'We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet. This story only deals with gentlefolk, or with those who are obliged to pretend that they are gentlefolk...'
I mentioned a while ago that finally I had succeeded in reading Howards End, a book with which I had notched up at least six previous failures. It was a failure that mystified me, firstly loved and lauded by so many, and secondly with such a beautifully enticing cover. I would stare through that door, onto that garden and desperately want to know what was happening within, but to no avail.
Maybe I was misinterpreting E.M.Forster's intentions with that quote... I was missing the fact that beneath that seemingly genteel exterior of Howards End lies an excoriating critique of money and class, and women's lives along with a dazzlingly brilliant overview of the era. Written in 1910 the 'social, economic and philosophical forces at play' make for a very revealing read which shines a piercing spotlight on pre-First World War England, thus adding much to my Crisis of Brilliance reading trail and attempts to read of all this at a slant.
It all appears to be a paeon to the virtues of England...rural and timeless 'lying as a jewel in a silver sea,' as E.M. Forster looks down over his country and sees an island 'sailing as a ship of souls,' before separating those 'souls' into three distinct classes for his dissection.
There will be the Schlegels, the literary, cultural, idealistic upper class intellectuals of independent means.
There will be the Wilcoxs, the materialistic, pragmatic family imbued with the work ethic, who assume the right to judge but prefer not to be judged themselves
And then there will be the Basts, the lower middle class couple, and between all these E.M.Forster's famous words 'Only Connect' must resonate as he starts to spin his clever and intricate web of connections.
I started reading Howards End by E.M.Forster (yet again) on my Kindle one day... just like that, and before I knew it I was beyond the whole umbrella fiasco and into new and previously unconquered territory.
The umbrella thing had driven me mad becoming a real hurdle which somehow lost me every time in the past...
'Oh God , it's that umbrella again...'
The novel doesn't start with the umbrella though, it starts helpfully and interestingly enough with Helen's letters.
Sisters Helen and Margaret Schlegel and their brother Tibby, have been left to fend for themselves in early twentieth century London following the death of their parents. Mrs Schlegel has died in childbirth following Tibby's arrival, the girls aged five and thirteen respectively, and with Mr Schlegel dying five years later they are, by then, all just old enough to be their own parent-free family.
It is whilst visiting the Wilcox's, friends met on holiday, at their country retreat Howards End, that Helen believes she has fallen in love with a Wilcox son and writes to tell her sister as much, at which point action must be taken to avert a potentially disastrous engagement. Aunt Juley, always desperate to be of use to the family but invariably not required, is dispatched to deal with it all, and still not an umbrella in sight which means I have read this much at least six times before and never quite got into it.
Why ever not...I have no idea because this time I was completely hooked and was soon sailing past the mix up with Leonard Bast and the wrong umbrella
Maybe it was the cover picture on my copy of the book lingering in my mind..
Maybe it was the trip to Charleston while Bookhound and I were on our mini-tour that reminded me of the very obvious similarities to the real-life scenario faced by Vanessa (Bell) Virginia (Woolf) and brothers Thoby and Adrian Stephen, also left to 'raise themselves' in early twentieth-century Bloomsbury.
With one disaster successfully averted more potential disasters follow, and it is the savvy older sister Margaret who proves herself to be the assertive,canny and capable one when more complex relationships play out. Ultimately Howards End (the house) becomes a refuge, a welcome port in a storm and a sanctuary as E.M.Forster explores the notions of social class and its foibles through his characters, and especially through the lives of women. It struck me that Forster challenges the constraints in the most feminist of traditions, and with wry humour too, surely way ahead of his time and deeply and astutely perceptive.
Although Howards End was written long before Vanessa Bell moved to Charleston I had a bit of deja-vue, life-joining-up-with-fiction moment as the guide took us around the house which was looking as lovely as ever...
There is a moment in Howards End when mention is made of Margaret and Helen's sentimental attachment to a chiffonier of their mother's, and as we stepped into one of the bedrooms at Charleston the guide pointed out one of the few pre-Bloomsbury pieces of furniture in the house...a dressing table that had belonged to Vanessa and Virginia's mother, and which according to Virginia's diary had been in the room when their mother had died.
'We can only surmise that they kept it for sentimental reasons,' suggested our guide, and I had an Only Connect moment of my own with that description in Howards End as I stared at it. By comparison to the other furniture in the house it really was a rather ugly thing, with its mottled mirror and overstated proportions...the sunken recess on the top and the deep drawers each side. It seemed slightly clumsy and out of place, the sort of thing that the Omega Workshops were challenging with their avant garde prices, but then don't so many things invested with sentimental value declare their beauty only to the eye of the original beholder.
E.M. Forster was certainly part of the Bloomsbury milieu...might he have 'borrowed' this little cameo I wonder, someone will know. And perhaps someone else will know where the reference is in Virginia Woolf's diaries, it's like looking for a chiffonier in a very large haystack.
And interesting questions of inheritance are writ large over Howards End (the house) too, and ultimately over the heritage of England destined to be placed under such serious threat in the years to come and with its class structure exposed and thwarted.
So there you have it. Finally I understand and love Howards End, that perseverance rewarded because it is a book I know I will treausure and read again...and maybe again, and one that now earns its place on my Best Books shelf.
All in good time etc. do these good things reveal themselves, so how about you and Howards End... have you read it...is it a favourite, or are you still trying to get beyond the brolly episode, and while you are thinking here are some nice Charleston tulips for your delectation...