Sunday, May 12, 2013

Howards End

The epigraph to Howards End of 'Only connect...' is a famous one but what does it mean?

Having re-read E. M. Forster's 'best novel' (his own valuation), I realise that there are, at least, three.

The first, and dominant one, is in the sphere of human relationships. Establishing true connection is found in living a life freed of hypocrisy. Mr Wilcox cannot have a mistress and have it forgiven by his second wife and yet retreat into conventional approbation when the forgiving wife's sister is discovered as pregnant out of wedlock. Our behaviours must strive after a coherent whole. We cannot live in compartments; however, superficially, comfortable.

The second is to connect with particular places. The first Mrs Wilcox - intuitively seeing if outwardly muddled (a type of person who was to be reprised in the figure of Mrs Moore in A Passage to India) - had meant Margaret (unknowingly to become the second Mrs Wilcox) to have Howards End because the place suited her and she suited it. They mutually granted it life. It was a place whose character would anchor Margaret's. Particular places shape particular beings.

The third is to connect with the earth itself. Howards End is replete with continuous references to a world passing away, overcome by rootlessness and speed. Margaret's family home must be surrendered when its lease is up to be rendered into new apartments. The motor car's appearance (and the travel therein) renders the countryside a passing blur rather than a place to dwell. The unfortunate Leonard Bast breaks free from his servitude as clerk and an unsatisfactory marriage to venture into the nocturnal countryside, critically on foot! It is his defining adventure.

Only connect... might also suggest a pattern of meaning that the world has but which cannot be baldly stated. Forster was not, by any counts, a religious man, but he was open to mystery, a sense that what we understand by life is always and everywhere positioned beyond what we can explain. It is a world that is deeply respectful of any enterprise after understanding that does not close down into 'the' explanation - religious, moral or scientific.

Forster is a genuine liberal - the deepest value lies in the recognition that not all our values can be reconciled one with another and that the best place to be in response to this is to acknowledge it and to be in a felt compassion, a connection, one with another. 

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