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A reader's guide to Howards End

Updated Sunday, 1st October 2006

As tensions between Germany and England come to a head,  two families struggle to connect.

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EM Forster Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC This month’s choice is a classic text by EM Forster, dating from 1910: a significant date for many reasons. Tensions between England and Germany were beginning to escalate, and Forster was also concerned about the threat to Edwardian society from urbanization and industrialization.

He depicts two families, representing different strands of the upper middle-class, with contrasting values and attitudes to life. The Schlegels are cultured, intellectual, idealistic, romantic and impractical, dedicated to ‘personal relations’ above all else. Margaret Schlegel’s philosophy is: ‘Only connect’.

On the other hand, the Wilcoxes are mostly ultra-conventional and materialistic. Mrs Wilcox is unlike her husband and children, and a deep bond is established between her and Margaret.

Forster looked back nostalgically to his childhood home, Rooksnest, which became the model for Howards End in his novel. Mrs Wilcox, the owner of Howards End, decides to leave it to Margaret when she dies.

At a time of social and economic change, Forster wonders whose set of values will prevail: those of the Schlegels or those of the Wilcox clan. The critic Lionel Trilling felt the main question posed by the novel was ‘Who shall inherit England?’

Howards End is a remarkable evocation of a particular period, and is well worth reading in its own right. However I had an additional motive in suggesting it. Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, which won this year’s Orange Prize, is a tribute to Howards End, and the plan is to read her book next month so that we can explore the parallels.

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