Am grinding out my novel into a contrast between money and death—the latter is truly an ally of the personal against the mechanical." – E.M. Forster 1910
E. M. (Edward Morgan) Forster began writing his enduring classic Howards End in 1908, sometime after a visit to see his friends the Postens, a charming couple that would inspire Margaret and Henry Wilcox. Forster was keenly interested in the transition and contrast between city and country, modernity and tradition, culture and money. Margaret and Henry, like the Postens, epitomized the convergence – and integration – of these various themes. Forster, himself, had wrestled with how to balance these ideas, ultimately determining that a focus on relationships and the ‘human connection’ was the best way to achieve synthesis.
Howards End is a ‘big idea’ novel, one that gave Forster space to contemplate social issues that were coming to the fore in early 20th century England. The urbanization and mechanization of society, though ostensibly a positive, rubbed Forster the wrong way. The very things that were supposed to raise people up, to help them achieve a better life, were actually trampling them down. Socialism, and other notions of equalizing society, were being discussed in Forster’s circle – mainly moneyed intellectuals - and heartily supported by certain writers, like George Bernard Shaw. However, the idea that money was not important seemed hypocritical to Forster, as many of his compatriots were able to espouse such valiant theories because they had money.
Forster fleshes out this argument in the relationship between Margaret and Helen Schlegel, two sisters at the center of Howards End who have very different ideas about how money should be used in society. Helen champions the Socialist cause, even going so far as to give up a large portion of her income to support the Basts; while Margaret understands the privilege and necessity of money, without ignoring, of course, the point that to have money is important and to have access to achieving it even more so. In contrast to these two thinking sisters are the Wilcoxes, a family of great material comfort. Charles Wilcox, Henry Wilcox’s son is the epitome of empire and wealth. He is a person with no thought for others, particularly the poor. His mother Ruth, in contrast, cares deeply for people, but only in the abstract. She can appreciate the ideas of both sides, but her ethereal nature and inability to connect on a deeper level – except if it involves her beloved house Howards End – is almost as bad as Charles’ willful blindness towards the plights of others. Into this mix walks Leonard Bast, a poor clerk who desperately wants enlightenment, though his societal position and personal choices would make this almost impossible.
At the center of these characters and ideas is Howards End, Ruth’s family home and the fictive image of Forster’s own loved childhood home, Rooksnest. With the onslaught of urbanization and the increased population in England, Forster suggests, “The more people one knows, the easier it is to replace them. It is one of the curses of London. I quite expect to end my life caring most for a place."
The final moment of the novel – with Helen, Margaret, and Henry in pastoral peace at Howards End – suggests Forster’s ultimate point of his complex novel. Both Henry and Helen have moved to the middle to be more ideologically close to the balanced Margaret, the character, who in her ability to negotiate wealth, caring and intellectualism, most mirrors Forster. All three characters have vacated London to embrace the life force of the English countryside, a place that, for Forster, symbolized English values. Here they are able to connect not only with the essence of Englishness but with each other – a critical component, as the novel's epigraph implies, of a functional society.