents, to rash Helen and sensible Margaret, the Schlegel sisters acting out Austen's Dashwood sisters into potentially rash marriages, to George's wife who is so concerned about money.
But where Forster is particularly brilliant is the way he juxtaposes lines to highlight his social commentary. After Helen has inadvertently stolen Mr Bast's umbrella and he has come to her house to retrieve it she hunts through an assortment of similarly purloined brollies and opens one to see if it belongs to Mr Bast: '"What about this umbrella?" She opened it. "No, it's all gone along the seams. It must be mine." But it was not.' And Mrs Munt, Margaret's aunt declares that "Germans are too thorough" a few lines before '"Of course I regard you Schlegels as ... English to the backbone."'
A brilliant book by the brilliiant author of the brilliant Where Angels Fear to Tread and the even more brilliant A Room With a View and the courageous Maurice.
Brilliant. September 2014; 340 pages
- Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57