In volume one of his published journals, as an opinionated undergraduate, the great British novelist John Fowles comments on reading E.M. Forster’s Howards End that it’s as if reading a book by a passionless, fussy rabbit. I’m not sure quite what he meant by that; if I was going to find literary ancestors for John Fowles, E.M. Forster would surely be one. Howards End is about three families representing three different classes – the intelligentsia, the business class and the working class – and the terribly complicated mess of a love-triangle they get themselves into. Well, it’s not exactly a ‘love triangle’; it’s way too complicated for that. But Forster is writing about Britain and about authenticity in 1910, just as Fowles was writing about these same things in Britain in 1960s. I see them both as such representatively British writers.
Howards End was consistently surprising, the narrator would suddenly veer up to a state of omniscience and pass interesting comments on the state of the country or the nature of someone’s soul. Or to say that what happened next was too full of boring details to relate. It’s an interventionist narrator of an interesting sort, with thoughtful things to contribute. I don’t think too many novels are written like this any more (maybe not enough in any era?), which dare to ask what’s it all about, and not even from a narrowly existential angle, but from a wide angle social perspective.
But I find myself battling to know what else to write about the book, and I wonder if that’s part of what Fowles was talking about. I wasn’t compelled, as much as I was interested and impressed.
I’ve never seen the film from the 1990s and I’m looking forward to checking it out.