Read an Excerpt
From Mary Gordon's Introduction to Howards End
Howards End is a novel for the likes of us. That is to say, for you and me: you because you have bought this particular book, and I because I am writing about it, and because I love it. You may be buying the book for a variety of reasons; you may be in a train station or an airport or browsing in a bookshop on a rainy day, hoping for many things: enlightenment, friendship, amorous adventure, cappuccino. You may want to chip away at that mountain of the canon you have not read. You may be buying it because you must, because you have been told by a teacher that Howards End is something you must read in order to pass a course. But however disparate all our motives are, whether our relationship to the book is, like mine, that of a loving old friend, or perhaps as yours may be, as a fearful or hopeful or wary stranger, Forster makes us a "we" with the novel's very first sentence: "One may as well begin with Helen's letters to her sister." We are part of a company; it is a formal one to be sure-the impersonal pronoun "one" is used, but the "we" is implied, because we are being shown something intimate, domestic-Helen's letters to her sister. We don't know Helen's last name, or anything about her, but we are immediately included in her private life. Yet the first sentence of her letter to Meg might serve as a warning to readers who are about to become one of the Howards End "we": "'It isn't going to be what we expected.'"
Edward Morgan Forster lived a life devoted to the ideas of decency, humaneness, the civilized private life in which the disparities of the human condition might be resolved by honesty and goodwill. At the same time, he was aware of the dark goblins that Helen, and Beethoven, found in the symphony that forms a meditation in the beginning of Howards End. Tragedy struck Forster's life early; his father died in l881, when he was only two; he was brought up by a mother and aunts, lived quietly with them until he was exiled to public school, a nightmare for him. Rescued by the University of Cambridge, he was taken up by a brilliant group of young men (among whom he was considered one of the least brilliant) who gathered around the philosopher G. E. Moore. Moore's ideas stressed the primacy of personal relations and the appreciation of beauty in a good life. The members of this group included Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, and a Liverpool Jew named Leonard Woolf who would marry Virginia, sister of another member, Toby Stephen. He studied the classics; traveled, particularly to Italy; sought minor employment. Between 1903 and 1910 he wrote four novels: A Room with a View, The Longest Journey, Where Angels Fear to Tread, and Howards End. He finished a novel about homosexuality, Maurice, in 1913, but did not publish it in his lifetime. There was, therefore, a publication lapse of fourteen years, and then in 1924 A Passage to India. And then no novels for the rest of his long life. He was made a member of King's College, Cambridge, and died there in 1970.
How to explain the early prodigiousness, followed by the long silence. Is it that the world he knew was erased by the trauma of World War I? Virginia Woolf assures us in her essay "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" that in December 1910, human nature changed. Did the change paralyze him? Or was it that he felt silenced by his inability to write honestly about homosexual life? Howards End was published just before Virginia Woolf's December 1910 sell-by date, so perhaps the assurance of the voice is the assurance of the full maturity of a way of life that knows itself about to be obsolete.