Howards End is a 1910 novelistic masterpiece by the great British writer E.M. Forster. It became an excellent Merchant-Ivory movie. The story is set in Edwardian England (1901-1910) and shows the interaction of three families, each representing a section of British society:
- The Wilcoxes (Anthony Hopkins is Henry Wilcox) who represent cut-throat new money, with “Thatcherite” views.
- The Schlegels (Emma Thompson is Margaret Schlegel) represent the “culture vultures” who are always talking about music, literature, poetry, high-toned pursuits.
- The Basts (Leonard Bast is played by Samuel West) who is a lowly clerk in the Porphyrion Fire Insurance Company and part of what one writer (Jack London) called “people of the abyss.” (their job and wage insecurity is all-consuming).
The story involves the storm created by the interaction of these families and the destruction of the marginal clerk Leonard Bast. Surprisingly, the character Margaret Schlegel of the “artiste” family, talks about the centrality of money in their lives:
“You and I and the Wilcoxes stand upon money as upon islands. It is so firm beneath our feet that we forget its very existence. It’s only when we see someone near us tottering that we realize all that an independent income means. Last night, when we were talking up here round the fire, I began to think that the very soul of the world is economic, and that the lowest abyss is not the absence of love, but the absence of coin.”
“…we ought to remember, when we are tempted to criticize others, that we are standing on these islands, and that most of the others are down below the surface of the sea.”
“I stand each year upon six hundred pounds, and Helen [her sister] upon the same, and Tibby [their brother] will stand upon eight, and as fast as our pounds crumble away into the sea they are renewed—from the sea, yes, from the sea.
“And all our thoughts are the thoughts of the six-hundred-pounders, and all our speeches; and because we don’t want to steal umbrellas ourselves, we forget that below the sea people do want to steal them, and do steal them sometimes, and that what’s a joke up here is a down there reality.”
There are not only these terrifying lines of cleavage between rich and poor but these cleavages extend to sex and romance as well.
Leonard Bast is seduced by Helen Schlegel (Margaret’s bohemian rebellious sister) who becomes pregnant by him. Paul Wilcox (Henry’s explosive son) beats Bast to death which then brings the social “storm” of the Wilcoxes, Schlegels and Basts, to a climax or denouement.
A close reader of English literature will perhaps have noticed that already in Jane Austen novels, set in a time one hundred years prior to Howards End there is constant talk of annuities.
Already in Jane Austen “the name of the game” is Caribbean sugar while in Howards End the “game” is African rubber (and invested in English real estate), where the Wilcox fortune comes from (think of the Firestone company in Liberia as a classic example of the rise of the rubber business, with the need for rubber for tires.)
Thus we have in these novels an intermingling of families, overseas sources of wealth (West/non-West economic relations), rigid social rituals. (a romance between Helen Schlegel and Leonard Bast, the marginal clerk, is a no-no punished by death.)
Decades before E.M. Forster, there was the novel by Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son which “orbits” money.
Someone once made the comment that Marx and Freud destroyed the Victorian taboos on money and sex and that comment is confirmed largely by such novels as Howards End with the very surprising utterances of Margaret Schlegel (from the family of “culture vultures”), on money and its centrality in their lives and mentalities.
Think of such novels as an “intuitive kind of open university.”