Monday, February 25, 2013

Howards End

Re-reading Howards End nearly twenty years after first reading it is a good way to remind yourself of all that you didn't know at nineteen. From facts (the political struggle of the time over limiting the power of the House of Lords, to take just one) to emotions (which, if one is honest, includes nearly all of those incident upon serious relationships), the difference that comes with having doubled one's store of experience is impressive. What struck me most this time through--perhaps no surprise to those who've read Forster as adults--was how fundamentally decent Forster is to all his characters, his "patient recognition that human beings are usually awful, but must be given a chance not to be," as Samuel Hynes put it in his 1985 introduction to the Bantam edition. As Forster himself puts it, it's "Cynicism--not the superficial cynicism that snarls and sneers, but the cynicism that can go with courtesy and tenderness," the cynicism that knows that people most often will disappoint, but that refuses to build its world around that fact.

Throughout the novel Forster argues against excessive preparation for the worst outcome. "Those who prepare for all the emergencies of life beforehand may equip themselves at the expense of joy," he writes. Elsewhere, in the passage that most explicitly links that idea with his argument that we should believe in people despite the evidence, his heroine, Margaret Schlesinger, describes her father's approach to trust. When her aunt worries that a visitor might easily have stolen their "apostle spoons," Margaret replies:
"Yes, I think the apostle spoons could have gone as rent," said Margaret. Seeing that her aunt did not understand, she added: "You remember 'rent.' It was one of father's words--Rent to the ideal, to his own faith in human nature. You remember how he would trust strangers, and if they fooled him he would say, 'It's better to be fooled than to be suspicious'--that the confidence trick is the work of man, but the want-of-confidence-trick is the work of the devil."
That thought appears in a variety of permutations in the novel, situations that test its aptness and its consequences. But, at least this time through, it stood out most strikingly for me in the following passage, where its interest is more historic than novelistic:
Looking back on the past six months, Margaret realized the chaotic nature of our daily life, and its difference from the orderly sequence that has been fabricated by historians. 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 a man who is taken unprepared, but of him who has prepared and is never taken. On a tragedy of that kind our national morality is duly silent. It assumes that preparation against danger is in itself a good, and that men, like nations, are the better for staggering through life fully armed. The tragedy of preparedness has scarcely been handled, save by the Greeks. Life is indeed dangerous, but not in the way morality would have us believe. It is indeed unmanageable, but the essence of it is not a battle. It is unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty.
Forster wrote the novel between 1908 and 1910, a period which saw Parliament authorizing the construction of four new capital ships on the lines of the Dreadnought, which itself had triggered an increasingly intense naval arms race with Germany; 1910 saw the keels laid for four more. Forster surely saw what others saw: that Europe was bristling with arms. But--to the extent that we can legitimately read this passage as standing in for his thought, and expand the personal to the national--he seems not to have seen the outcome.

That's far from unreasonable, of course; there's a reason that the most recent history of the run-up to the Great War is called Sleepwalkers. It's only interesting in context of Forster's ability to see incipient change elsewhere--specifically, in Howards End, in the creeping expansion of London, the ongoing destruction of rural life, and the suburbanization of the land. The novel, full as it is of railway and motor-car journeys, understands that London's stain is unstoppable, that it will spread and spread and the result will be nothing England has known before. Near the end of the novel, Margaret stands outside Howards End, which not so long ago was a farmhouse and is now a country retreat, and points
over a meadow--over eight or nine meadows, but at the end of them was a red dust.

"You see that in Surrey and even Hampshire now."
And Surrey is now London, Hampshire far from rural.

Yet Forster couldn't see the smash coming. England over-arming itself, all Europe doing the same--and Forster's worry was what was being lost, what being foreclosed in favor of preparation that, he seems to think, is needless. It certainly can be argued that the pre-war preparation was detrimental--that it even to a large extent precipitated the war--but how wonderful to imagine a world where it had turned out to be useless!

Instead, we're left to picture Margaret and Helen rolling bandages; Charles and Paul Wilcox (for all the little, let's be honest, that we care for them) enlisting, puffed with patriotism; and even Tibby, ineffectual Tibby, who "had never known young-manliness, that quality which warms the heart till death," who is "untroubled by passions and sincerely indifferent to public opinion," who is "affected in manner, but never posed," who "disdained the heroic equipment," swept up in the patriotic, romantic fervor, like so many of his generation, trading his indolence and study for a kit bag and helmet and the squalor of the trenches.

Did he survive? Did any of them? Great is the novel that can make us wonder, and greater still make us care.

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