Perhaps E.M. Forster has the truest claim to be Jane Austen’s spiritual heir, not Henry James or Edith Wharton or Virginia Woolf, those who are in some ways more obvious contenders to the title. It strikes me reading this novel now in 2010 that I am as far away in time from the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes and London in the early years of the 20th century as Forster was from the Dashwoods and the Middletons and London in the early years of the 19th. Their world seems distant and yet entirely familiar; but then, so does Jane Austen’s. And perhaps this is the thread that links the two: an interest in eternal and timeless human truths, as expressed in simple, outwardly rather unexciting, daily events. Forster, like Austen, was interested in how money lay at the root of many aspects of life, in how people got along, found meaning and found love. But these comments are so general that they could describe a lot of novels; what is it, actually, that links the two, the clergyman’s spinster daughter and the closeted gay man? Intelligence, obviously, and irony. A kind of imaginative sympathy.
Reading Forster, you feel certain you would have liked him if you could have met him, and yet I search for the source of this certainty without success. There is a kindness that seems to hover around his paragraphs, as if he was writing with a smile, feeling affection for even his most annoying characters. However, I am not sure this is also true of Jane Austen; the part about the smile, maybe. To me she seems never bitter, never hateful, as some critics have affirmed. But she can be merciless! One thinks of the Eltons, or Lady Catherine, or Elizabeth Elliot.
I have read Howards End…how many times? I don’t remember. I know I first read it 20 years ago, in Hong Kong, finding a paperback Penguin version in a used bookstore on Hollywood Road. “J. Dunkerley, Q.A.S. Sept 76” is inscribed in the front, so this particular copy already had a history then. I wrote my own name on the same page, the year, the place. English-language books were expensive and hard to come by, and I held on to this one as the treasure it was. J. Dunkerley, perhaps reading this for a class, made many notes in the margins, which seem insightful when they are legible, which is not often.
Whenever I reread Howards End, it is always with a feeling of surprise, as if some part of my mind is reading it for the very first time. I do not seem to bring the earlier readings along with me as ballast and contrast, as is true for some other chronically reread books (Unbearable Lightness of Being, Anna Karenina). Perhaps because it isn’t the plot that sticks with one so much, as the way the writing seduces the reader despite all the odds. Mrs. Wilcox, for instance. How did he do that? There seems nothing to her, and yet she anchors the book.
She was not intellectual, nor even alert, and it was odd that, all the same, she should give the idea of greatness. Margaret, zigzagging with her friends over Thought and Art, was conscious of a personality that transcended their own and dwarfed their activities. There was no bitterness in Mrs. Wilcox; there was not even criticism; she was lovable, and no ungracious or uncharitable word had passed her lips. Yet she and daily life were out of focus: one or the other must show blurred. And at lunch she seemed more out of focus than usual, and nearer the line that divides daily life from a life that may be of greater importance.