Where to live? - The Houses in "Howards End"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004
23 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Living in the city
2.1. The urban slum
2.2. The London town houses
2.2.1. Wickham Mansions
2.2.2. Ducie Street
2.2.3. Wickham Place

3. Living in the country
3.1. The country houses
3.1.1. Oniton
3.1.2. Howards End

4. Conclusion

Works cited

1. Introduction

Since, as John Edward Hardy says, “Buildings, and the design of them, the architectural character of civilization, would seem to be in Forster’s mind fundamentally related to its character of manners and morals”[1], I think it is important to take a closer look at the houses in E.M. Forster’s Howards End.

In the following paper I will try to show in which way Forster associates certain housing conditions with special types of character, in how far he thinks that housing conditions influence the way people are and behave and what conclusion he draws as to where to live.

I will show which of the characters lives where focussing on the main ‘parties’ namely the Schlegels, the Wilcoxes and the Basts. I will take into consideration in which way the economic status of the characters is reflected in their housing-conditions and I will try to highlight the author’s position towards housing at the beginning of the century.

Basically, there are three different types of houses portrayed in the novel: the dwelling place of the urban lower middle class, London town houses, and country houses. I will show that there are differences between these types of houses and also that the narrator differs the houses’ quality among themselves. I will discuss the standpoint Forster takes towards the quality of these houses when he shows that they are ‘alive’ or not (whether they possess life, spirit or souls).

In my paper I will also highlight some of the current views and popular concepts of Forster’s time on the different housing conditions of people. Taking a look at some general statements about living in the city versus living in the country and living in flats versus living in houses, I will show what the narrator’s preferences are where one should live.

Finally, I will discuss the narrator’s decision about the ideal place to live for his heroine – Margaret Schlegel, and try to show in how far this solution is a realistic one.

2. Living in the city

In the novel, Forster relies on a very special picture of London common in his time to make his vision clear. The city is mostly described with images that depress and highlight the city’s monotony. The London weather, whenever it is mentioned, seems to be grey, “cheerless [and] foggy”[2]. The sun cannot reach down to the earth. People have to carry umbrellas all the time (which, of course, is part of the typical picture of the London gentleman, too). The air is “pitiless” (p. 63). The city as a whole is presented to be dirty (due to industry) and unpleasant.

This depressing feeling increases when the narrator says that “[t]he city seemed Satanic, the narrower streets oppressing like the galleries of a mine. [Causing] rather a darkening of the spirit which fell back upon itself” (p. 66), and when Margaret in the country finds that life in the city resembles “imprisonment” (p. 67). The whole atmosphere of the city seems to prevent people from breathing freely and from being able to bring their best qualities to life. Living in London is associated with hard, cheerless labour in an oppressing climate where nothing beautiful could possibly develop.

London’s description is throughout the novel reflected in the description of the dwelling places of the Londoners. Where the Basts’ inhuman block of flats, or the flats presented in the novel in general, is cheerless the city is even more so; where there is no real hope for escape here, there is none at all for those bound to live in the city. The flats in Howards End are the city in smaller scale, “they took away that old-world look – they cut off the sun – flats house a flashy type of person.” (p. 43) Flats imply rapid changes which destroy the ancient (‘good’) world, they are fast-built and torn down. This rapidity of change – the ‘flux’ – is to be found in the city, too.

Forster draws a picture of the city that was quite common at the beginning of the twentieth century[3]: the city as the man-eating Moloch mostly connected with the colour grey, hard inhuman labour and terrible housing conditions from which there is no escape.

The deterioration of the city is presented to be a process. Just like ever more houses are torn down in order to build faceless houses to accommodate the faceless masses,

month by month the roads smelt more strongly of petrol, and were more difficult to cross

and human beings heard each other speak with greater difficulty, breathed less of the air,

and saw less of the sky. Nature withdrew: the leaves were falling by midsummer; the sun

shone through dirt with an admired obscurity. (p. 84f.)

Still the narrator tells us that “London fascinates. One visualizes it as a tract of quivering grey, intelligent without purpose, and excitable without love; […] as a heart that certainly beats, but with no pulsation of humanity. It lies beyond everything: Nature, with all her cruelty, comes nearer to us than do these crowds of men.” (p. 84f.)

Due to these living and working conditions and the loss of contact with nature, people are dehumanized; they lose their individuality, they become crowds of faceless people easily replaceable. People like Leonard after a while become even more “colourless, toneless [with] the mournful eyes above a drooping moustache that are so common in London.” (p. 90) Their spirit is broken and they become cheerless shadows. More delicate people like Mrs. Wilcox, who does not think that there is anything to get up for in London at all, are even killed by the city which “had done the mischief” (p.69). London is presented as a place where people like the Schlegels “lead the life of gibbering monkeys [even if they] have something quiet and stable at the bottom.” (p. 61)

These last two qualities of quietness and stability are the necessary requirements for a different life and the missing things in the city. Margaret and Helen – who, since they have something quite and stable in themselves, have not entirely lost contact with the earth and are able to recognize the illness that spreads in London – can still be saved. They are able to appreciate the beauty of the English country. Margaret despises the “continual flux of London. It is an epitome of us at our worst – eternal formlessness; all the qualities, good, bad, and indifferent, streaming away” (p. 143). She feels that in the city itself there is nothing stable and that places, people, and events become replaceable; they do not matter any more.

For this city, which is getting ever more dirty, noisy, smelly, dangerous, unhealthy and unnatural, and for what it does with people there is a certain, if morbid, fascination. Margaret and Helen, who for a long time were able to draw some ‘profit’ out of it, come to realize that since living there is so unhealthy, they must seek life far from the city.

2.1. The Urban Slum

Leonard Bast, clerk at an insurance company, and his wife Jacky are the representatives of ‘the lower classes’ in this novel. “When we ponder the enormous differences in cultural outlook, living space, and habit of the Basts, the Schlegels, and the Wilcoxes, the blanket term ‘middle class’ is rendered empty.”[4] The clerk, whose “surroundings were often little better than those of the working classes”[5] and who had to endure rather shabby living conditions, at the beginning of the twentieth century is the one in this novel who has to carry the ‘burden’ the people like the Wilcoxes put on him. Leonard has to work hard for his living and still does not earn enough to afford more than a flat with two rooms.

Leonard and Jacky represent the people who live close to ‘the abyss’ and are in danger of ‘falling over the edge’ at any time. The concept being a popular one at his time, “Forster relies on contemporary understandings of the abyss to draw his portrait of Bast.”[6] In Jack London’s The People of the Abyss one can read descriptions which are very similar to what we find in Howards End: people raised in the town “grow up into rotten adults, without virility or stamina, a weak-kneed, narrow-chested, listless breed.”[7] Charles Masterman calls people like Leonard Bast “the new town type”. He says that in them one can observe the

production of a characteristic physical type of town dweller: stunted, narrow-chested, easily

wearied; yet voluble, excitable, with little ballast, stamina, or endurance. [This] physical change is

the result of the city up-bringing in twice-breathed air in the crowded quarters of the labouring

classes as a substitute for the spacious places of the old, silent life of England.[8]

Leonard fits into this picture perfectly. Margaret notices that his “spine […] might have been straight, and the chest […] might have broadened” (p. 90). In the character of Leonard Bast Forster claims that there is a connection between the living-conditions of a person, his or her physical appearance, health and character: “suburban housing and suburban lives […] are built for neither strength nor duration.”[9]

In the following I will show how the Basts’ unhealthy lives are produced by their surroundings. When the reader meets the Basts for the first time, they live in a basement apartment in Camelia Road, Block B. This lack of a ‘proper’ name for their house already hints towards the cheapness and temporality – also indicated by the author’s statement that this flat was only “at present his home” (p. 36) – with and for which these houses are built. They are built fast and cheaply in order to provide accommodation for the masses flowing into the city in search of a job, and are often enough as fast pulled down again in order to make space for new ones. The name of the street, Camelia Road, together with the nearby Magnolia Road shows that these streets have been ‘made’ and did not ‘grow’ naturally. They were given names of plants (as is often done when official city-planning is involved) so that they had a name at all and could be located and identified to belong to the same area of the city. But the names, although chosen so as to evoke beauty, hardly reveal dignity.

Forster repeatedly evokes the impression that these flats are rather living-places for animals than for human beings in order to show their low quality. Before entering, Leonard “glanced suspiciously to right and left, like a rabbit that is going to bolt into its hole.” (p. 36) Later, the narrator repeats this picture in saying that “[i]t was an amorous and not unpleasant little hole” (p. 37). This allusion on the one hand refers to the inhumanity of the housing-conditions of the Basts and on the other to the size of their flat and thus to the poverty Leonard and his wife live in. Their apartment consists of two rooms only which already are more than the clerk can afford, and hardly anything in the flat belongs to Leonard. He rents it furnished because he cannot even afford his own furniture or rather does not know where he will live in the (near) future and whether such an investment would be wise. – As we see later in the novel, the Basts have to move to an even smaller apartment, into which their furniture, if they had had any, would not have fitted.

Even among the people who have to live in these slum-like flats, the Basts have an inferior status because they cannot afford to live ‘over ground’. One result of their living in a basement apartment is that there is not too much daylight falling into the rooms. When we hear that “[t]he inhabitants of Camelia Road tramped to and fro outside the window, just on a level with their heads, and the family in the flat on the ground-floor began to sing” (p. 42), this topic of low quality of life is explored further. Leonard and Jacky cannot afford the upper classes’ privilege of not having to “be near people who displease [them] or whom [they] displease” (p. 49). Space is one of the privileges Forster describes the other parties in the novel to possess. But the Basts cannot simply move out or spend some time away; they have to endure their neighbours’ singing, they have to accept that even when they are at home people are literally trampling on their heads, and they cannot demand some privacy for themselves. On moving to the bed-sitting-room at Tulse Hill, Leonard and Jacky even lose the privilege to have the chance of avoiding one another, as Leonard obviously wishes to do when he tries not to hear Jacky calling him.

Another indicator for the low quality of Leonard’s living-conditions is that cooking demands payment in advance. He has to put money into the gas-meter in order to prepare food. And if that is not enough already, “the flat was reeking with metallic fumes” (p. 41) when Leonard starts cooking – with the lack of ventilation in their apartment, they are not unlikely to poison themselves with these unhealthy fumes.

The terrible living conditions of the Basts which are reflected in the exterior of their building and the interior of their flat are further described in the food they eat. They consume mass-produced food dissolved in water which even at the time was looked at with some suspicion: ingredients were considered to be of low quality and low nutritional value[10]. Leonard himself can only “manage[] to convince his stomach that it was having a nourishing meal” (p. 42). It was generally discussed that the consumption of this food was unwholesome, and together with leisure time filled “with unhealthy pastimes ranging from the passive spectatorship of sport to the enervating consumption of […] adulterated drink”[11] would lead to a decline in the “physical fitness of the suburbanizing middle class”[12].


[1] Hardy, John Edwards. “Howards End: The Sacred Center.” In: Critical Essays on E.M. Forster. Ed. Wilde, Alan. (Boston, Massachusetts: G.K. Hall & Co., 1985) 117.

[2] Forster, E.M.. Howards End. (New York: Bantam Books, 1985) 61. (All further quotations without footnotes refer to this edition.)

[3] The idea of the city as the “Moloch” was explored in films, too, for instance in Fritz Lang’s mute-classic Metropolis.

[4] Born, Daniel. “Private Gardens, Public Swamps: Howards End and the Revaluation of Liberal Guilt.” NOVEL – A Forum on Fiction 25.2 (1992): 146.

[5] Hegglund, Jon. “Defending the Realm: Domestic Space and Mass Cultural Contamination in Howards End and An Englishman’s Home.” ELT 40.4 (1997): 409.

[6] Born 149.

[7] London, Jack. Novels and Social Writings. Ed. Donald Pizer.(New York: Viking Press, 1982) 31.

[8] Born 147.

[9] Hegglund 412.

[10] Hegglund 412.

[11] Hegglund 410.

[12] Hegglund 410.

Excerpt out of 23 pages


Where to live? - The Houses in "Howards End"
Humboldt-University of Berlin
Masculinity in the Late Victorian and Early Edwardian Novel
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Where, Houses, Howards, Masculinity, Late, Victorian, Early, Edwardian, Novel
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Claudia Müller (Author), 2004, Where to live? - The Houses in "Howards End", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/39504


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