When Wendell Berry gave the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Jefferson Lecture (read it here, listen to it here) in 2012, the title of his lecture was, “It All Turns on Affection”. He explained that he borrowed the title from a passage in the book Howards End, by E. M. Forster, and that the novel, published in England in 1910, has been an inspiration to him. It elaborates all the themes of Berry’s own work over the years. Being a devoted fan of Berry’s work, I knew I had to read Howards End.
Having loved the movie, I had thought of reading it before, but I had a completely irrational fear that an Edwardian novel, and a novel by Forster, would be difficult or boring or chauvinistic, or all three. I could not have been more wrong. It is delightful, enlightened, complex but entirely approachable.
Forster examines England and human relationships through the themes of class; industrial versus land-based economics; the growth of London versus the decline of attachment to rural traditions and family; the new propensity for mobility and displacement of home; and the invasion of technology and materialism into everything, particularly the new practice of happy motoring all around the countryside of England. The Wilcox’s obsession with their houses and “motors”, their business acumen and upper-crust snobbishness, is in stark contrast to the Schlegel sisters’ liberalism, artistic sensibilities, and philanthropy. Still, even they admit that enough money is a necessity to make life tolerable, as it is not for the impoverished and immobile Basts. The interplay between these three positions in society weave throughout the story.
Rising above all the mundane obsessions, standing with quiet dignity, is Howards End, a very old house and farm, bequeathed by the owner, who loves it above all else, to its spiritual, if not familial, heir, who is thwarted from the inheritance, but by a long series of chance (or not) encounters finds her destiny merging with that of the house by the end. I have read that the story is full of allegory, that Howards End represents England itself and who will inherit it. That is as it may be. I just know the story is beautiful, the characters true, the language breath-taking, the denouement satisfying, and, yes, it is a match for Berry’s themes of care and affection for one’s place. The land, well-cared for and loved, is our true home and inheritance.