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Camera Obscura 19.1 (2004) 42-76

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Recovering the Lone Mother:

Howards End As Aesthetic Anodyne

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Figure 1
Helena Bonham Carter as Helen Schlegel in Howards End (dir. James Ivory, UK, 1992)
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On 12 February 1993, two ten-year-old boys lured two-year-old James Bulger out of a shopping mall in England and dragged him two miles to a railway yard, where they threw bricks, stones, and iron bars at his head and then pitched his body in front of an oncoming train. Six days after the murder of James Bulger, on 18 February, UK director-producer team James Ivory and Ismail Merchant's film adaptation of E. M. Forster's 1910 novel Howards End received nine American Academy Award nominations, including one for best picture of the year. The relationship between these two seemingly unrelated events is the subject of this article. The murder of James Bulger sparked a nationwide debate about the increase in juvenile crime in Britain as politicians, journalists, and social theorists sought to make sense of this horrific event. By the time the two ten-year-olds were convicted of the crime in late November of 1993, furor over the toddler's murder had risen to the status of "moral panic."1 Surprisingly, this moral panic was not centered on the murder; rather, it was focused on the fact that [End Page 43] both boys had been living with lone mothers—the British term for single mothers—at the time of the attack.2 During the early 1990s in British culture and politics, the lone mother was a hotly contested single woman's subject position. On the one hand, political and media discourses on the lone mother constructed her as a deviant, feckless, social, and economic leech who did not deserve access to government-subsidized estate housing. On the other hand, feminist social scientists challenged these negative representations, arguing that demographic shifts in single motherhood had dramatically increased the number of people resistant to being constructed by the government and the media in such disparaging terms.3 Despite these emergent countermanding social statistics, however, the furor over the murder of James Bulger that erupted in 1993 held the lone mother responsible for the country's economic and criminal ills.

The success of Merchant and Ivory's adaptation of E. M. Forster's Howards End is remarkable when we locate the film in this contentious cultural moment, for its astounding popularity among British moviegoers in 1992 and 1993 occurred despite the fact that the catalyst character, Helen Schlegel (Helena Bonham Carter), is a radical feminist single woman who attempts to halt the unfortunate downward mobility of a lower-class insurance clerk, Leonard Bast (Samuel West), gets pregnant by him, and then defiantly decides to become a single mother. Released in February of 1992, Howards End became one of the most successful of the British heritage films, for it grossed more than 16 million dollars in Britain and "landed among the top 50 box office performers" in each week of its yearlong release.4 Attendance at its screenings all over Britain early in 1993 remained high as it vied for Academy Awards—and won three for best art direction, best adapted screenplay, and best actress, Emma Thompson. It also received two of Britain's prestigious British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) film awards—best actress for Emma Thompson and best film of 1992. Why is it that, in the midst of the moral panic about the lone mother, British film audiences responded so positively to this story of a woman who chooses single motherhood as a defiantly political act? [End Page 44]

Deciding when, precisely, to release a film for public consumption is always a tricky business, not just because of such factors as genre competition, trends in movie attendance, and market saturation but also because of the film's potential relationship to other cultural events.5 Success depends not only on how the film is constructed but also on how the...


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