The Barnes & Noble Review
Readers familiar with E. M. Forster will recognize the words "only connect" as the anthem of his 1910 novel, Howards End, in which he portrays the often-strained relationships between the bohemian Schlegels (Margaret, Helen, and their brother Tibby, so labeled both because of their expressiveness and their passion for the arts and because of their part-German ancestry) and the coolly aristocratic Wilcoxes. Forster further uses these relationships to explore the changes taking place in Edwardian England, including the rise of the middle and working classes and the first hints of the crumbling of the British Empire. Margaret first becomes connected to the Wilcox family when she befriends Ruth, the matriarch, with whom she feels a kinship that transcends both family and class lines. Ruth's dying wish to leave her family's country house, Howards End, to Margaret reveals the depth of their bond, but the Wilcoxes close ranks and vow never to disclose this wish to Margaret, determined to save their heritage from the racially mixed and caste-defying Schlegels. Ironically, Margaret later marries Henry Wilcox, Ruth's widower, and so comes into possession of Howards End anyway. But their marriage is doomed, in part, by their irreconcilable temperaments, and Margaret late in the novel expresses her wish for her overly reserved husband, the one thing that might save him: "Only connect."
This all-too-often-quoted line has, in my opinion, done both Forster and the novel more harm than good, burying the novelist's otherwise avidly political writing under a wave ofmushysentimentalism. "Only connect" has left too many readers with a mistaken impression of Forster the spiritualist, Forster the proto-new ager. This impression has only been augmented by the Merchant-Ivory-ization of the novels into films that have largely ignored and glossed over the quite oppositional political stances that Forster's novels advocated. Instead, to appreciate the complexity of Forster's writing, we need to read "Only connect" in its parallels to Rodney King's "Can't we all just get along?" a lovely sentiment, but one that the embedded structures of race and class conflict in our culture make all but impossible. To take Forster's "Only connect" too literally is to ignore both the irony and the critique implied in the line. Time and time again we see in Forster's work that merely connecting, just getting along, simply isn't enough in a world divided by ideological conflict.
Many of Forster's overtly political pieces particularly his radio broadcasts are collected in Two Cheers for Democracy, in which Forster not only takes a firm anti-Nazi stance, but also turns that critical lens on Britain itself, pointing out that :
[I]t is very easy to see fanaticism in other people, but difficult to spot in oneself. Take the evil of racial prejudice. We can easily detect it in the Nazis; their conduct has been infamous ever since they rose to power. But we ourselves are we guiltless? We are far less guilty than they are. Yet is there no racial prejudice in the British Empire? Is there no colour question?
These are the sorts of questions that haunt the pages of Forster's novels. In A Passage to India, perhaps the most obvious example, a Muslim doctor is wrongly accused of assaulting a young English woman. In the stridency of the reaction of the Anglo-Indian community and the vehemence with which that community turns on the young woman when she realizes her error and withdraws her charges we see the ways in which racial prejudice was an inescapable component of the Empire. This prejudice is so strong, and the division between the ruling class and the "natives" so distinct, that no amount of "connecting" can undo its damage. We watch, heartsick, at the end of the novel, as the now-exonerated doctor and his lone English defender, once on the verge of a genuine friendship, part for the last time, the doctor claiming that only when the English have been driven out of India will they be friends:
"Why can't we be friends now?" said the other, holding him affectionately. "It's what I want. It's what you want."
But the horses didn't want it they swerved apart; the earth didn't want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn't want it, they said in their hundred voices, "No, not yet," and the sky said, "No, not there."
And again, the mystical here is not the end to be settled with, as though the eternal, unchangeable nature of man dictates the separation of the races. It is, rather, a cover for the human politics that have created this separation, seen in the oppositions of temple and jail, palace and Guest House.
In other Forster novels, the politics in question are less national and more personal in tenor. In A Room With a View, Lucy Honeychurch must defy her family, her class, and all of British convention in order to marry George Emerson, a passionate young man who may be the son of a socialist. And, more notably, in Maurice, a novel written in 1913 but not published until 1971, Forster depicts a young man confronting his homosexuality, creating an overwhelmingly sympathetic and far in advance of its time portrait of the possibilities of genuine love between men. But it is in Howards End that we see the personal and the political most intertwined. While Margaret is embarked upon her adventure with the Wilcoxes, her sister Helen takes under her wing a young clerk who is struggling to rise out of the working class. They do connect in more ways than one but this relationship is ultimately disastrous for the young man. Despite the Schlegels' infinite goodwill, their unthinking manipulation of this man brings him into conflict with the power of the Wilcoxes and finally destroys him.
It is indisputable that the sense of connections across class and racial lines embodied in Margaret's injunction to "only connect" is a key element, for Forster, in solving many contemporary political crises. But it is the complex, nuanced exploration of the connections between the political and the personal, the material and the spiritual, that is the great strength of Forster's work. The "only" in that injunction is as much a critique of Margaret's easy liberalism as it is a benediction, reminding us that, while the world might be different if we could all just get along, some substantive things need to change before the getting-along can begin.
Read an Excerpt
ONE MAY as well begin with Helen's letters to her sister.
It isn't going to be what we expected. It is old and little, and altogether delightful—red brick. We can scarcely pack in as it is, and the dear knows what will happen when Paul (younger son) arrives tomorrow. From hall you go right or left into dining-room or drawing-room. Hall itself is practically a room. You open another door in it, and there are the stairs going up in a sort of tunnel to the first-floor. Three bed-rooms in a row there, and three attics in a row above. That isn't all the house really, but it's all that one notices—nine windows as you look up from the front garden.
Then there's a very big wych-elm—to the left as you look up—leaning a little over the house, and standing on the boundary between the garden and meadow. I quite love that tree already. Also ordinary elms, oaks—no nastier than ordinary oaks—pear-trees, apple-trees, and a vine. No silver birches, though. However, I must get on to my host and hostess. I only wanted to show that it isn't the least what we expected. Why did we settle that their house would be all gables and wiggles, and their garden all gamboge-coloured paths? I believe simply because we associate them with expensive hotels—Mrs. Wilcox trailing in beautiful dresses down long corridors, Mr. Wilcox bullying porters, etc. We females are that unjust.
I shall be back Saturday; will let you know train later. They are as angry as I am that you did not come too; really Tibby is too tiresome, he starts a new mortal disease every month. How could he have got hayfever in London? and even if he could, it seems hard that you should give up a visit to hear a schoolboy sneeze. Tell him that Charles Wilcox (the son who is here) has hay fever too, but he's brave, and gets quite cross when we inquire after it. Men like the Wilcoxes would do Tibby a power of good. But you won't agree, and I'd better change the subject.
This long letter is because I'm writing before breakfast. Oh, the beautiful vine leaves! The house is covered with a vine. I looked out earlier, and Mrs. Wilcox was already in the garden. She evidently loves it. No wonder she sometimes looks tired. She was watching the large red poppies come out. Then she walked off the lawn to the meadow, whose corner to the right I can just see. Trail, trail, went her long dress over the sopping grass, and she came back with her hands full of the hay that was cut yesterday—I suppose for rabbits or something, as she kept on smelling it. The air here is delicious. Later on I heard the noise of croquet balls, and looked out again, and it was Charles Wilcox practising; they are keen on all games. Presently he started sneezing and had to stop. Then I hear more clicketing, and it is Mr. Wilcox practising, and then, "a-tissue, a-tissue": he has to stop too. Then Evie comes out, and does some calisthenic exercises on a machine that is tacked on to a greengage-tree—they put everything to use—and then she says "a-tissue," and in she goes. And finally Mrs. Wilcox reappears, trail, trail, still smelling hay and looking at the flowers. I inflict all this on you because once you said that life is sometimes life and sometimes only a drama, and one must learn to distinguish t'other from which, and up to now I have always put that down as "Meg's clever nonsense." But this morning, it really does seem not life but a play, and it did amuse me enormously to watch the W's. Now Mrs. Wilcox has come in.
I am going to wear [omission]. Last night Mrs. Wilcox wore an [omission], and Evie [omission]. So it isn't exactly a go-as-you-please place, and if you shut your eyes it still seems the wiggly hotel that we expected. Not if you open them. The dog-roses are too sweet. There is a great hedge of them over the lawn—magnificently tall, so that they fall down in garlands, and nice and thin at the bottom, so that you can see ducks through it and a cow. These belong to the farm, which is the only house near us. There goes the breakfast gong. Much love. Modified love to Tibby. Love to Aunt Juley; how good of her to come and keep you company, but what a bore. Burn this. Will write again
I am having a glorious time. I like them all. Mrs. Wilcox, if quieter than in Germany, is sweeter than ever, and I never saw anything like her steady unselfishness, and the best of it is that the others do not take advantage of her. They are the very happiest, jolliest family that you can imagine. I do really feel that we are making friends. The fun of it is that they think me a noodle, and say so—at least, Mr. Wilcox does—and when that happens, and one doesn't mind, it's a pretty sure test, isn't it? He says the most horrid things about women's suffrage so nicely, and when I said I believed in equality he just folded his arms and gave me such a setting down as I've never had. Meg, shall we ever learn to talk less? I never felt so ashamed of myself in my life. I couldn't point to a time when men had been equal, nor even to a time when the wish to be equal had made them happier in other ways. I couldn't say a word. I had just picked up the notion that equality is good from some book—probably from poetry, or you. Anyhow, it's been knocked into pieces, and, like all people who are really strong, Mr. Wilcox did it without hurting me. On the other hand, I laugh at them for catching hay fever. We live like fighting-cocks, and Charles takes us out every day in the motor—a tomb with trees in it, a hermit's house, a wonderful road that was made by the Kings of Mercia—tennis—a cricket match—bridge—and at night we squeeze up in this lovely house. The whole clan's here now—it's like a rabbit warren. Evie is a dear. They want me to stop over Sunday—I suppose it won't matter if I do. Marvellous weather and the view's marvellous—views westward to the high ground. Thank you for your letter. Burn this.
Dearest, dearest Meg,—I do not know what you will say: Paul and I are in love—the younger son who only came here Wednesday.
MARGARET GLANCED at her sister's note and pushed it over the breakfast-table to her aunt. There was a moment's hush, and then the flood-gates opened.
"I can tell you nothing, Aunt Juley. I know no more than you do. We met—we only met the father and mother abroad last spring. I know so little that I didn't even know their son's name. It's all so—" She waved her hand and laughed a little.
"In that case it is far too sudden."
"Who knows, Aunt Juley, who knows?"
"But, Margaret dear, I mean we mustn't be unpractical now that we've come to facts. It is too sudden, surely."
"But Margaret dear—"
"I'll go for her other letters," said Margaret. "No, I won't, I'll finish my breakfast. In fact, I haven't them. We met the Wilcoxes on an awful expedition that we made from Heidelberg to Speyer. Helen and I had got it into our heads that there was a grand old cathedral at Speyer—the Archbishop of Speyer was one of the seven electors—you know—'Speyer, Maintz, and Koln.' Those three sees once commanded the Rhine Valley and got it the name of Priest Street."
"I still feel quite uneasy about this business, Margaret."
"The train crossed by a bridge of boats, and at first sight it looked quite fine. But oh, in five minutes we had seen the whole thing. The cathedral had been ruined, absolutely ruined, by restoration; not an inch left of the original structure. We wasted a whole day, and came across the Wilcoxes as we were eating our sandwiches in the public gardens. They too, poor things, had been taken in—they were actually stopping at Speyer—and they rather liked Helen insisting that they must fly with us to Heidelberg. As a matter of fact, they did come on next day. We all took some drives together. They knew us well enough to ask Helen to come and see them—at least, I was asked too, but Tibby's illness prevented me, so last Monday she went alone. That's all. You know as much as I do now. It's a young man out of the unknown. She was to have come back Saturday, but put off till Monday, perhaps on account of—I don't know."
She broke off, and listened to the sounds of a London morning. Their house was in Wickham Place, and fairly quiet, for a lofty promontory of buildings separated it from the main thoroughfare. One had the sense of a backwater, or rather of an estuary, whose waters flowed in from the invisible sea, and ebbed into a profound silence while the waves without were still beating. Though the promontory consisted of flats—expensive, with cavernous entrance halls, full of concierges and palms—it fulfilled its purpose, and gained for the older houses opposite a certain measure of peace. These, too, would be swept away in time, and another promontory would rise upon their site, as humanity piled itself higher and higher on the precious soil of London.
Mrs. Munt had her own method of interpreting her nieces. She decided that Margaret was a little hysterical, and was trying to gain time by a torrent of talk. Feeling very diplomatic, she lamented the fate of Speyer, and declared that never, never should she be so misguided as to visit it, and added of her own accord that the principles of restoration were ill understood in Germany. "The Germans," she said, "are too thorough, and this is all very well sometimes, but at other times it does not do."
"Exactly," said Margaret; "Germans are too thorough." And her eyes began to shine.
"Of course I regard you Schlegels as English," said Mrs. Munt hastily—"English to the backbone."
Margaret leaned forward and stroked her hand.
"And that reminds me—Helen's letter—"
"Oh, yes, Aunt Juley, I am thinking all right about Helen's letter. I know—I must go down and see her. I am thinking about her all right. I am meaning to go down."
"But go with some plan," said Mrs. Munt, admitting into her kindly voice a note of exasperation. "
Margaret, if I may interfere, don't be taken by surprise. What do you think of the Wilcoxes? Are they our sort? Are they likely people? Could they appreciate Helen, who is to my mind a very special sort of person? Do they care about Literature and Art? That is most important when you come to think of it. Literature and Art. Most important. How old would the son be? She says 'younger son.' Would he be in a position to marry? Is he likely to make Helen happy? Did you gather—"
"I gathered nothing."
They began to talk at once.
"Then in that case—"
"In that case I can make no plans, don't you see."
"On the contrary—"
"I hate plans. I hate lines of action. Helen isn't a baby."
"Then in that case, my dear, why go down?"
Margaret was silent. If her aunt could not see why she must go down, she was not going to tell her. She was not going to say: "I love my dear sister; I must be near her at this crisis of her life." The affections are more reticent than the passions, and their expression more subtle. If she herself should ever fall in love with a man, she, like Helen, would proclaim it from the house-tops, but as she only loved a sister she used the voiceless language of sympathy.
"I consider you odd girls," continued Mrs. Munt, "and very wonderful girls, and in many ways far older than your years. But—you won't be offended?—frankly I feel you are not up to this business. It requires an older person. Dear, I have nothing to call me back to Swanage." She spread out her plump arms. "I am all at your disposal. Let me go down to this house whose name I forget instead of you."
"Aunt Juley"—she jumped up and kissed her—"I must, must go to Howards End myself. You don't exactly understand, though I can never thank you properly for offering."
"I do understand," retorted Mrs. Munt, with immense confidence. "I go down in no spirit of interference, but to make inquiries. Inquiries are necessary. Now, I am going to be rude. You would say the wrong thing; to a certainty you would. In your anxiety for Helen's happiness you would offend the whole of these Wilcoxes by asking one of your impetuous questions—not that one minds offending them."
"I shall ask no questions. I have it in Helen's writing that she and a man are in love. There is no question to ask as long as she keeps to that. All the rest isn't worth a straw. A long engagement if you like, but inquiries, questions, plans, lines of action—no, Aunt Juley, no."
Away she hurried, not beautiful, not supremely brilliant, but filled with something that took the place of both qualities—something best described as a profound vivacity, a continual and sincere response to all that she encountered in her path through life.
"If Helen had written the same to me about a shop-assistant or a penniless clerk—"
"Dear Margaret, do come into the library and shut the door. Your good maids are dusting the banisters."
"—or if she had wanted to marry the man who calls for Carter Paterson, I should have said the same." Then, with one of those turns that convinced her aunt that she was not mad really and convinced observers of another type that she was not a barren theorist, she added: "Though in the case of Carter Paterson I should want it to be a very long engagement indeed, I must say."
"I should think so," said Mrs. Munt; "and, indeed, I can scarcely follow you. Now, just imagine if you said anything of that sort to the Wilcoxes. I understand it, but most good people would think you mad. Imagine how disconcerting for Helen! What is wanted is a person who will go slowly, slowly in this business, and see how things are and where they are likely to lead to."
Margaret was down on this.
"But you implied just now that the engagement must be broken off."
"I think probably it must; but slowly."
"Can you break an engagement off slowly?" Her eyes lit up. "What's an engagement made of, do you suppose? I think it's made of some hard stuff, that may snap, but can't break. It is different to the other ties of life. They stretch or bend. They admit of degree. They're different."