Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Howards End by E. M. Forster

I've seen Ismail Merchant and James Ivory's film adaptation of E.M. Forster's Howards End so many times that it's somewhat embarrassing that I haven't gotten around to the book before now. Ultimately, the experience was like watching a newly released director's cut of the film -- everything I liked best about the movie was still there, but with exciting new scenes and added dimensions. My favorite books and movies always leave me wishing to spend just a couple more pages or scenes in the world I've been enjoying and Forster's novel offered just that.

The book felt instantly familiar, which I take as a testament to the faithfulness of the film. Many of Forster's descriptions brought vivid memories of specific shots from the film and I found it quite impossible to read dialogue from Margaret or Mrs. Wilcox without hearing it in the voice of Emma Thompson or Vanessa Redgrave. Even scenes and details that didn't make it to the screen blended seamlessly with my movie-based interpretation of the book. Over time, however, the quality of Forster's novel overwhelmed my memories of the movie and I began to appreciate the book on its own merits.

Howards End was originally published in 1910 and is very much rooted in the social structures of Edwardian England. It tells the story of the Schlegel siblings: Margaret, Helen, and Tibby. The Schlegels, taking after their German father, are bookish, cultured, and idealistic. Throughout the book they are contrasted with the very wealthy, athletic, and capitalistic Wilcoxes. Forster pushes the families into each other time and again, using their difference to tease out the Schlegels’ naivete as well as the Wilcoxes’ callousness. Forster clearly has sociopolitical ideas he wishes to illustrate, but the balanced flaws of all his characters spare us any hint of didacticism.

Counter-intuitively, it was my new cell phone that led me to delve into this classic Modernist novel. Howards End is one of several thousand public domain eBooks available for unrestricted download through the library's website. Reading on a cell phone screen means one gets many short pages, each no more than a couple paragraphs. This pace seemed strangely fitting as the Schlegels spun through their breathless discussions. Altogether, I suspect Forster would have appreciated the juxtaposition of the hi-tech and the classical.

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