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Howards End | Context

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The Writing and Reception of Howards End

There are a number of autobiographical elements in Howards End. Most notably, the novel itself is modeled on Forster's childhood home, a brick country house named Rooksnest, which, like Howards End, featured an old wych-elm, a species of elm tree, on the property. The rapidly expanding city of London edged ever close to Rooksnest, and the threat of urban growth encroaching upon an idyllic rural home is a theme which Forster explores in Howards End. Like the Schlegels, the London family central to his novel, Forster was forced to leave his home when the lease ended. He was a liberal who believed strongly in the power of the arts. The maternal Schlegel family structure in the novel also mirrors the one in which Forster was nurtured: he was raised from infancy by his mother and paternal aunts after the death of his father. Some have argued that the character of Tibby Schlegel is also autobiographical. Like Tibby, Forster, now widely believed to have been gay, did not display many of the stereotypically masculine characteristics expected of men by society during his time.

Forster conceived of the novel in 1908 and wrote it over the course of the next year, publishing it in 1910. Beginning in the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution had shifted the English economy from a rural to an urban one, transforming modern life. Technological innovations in the use of iron and steel led to the development of a factory-based economy. A population explosion, created by the need for factory workers, brought rapid growth to cities, with old buildings being replaced by new construction as London sprawled in every direction.

Forster's novel shares many of the concerns of other writers of the time, who felt that the effects of the Industrial Revolution on society were largely negative. In their view, it focused too much on progress and profit in the form of technological expansion and the accumulation of wealth. This led to the rise of a ruthless, socially insensitive upper class, which stood by while the lower classes struggled and suffered in difficult conditions. Modern life is exciting in many ways, but also alienating and brutal. In Howards End, Forster seeks to counter this by pointing out rampant social disparities and the hypocrisy of the upper class, while advocating the need for empathy and social justice across class lines. He also proposes establishing an alternative, English mythology based on a return to nature and a shared sense of national history and culture.

Howards End was received enthusiastically by reviewers and brought Forster almost instant success. It remains one of his best known novels, the other of which is his 1924 novel, A Passage to India, which tackles British imperialism in India. Howards End's enduring themes of class struggle, the need for human connection, and a return to rural life continue to intrigue contemporary audiences. The novel is the basis for a 1992 film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, as well as a television mini-series produced by the BBC in 2017. Zadie Smith's 2005 novel, On Beauty, is a contemporary homage to Howards End, transplanting elements of the novel to the 21st century to look at differences in gender and class, as well as race.

Edwardian England

The Edwardian period in England, lasting from 1901 to 1910, was a time of great change. The British Empire, though still the world's premier colonial power, was beginning to see challenges from its European neighbors, including Germany. The economy and culture of England felt the effects of the Industrial Revolution and mechanical and scientific advancements that followed. These included factories, the railway system, telegraphs, automobiles, and the high-speed growth of cities, most notably London. People increasingly moved to cities, swelling their size and catalyzing building booms. The resulting urban sprawl devoured the countryside, as readers see in Howards End. This created a sense of displacement and detachment from the land. In the novel, the Schlegels are uprooted from their childhood home by a construction project and Howards End is encroached upon by London's unstoppable growth.

Social structure also began to change during the Edwardian period, as the rigid class system became more flexible and gender roles were challenged. Besides the rapid accumulation of wealth by some in business, like the Wilcox family, a rentier class also grew and prospered during this period. Such individuals, like the Schlegel family, lived off profits of their investments alone. The growing gap between the rich and poor inspired much debate about the social responsibility of the wealthy. Rampant commercialism and materialism were seen by some, Forster included, as a negative side effect of modern life, especially in light of the wide gap between social classes. In the novel, this is reflected in the contrast between the Wilcox's way of life, which is one of conspicuous wealth and consumption, with those of the Basts, who scrabble to survive. The world of wealth, represented by tables of uneaten food left after Evie Wilcox's expensive wedding, contrast sharply with the world of the lower-class, in which characters like Mr. and Mrs. Bast face starvation.

Romanticism versus Modernity

Forster contrasts romanticism and modernity throughout the novel largely through contrasting the Schlegel and Wilcox families. Romanticism, which began in the 1790s, was a reaction against the emphasis on reason and rationality of the 18th-century movement known as the Enlightenment. Romanticism sought to reclaim the spiritual and imaginative in man by emphasizing individuality, the emotions, and the transcendent beyond the realm of ordinary experience, often through exploration and appreciation of natural beauty. This way of thinking continued to influence philosophers and writers like Forster over a century later. The Schlegel family in Howards End is named for German romantic philosopher Friedrich von Schlegel, who sought to remedy the dangers of the Enlightenment and access transcendental truths through the creation of a personal mythology. Margaret and Helen agree that the inner life of emotions and ideas is the most authentic life. They value culture, literature, art, and music. When they find their spiritual connection to Howards End, they fulfill these romantic leanings.

English life during the Edwardian period, in contrast, was characterized by materialism, commercialism, and the pursuit of progress, often at the expense of compassion and humanity. Some perceived this way of life as a threat to art and culture, and certainly to the inner life so valued by the Schlegels. The Wilcox family, however, are firmly on the side of modernity. They own many cars, several homes, and a prosperous international business, but they avoid emotion and deny the effects of their actions on others. Mr. Wilcox is resigned to the inevitability that some people will be harmed by the wheels of social progress. His son, Charles Wilcox, in particular, exemplifies the callousness, greed, and self-righteousness which results from the materialism encouraged by modern life. He talks down to and abuses servants. He doesn't really want Howards End, but he wants to keep Margaret from getting it because he is greedy. His coldness in pursuing his desires shows how his worldview drains him of empathy. He cares much more about his property than about human life.

Women's Rights

In Edwardian England, as in many places in the world after the turn of the century, women's roles were beginning to change. Helen and Margaret, as well as Helen's friend, the Italian feminist and journalist, Monica, are examples to one degree or another of this trend. The New Women, as women who embodied these changes were known, more frequently lived independently, held jobs, or provided their own incomes. Corsets and restrictive dresses were being replaced with clothing that allowed more movement in order to accommodate the activities of modern women like tennis, driving, and cycling. These more modern fashions were encouraged by the suffrage movement as healthier and freeing.

The suffrage movement to grant women the right to vote is mentioned several times in the novel. The lack of voting and other rights for women was a concern in Britain long before the suffrage movement coalesced, most recognizably in Mary Wollstonecraft's 1792 book A Vindication of the Rights of Women, an early treatise on the need for equal rights for women in all areas of society. It would be nearly a hundred years after its publication until the first bill reached parliament petitioning for the rights of women to vote. When Queen Victoria herself objected to the movement, and bill after bill failed to pass, some activists resorted to violence out of frustration. It was not until 1918, almost a decade after the publication of Howards End that the Representation of the People Act passed, granting women over 30 the right to vote. The age limit would later be lowered, in 1928, to give women equal standing as men with the right to vote beginning at 21.

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