by E. M. Foster
Margaret and Helen Schlegel meet the Wilcox family during a vacation in Germany. Helen, the younger sister, falls in love with Paul, one of the Wilcox sons, but the two soon break off the hastily made engagement after realizing that they aren't right for each other. Margaret, meanwhile, befriends Ruth, the Wilcox matriarch, who entertains her companion with stories about her ancestral home. The house, Howards End, is Ruth's pride and joy, though no one else in her family appreciates its charms. Margaret never manages to visit the house before Ruth's untimely death, but unbeknownst to her Ruth bequeaths the house to the eldest Schlegel. Ruth's family, horrified at the thought of losing the house, burn Ruth's will and ignore their mother's dying request. Ultimately, though, Margaret does find her way to Howards End, albeit in a way no Wilcox anticipated. Woven into the narrative of the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes is the story of the Basts, an impoverished couple trying to rise beyond their lower class limitations.
Howards End is one of the titles on that famous 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list. There was a time when I thought I'd actually try to conquer that particular mountain, so I ordered a bunch of the titles on the list from various book-swapping websites. As life got busy my enthusiasm waned, and the books got shuffled in with my other to-be-read tomes and were forgotten. Howards End resurfaced only because I happened to download an audio version of the story.
So what made this book so great that it was included in the 1001 Books list? Well, it is a rather biting social commentary on early 20th century England. The Schlegels are kindhearted women who mean to do well, but when it comes to practically applying their book knowledge to helping the less fortunate, they fare poorly. They pass bad advice on to Mr. Bast, who quits a steady job clerking at a firm only to find himself much worse off than before. But at least the Schlegels realize their error. Mr. Henry Wilcox is incredibly callous and cold; it was he that declared the firm that Mr. Bast worked at doomed to imminent failure and triggered the young man's state of unemployment, but after grandly declaring a few days later that the firm is in fact one of the soundest in England, Wilcox does absolutely nothing to remedy the situation his careless comment has created.
Yet of all the characters, it is Henry Wilcox who ultimately experiences the greatest transformation and growth over the course of the novel. It seems a bit of a stretch to call him the hero, but his change could be called heroic.
But though it is prettily written, and the characters pleasantly complex, I didn't find Howards End particularly memorable. As Librarything user AlCracka drily notes, “There are a million books about the inner lives of English people. Here is one of them.” It's a nice, diverting read but I'm just not convinced that it's really a book one must read before death.
3.5 out of 5 stars
To read more about Howards End, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.
Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: The Iron King (The Accursed Kings #1) by Maurice Druon
2012: The Green Man by Michael Bedard
2011: Wither (Chemical Garden Trilogy #1) by Lauren DeStefano
2010: The American Leonardo by John Brewer
2009: Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans by Dan Baum