Book reviews

Howard’s End by E.M. Forster: Missive to Mr. Bast

Poor Leonard! Clinging to the lowest rung of the middle class respectability ladder, stinting yourself bus fare to afford concert tickets and literature, staring up at the soles of the cultured classes planted hard on the rungs above your head, weighted down by your unseemly wife, destined to be the butt of Mr. Forster’s jokes.  You’re working without a net, Mr. Bast.  One slip and into the abyss you go. 

 

At the concert hall, the annoyingly fascinating Schlegel girl steals your umbrella.  “Thief, thief!” you cry.  Such appellations do not apply to those of the Schlegellian class.  Helen and Margaret breathe godly air.  Do not bother them about trivial matters such as umbrella ownership. 

You cannot resist.  You must touch the hems of their garments.  Beware, Leonard! The Schlegel sisters lead you doomward.  They pass on faulty counsel from recently widowed, successful philistine Mr. Wilcox to take your leave from Porphyrion Fire Insurance.  You settle for an inferior position elsewhere.  One month later your new employer goes belly up and takes leave of you.  The Wilcox Oracle proved false.  Not porphyrion, but the company to which you jumped, has gone up in flames. And with it, your paycheck. 

You are the Schlegel sisters’ toy.  They chatter on about a poor man’s chances for enlightenment; they debate whether its pursuit is solely a hobby for the well-to-do.  You, meanwhile, have et of their nonsensical apple and are in a bellyful of pain.

Henry Wilcox faults you for vacating your place at Porphyrion and taking up with the now bankrupted firm.  He and Margaret, Henry’s bride-to-be, do not feel your pain.  Remorse for routing you to an unsound venture weights them not.  Fear not, Len! Helen will champion you. She trucks not with Henry and Margaret’s callous disregard of your diminished fortunes.  With you and Jacky clinging to her skirt tails, She storms the Schlegel-Wilcox nuptials.  “Behold the ruined Bast,” she shouts to Henry.  “Place him in your employ!” But before you can say “clerkship at Wilcox Inc.,” your own pitiful bride sidles up to Henry and recalls to him their affair of years earlier. 

The offering of cake and other wedding banquet trifles is retracted.  Your party crashing triad is dismissed.  Your wife has besmirched the Henry Wilcox brand.  All hope of Helen shaming Mr. Wilcox into finding you employment is lost.

That night, Helen offers you the balm of her arms.  Months later you learn that she is with child—your child.  You go to her at once.  The least you can do is man up and offer your condolences for making her a fallen woman.  Off on the train you go, Howard’s End bound where the Schlegel sisters have lodged.  But even this attempt at noble action misfires.  You ring the bell.  Your arrival is announced. Wilcox the younger, Henry’s hot-tempered scion, greets you with sword beats to the headYou fall to the ground, losing your grip on the ladder once and for all.  “Murder! Murder!” You hear and the world goes still.

Silly Leonard! Thinking your trespass into the Schlegel’s realm would go unpunished.

But console yourself.  Though you were unfit for communion with the higher orders of homo brittanicus, the fruit of your loins is.  Baby Bast will inherit the rich and cultured world that treated you so rude.

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