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 …’