I just returned from a lecture on "Howards End" put on by Julie Robinson's group Literary Affairs. This was the first of a three-part series called "The Moderns: Bloomsbury." The lecturer was John Romano, Ph.D. It was an engrossing and brilliant discussion of this literary masterpiece, and I could barely contain my excitement at all the nuggets of brilliance that were flying around the room. But before I even go into some of the themes of his lecture, I have to say that I was thrilled to be sitting next to Lisa Borgnes Giramonti from A Bloomsbury Life Blog.
I first discovered Lisa's blog when my daughter called me a couple of years ago and said, "Mom, did you know that there is a blog called "A Bloomsbury Life"? She and anyone who knows me well would realize that I would need to be told about such a blog, because I have been obsessed with Bloomsbury art and literature, not to mention the biographies and memoirs of the members of this group ever since...well forever.
I love Lisa's blog. She is a very talented writer and I have enjoyed reading about her quest to live "a bloomsbury life" in 21st century Hollywood and all the inspiring passion, intellectual curiosity, and humor that she brings to that quest. Not only is her blog one of the most literate and witty ones that I read, but it is often about topics that I love -- travel, literature, art, home and garden, style and of course Bloomsbury. And so today I was thrilled that she was able to attend the talk on "Howards End" and I think we both left feeling happy and inspired.
Our lecturer John Romano began by passing around a book "The Art of Bloomsbury" by Richard Shone so we could see what kind of art Forster was looking at when he wrote "Howards End" in 1910 and also the people who were his friends. His friends and acquaintances included the writers Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, Clive Bell and Maynard Keynes and the artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.
"The Memoir Club" by Vanessa Bell, containing many members of the Bloomsbury Group
E. M. Forster is on the right
E. M. Forster is on the right
Romano argued that he could actually give two separate lectures on "Howard End." The first would be about the deliciousness of the novel, like taking a walk through Sussex or Hertforshire, then taking a train into London to discuss music and books with intellectual kindred spirits. This book is an Anglophile's dream, an adoration of England's green and pleasant land. The book has many Austen - like qualities -- it is about letters, sisters, property, and inheritance. It is a social comedy about the inability of the middle class to see beauty. E. M. Forster loved Jane Austen.
But there is a second lecture that could be given, about the darker side of the book, and that is the idea that the characters get knocked out of the comfort of being smart and clever art lovers, concert goers, and members of literary discussion groups. They have to deal with the damage that can be done to others. And this is what happens when the well-meaning and rich Schlegel sisters decide to try to help lower class Leonard Bast. After receiving a tip from Henry Wilcox that Leonard Bast's place of employment, an insurance company, is about to go bust, they advise him to clear out. This "act of kindness" leads to the downfall of Leonard Bast.
Margaret, Helen, and Tibby Schlegel in the film "Howards End"
Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter
The sisters are two of my favorite literary characters, two Austen-like figures, each representing different sensibilities. Helen the younger one is passionate, liberal, and unyielding in her principles, abhorring people like the Wilcox family. Margaret is more sensible and understands that without the world of the Wilcoxes who are the financial movers and shakers, the comfortable world of the Schlgels would not exist. Margaret realizes that people need to be brought together in an understanding of their differences and to connect, if there is to be any way out of all the "panic and emptiness" that is threatened by the fragmented modern world. Her advice is to "only connect." And the surprising ending occurs when she is able to "connect" two different classes by bequeathing Howards End to her nephew, the son of her sister Helen and Leonard Bast. This is an amazing connection between two very distant social classes, and through that inheritance the son of a poor man will inherit an important property in England. "Only connect" is a mantra throughout the book.
E.M. Forster, aged 36
"E.M. Forster" painted by Roger Fry in 1911
Our lecturer reminded us that "Only Connect" is written on E.M Forster's tombstone and I know those words had much personal meaning for this brilliant writer and esteemed humanist. When he attended King's College, Cambridge E.M. Forster discovered his spiritual home; he had a lifelong connection with King's and was elected to an Honorary Fellowship in 1946. He lived there during the last years of his life. As a student he came under the influence of the philosopher G.E. Moore, whose "Principia Ethica" (1903) argued that affectionate personal relations and the contemplation of beauty will lead to a happy state of mind. Moore's theories were enthusiastically embraced by the members of the Bloomsbury Group, and became a sort of credo for the group. Friendship for Forster was a supreme value in life and he was an extremely loyal friend. It seems that "only connect" was a guiding philosophy for Forster's life, as well as the theme of "Howards End."