Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Review - Howards End (AKA: Douchebags in Romantic Literature)

Gertrude Stein and her ego
I have come to a decision: if I read a book for my MA course, I do not have to review it on this blog. This is to prevent me from ending up in a gibbering heap of madness, hiding behind Watson the lizard's cage, and to prevent you from having to hear my thoughts on books with titles like Gendering the Natural: Virginia Woolf and her Use of Root Vegetables as Phallic Symbols in To The Lighthouse. (Actually, if I do ever read that book I will certainly write about it. It sounds great.)

Therefore, I do not need to take any more notice of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas here than to remark on the absolutely enormous size of Gertrude Stein's ego. It bursts up through the pages of the book like a rapidly inflating airbag and leaves the reader lying in a stunned heap upon the floor. Although maybe I would be like that if Picasso, Matisse and Man Ray had all done portraits of me. I don't know.

Crazy blurb edition
But anyway, I did read E. M. Forster's Howards End (yes, no comma), and that was not for my MA, and so I am now going to review it. So here we go.

My copy of Howards End is a Penguin from the 60s, era of charmingly hilarious back-cover blurbs (my all-time favourite is the back of The Waves, which informs the reader that 'Virginia Woolf is the wife of Leonard Woolf'. How times change), and true to form this one begins by cutting straight to the heart of the matter with the immortal line 'Mr E. M. Forster is not a prolific novelist.' How interesting. Did he perhaps like cheese? What was the name of his dog? This is all so relevant. Tell us more.

The blurb goes on to say that
An attempt to outline the story of Howards End would do paltry justice... to the delicate pattern of its composition.
Which, like most literary brown-nosing, is nonsense. Howards End is about the two Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen (and their brother Tibby, but no one really talks about him) and their relationships with the Wilcox family, who are kind of assholes. When Mrs Wilcox (not a Wilcox by birth, so not actually an asshole) dies, she leaves a written request for Margaret to be given her beloved country house Howards End, but of course, because they are assholes, the living Wilcoxes ignore this. The rest of the book is a series of cosmic coincidences that end up with (you guessed it) Margaret and Helen getting possession of Howards End and the Wilcoxes being karmically punished for their assholitude. Simple.

Shut up woman get on my horse
Reading books like Howards End makes me realise just how very glad I am to have been born in the 1980s, into a world where the Pankhursts have already been and gone and made their point. It's true that there is still a long way to go in terms of women getting equal pay and not getting groped and laughed at for no reason, but all the same those 90+ years since 1918 have done absolute wonders for the mental state of eligible males as a group. It's fairly sobering to realise that, until really quite recently, men like Monsieur Paul and Mr Wilcox were, without a hint of irony, the good ones. If you wanted a husband pre-1970 you appear to have had to hope like hell that the one you found would just call you stupid and disagree with everything that came out of your mouth, rather than ignoring you, taking all your money or chasing you round and round the room with a stick.

Basically (giving the plot away somewhat, but Howards End isn't exactly a thriller), at one point Mr Wilcox falls for Margaret and proposes to her. Margaret's considerations on the subject go something like: "OK, so, he hates everything I stand for, and I disagree with him, and he's a soulless ass, and his forehead is weird, but hey, it could be so much worse." And so she marries him.

You can't tell, but she's barefoot and pregnant too
I can't really decide what E. M. Forster thinks about all this. I read A Passage To India last year and I was completely astonished by how balanced and understanding he was about racism and the effects of imperialism. But when it comes to The Woman Question things get a bit more dodgy. There's just an uncomfortable amount of "Women don't need the vote! They should simply be influencing their husbands with their eyes and breasts! Also most of them are stupid." I don't know E. M. Forster's life - and to be fair to him, Margaret and Helen get a hell of a moral victory on Mr Wilcox at the end of the novel - but there's still something that doesn't feel right about his attitude throughout. I guess that's another confirmation of my point: when you have a society that legally treated half of its members like drooling imbeciles, even good, sensible guys end up with idiotic opinions. And what's worse, those opinions tend to stick around.

It's interesting to read the big feminist books of the 60s and 70s (think The Golden Notebook and Lady Oracle) in light of this obvious but somehow easily forgotten point. Once you do, you realise that a very big part of the reason why all of the women in them are so horribly depressed all the time is because although they've bettered themselves, and accepted new ideas, when they start looking for a mate they realise that ALL THE MEN ARE STILL BUSY BEING ASSHOLES. They've got nothing else to choose from. Essentially, they're screwed.

I'd like to think in 2011 that we're (mostly) out of that dark, dark place. I possess two (male) housemates and a (male) boyfriend, all of whom have high-level cooking, cleaning and washing-things-up skills and, because they grew up in a world where women were seen as basically rational, functioning human beings, tend to treat the women they come across in the same way. At the very least, I don't think any of them would even consider unironically arriving at their mistress's house at ten o'clock at night and screaming WOMAN WHERE IS MY POT ROAST (this happens in The Golden Notebook, more or less). Call me crazy, but I find that sort of thing not particularly desirable in a man.

So hooray for Pankhursts (junior and senior) and also all the non-Pankhursts (both those run over by horses and those not), and thank god I don't need to marry a Mr Wilcox any more. Margaret, he's all yours. Have fun.

3 stars. And 18.38% completed.

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