My urge to gorge upon classic films made primarily in the late 80s and early 90s seems to have continued this week; an era when a whole glut of movies that continue to engage and catalyse my thinking seems to have been made – and no coincidence, I feel for reasons given below. The latest is “Howard’s End”, one of those Merchant Ivory pictures that (to quote my daughter, watching over my shoulder) seem to suit my particular aesthetic…the colours, that special light they have, the themes, that whole nostalgic English-garden-y way of life that is flirted with in them. It had been years since I had seen it; even longer since I read the book yet, as with the film of “Orlando” which I wrote about just the other day, it never felt more timely for me to go back into it.
We tend to remember those Merchant Ivory films for Helena Bonham Carter’s hair and soft focus meadows, people in period dress milling around together in drawing rooms and gardens like a chocolate-box world of trivial crises and frowned-upon romantic trysts but there was always something much deeper going on for me. Like with “Orlando”, I found in E. M.Forster’s novels (which I knew well even before the films) something profoundly observational and prophetic about the times in which we live (yes, these times…for we are in them still, on the broader scale of things); even, a warning yet to be heeded. Beneath all the fabric and flowers of that era lies caution sterner than we are yet prepared to listen to; for he was painting a world on the cusp of a knife’s blade, about to plunge down into a left-hemispherical obsession that would abandon the right-sided perspective until it was rather too late to lament its demise. Did we live out the worst of his nightmares or do we still hold the balance in our hands? Howard’s End felt as current as anything when I revisited it last night.
I made a kind of specialism of these novels when I studied them for my English Literature degree, all those years ago; yet I hardly guessed how important or still-relevant what they had to say really was (that has come with hindsight) or how they would become the very theme of my life. The fact Forster’s themes appealed to me so strongly back then, even before becoming the subject of all those Merchant Ivory films, these two factors together pushing them into the spotlight of my attention with a late twentieth-century urgency that seemed to say “look, take note…this is still happening, we are still in this very plot-line and we can still rewrite the ending…” is no accident to me given what I now know about the pre-wave of the eighth wave of human evolution getting underway at that time (see footnote below). An impulse was starting to assert itself, a quarter of a century ago, urging us to look (not nostalgically but purposefully) to the right-hemisphere and notice how it was being subjugated to the detriment of all balance in our human affairs yet an attempt to redress that balance with a simple swing-back towards the opposite values was not appropriate either, as Forster already knew. Even as he wrote these plot-lines in a time before two world wars or the invention of the computer, he urged us not take hemispherical sides but to harmonise them both TOGETHER into a whole new paradigm. Look beyond the period dress and these messages are still there; in fact, I find them so current it startles me.
“Howard’s End” is a plot-line of three sets of people interwoven around the setting of a house in the country, called…you’ve guessed it….Howard’s End. That name is because the house imagined by Forster is based upon one where he grew up which was sometimes refered to as Howard’s. I can’t help thinking that the subtle change of that name, which makes it sound like tthe name of a man and his “ending”, is no accident; as though to make more overt that the whole fate of mankind (or, perhaps “the masculine”) is what is really being scrutinised and held in the balance by the novel’s oh-so domestic-seeming plot. The three groups of people in the story are the Schlegel’s (a cultural and fairly bohemian pair of sisters and their academic brother), the Wilcoxes who are a self-made middle class family driven along entirely by ideas such as empire-building and of scientific and materialistic “progress” (such seventh wave themes) and the Basts who are a lower class couple who have come upon hard times as a result of some casually given (and misguided) financial advice doled out by Mr Wilcox. In fact, the Wilcox family’s complete disregard for those of a lower social standing is a theme peppered liberally throughout the novel for, though they have climbed the social ladder themselves, they believe that their hard-earned successes make them, as it were, gods of their own making and the rightful inheritors of all good things, including the fortune they clasp so tightly to their chests. Thus they despise all those who haven’t yet learned how to successfully “play” the great machine of the modern world with equal finesse or reward and happily avert their eyes or leave them to stew in their own juices when things go wrong for them, even when catalysed by their own behaviour.
The one exception is Mrs Ruth Wescott who is like an earth-mother of sorts; the last in the line of the Howard family who had farmed at Howard’s End for generations but of which all the males have already died out (you could say, their land-rooted ilk of masculinity had become extinct). Deeply connected to Howard’s End, she seems to lose all strength when she is taken away from its rural setting and brought to the city to be with her increasingly city-based family. Just before she dies, frail and, sadly, a long-time without revisiting her beloved home, she scribbles on a piece of paper that she wants to leave Howard’s End to Margaret, the elder Miss Schlegel, in whom she recognises a kindred spirit and worthy heir, not only to the house but everything she, and it, stand for (“feminine values” in connection with the earth). Mr Wilcox, in collaboration with his greedy family, resolves to destroy the note so they can keep the house for themselves, even though none of them appear to want to live there. Ever disparaging of its irregular country qualities (they all seem to suffer from hayfever when they go there) they much prefer city-living and all the trappings of modern life including motor cars and fragmented communications via telegrams and postcards in place of meaningful connections face-to-face (which could easily be our modern-day fixation upon text messages). Mr Wilcox lives in a house with ceilings so high that the naturally warm, vibrant and effusive Margaret Schlegel…who he soon asks to marry him…seems to shrink and deplete beneath the weight of so many chandeliers and vast spaces. Even without ever having been there, she seems to long to go to Howard’s End as though she already knows the place (you could say, she subconsciously recognises its feminine vibe), from the very first time she hears it being described by Ruth Wilcox. Likewise, the housekeeper there seems to welcome and “know” her like someone returning home, recognising her as its rightful occupant, even down to the fact that her belongings (which are now being kept in storage there) “fit” perfectly, even the rug (feminine) and the family heirloom sword (masculine). Howard’s End is like a haven, and a mascot for, the “lost” feminine qualities that are being trodden underfoot by the ever-growing “splurge” of London, where the Schlegel’s former home is about to be demolished to make room for new flats. It represents a world in the balance; one that is almost gone as the number of meadows extending from the house to the edge of the growing stain of iron red brick extending out from the growing city shrinks a little more, day by day.
Meanwhile Helen, the younger Miss Schlegel, makes a project of sorts of rescuing Leonard Bas from the misfortune triggered by Mr Wilcox’s careless financial advice to leave his job in a secure bank. Her indignation only increases when she learns of Mr Wilcox’s part in the downfall of Mrs Bas, who had lived as a prostitute since Wilcox had a causal affair with her ten years before when she was only sixteen until she met her husband, who married her out of pity. The careless use, by one class, of those from another is a theme which may sound dated and as trite as something from Dickens but which feels as current as anything as you allow the plot to unfold. The dubious banking advice doled out by Mr Wilcox causing the abject poverty of another family unit (yet he seems to want no part in making amends when beseeched to do so by the Schlegels) could be a story thread taken from any of the newspaper subplots arising from the financial crashes of the last decade. Helen sees in Leonard Bas a romantic figure of sorts; a fragment of a type of male that appears to be missing from the modern world. The”grandson to the shepherd or ploughboy whom civilization had sucked into the town; as one of the thousands who have lost the life of the body and failed to reach the life of the spirit”, he seeks some lost aspect of himself…you could call it a connection with the earth…through books while he spends his days as an out-of-work bank clerk. Helen is beguiled by his obvious sensitivity (sadly lacking in men of her own class!) paired with the pathos of his situation and its as though she makes herself mad with a desire to reinstate him where he belongs; that is, in a more sensitive and natural way of life reconnected to a world full of beautiful things. When she becomes pregnant with his baby, she exiles herself to Germany, returning only to visit an aunt and collect her books from Howard’s End, where they are being stored. When the Wilcoxes find out Helen is pregnant out-of-wedlock, they run around in a frenzy of outrage and much-desired retribution, though they care nothing about Helen but only for wounded family pride. Heavily pregnant Helen asks to spend the night at Howard’s End (for no logical reason since she has never been there before; its as though she senses it is some sort of feminine hub calling her to be there prior to birthing something important into the world – a child that bridges two worlds) yet Margaret has to fight with her husband for the right for them both to sleep there for just one night; ironic given the former Mrs Wilcox intended the house to go to Margaret anyway. This ends badly when Wilcox’s son Charles (having driven to Howard’s End to turn the two women out the next morning) comes upon the starving and sickly Bas at Howard’s End, where hs has come to seek out Helen, and acting on the misguided masculine ideals of duty, slighted honour and retribution that rule his class, repeatedly strikes him with the blunt side of the family sword until (with tragic irony) a heavily laden book-case tips on the bookish Bas, killing him outright as “books fell over him in a shower” due to his weak heart.
Yet it is the breaking of the Wilcox spirit…which you could take, by now, to be representative of the distorted masculine persona of our times (Charles is sent to prison for three years for his act of manslaughter and his father is bowed down in shame, shock and grief at all these turn of events, including that his wife Margaret now threatens to leave him) that is the making of the situation. Wilcox’s “fortress gave way” at that point and, at last, he spends time revisiting all his behaviour to date and becomes softer and more humane as a result. His wife Margaret stays with him, as does Helen and her illegitimate child and they all live together at Howard’s End (which is now modernised somewhat to make it more habitable; a case of best of both worlds), the boy growing up fast-friends with a local farm boy; circumstances that would have been quite unimaginable at the beginning of the tale. Pride and ridiculous social mores are thrown to the wind and a whole other spirit seems to descend upon this new phase of Wilcox’s life; its as though he find the missing inner life that was previously absent from his version of masculinity.
The family are put straight on how Howard’s End is to be left to Margaret and then her nephew after Wilcox’s death and this turn of events delivers a much broader, deeply symbolic, feeling of the world being set straight on its axis at last as Ruth’s wishes are carried out. You sense that, in that place (tucked away from the sprawling city) Wilcox finally heals a life-time of denied emotions, a life made up of material trappings filled with only “panic and empiness”, and becomes a far more rounded person. The warning lies, I suppose, in Charles and his many offspring who continue along the path of very different ideals; you just know that, released from jail, he will become even more bitter and ingrained with ideals of money and power, leaving this small haven at Howard’s End the exception rather than the rule in a twentieth century increasingly obsessed with money and power as the only widely recognised drivers of our collective fate. I’m reminded, by Howard’s End the place, of the bohemian idyll created by the Bloomsbury group at Charleston Farmhouse (subject of my post Leading me up the garden path) where a collective of artistic people with very different priorities and ideals than the rest of the modern world (Forster was amongst them) lived out their rather chaotic and “interesting” lifestyle, tucked away from the rest of the twentieth century and its materialistic left-brained impulses.
This divisive world made up of two distinct perspectives is where we have been for the last century and is where are, still, now….two worlds living separately; one of them considerably larger and more assertive than the other. While havens are sometimes cultivated and preserved by those who are the exception rather than the rule to society at large, the over-riding impulse of the western vision of life has run roughshod over nearly everything and it is very hard to escape it, wherever you go. I watch my own version of the creeping concrete ink-blot chasing me out of my own village and leaving me almost nothing of the kind of place I once chose to live in and it can feel wearying to the soul…like all the spaces will run out soon and people like me (artistic and sensitive types who want to connect with the earth more so than with technology and possessions) will be left nowhere that we can be ourselves. Yet maybe Forster foresaw another way; one where it wasn’t a case of one world living separate from the other but where those two halves mingle together, cohabiting to the advantage of both. In Margaret Wilcox and her husband, I see the model for that being realised in an idyl representative of two ways of being, meeting together as one “end” – Howard’s End.
If Howard’s End is an ideal destination then Margaret is its proponent in the same way that I regard myself to be one such. It’s not that she wants to “ditch” the modern world and all its trapping; going back to the way we were before all that rather useful innovation. Rather, throughout the novel, she tries to serve as a bridge between two worlds, the peacemaker and source of harmony, seeing both sides in as favourable light as she can. As she says to Helen:
“If Wilcoxes hadn’t worked and died in England for thousands of years, you and I couldn’t sit here without having our throats cut. There would be no trains, no ships to carry us literary people about in, no fields even. Just savagery. No—perhaps not even that. Without their spirit, life might never have moved out of protoplasm. More and more do I refuse to draw my income and sneer at those who guarantee it.”
This is much how I tend to think when I consider a world without all the trappings that enable my world to run smoothly and comfortably, just the way I like it, including being able to tap out this post on a computer that sends it to a place where you can be sitting there reading it within moments of me pressing that “publish” button. I don’t long to turn myself so rustic that I have to spend my hours making my own clothes or growing my own food from scratch, my daylight subject to the seasons or a candle, my transport slow or negligible. The very thought of a makeshift life such as my ancestors might have led fills me with abject horror, yet the runaway train of a world hell-bent on materialism fills me with equal terrors and I have long since made the struggle to knit the best of these two perspectives together the life’s work and priority of my life. I like very much the phrase used in Howard’s End describing Margaret wanting to build a “rainbow bridge” between the prose and the passion of life since this isn’t the first time I have played with this idea of rainbows arching or bridging across from one version of reality to another (see my 2016 post At times like these). As my own version of such a bridge, I dream of a world in which men (and those following a “male-type” lifestyle…) get back in touch with their inner world and experience what it is to live without everything being about technology or possessions, in close contact with the earth and their own feelings, getting their most romantic experiences out of life (not just books or perhaps…these days…television) throughout the whole course of their life, not just hot-pursuing such “experiences” as more objects to possess, dressed up as holidays or escapes from what they regard as real life. I look forward to a universally available lifestyle incorporating these factors becoming the norm and being regarded as important enough to build our very world around as a very different set of priorities to those we operate according to at present.
So much of what is playing out in our world right now, especially in relation to areas of gender friction, feels like an air-punching cry for retribution, a sort of witch-hunt going after one side to making amends to the other, especially women hunting the male-oriented world down for some sort of collective apology or moment of shame. Before that (and continuing for many women) a trait has been for some women to try and protect or heal those more sensitive men in whom they detect traits of more “feminine qualities” and whom they perceive as broken-down victims of a heavily male-oriented world; as does Helen Schlegel in her attempts to champion Mr Bas. In this model, the female sacrifices her own life and preferences to make the male’s life “better” and “more comfortable” and this is a trait I have witnessed in countless women’s lives, including my mother’s and even my own, in my first marriage. Forster, even a hundred years ago, seems to have suggested another model…one in which forgiveness and understanding play a very-key part. We know – don’t we? – that the masculine is broken, as was Mr Wilcox….yet when we reach out our arms and embrace that broken aspect (as did Margaret Schlegel) we bring it home to ourselves and the feminine values that are so needed by this world in order for us to move on, intermingled as the best of both masculine and feminine qualities, as one unit. When we do this, we allow the masculine to dare to come home to the ever present embrace of the feminine, not to build up its walls of resistance even stronger against it. It is sad, yes, that so often the masculine has to be broken before it will come home in this way; but let it be broken only because of its own doings, not because the feminine contributed to that (which is not what the feminine is about anyway; seeking retribution is such a male trait, after all). An ending – such as Howard’s End is the metaphor for – awaits all of us that open our arms and our hearts thus, in however small a way we can manage to achieve it (I have made my own peace with the broken masculine many times over in my personal life…and my reward is a home where no evidence of such masculine wounding is perpetuated because the masculine and feminine aspects dare to meet in a whole new way; not least, within ourselves, whatever gender we may be). As such, we all get to be the full bow of the multifaceted rainbow rather than chasing down the prize at its mythical ending. This is something I pondered just a few days ago as I was travelling home along a road arched by a rainbow, wondering which end the pot of gold was meant to be at; surely when we realise it is to be found at both ends, the whole of its bridge, joining one place to another, becomes a prize even better than that long sought-after gold. When we are the rainbow, rather than seeking it external to the self, we incorporate the best of both worlds; which makes the quality that Howard’s End represents less of a destination than a state we get to be in, all of the time.
Does a century-old novel (which more people know as a film or, now, a more recent BBC adaptation than a book) really hold any significance in this day and age? Maybe it holds even more than something more current for the fact it preserves something tenuous and almost completely obscured from our twenty-first century perspective. We used to listen to writers of great fiction, hang off their words, seek their insight and guidance; what happened to that and when did it stop? Its part of the very “problem” played with by Forster; we have subjugated the arts to a position where they are reduced to being a mere entertainment, not deliverers of truth. Then, so much of what is picked to put out there as story-telling these days is facile; we don’t even seem to have a Merchant Ivory* production-line or equivalent to spotlight these gems in the cinema any more. More, we don’t regard literature as part of our lives or as something inviting us to take part in its perspective by picking up one of the potential endings that we are led to in our own lives, as a choice we just made having been presented with the options. Yes, collectively, we still hold that “Howard’s End” plot-ending in our hands and we can write it the way it worked out for the Schlegel’s or (sadly) the other way that it might have gone at our say so; in light of which I feel that Forster’s hundred and seven year-old story never had so much relevance, like it is a parable meant for our times.
Notable quotations from Howard’s End:
“And month by month the roads smelt more strongly of petrol, and were more difficult to cross, and human beings heard each other speak with greater difficulty, breathed less of the air, and saw less of the sky. Nature withdrew: the leaves were falling by midsummer; the sun shone through dirt with an admired obscurity.”
“All the same, London’s creeping.” She pointed over the meadow—over eight or nine meadows, but at the end of them was a red rust. . . . And London is only part of something else, I’m afraid. Life’s going to be melted down, all over the world.”
“She would only point out the salvation that was latent in his own soul, and in the soul of every man. Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”
“I am sure that if the mothers of various nations could meet, there would be no more wars.”
“You have not been yourself all day,” said Henry, and rose from his seat with face unmoved. Margaret rushed at him and seized both his hands. She was transfigured.
“Not any more of this!” she cried. “You shall see the connection if it kills you, Henry! You have had a mistress—I forgave you. My sister has a lover—you drive her from the house. Do you see the connection? Stupid, hypocritical, cruel—oh, contemptible!—a man who insults his wife when she’s alive and cants with her memory when she’s dead. A man who ruins a woman for his pleasure, and casts her off to ruin other men. And gives bad financial advice, and then says he is not responsible. These men are you. You can’t recognise them, because you cannot connect. I’ve had enough of your unneeded kindness. I’ve spoilt you long enough. All your life you have been spoiled. Mrs. Wilcox spoiled you. No one has ever told what you are—muddled, criminally muddled. Men like you use repentance as a blind, so don’t repent. Only say to yourself, ‘What Helen has done, I’ve done.”
“It is the starved imagination, not the well-nourished, that is afraid.”
“Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere. With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes. The most successful career must show a waste of strength that might have removed mountains, and the most unsuccessful is not that of the man who is taken unprepared, but of him who has prepared and is never taken.”
“London was beginning to illuminate herself against the night. Electric lights sizzled and jagged in the main thoroughfares, gas-lamps in the side streets glimmered a canary gold or green. The sky was a crimson battlefield of spring, but London was not afraid. Her smoke mitigated the splendour, and the clouds down Oxford Street were a delicately painted ceiling, which adorned while it did not distract.”
“We are reverting to the civilization of luggage, and historians of the future will note how the middle classes accreted possessions without taking root in the earth, and may find in this the secret of their imaginative poverty.”
“Mature as he was, she might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man.”
“But man is an odd, sad creature as yet, intent on pilfering the earth, and heedless of the growths within himself. He cannot be bored about psychology. He leaves it to the specialist, which is as if he should leave his dinner to be eaten by a steam-engine. He cannot be bothered to digest his own soul.”
“Because a thing is going strong now, it need not go strong for ever,’ she said. ‘This craze for motion has only set in during the last hundred years. It may be followed by a civilization that won’t be a movement, because it will rest on the earth. All the signs are against it now, but I can’t help hoping.”
“Had he lived some centuries ago, in the brightly coloured civilizations of the past, he would have had a definite status, his rank and his income would have corresponded. But in his day the angel of Democracy had arisen, enshadowing the classes with leathern wings, and proclaiming, “All men are equal–all men, that is to say, who possess umbrellas…”
“With the first jolt he was in daylight; they had left the gateways of King’s Cross, and were under blue sky. Tunnels followed, and after each the sky grew bluer, and from the embankment at Finsbury Park he had his first sight of the sun. It rolled along behind the eastern smokes — a wheel, whose fellow was the descending moon — and as yet it seemed the servant of the blue sky, not its lord. He dozed again. Over Tewin Water it was day. To the left fell the shadow of the embankment and its arches; to the right Leonard saw up into the Tewin Woods and towards the church, with its wild legend of immortality. Six forest trees — that is a fact — grow out of one of the graves in Tewin churchyard. The grave’s occupant — that is the legend — is an atheist, who declared that if God existed, six forest trees would grow out of her grave. These things in Hertfordshire; and farther afield lay the house of a hermit — Mrs. Wilcox had known him — who barred himself up, and wrote prophecies, and gave all he had to the poor. While, powdered in between, were the villas of business men, who saw life more steadily, though with the steadiness of the half-closed eye. Over all the sun was streaming, to all the birds were singing, to all the primroses were yellow, and the speedwell blue, and the country, however they interpreted her, was uttering her cry of “now. ” She did not free Leonard yet, and the knife plunged deeper into his heart as the train drew up at Hilton. But remorse had become beautiful.”
“It was English, and the wych-elm that she saw from the window was an English tree. No report had prepared her for its peculiar glory. It was neither warrior, nor lover, nor god; in none of these roles do the English excel. It was a comrade, bending over the house, strength and adventure in its roots, but in its utmost fingers tenderness, and the girth, that a dozen men could not have spanned, became in the end evanescent, till pale bud clusters seemed to float in the air.”
“England was alive, throbbing through all her estuaries, crying for joy through the mouths of all her gulls, and the north wind, with contrary motion, blew stronger against her rising seas. What did it mean? For what end are her fair complexities, her changes of soil, her sinuous coast? Does she belong to those who have moulded her and made her feared by other lands, or to those who have added nothing to her power, but have somehow seen her, seen the whole island at once, lying as a jewel in a silver sea, sailing as a ship of souls, with all the brave world’s fleet accompanying her towards eternity?”
“But they to him were denizens of Romance, who must keep to the corner he had assigned them, pictures that must not walk out of their frames.”
“What is the good of your stars and trees, your sunrise and the wind, if they do not enter into our daily lives?”
“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 . . . That is not imagination. No, it kills it. . . . Your universities? Oh, yes, you have learned men who collect . . . facts, and facts, and empires of facts. But which of them will rekindle the light within?”
*I find this quote from Ismail Merchant interesting in the context of the east and west hemispheres of the global mind and their meeting point along the twelfth longitude east (Germany is on this line) given how he describes the three-part partnership which, effectively, ended when Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who scripted many of the films, died in 2013: “It is a strange marriage we have at Merchant Ivory… I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew, and Jim is a Protestant American. Someone once described us as a three-headed god. Maybe they should have called us a three-headed monster!”(The Times, 26 May 2005). Perhaps they were actually a rainbow of unity consciousness!
The “global mind” and the “eighth wave” refer to concepts outlined by Carl Johan Calleman PhD in his book “The Nine Waves of Creation: Quantum Physics, Holographic Evolution, and the Destiny of Humanity (as discussed in my numerous posts on this topic tagged “nine waves”).
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