Peter Davies

Only Con­nect

The London Magazine - - NEWS - Peter Davies

The BBC se­ri­al­iza­tion of E. M. Forster’s Howards End over four weeks in Novem­ber and De­cem­ber was al­ways go­ing to in­vite com­par­i­son with the cel­e­brated 1992 Mer­chant Ivory film of the novel, which had been rere­leased in July, as a 25th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tion of its qual­ity. With a con­sum­mately-wrought screen­play by the nov­el­ist Ruth Prawer Jhab­vala and a starry cast that in­cluded Vanessa Red­grave (Ruth Wil­cox); Emma Thomp­son and He­lena Bon­ham Carter (Mar­garet and He­len Sch­legel); and An­thony Hop­kins (Henry Wil­cox), it had set stan­dards that were al­ways go­ing to be dif­fi­cult to sur­pass. ‘It looks as hand­some and high-minded as ever, and not dated …’ was the ver­dict of the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw on this sec­ond re­lease.

Nev­er­the­less a younger gen­er­a­tion of crit­ics was not go­ing to let BBC One’s adap­ta­tion by Ken­neth Lon­er­gan, di­rected by Het­tie Mac­don­ald, dwell in this for­mi­da­ble shadow with­out a fight­ing at­tempt to se­cure jus­tice for its mer­its. In the Guardian’s re­view of the first episode (by Lucy Man­gan) this Howards End was hailed as a ‘timely re­make’ of Mer­chant Ivory, and she pre­ferred the low-key ‘in­tel­li­gence and com­mit­ment’ of Hay­ley Atwell’s and Ju­lia Or­mond’s Mar­garet and Ruth Wil­cox, to the sump­tu­ous per­for­mances of their big-screen pre­de­ces­sors

The in­tro­duc­tion into the story of char­ac­ters of colour (which in­cluded not just bit-parts such as the Sch­legels’ maid but Ros­alind Eleazar’s rather dig­ni­fied Jacky Bast) was also ap­plauded by Man­gan, who saw it as con­nect­ing this se­cure em­pire-plun­der­ing Ed­war­dian age more em­phat­i­cally with our frag­ile present. Much the same point was made by sev­eral other crit­ics. The el­e­va­tion (by Alex Lawther) of the Sch­legels’ old-young man brother Tibby from a mi­nor cameo role into a full-scale char­ac­ter study, was ad­mired by both The Times and Tele­graph. In gen­eral the crit­ics seemed de­ter­mined to seek for the good in this Howards End,

and those who re­turned af­ter episode one to give a prop­erly di­gested ver­dict at the end of the se­rial con­tin­ued to be pos­i­tive about it.

The best way of help­ing us to as­sess how well ei­ther big- or small-screen pro­duc­tion il­lu­mi­nated, fell short of, or even sur­passed Forster’s novel, is per­haps to com­pare them in the first in­stance with it, rather than each other. Which brings us to the ques­tion of what sort of nov­el­ist is E. M. Forster, and where does he stand among his peers? In an age dom­i­nated by Henry James, Joseph Con­rad, James Joyce, DH Lawrence and Ford Ma­dox Ford, he ploughs what ap­pears at first to be a mod­est fur­row. Along­side their mod­ern­iz­ing demons his tem­per­ate hu­man­ity is apt to sound a lit­tle old fash­ioned. He brings noth­ing ob­vi­ously ‘new’ to the party. He does not stren­u­ously press against the fron­tiers of be­lief. His moral­ity – which con­sists in noth­ing more (nor less) than an un­der­stated de­cency – is much closer to that of Jane Austen than of D H Lawrence. Like hers, his prose is one of mod­er­a­tion, as are its as­pi­ra­tions: ‘Only con­nect the prose and the passion’ is, in the up­shot, the theme of Howards End.

In an era in which the fiercely pros­e­ly­tiz­ing F. R. Leavis laid down in his book The Great Tra­di­tion (1948) and his Cam­bridge lec­tures for sev­eral decades there­after, the canons for what was to be ac­counted worth­while – and what was not – in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury novel, Forster was in danger of to­tal eclipse. Yet, as one per­cep­tive critic ob­served, against the tide of those times: ‘There seems lit­tle doubt that he will be read as ea­gerly in the year 2000 as he is in 1960.’ How right he was.

There are things that Forster does not do well in Howards End. One is Leonard Bast – of whom more later. An­other is his pen­chant for step­ping out of his nar­ra­tive for a spot of some­what sen­ti­men­tal phi­los­o­phiz­ing. One such is his rhapsody over the King’s Cross rail­way ter­mi­nus, in which Mar­garet Sch­legel, we are told, dis­cerns ‘In­fin­ity’. Steady on!, one feels.

Forster’s de­scrip­tion of Beethoven’s 5th Sym­phony an­a­lysed through the fer­tile imag­i­na­tion of He­len, gen­er­ates sim­i­lar un­ease. It seems to me to be one of those mo­ments when this oth­er­wise ad­mirable au­thor not only

abuses his own in­tel­li­gence but ex­poses to ridicule for pre­ten­tious­ness a char­ac­ter who is oth­er­wise brave, orig­i­nal and whom we want to like. Beethoven de­serves bet­ter than He­len’s gob­lins which are at one mo­ment rep­re­sented as fear­ful an­tag­o­nists in wars fought in the vast empyrean of the spirit, and the next are merely equated in her mind with the shal­low Wil­cox qual­i­ties of ‘panic and empti­ness’.

The Mer­chant Ivory film com­pletely re­moved th­ese causes of ob­jec­tion. It took He­len’s Beethoven reverie away from her and opened Howards End with it – putting its high-flown sen­ti­ments into the mouth of a pre­ten­tious lec­turer at a talk the sis­ters (and Leonard Bast) are at­tend­ing. It was a bold stroke. He­len’s ex­citable let­ters – which es­tab­lish the Wil­coxes for us, con­fess her ‘love af­fair’ and pro­pel us and Aunt Ju­ley im­petu­ously in the wake of it un­til we are halted by her tele­gram: All over. Wish I had never writ­ten – make an un­sur­pass­ably vivid open­ing to the novel. But they be­come an in­dul­gence in a 140-minute fea­ture film.

It’s gen­er­ally ac­cepted that the least sat­is­fac­tory char­ac­ter in Howards End is Leonard Bast. Ar­gu­ment can be made pro and con about the ac­cu­racy of Forster’s de­pic­tion of Leonard’s so­cial plight, his em­ploy­ment prospects, even his abil­ity to ac­cess the cul­ture he so des­per­ately craves. The fact is that poorer than he made mod­est be­gin­nings in lit­er­ary jour­nal­ism in the num­bers of pe­ri­od­i­cals flour­ish­ing at that time. The mere fact that he is able to meet a sym­pa­thet­i­cally in­ter­ested woman like He­len at a con­cert in­di­cates that all doors in that direc­tion are not, in fact, shut in his face. The ob­jec­tion to Leonard is im­plicit, rather, in the pa­tron­iz­ing tone Forster him­self adopts to­wards him. In the novel the clerk as­pir­ing to ape Ruskin’s prose as a ve­hi­cle for ex­press­ing his own per­cep­tions of life is a fig­ure of ridicule. Forster in­tro­duces him to us with­out re­ally un­der­stand­ing him.

In the Mer­chant Ivory film, even in the depths of des­per­a­tion Bast (Sa­muel West) had a blunt at­trac­tive­ness. And among the very many es­sen­tial things the film did achieve was to make a sex­ual en­counter be­tween him and He­len not merely be­liev­able but some­thing we might even an­tic­i­pate. In the book phys­i­cal sex does not rate high as a source of en­joy­ment. Mar­garet ‘nearly

screamed’ when Henry first kissed her. And we are not sorry to be given no more de­tail about He­len and Leonard’s tryst than that she had ap­par­ently ‘loved him ab­so­lutely, per­haps for half an hour.’ Mer­chant Ivory ad­vanced fear­lessly into the heart of the mat­ter. By a lake­side at evening, Bon­ham Carter’s He­len took Leonard in a res­o­lute man­ner that made non­sense of Henry’s sub­se­quent de­scrip­tion of him as ‘her se­ducer’.

The BBC’s adap­ta­tion in­volved some odd choices. It slowed down the open­ing of the drama, in­sist­ing on show­ing us each of He­len’s let­ters be­ing de­liv­ered in Lon­don. Mo­tor cars passed the plod­ding post­man, em­pha­siz­ing the march of the petrol-driven age. As a re­sult the drama plod­ded too. And its pace never re­ally picked up. Mad­den­ingly, its sis­ters (Philippa Coulthard as He­len) seemed far too close to each other in age, and so fre­quently wore sim­i­larly coloured clothes as to make them al­most in­dis­tin­guish­able at first glance. Henry Wil­cox (Matthew MacFadyen) never looked re­motely old enough to be the fa­ther of mar­ried chil­dren.

The Sch­legel sis­ters were, here, sim­ply not suf­fi­ciently dif­fer­en­ti­ated as char­ac­ters. Mar­garet is ruled by rea­son. He­len has an im­petu­ously ar­tic­u­lated passion for so­cial jus­tice that fre­quently flashes into anger. At the be­gin­ning of Forster’s story we see her fall reck­lessly in love with a highly un­suit­able young man; by the end she has borne the child of an­other. And not one mur­mur of re­gret to those around her passes her lips. One might have ex­pected a TV adap­ta­tion for our age to have rolled up its sleeves and shown us this passion in ac­tion. Yet an emo­tional-phys­i­cal at­trac­tion be­tween Coulthard’s He­len and Joseph Quinn’s Leonard never ma­te­ri­al­ized. The Mer­chant Ivory film had breathed flesh and blood into that re­la­tion­ship in a way Forster him­self failed to do. At the end of the BBC’s ac­count we could only wring our hands and mur­mur: ‘Only con­nect …’

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