In the Abyss: Class and Culture in Howards End

In this series of linked essays, undergraduate Rachel Haworth demonstrates how thinking about class - in its interactions with education, the landscape, economics, and the nation - permeates E. M. Forster's novel Howards End.

Chapter six of Howards End begins with a declaration of the novel's self-imposed limits:

We are not concerned with the very poor.  They are unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet.  This story deals with gentlefolk, or with those who are obliged to pretend that they are gentlefolk. (Howards End, p. 47)

Howards End purports to be unconcerned with the lower classes even as it paradoxically draws attention to them. Through the character of Leonard Bast, Forster explores the precariousness of an existence on the very edge of middle-class gentility. The Schlegel sisters' attempt at a friendship with Leonard reflects the problematic relationship between the wealthy and the poor. Leonard's fall into poverty and squalor allows Forster to examine the blurred boundaries of the poor middle-class and the working class, so calling into question social hierarchies and distinctions still vigorously maintained by the likes of Mrs Munt.

The working classes and education: Social differences and notions of 'culture'

The Working Men's College was founded in 1854 by F. D. Maurice, a theologian and socialist who took a civil law degree from Trinity Hall, Cambridge in 1827.  The college aimed to give a liberal education to working class men, and attempted to create a social life modelled on Cambridge and Oxford - teachers and students meeting in fellowship and equality. In the 1880s, a tradition began where a group of Working Men's College students would come to Cambridge and were matched with undergraduates and fellows for lunch and conversation, and a night in the college rooms. Forster never participated in one of these buddy-events, but in 1902, he began teaching at the college and continued to do so for twenty years. Forster, therefore, had a personal experience of and interest in the question of the education of working-class people, and particularly the impact of cultural education on the working-class.

Movements towards social reform under the governments of both William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli towards the end of the nineteenth century included significant efforts towards educational improvement. Under Gladstone, the 1870 Education Act established education boards for each area of the country, and stipulated a certain level of educational provision. These measures gave rise to a new generation of educated working-class people; the 'third generation' of the 'shepherd or ploughboy whom civilisation had sucked into the town'; the semi-educated, semi-skilled generation of typists, secretaries and clerks, who were 'always craving' more, because they were 'modern' (Black, The Making of Modern Britain, 90-91). In The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992), John Carey claims that when early twentieth-century writers depict the working-class beneficiaries of democratic educational reform, 'they frequently do so with disdain', and argues that the 'effort of the masses to acquire culture is presented as ill-advised and unsuccessful' in much of this writing (Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses, 19).

Howards End was written in 1910. In this novel, Forster presents Leonard Bast, a lower-class, poorly-educated London clerk, whom he describes as standing 'at the extreme verge of gentility', with mind and body 'alike underfed, because he was poor'; yet 'because he was modern they were always craving better food' (Howards End, p. 47). Leonard converses with Margaret and Helen Schlegel, two well-educated, wealthy, middle-class women. They are prevented from forming a meaningful connection, however, by his notions of culture. While he desperately strives towards 'Literature and Art', the Schlegels view him as an unsuccessful imitator:

His brain is filled with the husks of books, culture - horrible; we want to show him how to wash out his brain, and go to the real thing. (Howards End, p. 152)

At the same time, they recognise - and are drawn by - something innate within him. As much as they perceive the shallowness of his cultural education, they applaud his attempt to seek new experiences.  His impulsive walk out of London earns their respect: he tried to 'get away from the fogs that are stifling us all - away past books and houses to the truth' (Howards End, p. 149).

Leonard is painfully conscious of the gap between himself and the Schlegels, and asks himself - with more than a hint of despair - how it might be possible 'with an hour at lunch, and a few shattered hours in the evening... to catch up with women who had been reading steadily since childhood' (Howards End, p. 41). Culture, for Margaret, has led Leonard astray from the 'real thing'.  He strives towards 'Culture', and hopes to come to it suddenly, 'much as the Revivalist hopes to come to Jesus' (p. 52). Literature and Art, for Leonard, are a means to a wider outlook.  Yet, in moments of pessimism, he realises: 'Oh, it was no good, this continual aspiration. Some are born cultured; the rest had better go in for whatever comes easy' (Howards End, p.57).

He dies, ironically, crushed beneath a bookcase. The bookcase is a rather unsubtle symbol for the husks of 'culture'. Leonard is killed by the very thing towards which he strived, perhaps as a consequence of his inevitable failure to bridge 'the gulf that stretches between the natural and the philosophic man' (Howards End, p. 120). John Carey interprets this as 'a cautionary ending', that these are 'the dangers of higher education, when pursued by the wrong people' (Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses, 19). Rather than a 'cautionary ending', I would suggest that Leonard's unfortunate end acts as a comment on a society that leaves the working-class 'under-fed' in every way.  It reflects social constraints, rather than indicting the innate abilities of a poverty-stricken working-class man.

The Schlegel sisters are wealthy, educated and cultured, whereas Leonard Bast is poor, with mind and body 'alike underfed', but despite their differences they find a common humanity 'in a spirit of excitement'. They recognise that in essence, beyond the markings of class they share something: that they all 'struggle against life's daily greyness, against pettiness, against mechanical cheerfulness, against suspicion' (Howards End, p. 150). It is clear, however, that for the Schlegels nothing more long-lasting is possible. Margaret acknowledges that they have a few moments of connection, that they 'got on well enough' with him in this 'spirit of excitement', but asserts the inconceivability of 'rational intercourse' with such a man. For these sisters, the markings of culture are deeper, more engrained and more inescapable than is suggested elsewhere in Forster's writing:

Most people would have let him go. 'A little mistake. We tried knowing another class - impossible.' But the Schlegels had never played with life. They had attempted friendship, and they would take the consequences. (Howards End, p. 148)

Here, these social differences sabotage the possibility of a connection with someone so different. For Margaret, a connection with Leonard is only possible if he is utterly transformed. She fails to recognise the problems that she brings to the relationship - intellectual snobbery, for example - but that very snobbery impels her to endure the 'consequences' of her failures.

In the conclusion of Howards End, Leonard leaves a child, a gesture towards future generations and a product of the union between the impoverished and disadvantaged, and the wealthy and cultured. We are left at the end of the novel to smell 'sweet odours of grass' in the idyllic image of the wheat field, 'gilded with tranquillity' (Howards End, p. 352). We could interpret the creation of this child as a successful connection between a man on the edge of 'the abyss', who longs hopelessly 'to acquire culture', and the wealthy, cultured middle classes. Perhaps we could think of this child as representing a hope for the future? There is, however, a distinct lack of passion in the union between Helen and Leonard. Helen believes in the ideological necessity of being able to form a relationship with members of the working classes, and she loses all sense of what it means for a relationship to be natural, organic and human. This is an alliance which does not eclipse the differences of class and gender, but rather originates in them; in my opinion, it is not a true, productive union, but a miserable, doomed scramble of an attempt at one. To Helen, 'Leonard seemed not a man, but a cause', since 'she forgot people. They were husks that had enclosed her emotion' (Howards End, p. 326). Margaret's relationship with Leonard is very different, although no more appropriate or helpful. She perceives him more clearly as a man, but views him as a kind of social project. Although she can see what he might have become given the right opportunities, she cannot conceive of forming a real friendship with a man such as him, and eventually disregards him altogether when she finds new interests.


'From where he sat he could see the village of Hilton, strung upon the North Road, with its accreting suburbs; the sunset beyond, scarlet and orange, winking at him beneath brows of grey; the church; the plantations; and behind him an unspoilt country of fields and farms.' (Howards End, p. 91)

Howards End is filled with nostalgia for the space, tranquillity and greenness of rural England. Forster visualises the English countryside as a kind of pastoral idyll, and pines for a time before industrialisation. The novel registers a feeling that was widespread amongst Forster's contemporaries, identifying the national character of the country with its rural landscapes, and looking to England's future in terms of the pastoral harmony that might be found there.

Idealising the rural, she envisions life in 'these English farms' as a state where one might achieve her vision of the ideal, where the epigraph of the novel, 'Only connect', might finally be fulfilled, and where 'if anywhere, one might see life steadily and see it whole, group in one vision its transitoriness and its eternal youth' (Howards End, p. 281). It is this vision of the ideal which Margaret believes Leonard might achieve if he can only 'wash out his brain' and get rid of the 'husks of books' (Howards End, p. 152). Indeed, it is strongly suggested to us in Howards End that Leonard Bast finds his way to something 'real' when he forsakes the existence of the suburban clerk to watch the sun rise over the North Downs. Forster mourns the passing of the 'yeoman' with a nostalgic sigh, 'England's hope', who can 'clumsily... carry forward the torch of the sun, until such time as the nation sees fit to take it up' (p. 338). In this, we can see that he ultimately allies himself with what is natural over what is artificial, and with human nature over the social boundaries which constrain it.

In his depiction of nature and the city, Forster was influenced by Edward Carpenter, the writer of an 1889 essay entitled 'Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure'. Carpenter believed in a return to Nature and in 'the emergence of the perfect Man' ('Civilization: Its Cause and Cure', IV). He praises 'the instinctive elemental man accepting and crowning nature', dismisses civilization as merely a 'historical stage through which the various nations pass', and condemns the 'society of classes founded upon differences of material possession' ('Civilization: Its Cause and Cure', I). He conceives of a sustained connection between all members of the human race: 'the true Self of man consists in his organic relationship with the whole body of his fellows', when 'Man' reunites 'the passion and the delight of human love with his deepest feelings of the sanctity and beauty of Nature' (see Searle, 601-02).

One response to this disgust for the urban landscape, and the concomitant idealisation of the rural, was to suggest a return to Nature, a return to pastoral working-class roots. Leonard returns to the rural heritage of his ancestors, of 'the shepherd or ploughboy', when he makes a journey into the dawn of the North Downs. Forster suggests in Howards End that it would have been far better for the rural masses to have avoided being 'sucked into the town' (Howards End, p. 120). When Leonard succeeds in abandoning his aspirations towards the 'Culture' of the educated middle classes for a brief moment, and goes to 'the real thing' in his return to Nature - 'the something that was greater than Jefferies' books' and 'the spirit that led Jefferies to write them' - he gets away 'from the fogs that are stifling us all - away past books and houses to the truth' (Howards End, p. 149). This is something that the Schlegels themselves have been unable to accomplish. He feels that 'somehow the barriers of wealth had fallen, and there had been - he could not phrase it - a certain assertion of the wonder of the world' (Howards End, p. 130). It is the story of Leonard's escape from the suburban, dreary existence of the poorly educated London clerk that grants him and the Schlegel sisters their one transitory moment of mutual comprehension; we can find, in this, intimations of finding something universal and essential about humanity. There is also a sense of escapist isolation in Leonard's night-time wandering, a suggestion of a flight to 'the greenwood' (a theme that Forster takes up again in his novel Maurice).


[T]he city herself, emblematic of their lives, rose and fell in a continual flux, while her shallows washed more widely against the hills of Surrey and over the fields of Hertfordshire.  This famous building had arisen, that was doomed.  Today Whitehall had been transformed: it would be the turn of Regent Street tomorrow. (Howards End, p. 112)

Howards End is permeated by a feeling of revulsion towards the unpleasant, gritty realities of urban life, the unsightly decay and squalor of the city. Forster establishes strong contrasts between 'City' and 'Country' early in the novel when he draws the distinction between 'England' and 'Suburbia' as different countries, and when he comments of Margaret Schlegel:

Like many others who have long lived in a great capital, she had strong feelings about the various [London] railway termini. They are out gates to the glorious and the unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, to them, alas! we return. (Howards End, p. 12)

By the time of Howards End's publication in 1910, the progression of urbanisation and industrialisation across Britain had brought huge social change. Between 1870 and 1911 some 250,000 acres in Great Britain went out of cereal production, and during these years of agricultural depression many labourers moved into the cities or emigrated from the country altogether. Helen Schlegel remarks, 'London's creeping', with reference to the gradual encroachment of the suburbs upon the country estates, farm land and green pastures of England. Margaret 'knew that her sister spoke truly', and reflects that 'the melting-pot was being prepared for them' (Howards End, p. 355). Forster faces the problem of urbanisation head-on in his essay 'The Challenge of Our Time', published in Two Cheers for Democracy in 1951. He acknowledges the necessity of tearing down the slums and re-housing their inhabitants, but he also expresses a deeply felt concern with regards to the destruction of his 'England' caused by the encroaching developments. 'I cannot,' he concludes, 'equate the problem. It is a collision of loyalties.' This problem is explored in Howards End. He suggests both a sense of flux and change, the 'eternal formlessness' of London, and concerns for contamination, a too-close contact with the working-class masses. The instability caused by 'this continual flux' has profound repercussions for the human relationships in the novel, for the capacity of people to connect with each other in any real way. The city 'throws upon personal relations a stress greater than they have ever borne before' (Howards End, pp. 272-73), and there is a direct relation between urbanisation and the difficulties experienced in forming and sustaining human relationships: '... month by month the roads smelt more strongly of petrol, and were more difficult to cross, and human beings heard each other speak with more difficulty, breathed less of the air, and saw less of the sky' (Howards End, p. 112).

This idea of flux, of change and of shapelessness, is inextricably linked with the historical fact of the shifting masses. The working classes live in those 'modern dwelling-place[s] that strike a shallow makeshift note', since they have been 'too easily gained, and could be relinquished too easily' (Howards End, p. 50). Their movements - for example, those of the Basts, who 'had just been evicted for not paying their rent, and had wandered no one knew whither' - contribute largely to the 'nomadic civilisation' of which Forster despairs (Howards End, pp. 272-73). The Basts are 'at the extreme verge of gentility' and live precariously on 'the edge of the abyss', two individuals suffering the direct effects of the 'turmoil and squalor' which so frighten Margaret (Howards End, p. 119). After her encounter with Leonard's wife Jackie, Margaret fears 'fantastically, that her own little flock might be moving... into nearer contact with episodes such as these', and the depiction of 'London's creeping' as an encroaching spread of 'red rust' implies contamination and decay, a vague fear of the squalor of the approaching masses (Howards End, p. 119). This suggests there is room for only a few of the most privileged to engage in the kind of relationship he values; Forster seems to find it difficult to include the working-class masses in his vision of the world. The working classes as a 'mass' are certainly more of a problem for him than they are as individuals.

Inferiority of the working classes

But he was inferior to most rich people, there was not the least doubt of it. He was not as courteous as the average rich man, nor as intelligent, nor as healthy, nor as lovable. His mind and body had been alike underfed, because he was poor, and because he was modern they were always craving better food. (Howards End, p. 47)

Concerns about a 'physical deterioration' of the English population in the early twentieth century led to movements towards improving health and living standards, and towards the creation of an 'imperial race' capable of sustaining and expanding the British Empire. This concern had its origins in the Boer War, after which the Army declared that sixty percent of Englishmen were physically unfit for service. The Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration was formed to investigate this problem; its task was to conduct a 'preliminary enquiry into the allegations concerning the deterioration of certain classes of the population, as shown by the large percentage of rejections for physical causes of recruits for the Army and by other evidence' (Report of the Committee, 1904). The term 'certain classes' referred specifically to the urban poor, and the committee's findings detailed the conditions of life in city slums: overcrowded, polluted air, sub-standard working conditions and high infant mortality.  The Committee's report of August 1904 showed a severe lack of public attention to problems caused by the significant growth of urban populations in the second half of the nineteenth century, with the result that the English poor were in a worse position than they had ever been.  The report was careful to make clear that this problem was confined to the poor and was not a general deterioration of the English race. Despite the committee's efforts to limit their findings, however, the effect of the report was to give currency to the idea of a broad-based 'physical deterioration'.  Moreover, the notion of deterioration quickly became interchangeable with ideas of decadence and degeneration; the implication of moral decline was bound up to the idea of physical atrophy. The report outlined a large number of schemes for social reform, which included the provision of school meals and the medical examination of school children, efforts towards improving and developing quality of life in the urban environment, and a programme of physical training for the civilian population.

The concern of the age with the physical fitness of the British people is registered in the novel Howards End. Leonard  a working-class clerk, is described as being 'inferior to most rich people, there was not the least doubt of it'; he is 'under-fed' in both 'body and mind'. He prepares a meal for himself and his wife, 'a soup square, which Leonard had just dissolved in some water', and manages to 'convince his stomach it was having a nourishing meal' (Howards End, p. 56). This basic under-nourishment, symbolic of his disadvantages and lack of opportunity, is considered to be something inescapable, limiting his development as a human being and preventing him from ultimately escaping the abyss: 'if a man over twenty once loses his particular job, it's all over with him' (Howards End, p. 237). His fragility of body and his poorly-trained mind render him incapable of adapting to the ever-changing economic climate and the 'continual flux' of the novel. He is 'not good enough' to do anything outside his 'one particular branch of insurance in one particular office' (Howards End, p. 237), and is therefore placed in an economically precarious position where it is almost impossible for him to find employment.

Degeneration of the English race

Then Margaret spoke rather seriously. 'I think,' she said, that our race is degenerating. We cannot even settle this little thing; what will it be like when we have to settle a big one?' (Howards End, p. 165)

In a letter to her sister, Helen writes that their brother Tibby is 'too tiresome' when she hears that his attack of hay fever may prevent Margaret from visiting her at Howards End, early on in the novel. She instructs Margaret to tell him that 'Charles Wilcox (the son who is here) has hay fever too, but he's brave, and gets quite cross when we inquire after it', and comments, 'Men like the Wilcoxes would do Tibby the world of good' (p. 5). Despite these admonishments, Margaret is unable to fulfill Helen's request, as she finds upon her return to his bedside that Tibby's head is aching, 'his eyes were wet, his mucous membrane, he informed her, in a most unsatisfactory condition' (p. 12). Strength, and especially masculine strength, is a quality always under interrogation for the characters in the novel, and we find worries about physical deterioration are not limited to that of the working classes in Howards End. Even the Wilcox men are unfit as guardians of their property. As the eccentric Miss Avery observes, late in the novel:

I've seen Charlie Wilcox go out to my lads in hay time - oh, they ought to do this, - they mustn't do that - he'd learn them to be lads. And just then the tickling took him. He has it from his father, with other things. There's not one Wilcox that can stand up in a field in June - I laughed fit to burst when he was courting Ruth.' (Howards End, p. 286)

Margaret asks, 'The population still rose, but what was the quality of men born?' Both physical strength and strength of character are explored as means of civilian deterioration in Howards End. The Wilcox men are at first seen as 'athletes'; they 'are keen on all games'; yet they 'seem paralysed' (Howards End, pp. 4, 228). 'If Margaret wanted to jump from a motor-car, she jumped; if Tibby thought paddling would benefit his ankles, he paddles; if a clerk desired adventure, he took a walk in the dark' (Howards End, p. 228), but as Margaret observes:

[The Wilcoxes] could not bathe without their appliances, though the morning sun was calling and the last mists were rising from the dimpling stream. Had they found the life of the body after all? Could not the men whom they despised as milksops beat them, even on their own ground? (Howards End, p. 228)

Leonard Bast is preliminarily described as physically under-developed and frail. But Margaret informs Mr Wilcox that 'there's manhood in him as well', that he's 'a real man' (Howards End, p. 154). Leonard has a strong sense of masculine duty: 'I'm not one of your knock-kneed chaps. If a woman's in trouble, I don't leave her in the lurch' (Howards End, p. 55). In this, we can contrast him to Henry Wilcox, a man who has 'lived a man's past'. He was faithless to his first wife, and discarded his mistress, Leonard's wife, with thoughtlessness and even cruelty. Wilcox may disregard and despise Leonard Bast, but Bast shows himself to be made of stronger stuff than the middle-class, wealthy imperialist. The moral asymmetry between Henry and Leonard only serves to highlight the economic inequalities between them.  Henry, though wealthy, seems morally bankrupt, while Leonard - though poor and physically degenerate - upholds a deeper sense of moral virtue.

Empire and the need for an Imperial race

A concern with imperialism and the men who had built the British Empire underlies Howards End. Forster's interest lies not in moulding the civilian population into an imperial race, but in examining the moral fibre of the men - like the Wilcoxes - who profit and sustain from the imperialist project. The continent of Africa looks 'like a whale marked out for blubber' in the offices of Henry Wilcox's Imperial and West African Rubber Company: something vulnerable, exposed and ready to be stripped for financial gain (Howards End, p. 204). Forster suggests that the imperialist mind is unimaginative, since the vice of imperialism is the vice of 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, and that a million square miles are almost the same as heaven' (p. 30). Nor does Forster much admire the spirit behind the work of the imperialist. He asks us not to yield to 'the temptation to acclaim [the imperialist] as the super-yeoman, who carried his country's virtue overseas', telling us that 'the Imperialist is not what he thinks or seems. He is a destroyer' (Howards End, p. 339). Instead, he looks back to the time of the 'yeoman' with a nostalgic sigh, 'England's hope', who can 'clumsily... carry forward the torch of the sun, until such time as the nation sees fit to take it up' (Howards End, p. 338).

Forster's ambivalence is shared by Margaret.  She maintains that she is bored by the idea of an Empire, yet she can 'appreciate the heroism that builds it up' (Howards End, p. 116). She asserts that a 'nation who can produce men of that sort may well be proud', although the 'results' she confesses are too 'difficult' for her; she wants 'activity without civilisation', the desire to work without the results of the work itself (Howards End, p. 116). Ultimately, her interest lies not in how the strength of his nation's people might be exploited for the gain of the Empire, but in that strength alone.

Another concern about the sustainability of the Empire was awoken in the fall of national birthrates. The Eugenics Education Society was established in 1907 in response to this problem, since the total rate of births in Britain were steeply declining in relation to other economic powers such as Germany, and internal shifts in population ratios were also becoming apparent. Evidence was produced which showed, according to Karl Pearson, the founder of mathematical statistics, that 'the fertile, but unfit, one-sixth' of the population would reproduce one-half of the next generation, a statistic widely believed to threaten the future of the Empire (see Searle, p. 375). The concern of the age with the physical fitness of the British people is registered in the novel Howards End in conversations about the 'decline of the birth-rate in Manchester' in the Sunday newspaper, in the thirst, contempt or expressed indifference for social reform displayed by the characters in the novel, the 'Social Question', and in the preoccupation with the need for an empire-building Imperial race (see e.g. Howards End, p. 49).

Always just rich and poor

"By all means subscribe to charities - subscribe to them largely - but don't get carried away by absurd schemes of Social Reform. I see a good deal behind the scenes and you can take it from me that there is no Social Question - except for a few journalists who try to get a living out of the phrase. There are just rich and poor, as there always has been and always will be." (Howards End, p. 200)

Henry Wilcox advocates a disinterested involvement in the lives of a number of working-class clerks: 'we live and let live, and assume that things are jogging on fairly well elsewhere, and that the ordinary plain man may be trusted to look after his own affairs' (Howards End, p. 152). He challenges Margaret's liberal middle-class perspective on the life of Leonard's working-class existence as being out of touch: it might be 'full of high purpose, full of beauty, full even of sympathy and the love of men' but it will 'somehow elude all that was actual and insistent in Leonard's life', as it is 'the voice of one who had never been hungry or dirty, and had not guessed successfully what dirt and hunger are' (Howards End, pp. 51-52). He asks Margaret, 'What do you know of London? You only see civilisation from the outside'. Margaret admits 'the strength of his position', but feels that 'it undermine[s] imagination' (Howards End, p. 153). Henry Wilcox believes that all men have their place in the world, and in the importance of supporting the structure of society; he believes that one should keep to one's own 'type'. By contrast, Margaret values the imagination as a means of transcending class differences; but her interest in crossing boundaries dwindles when she finds love within her own social class.

Mr Wilcox has a pragmatic, apathetic resignation to the state of the world and the economic gap between rich and poor, asserting that he believes in 'the survival of the fittest' (Howards End, p. 200). His disinterest in those he employs blinds him to the extent to which he shapes their lives:

"And these are the men to whom we give the vote," observed Mr Wilcox, omitting to add that they were also the men to whom he gave work as clerks - work that scarcely encouraged them to grow into other men. "However, they have their own lives and interests. Let's get on." (Howards End, pp. 190-91)

His position is one which maintains the status quo, the circumstances of which suit him, since he is an enterprising imperialist in a socio-economically advantageous situation.  His apathetic disinterest in social reform generally, and in his employees specifically, is therefore at heart rooted in self-interest.

Middle-class intervention: How ought I dispose of my money?

His sisters had seen the family danger, and had never forgotten to discount the gold islets that raised them from the sea. Tibby gave all the praise to himself, and so despised the struggling and the submerged. (Howards End, p. 324)

Margaret is extremely conscious of the privileged position of herself and her family.  They stand, she reminds Tibby and Helen, on 'the golden island', and she despairs of those 'rich people who pretend to be poor' (Howards End, p. 63). In contrast to Henry Wilcox's deliberate disengagement with the social conditions of the poor, the Schlegels care 'deeply about politics'. For Margaret, 'to do good to one... or a few, was the utmost she dare hope for' (Howards End, p. 134). Through their encounter with Leonard, the Schlegels gain 'a glimpse into squalor', 'a goblin footfall, as a hint that not all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds... beneath these superstructures of wealth and art', and 'the lowest abyss' as 'not absence of love, but the absence of coin' (Howards End, p. 63). With their wealth, Margaret believes, comes responsibility.

Their ability to understand Leonard's position is limited and they remain, as Henry Wilcox comments, outsiders, who see from 'above' into the lives of the working-class.  With the help of their imagination, they are able to perceive Leonard as an individual rather than one of the masses. Margaret defends him from the dismissive reductive by Henry: 'He isn't a type' (Howards End, p. 154).

Tibby Schlegel, by contrast, refuses to engage with social life, and retreats behind a kind of insipid asceticism. Forster tells us that Tibby Schlegel 'was not concerned with much' (Howards End, p. 261). He is 'a young man is untroubled by passions and sincerely indifferent to public opinion', and as he 'neither wished to strengthen the position of the rich nor to improve that of the poor', he 'was well content to watch the elms nodding behind the mildly embattled parapets of Magdalen' (Howards End, pp. 261-62). Like the narrator, he is 'not concerned with the very poor', and for him, like Forster's Ruskin, 'the power of Nature could not be shortened by the folly, nor her beauty altogether saddened by the misery, of such as Leonard' (pp. 57-58). Apathetic and uninterested in those less fortunate than himself, he isolates himself from the world by the 'gold island' of the independent income which frees him from the necessity of dealing with the working classes, seeking a escapist detachment in academia.

Further Reading

Jeremy Black, The Making of Modern Britain: The Age of Empire to the New Millennium (Thrupp, 2001).

John Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses (London, 1992).

G. R. Searle, A New England? Peace and War 1886-1918 (Oxford, 2004).

Further Thinking

Rachel Howarth demonstrates in these essays the degree to which Howards End is a novel shaped by the social and political ideas of its time. Do you think that the preoccupations of the novel with class and identity are still relevant to readers today?

One of the themes of Howards End that emerges strongly from this discussion is the possible futility of art as a medium or means of social change: not only does Leonard Bast find it impossile to penetrate into the assurance and intimacy of the Schlegel sisters' culture, but their view and understanding of him - which remains essentially the view of a reader - is similarly limited. Do you think the novel takes the same position on its own ability to effect social change? Would you regard its attitude as optimistic about the value or potency of art, or pessimistic?

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