New novels - Howard's End

A novel of quality

Howards End, by E. M. Forster (Edward Arnold, pp. 343, 6s.), is a novel of high quality written with what appears to be a feminine brilliance of perception. The facts of the story are sometimes very difficult to reconcile with the people, but we are to remember that "all over the world men and women are worrying because they cannot develop as they are supposed to develop."

So it is with the two sisters Margaret and Helen, who know the best, or at least a pretty good, London, and manage, it seems, to be thoroughly alive in it. But Margaret marries Henry Wilcox, and the unwary reader will be revolted by it, as Helen was. Henry is not at all in the front of civilisation, but rather at the base of it; he is elderly, prosaic, competent, and everything that romance is not. He has not the least comprehension of what we may call his wife's spiritual portion; he does bad things, such as filching public lands and trading unscrupulously, which she abhors; and there is even conjured up, to his momentary confusion, a battered mistress who proves him to have been unfaithful to his first wife, a woman after Margaret's own heart. And Margaret, who is twenty years his junior, loves him; she does not develop as the romantic convention would have her, but according to profound instincts and fundamental good sense.

It is all very surprising, and it is a remarkable stroke of art that makes the younger sister, Helen, approach the hard masters of the world first. She had fallen in love with the Wilcox family, and incidentally with a boy of it; she "had vowed to be less polite to servants in the future," and had perceived the charms of downrightness and brutality, of "the life of anger and telegrams." The reaction carried her far, and she bitterly resented Margaret's defection. We rebel against it with Helen; we cannot accept this triumph of nature without seeming to love something infinitely precious; life is a compromise, but the spirit cannot be content with mere solidities. The impulsive Helen comes terribly to grief, the happenings are bold and original, but the conclusion leaves one fairly safe with the conviction that "personal relations are the real life," that the sisters "have built up something real, because it is purely spiritual," and that "it is the vice of a vulgar mind to be thrilled by bigness, to think that a thousand square miles are a thousand times more wonderful than one square mile, and that a million square miles are almost the same as heaven."

The problems that are evoked and the general criticism of life must not obscure what is most memorable in a novel that is witty and penetrating, too. We may not like "Unworthiness stimulates woman. It brings out her deeper nature, for good or for evil"; indeed, it strikes one as pointing to development as women are supposed to develop or even as a variant of the old calumny that women love a rake; but the sisters are extraordinarily vivid and true; there are two scenes between them - the one when Margaret tells Helen of her intended marriage and the other, even more beautiful, when in spite of confusions and estrangements they determine to spend a night alone together in the house that is full of associations - which are nobly human.

The first Mrs. Wilcox, too, who met the clever London set at lunch and "twice deplored the weather, twice criticised the train service on the Great Northern Railway," has the kind of originality that belongs to a perfectly sane and simple person. There is an immense liberality in the book, a sympathy that is so little eclectic that it seems indulgent. It is always a humane presentment of real men and women even when their doings surprise us into some kind of protest.


The GuardianTramp

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