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Howards End: E.M. Forster’s House of Fiction. Alistair Duckworth.

New York: Twayne

Publishers, 1992. 164 pages.

In the years since E.M. Forster published his novel Howards End in 1910, critics have

generally agreed that his style and technique is masterful, though most believe his social

critique is less than successful. The most salient discussions of Forster’s work, found in

Frederick C. Crews E.M. Forster: The Perils of Humanism and Wilfred Stone’s The Cave

and the Mountain, conform to this model. Both Crews and Stone argue that Forster’s

failure to provide a coherent answer to the social problems outlined in Howards End

constitute a failure of the novel as a whole. In this book-length study of Howards End,

Alistair Duckworth takes slightly different approach: he does not deny that Forster’s

novel lacks a unified vision, but rather, he sees Forster’s refusal to suggest a definite

answer to the problems of his time as the guiding principle of Howards End.

He opens with a brief description of the very real social and political troubles facing

England in the Edwardian period, from the conflict over Irish Home Rule to labor

disputes to the beginning of the arms race with Germany. Liberalism itself was unable to

cope with the pressures of the time, splintering into radical and moderate factions; some

liberals concerned themselves more with economic laissez-faire (like the Wilcoxes of the

novel), some more with social agendas to help the poor (like the Schlegels). Duckworth

suggests that Forster’s acute awareness of the limits of liberalism kept him from being

comfortable with siding too strongly for either the Schlegels or the Wilcoxes. However,

he does not see this position as a weakness of the novel (as Virginia Woolf notably did in

a 1927 Atlantic Monthly article), but rather believes it is Forster’s intention to elicit
dialogue among his readers: “Forster’s achievement as a social critic is not, however, to

have proposed solutions to social problems but to have put significant topics on the table

for his readers to discuss and debate” (129).

Taking this stance, Duckworth considers the ways in which Forster’s narrative

technique encourages a dialogic approach, by allowing the seams of the novel’s structure

to show in the narrator’s multi-voiced role, the juxtaposition of different genres (history,

social discourse, dramatic dialogue, comedy of manners, tragedy), and the use of

characters and situations on both realistic and symbolic levels. He articulates both the

deftness of Forster’s plotting as well as its obvious service to Forster’s ends: the

convenience of the Hamar Bryce character (the tenant who clears out of Howards End

just in time for Margaret to need it), the realistically improbable but symbolically

necessary connection between Henry and Jacky Bast, and Leonard’s death, triply caused

by his own weakness (his heart), Schlegelian culture (the bookshelf), and Wilcoxian

aggression (Charles).

Duckworth spends one very good chapter discussing Forster’s grasp of conversational

style and his use of speech patterns for characterization—a technique Duckworth thinks

works quite well for the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes, but falls short of the mark when it

comes to the lower-class Basts. Throughout, Duckworth considers Forster’s

characterizations of Leonard and Jacky to be merely adequate, probably due to Forster’s

own unfamiliarity with those on the brink of the abyss. The chapter on conversation and

the one on the narrator work closely together to support Duckworth’s thesis that Howards

End is a heteroglossic novel, wherein some voices are preferred to others, but none

prevails—not even Margaret’s or the narrator’s, whose consciousnesses closely reflect,

but perhaps do not perfectly transmit, Forster’s own views. The narrator himself takes on

a number of different roles and voices, from the elegiac to the playfully interpolative.

Duckworth also points out what is a bit less obvious: that the narrator does not address

only one reader, but does, at one point, explicitly addresses at least two—when he

recounts Leonard’s overnight walk: “The adventurer, also, is reticent, and it is an

adventure for a clerk to walk for a few hours in darkness. You may laugh at him, you

who have slept nights on the veldt, with your rifle beside you and all the atmosphere of

adventure past. And you also may laugh who think adventures silly.” Thus, Forster

invites us “to view both narrator and reader as plural entities” (118), adding to the

dialogic nature of his work.

Throughout, Duckworth considers Forster to be Jane Austen’s heir to the comedy of

manners, which is unsurprising considering that much of Duckworth’s own work has

been on Austen. He is, in fact, the only critic I have seen explicitly the very obvious

similarity between Margaret and Helen Schlegel and Austen’s Elinor and Marianne

Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility. His connections to Austen’s style are well-made

and accord with Forster’s obvious respect for Austen as displayed in Aspects of the Novel.

Duckworth’s use of Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of dialogics works quite well when applied

to Forster and rescues Howards End from the somewhat harsh pronouncements of Stone

and Crews. Overall, Duckworth’s analysis of Howards End is even-handed and helpful,

including many insights that have not been made elsewhere.

One wishes only that he had finished his book with as strong a chapter as the ones on

plot, conversation and the narrator. Instead, though he entitles the last chapter “Only

Connect…” it barely connects to the rest of the book, being little more than a random
assortment of assertions about Forster’s allusions, his Austenian irony, his homosexuality,

the inability of a single reading of Howards End to comprehend everything in it, and

finally, a reflexive paragraph on Duckworth’s perception of himself as a Forsterian critic

on the “fag-end of academic humanism” (137). Duckworth’s final words proclaim

Howards End as “a diminished community, but one in which the Schlegel sisters, faithful

to their father’s ideals, are attempting to ‘rekindle the light within’” (139), a true enough

sentiment and kinder than many critics have been to the final scenes of the novel, but it is

a rather bland and uncompelling ending to Duckworth’s own book. However, despite this

flawed finale, Duckworth’s volume is a welcome addition to Forster scholarship,

providing an insightful and readable analysis of what some consider to be Forster’s best