I have returned to reading the classics during this quarantine. E.M. Forster in Howard’s End has some amazing lines that are timeless and fit within COVID19’s economic crisis and worries regarding money. It is a story of wealth, independence, capitalism, charity and the poor during 1910 in England. It displays the economic structure of society, especially the degrees of money that helps or hinders a person’s growth and choices.
It begins with Helen, an impetuous young woman, who visits and stays with Mrs. & Mr. Wilcox- a wealthy, upper class English family she and her sister met on holiday in Germany. After staying with his family for a period of time, she and the youngest Wilcox, Paul, kiss and secretly proclaim love to one another, which inevitably means marriage. Then Paul suddenly falls out with Helen because he is soon to go to Africa, Nigeria. He does not see it fair to wed her due to the conditions and life he has sworn himself to. He tells Helen the night before and at breakfast the next morning, the whole family ignores the awkward situation leaving Helen feeling awful. She leaves soon after this. She especially detests Mr. Wilcox as head of the household.
Margaret (Meghan), Helen’s older sister and guardian befriends Mrs. Wilcox when the family takes up residence in London down the street from Meghan and her siblings. Mrs. Wilcox is older and frail and dotes on her husband’s every whim. Later, Mrs. Wilcox dies and bequeaths the family estate Howard’s End to Meghan. But the entire Wilcox family reads the paper on which the mother has written this and decide she was not well and discards the paper. Meghan has no knowledge of her bequeathed gift that would help her family as the flat she has lived in all her life with her siblings is soon to be demolished and she is forced to find a new home.
When Meghan attends the funeral, the Wilcox family (feeling guilty I am sure) berate her attendance to Mr. Wilcox. But he is touched and intrigued by Meghan. Sometime after, Mr. Wilcox takes an interest in her and creates social situations in which he sees Meghan. Not too soon in the future does he ask for hand in marriage.
Meanwhile, Helen has befriended a man, Mr. Bates, who is a clerk and very poor. He has married a black woman and is disowned by his family and society. Meghan asks Mr. Wilcox about how she and Helen might better this poor man’s life. He works for an insurance firm. Mr. Wilcox offhandedly tell the women, he should seek work elsewhere, the insurance company has a likelihood of being ’smashed’ by Easter. The young man takes the sisters’ advice, quits his dependable job and works for a bank for far less money which reduces him into a state of personal economic crisis.
When the women find out, they accuse Mr. Wilcox of being responsible which he in turns denies. Throughout the book, Helen takes Mr. Bates on as her project, as her responsibility. This is all about a passionate and empathetic woman who wants to right things against a system that does not see the average poor man as anyone’s responsibility- personal capitalism is what balances the scale. Helen understands the poor working man has not an equitable scale to measure himself with against Britain’s economic societal structure.
At one point, when Mr Bates is at his most vulnerable, he has lost his job and he and his wife are starving. Helen tells him there is more to life, beautiful things and experiences. Mr Bates replies it is money that allows people this beauty, this choice to live. And there is no real life if you cannot take care of oneself without it.
She replies “We are all in the mist. Wealthy upperclass men like Mr. Wilcox are even more so. They are quite muddled. They are busy building, leveling empires, accumulating money. But money is not the life.They cannot see because of this. They do not see at all.” Helen is deeply is stating that the soul of Mr. Wilcox is poor. That money cannot make a person’s inner being better.
Poor Mr. Bates can only see a life of drudgery though because when you are desperately poor, you are trying to stay alive, not ponder the deep beauty of life in general. Throughout the book, the balance is between compassion, empathy and what the upperclass considers proper and practical. It is challenged by Helen and Meghan against the ideas of the wealthy Wilcox’s.
It is a beautiful story of love, forgiveness but more than anything how a man who has never once stopped to examine himself, his thoughts are forced to by the independent forthright bride-Meghan. He tries to control all around him, and she stands in his way. And she will not be moved by his arrogance, his dominance. She loves in a strong way, in a way that eventually causes him to grow.
When he proposes marriage to Meghan, she assures Helen (who is very much against the union) that Meghan will not reform him, change him or in anyway make him something he is not. She then assures her sister that her whole life will not be about him (as the former Mrs. Wilcox was with Mr. Wilcox). Meghan has raised her sister and brother. She knows a thing or two. As many women in the 19th century and before and after, in this same way, lose their own voice when married or have no outside interests,
Meghan is determined to be her own woman. And she is, but you also see her as a woman who for the first time is with a man and how she handles herself and him. How she handles a relationship.
The reason I love the classics is because the authors do such an excellent job of telling a story about a certain set of characters while also letting the reader understand the different socio-economic and social-culture of the times.
We have the Wilcox’s who are very wealthy and each of the sons and daughters are especially greedy and jealous of any other person outside taking what might be theirs. Then we have Meghan and her little eclectic family that lives handsomely off their inheritance but open themselves up to all levels of society and of people of different beliefs and welcome the exchange of ideas. Then we have Mr. Bates who wants to work and not receive charity but bad luck comes his way due to Mr Wilcox.
I could read a book like this and chat for an hour about the subtleties of the characters and the time period. Wherever you are during these uncertain times, a good classic is abundantly free for everyone.
I encourage you to read and make yourself rich with wonder and with understanding!