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  • The Monumental Failure of Howards End
  • Harrington Weihl (bio)

E. M. Forster opens his 1910 novel Howards End with letters, remarking “One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister” (5). The initial resignation to the epistolary form (which persists for only two relatively short letters) quickly foregrounds Howards End’s uncertain position on the continuum of the novel’s generic evolution. Neither experimental nor rigorously realist, Howards End seems to reside in the indeterminate space between the modernist and the Victorian novel—indeed, Fredric Jameson calls Forster “at best a closet modernist” (159). Nevertheless, Forster’s work has often been read by critics as demanding inclusion in the modernist canon.1 Howards End, I contend, practices a limited modernism that is rooted in the very gap between its traditional form and its modern content that renders it so difficult to characterize. The novel’s symbolic economy is mobilized around the discord between the realist, Victorian form of Howards End and its modernist, Edwardian content. The novel and its titular house, Howards End, overlap within the same signifier, Howards End. The letters that open the novel bear a metonymic relationship with the house (and thus the novel) in that this correspondence itself is about architecture. This interchangeability and variation between architecture and space represents, as I will show, the novel’s central formal configuration. Helen responds to her sister, an absent interlocutor, by launching into a lengthy description of the architectural and spatial make-up of the eponymous house: “From hall you go right or left into a dining-room or drawing-room...there’s a very big wych-elm—to the left as you look up—leaning a little over the house, and standing on the boundary between the garden and meadow” (5). Forster describes the house and its environs in terms of how both determine the motions of daily life and define space; instead of being confirmed, however, this correlation between spatial categories and the social life they are meant to impose is compromised and ultimately undermined as the novel progresses. [End Page 444]

Howards End is often understood as a novel that is primarily concerned with place by virtue of its title alone; the title also marks the English home as the novel’s definitive ‘place.’ Critics have often taken the lead from the title: while as Jon Hegglund claims, “[e]ven the most casual reader of Howards End cannot fail to notice the centrality of houses in the novel” (401), rigorous readers have also focused on the symbolic centrality of the house.2 Beyond the walls of the house, Jason Finch has identified the persistent attention that critics have paid to “the spirit of a place, the genius loci” in Forster’s work, which absorbs the house itself into a broader, though still localized, consideration of place and being (2). Howards End has also been included in notable assessments of the significance of the colonial in modernism; Jed Esty best sums up this approach in claiming that, for Forster, “metropolitan perception subsumes the lost value of territorial coherence while registering the epistemological privilege associated with modernity’s borderless spaces” (28). In this line of argument— which originates with Fredric Jameson—the unrepresentable but economically necessary colonial spaces can only be articulated in a discourse that opposes the ‘lost’ totality of the premodern with the chaotic totality of the metropolis. In this essay, I reconcile readings of the novel that focus on the home itself with those that center around the colonial and domestic/metropolitan divide. As I will show, Howards End tries and fails to serve as the ‘monumental’ English space that Forster sets it up to be, partially due to its status as a pastiche that attempts to pass as an ‘authentic’ English home.

Furthermore, in contrast with the house, colonial space in the novel can only haunt the margins of the text, and while definitively different from the monumental architecture of the home, it is absent in a way that emphasizes the novel’s incomplete spatial representation of the English nation. This reconsideration of Forster’s emblem of quintessential English identity as a failed monumental space will not cut it off...


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pp. 444-463
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