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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.