Secret Library

Revisiting Howards End: Notes Towards an Analysis of Forster’s Novel

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses the importance of dwelling and houses in Forster’s classic novel

E. M. Forster’s novel Howards End was published in 1910 and written in 1908-10. This can be seen as significant for several reasons. It places the novel in the Edwardian period, a time when, in the wake of the nineteenth century and the long Victorian era, houses were being torn down and rebuilt, or replaced with apartment blocks which were more financially remunerative.

There was a vast rebuilding initiative across Britain but especially in London, and the new concept of ‘suburbia’ was beginning to grow as London expanded its boundaries out into the countryside. (In the wake of the advent of the railways, more people could work in London but live out in the smokeless outskirts, commuting into the city each day.)

1908 was also the year in which the Ideal Home Exhibition was founded by the Daily Mail, the aim of which was to provide homeowners (or even renting tenants: in 1908, 90% of people in Britain rented rather than owned the property in which they lived) with ideas for how they could furnish their homes with the latest modern conveniences or ‘mod cons’ and the newest fashions.

Part of this new sense of aspiration can perhaps be ascribed to the desire, in the early twentieth century, to bring homes into the modern age and out of the Victorian period, which was increasingly viewed, in retrospect, as dated and old-fashioned (for more on how the twentieth century tried to disown the nineteenth, I’d recommend Matthew Sweet’s excellent book Inventing the Victorians).

But how ‘modern’ is Howards End?

Any analysis of Forster’s novel must contend with Forster’s deeply contradictory stance on this question. Forster was deeply sceptical about modern life in many respects. He wrote in his diary on 27 January 1908, shortly before beginning the novel, that ‘I have been born at the end of the age of peace and can’t expect to feel anything but despair. Science, instead of freeing man … is enslaving him to machines … God what a prospect!’ Tellingly, he describes the motorcar as ‘the throbbing, stinking car’ in the novel itself.

In 1909, while at work on Howards End, Forster published a short story, ‘The Machine Stops’, which offers an even bleaker vision of the influence machines would come to have over humanity in Forster’s view: by setting his story in the future, he can project a nightmare dystopian vision of a world in which humans worship ‘the Machine’ as a godlike entity, and live their lives entirely through technology (among other things, the story predicts Skype, instant messaging, and the internet more widely).

And yet in Howards End the character of Margaret Schlegel seems to embody a ray of hope that these two worlds – ‘the prose and the passion’, the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels, the new and the old, the modern and the traditional – can be reconciled. But what else needs to be ‘connected’ in this famous phrase from the novel, ‘only connect’?

One way to attempt an answer to this question is through approaching them philosophically. Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, which was published in French in 1958 and translated into English six years later, is concerned with the link between the spaces we inhabit – particularly houses and other dwellings – and the way our imagination works. He opens the first chapter of The Poetics of Space by stating:

The house, quite obviously, is a privileged entity for a phenomenological study of the intimate values of inside space, provided, of course, that we take it in both its unity and its complexity, and endeavour to integrate all the special values in one fundamental value. For the house furnishes us dispersed images and a body of images at the same time. In both cases, I shall prove that imagination augments the values of reality.

Imagination, far from being at odds with reality, actually enhances it: we experience a house all the more keenly because we have imagined, and can recall, other houses. Our concept of ‘the house’ is shaped by our experiences of many houses: those we have lived in, those we have visited, those we have imagined, those we have seen pictures of, those we have read about.

In Forster’s novel, Margaret first ‘experiences’ Howards End through the descriptions of it in her sister’s letters; before she has even been there, she has an imaginary picture of the house which, arguably, augments the reality of the house for her when she does eventually visit it.

It’s worth comparing Bachelard’s assessment of the house’s importance with the reality of the house or dwelling-place as experienced by someone like Leonard Bast in Howards End: is his imagination allowed to bloom? He is evidently a Bachelardian in wanting to use the poetic side of his nature (in chapter VI, he is studying the writing of John Ruskin in order to emulate its style – tellingly, Ruskin was famous for writing on beautiful architecture, and also coined the phrase ‘pathetic fallacy’, whereby one’s surroundings seem to be in sympathy with one’s feelings or mood). But his poetic side is hardly allowed to flourish.

At one point, he contrasts Ruskin’s sentence about a church with what he’d write if he reworked the sentence so that it described his own flat. The church is an apt example for Forster to use here because we can link such a building to Martin Heidegger’s concept of the ‘fourfold’, whereby earth, sky, mortals, and divinities are all kept in balance; by contrast, Leonard’s basement flat is a little too much in the earth, and cut off from the sky and divinities.

It is technically a ‘cellar’ but was relabelled a ‘semi-basement’ by the house agents (nothing much changes); as Heidegger points out in his essay ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’, dwelling needs to precede building, in order to create a space people will be able to dwell happily. But a cellar is built for storage rather than for dwelling, so it contravenes Heidegger’s command here.

Does anyone in Howards End actually realise Bachelard’s vision of the house as a place which ‘shelters daydreaming’? The Schlegels are to be evicted from Wickham Place by their ‘ground-landlord’ (thus doubly pointing up his connection with the earth, or ground/land) and the narrator bemoans the modern nomadic lifestyle many people have, because it leads to ‘imaginative poverty’ (i.e., because they never settle down in one place which they can call home, they are robbing their imaginations of the shelter it needs in order to thrive). But does this alter by the end of the novel?

Howards End (The Penguin English Library) is a complex novel that offers an intriguing picture of modernity: an analysis of the novel’s attitude to dwelling, to concepts of home and habitation, gives us an opportunity to observe this in one key aspect of the book.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.