Howards End, set in England in the early 1900s, follows three seemingly incompatible families, the Schlegels, the Basts, and the Wilcoxes, as they pursue intellectual and material advancement in a nation that is theoretically becoming more democratic. Author E. M. Forster illustrates the stark contrasts between the lives of those born into wealth, like the Schlegels, and those born into poverty, like the Basts. In revealing England’s impoverished underbelly—a tragic, unsavory reality that most people of means would rather forget—Forster criticizes the upper crust for neglecting and exploiting those entrenched in poverty.
Forster depicts the notable differences between the means and mindsets of the Schlegels and the Basts in the context of the concert where Margaret and Helen Schlegel first encounter Leonard Bast. The concert at which they meet, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, is said to be “the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man.” To experience a performance of such superb music “is cheap at two shillings,” the Schlegels believe. They don’t mean that the symphony is literally cheap or low quality, but that its beauty makes it so valuable that two shillings is an extremely small price to pay. It is also worth the price of putting up with what the Schlegels deem poor accommodations in order to witness this performance: “It is cheap, even if you hear it in the Queen’s Hall, dreariest music-room in London […] and even if you sit on the extreme left of that hall, so that the brass bumps at you before the rest of the orchestra arrives, it is still cheap.” They remark that the symphony transcends the second-rate conditions in which they find themselves listening to it.
Forster later shows that the Schlegels’ opinion of the tickets as cheap and the theater as inferior is, in fact, highly relative. Leonard holds the exact opposite attitude, worrying anxiously about the cost of the ticket: “Ought he to have paid as much as two shillings?” He almost didn’t allow himself the luxury of going to the theater at all, let alone look down on its condition: “Earlier still he had wondered, ‘Shall I try to do without a programme?’ There had always been something to worry him ever since he could remember, always something that distracted him in the pursuit of beauty.” Forster illustrates for his readers—presumably the same privileged folk who have the leisure time to consume novels—that a shortage of means, not will, separates Leonard from the Schlegels.
The Schlegels become conscious of this unequal access to art and beauty in an example of the critical self-reflection that Forster would like to instill in his readership. When Margaret’s friends assert that the lower classes wouldn’t pursue fine art and philosophy as eagerly the upper classes do if simply given the same means, Margaret contends, “[S]o few of us think clearly about our own private incomes, and admit that independent thoughts are in nine cases out of ten the result of independent means. Money: give Mr. Bast money, and don’t bother about his ideals. He’ll pick up those for himself.” Conceptual freedom and fulfillment may be the least of priorities the truly poor require money for—the impoverished are more concerned about survival than high-minded “ideals”—but their deficiency prompts the Schlegels to consider what else Leonard cannot take for granted like they do.
The scarcity of Leonard’s resources is apparent in his great concern over the disappearance of his umbrella, which he cannot afford to replace. Faced with the all-too-real possibility of braving the world without even the flimsiest of shelters, the Schlegels get a glimpse of the hazards that Leonard might be left exposed to that they have always been sheltered from. His anxiety about retrieving his missing umbrella from Helen forces them to see “that beneath these superstructures of wealth and art there wanders an ill-fed boy, who has recovered his umbrella indeed, but who has left no address behind him, and no name.” Through the Schlegels’ newfound consciousness of the hardships the lower classes face, Forster stresses the necessity of demonstrating awareness, sensitivity, and empathy toward impoverished people.
Laying bare these differences is important, the novel implies, in order to challenge the ignorance, intentional or not, of the elite who turn a blind eye to the harmful consequences of their neglect or exploitation of the lower classes. Criticizing her interference in Leonard’s life, Henry Wilcox tells Margaret, “We live and let live, and assume that things are jogging on fairly well elsewhere, and that the ordinary plain man may be trusted to look after his own affairs.” Representative of upper class ignorance, Henry refuses to acknowledge the desperate situation of the precarious masses.
Even the sympathetic Schlegels must be reminded of the truly perilous position many of their countrymen are left in. After meeting Leonard, Margaret observes, “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 some one near us tottering that we realise all that an independent income means […] the lowest abyss is not the absence of love, but the absence of coin.” All too quickly, Margaret herself loses sight of the “abyss” of poverty after she becomes engaged to Henry. Her fiancé cares little for the poor, and cares even less for Leonard Bast, whose wife Jacky was once Henry’s mistress. For the sake of securing his love, she abandons the Basts to their destitution.
Howards End makes sharp socioeconomic observations about class and privilege in early twentieth-century England. By contrasting the well-to-do Schlegels with the poverty-stricken Basts, Forster challenges his upper-class readership to confront head-on the unsightly reality of poverty. Beyond mere awareness, Forster calls for sensitivity and grace, pushing readers to demonstrate kindness and empathy towards those firmly in poverty’s grasp.
Class and Privilege ThemeTracker
Class and Privilege Quotes in Howards End
They were all silent. It was Mrs. Wilcox.
She approached just as Helen’s letter had described her, trailing noiselessly over the lawn, and there was actually a wisp of hay in her hands. She seemed to belong not to the young people and their motor, but to the house, and to the tree that overshadowed it. One knew that she worshipped the past, and that the instinctive wisdom the past can alone bestow had descended upon her.
“When I saw all the others so placid, and Paul mad with terror in case I said the wrong thing, I felt for a moment that the whole Wilcox family was a fraud, just a wall of newspapers and motor-cars and golf-clubs, and that if it fell I should find nothing behind it but panic and emptiness.”
“The truth is that there is a great outer life that you and I have never touched—a life in which telegrams and anger count. Personal relations, that we think supreme, are not supreme there. There love means marriage settlements, death, death duties. So far I’m clear. But here my difficulty. This outer life, though obviously horrid; often seems the real one—there’s grit in it. It does breed character. Do personal relations lead to sloppiness in the end?”
“Oh, Meg—, that’s what I felt, only not so clearly, when the Wilcoxes were so competent, and seemed to have their hands on all the ropes.”
“It is the vice of a vulgar mind to be thrilled by bigness, to think that a thousand square miles are a thousand times more wonderful than one square mile, and that a million square miles are almost the same as heaven.”
It will be generally admitted that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man…you are bound to admit that such a noise is cheap at two shillings. It is cheap, even if you hear it in the Queen’s Hall, dreariest music-room in London, though not as dreary as the Free Trade Hall, Manchester; and even if you sit on the extreme left of that hall, so that the brass bumps at you before the rest of the orchestra arrives, it is still cheap.
And the voice in the gondola rolled on, piping melodiously of Effort and Self-Sacrifice, full of high purpose, full of beauty, full even of sympathy and the love of men, yet somehow eluding all that was actual and insistent in Leonard’s life. For it was the voice of one who had never been dirty or hungry, and had not guessed successfully what dirt and hunger are.
“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 some one near us tottering that we realise 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.”
They did not make the mistake of handling human affairs in the bulk, but disposed of them item by item, sharply…It is the best—perhaps the only—way of dodging emotion. They were the average human article, and had they considered the note as a whole it would have driven them miserable or mad. Considered item by item, the emotional content was minimised, and all went forward smoothly.
To speak against London is no longer fashionable. The Earth as an artistic cult has had its day, and the literature of the near future will probably ignore the country and seek inspiration from the town. One can understand the reaction…Certainly London fascinates. One visualises it as a tract of quivering grey, intelligent without purpose, and excitable without love; as a spirit that has altered before it can be chronicled; as a heart that certainly beats, but with no pulsation of humanity. It lies beyond everything.
…[Leonard’s] outburst ended in a swamp of books. No disrespect to these great names. The fault is ours, not theirs. They mean us to use them for sign-posts, and are not to blame if, in our weakness, we mistake the sign-post for the destination. And Leonard had reached the destination. He had visited the county of Surrey when darkness covered its amenities, and its cosy villas had re-entered ancient night. Every twelve hours this miracle happens, but he had troubled to go and see for himself. Within his cramped little mind dwelt something that was greater than Jefferies’ books—the spirit that led Jefferies to write them.
“It is so slurred over and hushed up, there is so little clear thinking…so few of us think clearly about our own private incomes, and admit that independent thoughts are in nine cases out of ten the result of independent means. Money: give Mr. Bast money, and don’t bother about his ideals. He’ll pick up those for himself.”
It was the first [Margaret] had heard of the mews behind Ducie Street. When she was a possible tenant it had suppressed itself, not consciously, but automatically. The breezy Wilcox manner, though genuine, lacked the clearness of vision that is imperative for truth. When Henry lived in Ducie Street he remembered the mews; when he tried to let he forgot it; and if any one had remarked that the mews must be either there or not, he would have felt annoyed, and afterwards have found some opportunity of stigmatising the speaker as academic. So does my grocer stigmatise me when I complain of the quality of his sultanas, and he answers in one breath that they are the best sultanas, and how can I expect the best sultanas at that price? It is a flaw inherent in the business mind, and Margaret may do well to be tender to it, considering all that the business mind has done for England.
Whether as boy, husband, or widower, [Henry] had always the sneaking belief that bodily passion is bad…Religion had confirmed him. The words that were read aloud on Sunday to him and to other respectable men were the words that had once kindled the souls of St. Catherine and St. Francis into a white-hot hatred of the carnal. He could not be as the saints and love the Infinite with a seraphic ardour, but he could be a little ashamed of loving a wife. Amabat, amare timebat. And it was here that Margaret hoped to help him.
…Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.
[Margaret] was glad to go there, for Henry had implied his business rather than described it, and the formlessness and vagueness that one associates with Africa itself had hitherto brooded over the main sources of his wealth. Not that a visit to the office cleared things up…even when she penetrated to the inner depths, she found only the ordinary table and Turkey carpet, and though the map over the fireplace did depict a helping of West Africa, it was a very ordinary map. Another map hung opposite, on which the whole continent appeared, looking like a whale marked out for blubber.
Nothing could have exceeded the kindness of the two men. They raised windows for some ladies, and lowered them for others, they rang the bell for the servant, they identified the colleges as the train slipped past Oxford, they caught books or bag-purses in the act of tumbling on to the floor…. Margaret bowed to a charm of which she did not wholly approve, and said nothing when the Oxford colleges were identified wrongly. “Male and female created He them”; the journey to Shrewsbury confirmed this questionable statement, and the long glass saloon, that moved so easily and felt so comfortable, became a forcing-house for the idea of sex.
Now and then [Henry] asked [Margaret] whether she could possibly forgive him, and she answered, “I have already forgiven you, Henry.” She chose her words carefully, and so saved him from panic. She played the girl, until he could rebuild his fortress and hide his soul from the world. When the butler came to clear away, Henry was in a very different mood—asked the fellow what he was in such a hurry for, complained of the noise last night in the servants’ hall. Margaret looked intently at the butler. He, as a handsome young man, was faintly attractive to her as a woman—an attraction so faint as scarcely to be perceptible, yet the skies would have fallen if she had mentioned it to Henry.
As is Man to the Universe, so was the mind of Mr. Wilcox to the minds of some men—a concentrated light upon a tiny spot, a little Ten Minutes moving self-contained through its appointed years. No Pagan he, who lives for the Now, and may be wiser than all philosophers. He lived for the five minutes that have past, and the five to come; he had the business mind.
All was not sadness. The sun was shining without. The thrush sang his two syllables on the budding guelder-rose. Some children were playing uproariously in heaps of golden straw. It was the presence of sadness at all that surprised Margaret, and ended by giving her a feeling of completeness. In these English farms, if anywhere, one might see life steadily and see it whole, group in one vision its transitoriness and its eternal youth, connect—connect without bitterness until all men are brothers.
“You shall see the connection if it kills you, Henry! You have had a mistress—I forgave you. My sister has a lover—you drive her from the house. Do you see the connection? Stupid, hypocritical, cruel—oh, contemptible!—a man who insults his wife when she’s alive and cants with her memory when she’s dead. A man who ruins a woman for his pleasure, and casts her off to ruin other men. And gives bad financial advice, and then says he is not responsible. These men are you. You can’t recognise them, because you cannot connect… Only say to yourself, ‘What Helen has done, I’ve done.’”
Here men had been up since dawn. Their hours were ruled, not by a London office, but by the movements of the crops and the sun…They are England’s hope…
At the chalk pit a motor passed [Leonard]. In it was another type, whom Nature favours—the Imperial. Healthy, ever in motion, it hopes to inherit the earth. It breeds as quickly as the yeoman, and as soundly; strong is the temptation to acclaim it as a super-yeoman, who carries his country’s virtue overseas. But the Imperialist is not what he thinks or seems. He is a destroyer.
“You go on as if I didn’t know my own mind,” said Mr. Wilcox fretfully. Charles hardened his mouth. “You young fellows’ one idea is to get into a motor. I tell you, I want to walk; I’m very fond of walking.”
…Charles did not like it; he was uneasy about his father, who did not seem himself this morning. There was a petulant touch about him—more like a woman. Could it be that he was growing old? The Wilcoxes were not lacking in affection; they had it royally, but they did not know how to use it.
Margaret was silent. Something shook her life in its inmost recesses, and she shivered.
“I didn’t do wrong, did I?” [Henry] asked, bending down.
“You didn’t, darling. Nothing has been done wrong.”
From the garden came laughter. “Here they are at last!” exclaimed Henry, disengaging himself with a smile. Helen rushed into the gloom, holding Tom by one hand and carrying her baby on the other. There were shouts of infectious joy.
“The field’s cut!” Helen cried excitedly—“the big meadow! We’ve seen to the very end, and it’ll be such a crop of hay as never!”