Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Howards End

One of the themes in E.M. Forster's novel Howards End  is the transformation of a smaller, quieter, more nature-centred world to a big, busy, dense, urban one. I thought of Forster as I passed this single-family house near Cambie, where the two cranes in the background are transforming single-family areas into blocks of apartment buildings. 

One of the cranes towers over this building site, which was once single-family homes.

In West Vancouver's Ambleside area, a new condominium development is going up along the waterfront. 

Novelist E.M. Forster's country house Howards End is red brick and covered in vine leaves. Over it bends a wych elm, with "a girth that a dozen men could not have spanned" and pigs' teeth embedded in the trunk (an old country remedy for toothache). A tall hedge of sweet dog roses separates the house from a farm, source of fragrant hay, eggs and milk.

Such nature, such peace, such a short time before the house will be taken over by the behemoth of London, belching greedily toward it. Some of Forster's characters love Howards End -- its ancient history, its simple beauty, the way its very bones are embedded in nature. But others say it's too small, too far from the city, too old-fashioned, and besides, all that greenery triggers their hay fever. They'd tear it down, rent it, maybe even sell it.

Forster's novel is set in and around London just before the First World War, a long way and time from the Vancouver of 2017. But the parallels between the world he portrays and the city I walk today are remarkable.

London too was pricey and densifying; houses were being torn down for apartments, which were then demolished for bigger ones. London too had its upper strata of multiple house-owners and its lower strata barely clinging to the meanest rooms. And at least in Forster's vision, there was a sharp division between those who saw treasured houses as homes -- places with spirits and history -- and those who saw them as pure commodities.

Here are some excerpts from Howards End illustrating why I felt so much at home as I read it. (The book pits the arty, intellectual Schlegel sisters Margaret and Helen, whose focus is human relationships, against the Wilcoxes, a practical, business-oriented family who have made a fortune exploiting Africa. Howards End belongs to the first Mrs. Wilcox, who was born there, and unlike the Wilcoxes she marries into, loves it passionately. When she dies early in the book, she tries to leave it to Margaret, a kindred spirit.)

 “It is monstrous. . . it isn’t right,” says Mrs. Wilcox when she learns Margaret must leave her longtime London home, Wickham Place, because the lease has run out. (The house is to be torn down and replaced by apartments.) “I do pity you from the bottom of my heart. To be parted from your house, your father’s house -- it oughtn’t to be allowed. It is worse than dying.” At first Margaret thinks this is a bit over the top, but she eventually understands that Mrs. Wilcox, "though a loving wife and mother, had only one passion in life – her house….”

To the Wilcoxes, “Howards End was a house: they could not know that to her [Mrs. Wilcox] it had been a spirit, for which she sought a spiritual heir. . . .Is it credible that the possessions of the spirit can be bequeathed at all? Has the soul offspring? A wych-elm tree, a vine, a wisp of hay with dew on it – can passion for such things be transmitted where there is no bond of blood?” 

Margaret and Helen’s London house was “fairly quiet, for a lofty promontory of buildings separated it from the main thoroughfare. . . . Though the promontory consisted of flats – expensive, with cavernous entrance halls, full of concierges and palms – it fulfilled its purpose, and gained for the older houses opposite a certain measure of peace. These, too, would be swept away in time and another promontory would rise upon their site, as humanity piled itself higher and higher on the precious soil of London.”

Over two years, the city “rose and fell in a continual flux, while her shallows washed more widely against the hills of Surrey and over the fields of Hertfordshire. This famous building had arisen, that was doomed. Today Whitehall had been transformed; it would be the turn of Regent Street tomorrow. And 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."

“Certainly London fascinates. One visualizes it as a tract of quivering grey, intelligent without purpose, and excitable without love; as a spirit that has altered before it can be chronicled; 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."

"The Londoner seldom understands his city until it sweeps him, too, away from his moorings, and Margaret’s eyes were not opened until the lease of Wickham Place expired… Then the house was suddenly ringed with pathos. It had seen so much happiness. Why had it to be swept away? In the streets of the city she noted for the first time the architecture of hurry, and heard the language of hurry on the mouths of its inhabitants – clipped words, formless sentences, potted expressions of approval or disgust. Month by month things were stepping livelier, but to what goal? The population still rose, but what was the quality of the men born? The particular millionaire who owned the freehold of Wickham Place, and desired to erect Babylonian flats upon it – what right had he to stir so large a portion of the quivering jelly? He was not a fool – she had heard him expose Socialism—but true insight began just where his intelligence ended, and one gathered that this was the case with most millionaires.”

When Margaret expresses sadness that some pretty, newly built London houses are to be torn down,  Mr. Wilcox says it's “good for trade.” She says: “I hate this continual flux of London. It is an epitome of us at our worst – eternal formlessness; all the qualities, good, bad, and indifferent, streaming away – streaming, streaming for ever."
I suspect Forster's character Margaret wouldn't like this spanking new house along Arbutus very much. Even the strip of grass along the boulevard is artificial.

Mrs. Wilcox and Margaret would be far more at home in a simple, old-fashioned house like this.

Or even better, this house. With its big old tree, ferns and flowers out front and its old-fashioned shutters, it's one of  a decreasing number of small houses still standing in Dunbar. 

1 comment:

  1. Well, we'll still have the parks and the beaches. Haussmann got it right in Paris...why it is such a jewel of a city and they'll never change the heart of the city. The only problem now is the hordes of tourists. I'm so glad that 11 of my 12 visits to Paris were before that happened.
    From Wikipedia:
    "The most famous and recognizable feature of Haussmann's renovation of Paris are the Haussmann apartment buildings which line the boulevards of Paris. Street blocks were designed as homogeneous architectural wholes. He treated buildings not as independent structures, but as pieces of a unified urban landscape."