E.M. Forster’s classic Edwardian novel, Howard’s End (1910), opens with Helen Schlegel’s letter to her sister Margaret, and a description of the titular country house:
“It isn’t going to be what we expected. It is old and little, and altogether delightful—red brick. From hall you go right or left into dining-room or drawing-room. Hall itself is practically a room. You open another door in it, and there are the stairs going up in a sort of tunnel to the first-floor. Three bed-rooms in a row there, and three attics in a row above. That isn’t all the house really, but it’s all that one notices— nine windows as you look up from the front garden…. It isn’t the least what we expected.”
“Old and little, and altogether delightful”: Helen’s description of Howards End is a long way from what most non-Brits conjure up when they think of the prestigious English country house. We tend to imagine something like Downton Abbey: a vast, palatial Neo-Gothic or Palladian pile, with eighty bedrooms and an army of eagle-eyed servants. But these stately homes are the exception, rather than the norm, when it comes to English country houses. (The smallest home on the UK National Trust’s list of protected heritage property is the impossibly romantically-named Clouds Hill, a tiny whitewashed Dorset cottage that served as the summer writing retreat of T.E. Lawrence—a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia).
More than anything, the house symbolizes a kind of pure “Old Englishness” that the Victorians and Edwardians—and Mr Henry Wilcox in particular—fetishized as they seemed to sense it disappearing, quite literally, before their eyes, in the wake of the urbanization and industrialization of the nineteenth century.
Henry Wilcox, Helen’s husband-to-be, even insists on eating “Old English” style: “Saddle of mutton,” said he after profound reflection; “and cider to drink. That’s the type of thing. …It is so thoroughly Old English. Don’t you agree?” (Spoiler alert: Helen doesn’t agree.)
The house itself was based on Rooks Nest in Hertfordshire, Forster’s childhood home from 1883 to 1893. The 1992 Merchant Ivory film, starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, was filmed at Peppard Cottage, in Oxfordshire. In her opening letter to Meg, Helen continues:
“Then there’s a very big wych-elm—to the left as you look up— leaning a little over the house, and standing on the boundary between the garden and meadow. I quite love that tree already.”
That wych-elm comes up again, and becomes almost metonymic: if the house stands for history, family, power, and money, the elm becomes a distillation of what it means to be able to possess those things. No wonder almost everyone in the novel is fiercely possessive over it. (The wych-elm, despite its spooky-looking, gnarled branches, its mystical-sounding name, and some seriously eerie wartime associations, is a fairly common tree in England).
The novel is, at heart, about competing values—and especially the monetary value of property versus the emotional and psychic value a place can have, its hold on the imagination.
Forster also uses the motif of property ownership to comment on the relativity of value. For the impoverished Basts, emotional attachment to a home is a luxury. Their cramped flat is a precarious, thin-walled protection against the constant threat of outright destitution and homelessness. This is a society in which ideas like a universal social safety net and housing as a basic human right are only just beginning to take hold, and against fierce resistance from the likes of Henry Wilcox.
Ultimately, Howards End is about far more than an intra-familial battle over a house: it’s a meditation on heritage, culture, history, and the significance of physical place to human relationships. #nomadreader
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