Early on in “Educating Rita” the heroine characterizes Howards End as “one crap book.” When I heard that line, I mentally crossed Howards End off my books-to-read list. Rita is a funny and engaging character so if she said the book was crap, then crap it must be. Ten years later, I saw the Merchant-Ivory film and realized I might have been hasty. More than twenty years have lapsed since then and I am still rereading Howards End, both on paper and as an e-book. It’s a best friend of a book and I can’t believe I nearly missed it.
Howards End is about many things but mainly its about the connections we have, the connections we make and how they affect our lives. To begin with, two English sisters named Helen and Margaret Schlegel bump into an English family named Wilcox when they’re all on holiday in Germany. If these two upper-middle class families had stayed in England, they probably would have stayed strangers since, beyond nationality, they haven’t much in common. The Schlegels live in London and spend their time supporting progressive causes and the arts, (In American terms they would probably be called liberal elites) because they inherited most of their income. The Wilcoxes live in the country, are very conservative and are still building their wealth from their own business ventures. But meet they do and conflicts begin to spark. Then Helen Wilcox accidentally walks off with the umbrella of a poor clerk named Mr. Bast and he follows her home to get it back. The third element falls into place and all of their lives will change.
There are other connections in the book (such as Mrs. Wilcox’s emotional bond to her home, the house named Howards End) but when people talk about this novel, they mean something else when they use the phrase “Only Connect”. It’s Margaret Schlegel’s plea for everyone to recognize we are all human with good and bad traits. That’s hard to do when we classify people by their backgrounds, their income or their political beliefs. I’d like to quote the book here:
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. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.