Jeremy Allan's Reviews > Howards End

Howards End by E.M. Forster
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's review
Oct 27, 2010

it was ok
bookshelves: modern-and-contemporary-fiction
Read in October, 2010

It may have been a hundred years since this book was published, but while reading it, I could often feel transported, not into the story itself, but to the rooms where Forster & the rest of his Bloomsbury set would gather and debate the times. Forster's main failing as a novelist is where you can feel those heady conversations getting their full exposition in the voices of his characters, where unlikely speakers become mouthpieces for the Bloomsbury concerns. What are they? The amorality of Empire, the distrust of empiricism, the dangers of capitalist megalomania, the plight of the poor, and various other noble dilemma. I wouldn't say any of these topics are tired, or even that I don't have some sympathy for Forster's stance, but in terms of art, the man let his politics trample it, weakening both the writing and the arguments. Compare his work to that of his friend and contemporary, Virginia Woolf, and you'll see that the inhuman Imperial machine can be critiqued in a novel (Mrs. Dalloway, for instance) without strangling the aesthetic in the service of soap-boxing. The result is that Forster feels more dated with every year, as his voice seems directed at the readers of his moment, rather than all who ought to fear empires (of all kinds) for the foreseeable future. No doubt he still maintains some charms, but I won't be rushing to pick up a copy of A Room With a View.
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A.J. Howard Hey Jeremy, nice review. I agree with you that the novel is very much a work of its own time, but I think this was purposeful act on Forster's part. If you subscribe to the theory that Howards End is a stand in for England itself, then the whole theme of the novel is answering the question of who shall inherit England? Sure, a lot Forster's arguments were overturned by the close of the decade, but there is still a sense of a dying of an ancient system that reminded me of Renoir's The Grand Illusion. To achieve this, didn't Forster have to dwell on the issues of the time you mentioned? I'm not sure if his other works would do the same, since their trying to achieve different goals.

Jeremy Allan Thanks for your comments, A.J. While I don't particularly agree that Howard's End functions as a symbol for England itself, regardless of Forster's intentions, and while I usually don't like to spend much time on the author's intentions at all rather than the effects of the work itself, I do think it worth considering what your point about goals. I'll concede that one way to assess a piece of writing is by the degree to which it meets its own goals. In this way, we can say a political pamphlet does or does not achieve its goals of persuasion, a supreme court justice's written decision does or does not express the opinion of the court majority accurately, etc. Accuracy, fidelity, soundness of argument. What this doesn't tell us, though, is the degree of literary merit we ought to attribute to the work. I might not be equipped to argue that a degree of "timelessness" is necessary for a work to be literary, but I do sense that Forster established the goals of this novel in such a way so as to make them less meaningful with the passing of time. Even if Howard's End is England, the answer to inheritance has complicated itself not only so far as to make the question moot, but to show that the limits of Forster's worldview were very narrow indeed.

Of course, this doesn't touch the problem of thinking of the novel as a platform for argumentation. I prefer a novel aware of its own arguments, personally, but those arguments still strike me as completely ancillary to the criteria which make fiction art or blather.

And lastly, I don't say any of this to elevate the literary over the writing we might call more timely, but the former is my primary interest.

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