The Films of Merchant Ivory
E.M. Forster was a lucky man; he was revered until the last years of his long life. Then he fell into the abyss. Critics complained that the symbolism in his novels did not harmonize with the realism of his characters; or that he failed to translate his ideas into convincing action; or never reconciled the poetic with the comic. Worse still he preached; not like D.H. Lawrence at the top of his voice, but like a governess telling his charge to attend, otherwise he would not understand what he was being taught. Never more so than in Howards End. It is his most ambitious pre-1914 novel. He asked who should inherit England, and the critics called it his greatest failure.
It is now over eighty years since Forster began to write that novel, yet its themes are still contemporary. In a vulgar sense one can see the recent general election in Britain embodying the clash between the Schlegel sisters and the Wilcoxes in the book. For eleven years Margaret Thatcher tried to persuade her countrymen that they should prefer rugged competition that created wealth even if it created unemployment. She told them that the work ethic of diligence, thrift, and self-reliance was a sounder recipe for happiness than compassion expressed in welfare handouts and conciliation resulting in union featherbedding. Intellectuals and artists were reminded that the State would no longer tax their fellow citizens to support their activities on the scale they demanded. They saw her as the personification of the Wilcoxes and themselves as the beleaguered defenders of the values of art, friendship, and the life of the mind that the Schlegel sisters prized. They are now experiencing the disillusionment Helen Schlegel felt when her sister Margaret told her she intended to marry a Wilcox.
Even the subsidiary themes of the novel are contemporary. It is true that intellectuals are no longer troubled by the British Empire, which Margaret Schlegel dismissed with “a puzzled, if reverent, sigh.” But now, as then, the destiny of Germany disturbs the British. Are the Germans the blood-brothers of Treitschke and Dr. Schacht? Or are they compatriots of Kant, Goethe—or Friedrich Schlegel? The Schlegel girls’ father had his doubts and left Bismarck’s Germany for London. Now, as then, the British wonder whether they have to settle for the construction of new houses and accept the red rust of creeping suburbia, more airports and freeways, more facilities for tourism, even if that means that the preservation of the countryside and the few remaining oases of rural beauty must take second place? Which of the two, Wilcoxes or Schlegels, is to own England? At the end of a purple passage Forster asked:
What did it mean? For what end are her fair complexities, her changes of soil, her sinuous coast? Does she belong to those who had moulded her and made her feared by other lands, or to those who had added nothing to her power, but have somehow seen her, seen the whole island at once, lying as a jewel in a silver sea, sailing as a ship of souls, with all the brave world’s fleet accompanying her towards eternity.
Contemporary or not, the characters in the novel spring off the pages. Both Schlegel girls talk with dazzling vitality. Helen has the looks and the uncontrollable heart, but Margaret, the elder, is never jealous of her sister’s success with men, and they love each other dearly. Forster hints at Margaret’s appearance: she wears pincenez. Over a weekend Helen falls in love with the Wilcox family, with their house, with their self-assurance and certainty that they alone know what’s what. She even becomes “engaged” to Paul, the younger son. Suddenly she sees through them. For them love means marriage settlements, property, propriety, and family pride. They are “a wall of newspapers and motor cars and golf clubs,” which, when challenged by the reality of love, collapses, revealing panic and emptiness.
Margaret is cooler and more rational but no less an idealist. She wants public life to mirror whatever is good in private life. She too is beguiled by the Wilcoxes, but in her case first by the owner of Howards End, who was born there and married a Wilcox. Ruth Wilcox is not an intellectual. In one of those sentences that make readers today dismiss him, Forster says,
One knew that she worshipped the past, and that the instinctive wisdom the past can alone bestow had descended upon her—that wisdom to which we give the clumsy name of aristocracy.
She is the prototype of Mrs. Moore in A Passage to India, and she represents instinct as against reason. She broods over the book. She does not leap off the page as the masterful Henry Wilcox, the tomboy Evie Wilcox, and the Schlegels’ aunt Juley do. The brothers in both families are two sides of the same coin. Charles Wilcox, brutal, insensitive, prejudiced—what Ronald Knox called “a waiter-look-sharp young man”—is insulting to his inferiors and insufferable to his equals. His obverse, Tibby Schlegel, is effete and selfish: someone who will avoid taking any decision or doing anything for anyone else if he can. He is devoted to the pleasures of the mind so long as they are esoteric.
The difficulty, then, that a movie director faces when he attempts to dramatize Howards End is not that it is dated or that the characters are dead—they speak with total conviction. The difficulty lies in the plot. What could induce Margaret Schlegel to marry Henry Wilcox after his wife’s death? Forster explains that she likes his self-confidence, his optimism, his masculinity; and she reflects that though twenty years his junior she herself is getting on. Helen is filled with horror: Is Margaret going to unite with the life of telegrams and anger?
“I have thought things out,” says Margaret. “More and more do I refuse to draw my income and sneer at those who guarantee it.” “It makes no difference thinking things out,” says her sister. Helen proves to be right. Henry Wilcox cannot “connect.” He is so obtuse that he cannot see how his own conduct relates to other people’s conduct.
But Helen’s dilemma is even more improbable. The Schlegel sisters have taken up Leonard Bast, a clerk living on the edge of gentility and married to a vulgar slut. He yearns for culture, for books, but his psyche is dominated by worry—about his lost umbrella, the price of seats at a concert, and about the proprieties. On the strength of an inadvertent remark by Henry Wilcox that the insurance company Leonard works for is unsound, the sisters urge him to leave his job; he is sacked from his next post; and within a flash he has fallen over the edge into abject poverty.
Helen brings the Basts to her sister’s house and confronts Henry with them. It then turns out that Jacky Bast was once a prostitute whom Henry used to pick up. Enraged by Henry’s bland denial of any responsibility for the lower orders, and filled with remorse for her part in reducing the Basts to poverty, Helen flings herself into Leonard’s arms, gets pregnant, and in a series of mishaps she and he converge at Howards End. So does Charles Wilcox, bursting with conventional rectitude. He beats up the clerk, who collapses with a heart attack and dies. Margaret has by then decided to leave Henry Wilcox because he refuses to see that if Helen has committed adultery with Leonard Bast, so had he with Jacky; and for him to speak of Helen contaminating Howards End by spending the night there is unforgivable hypocrisy. Henry has preferred “the inner darkness in high places that comes with a commercial age.”
In the book the reader reels under these coincidences and their consequences. Can the director make the plot more convincing?
He has an even harder task. Howards End bristles with aphorisms. No doubt the Wilcoxes are intolerable but Forster did not want the Schlegels to have too easy a victory. Margaret admits that the Wilcox world has grit in it and provides the money on which the Schlegels can sit and philosophize. Truth is not a halfway house between mysticism and business. Because truth is alive it makes excursions to each side of life. Nor is a sense of proportion a virtue—not unless it has emerged from the experience of extremes. When the plot of the novel is saying clear-cut things, Forster hurries to say that nothing is ever clear-cut. His biographer P.N. Furbank said his mind was a vast breeding ground for judgments and discriminations. He was much given to making a statement and at once modifying it—for instance, “I am devoted to his son, slightly.” Can a director possibly convey such nuances?
It was inevitable that if anyone made a movie of Howards End it would be the producer Ismail Merchant and the director James Ivory. They made the successful A Room with a View and overcame the mawkishness of Forster’s posthumously published work Maurice. Robert Emmet Long’s handsome book on their work shows how varied their output is. They won a following for their movies set in India and for costume dramas taken from famous novels; but their range is much wider and their method of working is far removed from Hollywood’s. As often as not the screenplay of their films is written by the novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and performed by the same group of actors. Almost the only echo of the nightmare absurdities of the movie-making world is Ismail Merchant’s fabled talent for wheeling and dealing. Long describes their movies as highly civilized, sometimes unpredictable, sometimes exploring subcultures, always witty and restrained. He claims they never labor a point but neither are they in a hurry to make it. Since Howards End is Ruth Jhabvala’s favorite Forster novel our expectations are aroused. Are they satisfied?
So far as the story is concerned, very much so. A strong narrative line without flashbacks or ambiguities makes us forget the novel’s improbabilities and coincidences, and the cast, many of them Merchant Ivory veterans, is a strong one. Anthony Hopkins as Mr. Wilcox is outstanding. Conventional, superior, and overbearing, he treats women as silly little creatures and young men as cubs to be taught their place; and yet his strong physical presence and his masterfulness fascinate. You can see at once why Margaret Schlegel is beguiled by him; at one point he shoots a sexy glance at her and you can see her melting. He is almost likable. She is entrancing. Emma Thompson is Hopkins’s match, and she holds the movie together. She is vivacious, sincere, clever, exercising authority around her without ever being authoritative. (She does not wear pince-nez.)
The story gains because the Basts appear at once and are as important to the movie as the Wilcoxes and Schlegels. Nicola Duffet is a superb Jacky, far more appealing to us than she was to Forster. She may be blowsy, sexy, and stupid but she is loyal and affectionate; particularly touching when Leonard sets out on his fatal journey to Howards End is her inadequate, soft whisper, “What ho, Len.”
But the decor is not quite right. The Basts should be shown as starting life in the basement of a respectable lodging house in Clerkenwell. To show them from the start holed up in a nightmare bedroom whose window opens onto the railroad track is to miss the degradation that unemployment brings. Playing Leonard, Sam West grows in depth as the action progresses. His accent should have been more genteel, but his outbursts of affronted dignity are plausible, and at the end he is entirely convincing as a clerk down on his luck, his trousers hitched too high, and still sporting a derby. When he gives himself to Helen his pinched and oppressed face softens with surprise.
The adaptation is as clever as we have come to expect from the work of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Hardly a scene of importance in the book is missing, and most of the crucial bits of dialogue survive. How is she going to treat the famous concert when in the Fifth Symphony Helen imagines a goblin—
walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others followed him. They were not aggressive creatures…they merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world
—until finally Beethoven blows them away and brings back the heroism and splendor of youth, the magnificence of life and death? Jhabvala does so by turning the concert into a lecture on “Music and Meaning” at the end of which her brother, Siegbert Prawer, emeritus professor of German at Oxford, asks, as he would in real life, a tetchy question about the propriety of introducing goblins and elephants. (Richard Robbins’s unobstrusive score uses two pieces by the Australian-born composer Percy Grainger as themes for Schlegels and Wilcoxes, which are sensitively played by the pianist Martin Jones.)
Part of the delight in the movie is provided by the cutting by James Ivory and his film editor Andrew Marcus. When the Wilcox family gathers to read Mrs. Wilcox’s dying wish that Margaret should inherit Howards End, their suppressed anger is suggested by the fire onto which an unseen hand (it is Charles Wilcox’s) flings a log; and the scene finishes with Evie Wilcox tearing up her mother’s note and throwing the pieces on the fire. Or again after Charles Wilcox assaults Leonard Bast and Bast drops dead of heart failure, bringing down on himself a bookcase full of the books he so longed to understand, the brief scenes that follow are sharply presented. (“It was against all reason that he would be punished,” wrote Forster, “but the law, being made in his own image, sentenced him to three years imprisonment for manslaughter.”) You see Charles handcuffed and being led into a third-class compartment at the station, the stationmaster shaking his hand with servile approval. Then the film cuts to the wheels of the steam engine as the train taking him to prison begins to move and the great connecting rod gathers speed, brutally driving up and down, a movement as mechanical as the justice that Charles Wilcox is now to experience.
Only rarely does the direction miss. The opening scene in which Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs. Wilcox gathers a wisp of hay and smells it is not connected as it should be with the last scene, when we see Helen and her baby playing in the hay that has once again been mown, the symbol of ever-recurring Nature. Nor is Redgrave helped by the fact that the dialogue in the first pages of the book, which establishes Mrs. Wilcox’s reticence and delicacy, her gentleness even in reproof to her children, has disappeared; she seizes on Mrs. Wilcox’s obsession with ancestry and her inherited house and plays her with a mad gleam in her eye.
The same failure to establish character at first appearance afflicts James Wilby’s Charles Wilcox. In the text at the railway station Charles is aggressively rude, collecting a parcel from the porter, “Why the—should I sign after all this bother? Not even got a pencil on you? Remember, next time I report you to the station-master. My time’s of value, though yours mayn’t be.” Deprived of this passage, he takes a little time to identify his character, though he later displays new traits of vindictiveness and intrigue and a more complex character emerges.
It goes without saying that a Merchant Ivory production is beautifully photographed. Beauty lies like a great marshmallow over the action. It is as if we were watching a white ballet, all gauze and gossamer. Vanessa Redgrave’s train sweeps through the undergrowth, massed bluebells wave, flowers bloom, chestnut flambeaux blossom, birds chirp as if in Disneyland, and Nature exposes her ample green bosom to embellish the moral and adorn the tale. The clichés of television documentaries on the environment engulf us. Our eyes feast on the red-brick charm of Howards End, but where is the suburban sprawl creeping toward it? Where are the monotonous working-class streets that Thomas Hardy knew?
A small blind street off East Commercial Road
Window, door; window, door;
Every house like the one before
Is where the curate, Mr. Dowle, has found a pinched abode….
The other side of the equation is lost because the art director has hired the same, well-known props—the ancient London buses and hansom cabs, the period automobiles—that we expect to see whenever Edith Wharton or Henry James is translated to the screen.
The tiny rooms of the Schlegels’ house are just right and the houses the Wilcoxes live in are adequately repellent and vulgar. (But doesn’t Henry’s last immense mansion go over the top? He is rich upper-middle-class but not a Croesus.) And would the sisters have worn such stunning clothes rivaling those of the Wilcox women? The Schlegels may have paid more attention to dress than the young Virginia Stephen, and their milieu was a cut above the Fabian crowd, whom Virginia described as being “earnest drab women and broad-nosed sallow shock-haired young men who all looked unhealthy and singular and impotent.” But this story is about class differences and such discriminations matter. The costume designers ensure that the costumes fit perfectly: even the lower orders look as if their clothes come from Savile Row. A clerk like Leonard Bast might have a clean collar but he would also have had detachable celluloid shirt cuffs and an ill-fitting off-the-peg coat.
The novel is about class, but more about Forster’s anger, not that class differences exist, but that those who make money treat those beneath them as if they were not human. He hates the Wilcoxes. Yes, they are necessary; and art and leisure cannot exist without them.
But the war between the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes and Forster’s anger have sunk beneath the waves of the movie’s visual beauty. It surfaces once when Helena Bonham Carter’s lovely dead white face becomes distorted with rage as she denounces Henry Wilcox for his indifference to the bad advice he gave to Leonard Bast. But Forster’s scene when she begs Margaret not to marry Henry is omitted; and the scene when Margaret finally explodes does not contain her devastating indictment of Henry, “No one has ever told you what you are—muddled, criminally muddled.” Still, it is an intelligent movie, a good movie, about real and not fake issues. And it moves the heart.