HOWARDS END

Howards EndHomecomings

Most of us connect the notion of “home” or “childhood home” with one particular place, that innocent paradise we have since had to give up and keep searching for forever after. In Ruth Wilcox’s world, Howards End is that place; the countryside house where she was born, where her family often returns to spend their vacations, and which, everyone assumes, will pass on to her children when she is dead.

And it is through Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave)’s eyes that we first see Howards End; approaching the house after an evening walk through her beloved meadow, her long dress trailing in the grass, as she goes nearer, we see the open windows letting out warm light from inside, and hear the voices and laughter from the family’s dinner table. And while Mrs. Wilcox returns to join her family’s company, two others are leaving the house and its serene world: Helen Schlegel (Helena Bonham Carter) and Paul Wilcox, embarking on a passionate romance which is not even to survive the next morning – not before, however, Helen has informed her sister Margaret (Emma Thompson) that she and Paul are “in love,” and thus set in motion the first of a series of confusing and controversial meetings between their families.

While both families belong to the middle class, they are nevertheless separated by several layers of society and politics – the Wilcox, led by pater familias / businessman Henry (Anthony Hopkins), rich, conservative and without any sympathy whatsoever for those less fortunate than themselves (“It’s all part of the battle of life … The poor are poor; one is sorry for them, but there it is,” Henry Wilcox once comments); the Schlegels, on the other hand, with just enough income to lead a comfortable life, brought up by their Aunt Juley (Prunella Scales), supporting suffrage (women’s right to vote) and surrounding themselves with actors, “blue-stockings” (feminists), intellectuals and other members of the avantgarde. Further complexity is added when Helen brings to the Schlegel home Leonard Bast (Samuel West), a poor but idealistic young clerk who loves music, literature and astronomy – and with him, his working class wife Jacky (Nicola Duffett), the embarrassment of having to interact with her, and the even more embarrassing revelation she has in store for Henry Wilcox; eventually leaving her disillusioned husband to comment that “books aren’t real,” and that in fact they and music “are for the rich so they don’t feel bad after dinner.”

E.M. Forster‘s novel on which this movie is based is a masterpiece of social study and character study alike; with empathy and a fine eye for detail, Forster brings his protagonists and their environment to life, and James Ivory matches his accomplishment in this screen realization, finding the perfect cast and production design (Luciana Arrighi) to reproduce the novel’s Edwardian society; although he superstitiously declined the offer to film at Forster‘s boyhood home Rooks Nest, the model for the fictional Howards End. The movie brings together many of Britain’s best-known actors, all trained in the English school which, as Anthony Hopkins once explained, unlike Lee Strasberg’s Method Acting, is primarily based on restraint: there are no outbursts of emotion, self-control reigns supreme, and even a simple word like “yes” is reduced even further to “hmm,” leaving it to the actor’s intonation alone to convey the word’s (or sound’s) deeper meaning in a given context. And yet, vocal intonation, looks and little gestures often speak louder than dramatic actions ever could, and they are as essential to the movie’s sense of authenticity as are production design, cinematography (Tony Pierce-Roberts), soundtrack (Richard Robbins) and the selection of the movie’s non-scored music: excerpts from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, a favorite with the “educated” Edwardian middle class, and pieces by period composers Andre Derain and Percy Grainger.

The story centers around Margaret (Meg) Schlegel, who is “filled with … a profound vivacity, a continual and sincere response to all that she encounter[s] in her path through life,” as Forster described her, and portrayed to perfection by Emma Thompson. Meg’s friendship with Ruth Wilcox brings the families back together after Helen’s near-scandalous episode with Paul; and the two women become so close that Ruth eventually decides to give Meg “something worth [her] friendship” – none other than Howards End, a wish that has her panicking family scramble ungentlemanly for every reason in the book to invalidate the codicil setting forth that bestowal, from its lacking date and signature to the testatrix’s state of mind, the ambiguity of the writing’s content, the question why Meg should want the house in the first place since she already has one, and the fact that the writing is only in pencil, which “never counts,” as Dolly, wife of the Wilcox’ elder son Charles is quick to point out; only to be reprimanded by her father in law “from out of his fortress” (Forster) not to “interfere with what you do not understand.” And so it is that Meg will only see the house (and be instantly mistaken for Ruth because she has “her way of walking around the house,” as the housekeeper explains) when she and her siblings have to look for a new home and Henry Wilcox, who has started to court her after Ruth’s death, suggests that the Schlegel’s furniture be temporarily stored there – a fateful decision. And while Meg and Henry slowly and painfully learn to adjust to each other, the complexity of their families’ relations, and their interactions with the Basts, finally come crashing down on them in a dramatic conclusion.

Howards End deservedly won 1992’s Academy Awards for Best Actress (Thompson), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Art Direction; and it was also nominated in the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Redgrave), Best Original Score, Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design categories. Unfortunately, its subtle tones have recently been muted somewhat by the louder sounds now filling movie theaters. I for one, however, will take this sublime movie over any summer action flick anytime.

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Merchant-Ivory (1992)
  • Director: James Ivory
  • Executive Producer: Paul Bradley
  • Producer: Ismail Merchant
  • Screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
  • Based on a novel by: E.M. Forster
  • Music: Richard Robbins
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Tony Pierce-Roberts
  • Art Direction: John Ralph
  • Costume Design: Jenny Beavan & John Bright
  • Production Design: Luciana Arrighi
  • Set Decoration: Ian Whittaker
Cast
  • Emma Thompson: Margaret Schlegel
  • Helena Bonham Carter: Helen Schlegel
  • Anthony Hopkins: Henry J. Wilcox
  • Vanessa Redgrave: Ruth Wilcox
  • Prunella Scales: Aunt Juley
  • Samuel West: Leonard Bast
  • Nicola Duffett: Jacky Bast
  • Adrian Ross Magenty: Tibby Schlegel
  • Joseph Bennett: Paul Wilcox
  • James Wilby: Charles Wilcox
  • Jemma Redgrave: Evie Wilcox
  • Susie Lindeman: Dolly Wilcox

 

Major Awards and Honors

Academy Awards (1992)
  • Best Actress in a Leading Role: Emma Thompson
  • Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium:
    Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
  • Best Art Direction-Set Decoration: Luciana Arrighi and Ian Whittaker
Golden Globes (1992)
  • Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama: Emma Thompson
National Board of Review Awards (1992)
  • Best Picture – English Language: Ismail Merchant
  • Best Director: James Ivory
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
BAFTA Awards (1992)
  • Best Film: Ismail Merchant and James Ivory
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
Evening Standard British Film Awards (1992)
  • Best Film: James Ivory
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
    – Also for Peter’s Friends (1992).
National Society of Film Critics Awards (1992) (USA)
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards (1992)
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
New York Film Critics’ Circle Awards (1992)
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
Boston Society of Film Critics AwardS (1992)
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
Cannes Film Festival (1992)
  • 45th Anniversary Prize: James Ivory

 

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THE AGE OF INNOCENCE

Love, Loneliness and the Strictures of Society.

Imagine living in a world where life is governed by intricate rituals; a world “balanced so precariously that its harmony [can] be shattered by a whisper” (Wharton); a world ruled by self-declared experts on form, propriety and family history – read: scandal –; where everything is labeled and yet, people are not; where in order not to disturb society’s smooth surface nothing is ever expressed or even thought of directly, and where communication occurs almost exclusively by way of symbols, which are unknown to the outsider and, like any secret code, by their very encryption guarantee his or her permanent exclusion.

Such, in faithful imitation of Victorian England, was the society of late 19th century upper class New York. Into this society returns, after having grown up and lived all her adult life in Europe, American-born Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), after leaving a cruel and uncaring husband. She already causes scandal by the mere manner of her return; but not knowing the secret rituals of the society she has entered, she quickly brings herself further into disrepute by receiving an unmarried man, by being seen in the company of a man only tolerated by virtue of his financial success and his marriage to the daughter of one of this society’s most respected families, by arriving late to a dinner in which she has expressly been included to rectify a prior general snub, by leaving a drawing room conversation to instead join a gentleman sitting by himself – and worst of all, by openly contemplating divorce, which will most certainly open up a whole Pandora’s box of “oddities” and “unpleasantness”: the strongest terms ever used to express moral disapproval in this particular social context. Soon Ellen, who hasn’t seen such façades even in her husband’s household, finds herself isolated and, wondering whether noone is ever interested in the truth, complains bitterly that “[t]he real loneliness here is living among all these kind people who only ask you to pretend.”

Ellen finds a kindred soul in attorney Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), her cousin May Welland’s (Winona Ryder’s) fiancé, who secretly toys with a more liberal stance, while outwardly endorsing the value system of the society he lives in. Newland and Ellen fall in love – although not before he has advised her, on his employer’s and May and Ellen’s family’s mandate, not to pursue her plans of divorce. As a result, Ellen becomes unreachable to him, and he flees into accelerating his wedding plans with May, who before he met Ellen in his eyes stood for everything that was good and noble about their society, whereas now he begins to see her as a shell whose interior he is reluctant to explore for fear of finding merely a kind of serene emptiness there; a woman whose seemingly dull, passive innocence grinds down every bit of roughness he wants to maintain about himself and who, as he realizes even before marrying her, will likely bury him alive under his own future. Then his passion for Ellen is rekindled by a meeting a year and a half after his wedding, and an emotional conflict they could hardly bear when he was not yet married escalates even further. And only when it is too late for all three of them he finds out that his wife had far more insight (and almost ruthless cleverness) than he had ever credited her with.

Winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize and the first work of fiction written by a woman to be awarded that distinction, “The Age of Innocence” is one of Edith Wharton‘s most enduringly popular novels; the crown jewel among her subtly satirical descriptions of New York upper class society. Martin Scorsese reportedly lobbied hard to bring the novel to the screen under his direction; and what at first looks like an odd match for the director of “Goodfellas,” “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver” turns out to be a masterpiece of understanding of the intricate workings of this world; a visual feast splendidly realized by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and production and costume designers Dante Ferretti and (Oscar-winning) Gabriella Pescucci; reminiscent of a period tableau, where a dinner table’s immaculate symmetry expresses society’s outwardly perfect façade, a person’s character is mirrored in the paintings they own, their house’s interior decoration, the way they dress and the flowers they receive, and where, like in the novel, the protagonists’ relationships are choreographed to coincide with the pivotal moments of the stage performances they attend, such as Charles Gounod’s opera “Faust” and Dion Boucicault’s play “The Shaughraun;” a rare feat of psychological insight into the novel’s every character, from the three flawlessly portrayed principals (of whom only Winona Ryder won a Golden Globe and a National Board of Review Award, although all three of them would have been equally deserving) to the just as critical supporting roles, played by an all-star cast including Miriam Margolyes, who earned a BAFTA Award for her portrayal of unconventional society matriarch (nay, dowager-empress) Mrs. Manson Mingott, Richard E. Grant (“form” expert Larry Lefferts), Alec McCowen (scandalmonger Sillerton Jackson), Stuart Wilson and Mary Beth Hurt (disreputable financier Julius Beaufort and his wife Regina), Geraldine Chaplin (May’s mother), Siân Phillips (Newland’s mother), Michael Gough and Alexis Smith (society doyens Henry and Louisa van der Luyden), Robert Sean Leonard (Newland and May’s son Ted), Jonathan Pryce (Olenski’s secretary Riviere) and Norman Lloyd (Newland’s senior law partner Letterblair).

Scorsese’s movie is sometimes criticized for its use of a narrator (Joanne Woodward). But Woodward’s voiceovers not only capture Wharton’s subtly ironic tone to absolute perfection; her narration also provides a gentle frame to a story which could easily become fractured otherwise; or in the alternative, would have to include countless scenes merely to establish a certain atmosphere and social context without significantly advancing the storyline. On the whole, this is an all-around exceptional production, remarkably faithful to the literary original, and absolutely on par with the best of Scorsese’s other works.

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Columbia Pictures (1993)
  • Director: Martin Scorsese
  • Producers: Barbara De Fina / Bruce S. Pustin / Joseph Reidy
  • Screenplay: Jay Cocks & Martin Scorsese
  • Based on a novel by: Edith Wharton
  • Music: Elmer Bernstein
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Michael Ballhaus
  • Production Design: Dante Ferretti
  • Costume Design: Gabriella Pescucci
Cast
  • Daniel Day-Lewis: Newland Archer
  • Michelle Pfeiffer: Ellen Olenska
  • Winona Ryder: May Welland
  • Richard E. Grant: Larry Lefferts
  • Alec McCowen: Sillerton Jackson
  • Geraldine Chaplin: Mrs. Welland
  • Mary Beth Hurt: Regina Beaufort
  • Stuart Wilson: Julius Beaufort
  • Miriam Margolyes: Mrs. Mingott
  • Siân Phillips: Mrs. Archer
  • Michael Gough: Henry van der Luyden
  • Alexis Smith: Louisa van der Luyden
  • Norman Lloyd: Mr. Letterblair
  • Jonathan Pryce: Rivière
  • Robert Sean Leonard: Ted Archer
  • Joanne Woodward: Narrator (voice)

 

Major Awards and Honors

Academy Awards (1994)
  • Best Costume Design: Gabriella Pescucci
Golden Globes (1994)
  • Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture: Winona Ryder
National Board of Review Awards (1993)
  • Best Director: Martin Scorsese
  • Best Supporting Actress: Winona Ryder
BAFTA Awards (1994)
  • Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Miriam Margolyes
Venice Film Festival (1993)
  • Elvira Notari Prize

 

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William Shakespeare: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Folger Library Edition)

Hamlet - William ShakespeareTo thine own self be true …

William Shakespeare‘s Hamlet is arguably the most famous play ever written in the English language; it presents the world with questions and characters that have been the subject of thespian and scholarly debate ever since the Prince of Denmark’s first appearance on the stage of London’s Globe Theatre. Probably written and first performed in 1601 (estimates vary between 1600 and 1602), the play draws on Saxo Grammaticus’s late 12th/early 13th century chronicle Gesta Danorum, which includes a popular legend with a similar plot centering around a prince named Amleth; as well as several more contemporaneous sources, primarily Francois de Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques, Extraicts des Oeuvres Italiennes de Bandel (1559-1580), which expands on the story told in the Gesta Danorum, and a lost play known as the Ur-Hamlet (i.e., original Hamlet), sometimes also attributed to Shakespeare, but equally likely written by a different author a few decades earlier. Another work frequently cited in this context is 16th century playwright Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedie.

Pursuant to Shakespeare‘s wishes and like all of his works, Hamlet was not immediately published, and the original manuscript did not survive. However, in the absence of copyright laws or other forms of protection of what today would be called the playwright’s intellectual property rights, first bootleg copies (so-called quartos) based on transcripts made during or after performances began to appear in 1603. Yet, it would not be until 1623 – seven years after Shakespeare‘s 1616 death – that his former fellow actors John Hemmings and Henry Condell published 36 of his plays (including this one) in a collection known as the First Folio.

As no print version of any of Shakespeare‘s plays has a bona fide claim to its author’s first-hand blessings, ever since the Bard‘s death the world is left with numerous questions about his characters’ motivations and psychological makeup; first and foremost, in this particular case: who is this Prince of Denmark anyway, and what’s driving him – is he a reluctant suicide or reluctant avenger? A Renaissance man? Wrecked by Freudian guilt? Genuinely mad, or merely putting on a clever act of deception? Or is he someone else entirely? – Indeed, we’re even left in doubt as to what exactly it was that Shakespeare meant his characters to say, with all attendant interpretative consequences: Does the Prince wish for his “too too sullied” or his “too too solid” flesh to “melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew” in his first major soliloquy (Act I, Scene 2)? Does he really contemplate “the stamp of [that] one defect” which may fatally taint the perception of a man’s other virtues, “be they as pure as grace,” before meeting his father’s ghost (I, 4)? Does Polonius, when sending Reynaldo on a spying mission after Laertes, refer to his scheme as “a fetch of wit” or “a fetch of warrant” (II, 1)? Do Hamlet’s musings in “To be, or not to be” (III, 1) concern “enterprises of great pith and moment” or “of great pitch and moment,” whose “currents turn awry and lose the name of action” by his doubts? Does or doesn’t the sight of the Norwegian army while Hamlet is on his way to England (IV, 4) prompt him, who has so far failed to carry out his purpose, to reflect “How all occasions do inform against me,” and conclude his soliloquy with the vow “from this time forth my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth”?

How you answer any of these questions, and how you consequently view the play’s characters, depends in no small part on the text you read. Like all Folger Shakespeare editions, this one is based on what the editors have deemed the “best early printed version,” while allowing the reader a unique direct comparison of the principal reliable versions by including a text essentially combining these versions, with unobtrusive markers characterizing those passages appearing only in one particular version. For Hamlet, the editors eschewed the play’s very first (1603) quarto, which was possibly compiled by a journeyman actor and whose inconsistencies with all subsequent versions (textually as well as plot-wise and even regarding character names) have caused it to be generally considered a “bad” quarto, in favor of the 1604 Second Quarto, which some even believe to be based on Shakespeare‘s own first draft of the play and which, in any event, while more extensive than the 1623 First Folio (in turn, thought to be closest to the version(s) actually produced on the Globe Theatre stage), boasts about as secure a claim of authenticity as the latter. In some instances, the text follows the Second Quarto (Q2) without visually alerting the reader to the differences vis-a-vis the First Folio (F1), thus compelling those more used to the latter version to seek out the extensive end notes to reassure themselves that (in the examples given above) it might indeed be “solid flesh,” “warrant,” and “pith and moment” (F1) instead of “sullied flesh,” “wit,” and “pitch and moment” (Q2). In other instances, however, the First Folio’s language (clearly marked as such) is given preference over that of the Second Quarto; while crucially, the text also includes all those passages *only* contained in the latter, including the “stamp of one defect” and “bloody thoughts” monologues, whose interpretation has such a direct bearing on many a reader’s understanding of Hamlet’s character.

The text is amplified by illustrations and annotations for those unfamiliar with 16th century English, scene-by-scene plot summaries, a short biography of Shakespeare, and introductory and concluding essays on this and the Bard‘s other plays and on Shakespearean theatre, as well as extensive suggestions for further reading, and a key to the play’s most famous lines. While it is unlikely that after 400 years of debate any one version, be it in print, on stage or on screen, will be able to generate unanimous acceptance as the “definitive” rendition of this complex play, this is an excellent starting point for an in-depth excursion into the Prince of Denmark’s world.

Hamlet and Horatio in the cemetery - Delacroix EugeneEugène Delacroix: Hamlet and Horatio in the Cemetery
(1839, Musée du Louvre, Paris, France)

 

Favorite Quotes:

“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

“Brevity is the soul of wit.”

“What is a man, if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more. Sure he that made us with such large discourse, looking before and after, gave us not that capability and god-like reason to fust in us unused.”

“Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledg’d comrade.”

“Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.”

“Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.”

“Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty?”

 

 :
One-page edition of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (photo mine)

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Tennessee Williams: Plays 1937 – 1955 (Library of America)

 : Dragon Country

“It is only in his work that an artist can find reality and satisfaction, for the actual world is less intense than the world of his invention and consequently his life, without recourse to violent disorder, does not seem very substantial,” Tennessee Williams wrote in the 1948 essay “The Catastrophe of Success,” eventually added as a preface to the “memory play” that catapulted him to stardom, “The Glass Menagerie” (1944). Prophetic words of a man who drew heavily on his own experience, on life in the economically depressed South, homosexuality, alcoholism, physical and mental infirmity, violence, passion, desire, love and loss, but most of all his profound sense of humanity and his understanding of the drama of everyday life to create Dragon Country, that uninhabitable and yet inhabited world, that land of unendurable but nevertheless endured pain (also the title of a 1970 collection of plays) of unforgettable pieces such as “The Glass Menagerie,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947), “Summer and Smoke” (1948), “The Rose Tattoo” (1951), “Camino Real” (1953), “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1955), “Orpheus Descending” (1957), “Suddenly Last Summer” (1958), “Sweet Bird of Youth” (1959), “The Night of the Iguana” (1961) and “Not About Nightingales” (set in 1938 but only brought to the stage 50 years later).

Born Thomas Lanier Williams to an overbearing, hard-drinking, abusive, frequently absent father and a doting mother, Tennessee acquired the sobriquet he later chose as his first name in university, where his Deep South accent made him an easy target for his classmates. A writer since his youth, he saw his first short story (“Isolated”) published in a high school newspaper; and after several other prose publications, his second play “Cairo! Shanghai! Bombay!” was produced by a Memphis amateur company in 1935. (His first play, the unstaged “Beauty Is the Word,” had been a 1930 University of Missouri drama class assignment which, submitted to the school’s Dramatic Arts Club contest, won the first honorable mention ever to be awarded to a freshman). After a stint with his father’s shoe company, where he had gone to work at parental insistence, he graduated from the University of Iowa with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1938. His big breakthrough came with “A Glass Menagerie;” the story of fading Southern belle Amanda Wingfield (who, like many of Williams’s most memorable characters, frantically clings to the illusion of a world gone by), her crippled daughter Laura (the owner of the titular glass figurine collection), “gentleman caller” Jim (Laura’s suitor), and Amanda’s son Tom, Williams’s thinly veiled alter ego who, like the playwright, sees his vocation as a poet crushed under his daily job at a shoe factory. Yet, looking back at his struggling life preceding “Glass Menagerie,” Williams later came to regard that time as more real than the life made possible by fame and fortune: in fact, “it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created,” he wrote in “The Catastrophe of Success.”

The present compilation, one of two volumes in the magnificent “Library of America” series, brings together the more significant works of Williams’s early years and of his peak as a playwright through 1955, including besides “Glass Menagerie” inter alia his two Pulitzer Prize winners (“A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”), the only recently-rediscovered “Spring Storm” (1938) and “Not About Nightingales,” the initial, unsuccessful version of “Orpheus Descending” (“Battle of Angels,” 1940), as well as excerpts from the one-act play collection “27 Wagons Full of Cotton” (originally from 1945, augmented and republished 1953), among them the collection’s title piece plus “The Lady of Larkspur Lotion,” “Something Unspoken,” “This Property Is Condemned,” and others. The second Library of America volume covers Williams’s creative period after 1955. Neither tome is all-inclusive; a fully comprehensive compilation would easily have required three volumes for the plays alone, not to mention his poetry and prose; and a 1955 caesura certainly does make sense. Still: completists will have to look elsewhere in addition. Among the more significant omissions in this first volume are “Cairo! Shanghai! Bombay!” (which I would have liked to see included if only because it was his first-ever staged play) as well as the modestly successful “American Blues” (1939) and the remaining one-act plays from “27 Wagons Full of Cotton.” Volume 2 similarly focuses on Williams’s more significant later plays; omitting, e.g., “Gnädiges Fräulein,” “In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel,” “The Red Devil Battery Sign,” “The Notebook of Trigorin” – his adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “Seagull” – and his infamous “Baby Doll” screenplay, as well as its stage adaptation “Tiger Tail.”

Although many of Williams’s works reached audiences not only on stage but also on the silver screen, beginning in the 1950s he came under increased scrutiny due to his unconventional lifestyle. Even in his plays’ most successful screen adaptations, the more controversial elements, such as Brick’s unavowed homosexuality in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and the sexual tension between Stanley and Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” were either muted or censored entirely; and particularly in later years, criticism leveled against his plays was often truly motivated by objections against the man himself. – “The bird that I hope to catch in the net of this play is … the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent – fiercely charged! – interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis,” Williams wrote in a stage direction in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” But while his own life’s thunderstorm did eventually prove fatal (he choked to death on a medicine bottle cap in 1983), over the course of his life he revolutionized Southern drama in a way only comparable to Faulkner’s impact on literary fiction, and set a shining example for generations of later playwrights. All-encompassing or not: the Library of America’s collection of his works is an excellent place to begin a journey of appreciation into his Dragon Country.

 

A Selection of Quotes
The Glass Menagerie

“Time is the longest distance between two places.”

“The scene is memory and is therefore nonrealistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart.”

“Every time you come in yelling that God damn “Rise and Shine!” “Rise and Shine!” I say to myself, “How lucky dead people are!”

“You are the only young man that I know of who ignores the fact that the future becomes the present, the present the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don’t plan for it.”

“People go to the movies instead of moving. Hollywood characters are supposed to have all the adventures for everybody in America, while everybody in America sits in a dark room and watches them have them.”

A Streetcar Named Desire

“Don’t you just love those long rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn’t just an hour – but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands – and who knows what to do with it?”

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

“What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof? – I wish I knew … Just staying on it, I guess, as long as she can …”

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Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde“Beauty is a form of Genius.”

Oscar Wilde was one of the foremost representatives of Aestheticism, a movement based on the notion that art exists for no other purpose than its existence itself (“l’art pour l’art”), not for the purpose of social and moral enlightenment. Born in Dublin and a graduate of Oxford’s Magdalen College, he initially worked primarily as a journalist, editor and lecturer, but gradually turned to writing and produced his most acclaimed works in the six-year span from 1890 to 1895, roughly coinciding with the period of his romantic involvement with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, sixteen years his junior. Douglas’s strained relationship with his father, John Sholto Douglas, Marquees of Queensberry, eventually resulted in a series of confrontations between Wilde and the Marquees, which first led to a libel suit brought by Wilde against his lover’s father (who had openly accused Wilde of “posing as a sodomite” and threatened to disown his son if he didn’t give up his acquaintance with the writer) and subsequently to two criminal trials against Wilde for “gross indecencies,” based on a law generally interpreted to prohibit homosexual relationships. Sentenced to a two-year term of “hard labor” in Reading Gaol, Wilde emerged from prison in 1897 a spiritually, physically and financially broken man and, unable to continue living in England or Ireland, after three years’ wanderings throughout Europe died in 1900 of cerebral meningitis, barely 46 years old.

“The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Wilde’s only novel besides seven plays as well as several works of short fiction, poetry, nonfiction and two fairy tale collections originally written for his two sons, is critical to an understanding of Wilde’s body of work and his personality primarily for two reasons: First, because it constitutes one of his earliest fully accomplished formulations of Aestheticism, and secondly because of its undeniable undercurrent of homoeroticism; an inclination which, after a six-year marriage widely thought to initially have been a true love match, Wilde had begun to explore more openly around the time of the novel’s creation (1890). The story’s title character is an exceptionally handsome young man who, both in the eyes of the artist tasked to paint his portrait, Basil Hallward, and in those of their somewhat older friend Lord Henry Wotton, epitomizes perfect beauty and is coveted by both men for that very reason. Seduced by hedonistic Lord Henry into believing that beauty can literally justify anything, including any act of immorality, Dorian sells his soul for maintaining his beautiful appearance, letting his portrait age in his stead. (In that, his character resembles Goethe’s and Marlowe’s Faust.) He then quickly turns from an innocent youth into a cruel and calculating man whom society, in its shallow adherence to appearances, nonetheless never associates with any of the results of his cruelty, never looking beyond the surface of his handsome exterior and assuming that a man so beautiful must necessarily also be good. Ultimately it is Dorian himself who brings about his own downfall when he is no longer able to face the manifestation of his evilness in Basil Hallward’s picture.

Upon its initial publication in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” was widely scorned as immoral by a public neither familiar with nor particularly open to the concepts of Aestheticism and its mockery of middle class morality, and repulsed by the thinly veiled homoerotic relationship of the novel’s protagonists. Wilde republished the work the following year, adding a preface designed to explain his views on art. Yet, it was that preface which, along with several of his other publications and his written exchanges with Lord Alfred Douglas, ultimately would play a devastating role in his trials, where Queensberry’s attorney would come to use an excerpt from that very preface – “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written” – to extract from Wilde statements to the effect that any book inspiring a sense of beauty (including, as implied in the attorney’s question, an “immoral” book, if “The Picture of Dorian Gray” could be qualified as such) was well-written and therefore commendable; that only Philistines, brutes and illiterates – whose views on art he considered invariably stupid and for which he therefore didn’t “care twopence” – could consider this novel “perverted,” and that the majority of the reading public would probably not be able to draw a proper distinction between a good and a bad book. It was testimony such as this, as well as the impending confrontation with a number of male witnesses ready to testify as to the nature of their relationship with Wilde, that not only caused the author’s attorney to convince his client to drop the libel suit against Queensberry but also opened the door for Wilde’s own subsequent prosecution.

If “The Picture of Dorian Gray” has a central theme besides the supremacy of beauty and the depiction of a society primarily interested in appearances, it is a call for individuality: Dorian’s cruelty is brought out only after he allows himself to be influenced by Lord Henry’s equally seductive and cynical hedonism; and similarly, Basil Hallward’s blind idolizing of Dorian eventually proves fatal for the painter. – Wilde’s only novel is one of the first and most poignant expressions of his own individualism; but unlike his protagonist, who ultimately pays a ghastly prize for selling his soul and giving up his individuality, Wilde paid as high a price for maintaining his. Like Dorian, he knew that “[e]ach of us has Heaven and Hell in him,” and although this novel’s preface ends with the provocative statement that “[a]ll art is quite useless,” it was the very fact that Wilde put his entire being into his art that ultimately destroyed him. But like beauty, which is finally restored to perfection in Dorian Gray’s portrait, Wilde’s works have stood the test of time; and not merely for their countless, pricelessly witty epigrams. They’re as well worth a read as ever.

 

Favorite Quotes:

“Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

“The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.”

Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence - Edith Wharton, Maureen HowardLove, Loneliness, and the Strictures of Society

Imagine living in a world where life is governed by intricate rituals; a world “balanced so precariously that its harmony [can] be shattered by a whisper” (Wharton); a world ruled by self-declared experts on form, propriety and family history – read: scandal –; where everything is labeled and yet, people are not; where in order not to disturb society’s smooth surface nothing is ever expressed or even thought of directly, and where communication occurs almost exclusively by way of symbols, which are unknown to the outsider and, like any secret code, by their very encryption guarantee his or her permanent exclusion.

Such, in faithful imitation of Victorian England, was the society of late 19th century upper class New York. Into this society returns, after having grown up and lived all her adult life in Europe, American-born Countess Ellen Olenska, after leaving a cruel and uncaring husband. She already causes scandal by the mere manner of her return; but not knowing the secret rituals of the society she has entered, she quickly brings herself further into disrepute by receiving an unmarried man, by being seen in the company of a man only tolerated by virtue of his financial success and his marriage to the daughter of one of this society’s most respected families, by arriving late to a dinner in which she has expressly been included to rectify a prior general snub, by leaving a drawing room conversation to instead join a gentleman sitting by himself – and worst of all, by openly contemplating divorce, which will most certainly open up a whole Pandora’s box of “oddities” and “unpleasantness:” the strongest terms ever used to express moral disapproval in this particular social context. Soon Ellen, who hasn’t seen such façades even in her husband’s household, finds herself isolated and, wondering whether noone is ever interested in the truth, complains bitterly that “[t]he real loneliness here is living among all these kind people who only ask you to pretend.”

Ellen finds a kindred soul in attorney Newland Archer, her cousin May Welland’s fiancé, who secretly toys with a more liberal stance, while outwardly endorsing the value system of the society he lives in. Newland and Ellen fall in love – although not before he has advised her, on his employer’s and May and Ellen’s family’s mandate, not to pursue her plans of divorce. As a result, Ellen becomes unreachable to him, and he flees into accelerating his wedding plans with May, who before he met Ellen in his eyes stood for everything that was good and noble about their society, whereas now he begins to see her as a shell whose interior he is reluctant to explore for fear of finding merely a kind of serene emptiness there; a woman whose seemingly dull, passive innocence grinds down every bit of roughness he wants to maintain about himself and who, as he realizes even before marrying her, will likely bury him alive under his own future. Then his passion for Ellen is rekindled by a meeting a year and a half after his wedding, and an emotional conflict they could hardly bear when he was not yet married escalates even further. And only when it is too late for all three of them he finds out that his wife had far more insight (and almost ruthless cleverness) than he had ever credited her with.

Winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize and the first work of fiction written by a woman to be awarded that distinction, “The Age of Innocence” is one of Edith Wharton’s most enduringly popular novels; the crown jewel among her subtly satirical descriptions of New York upper class society. By far not as overtly condemning and cynical as the earlier “House of Mirth” (for which Wharton reportedly even saw this later work as a sort of apology), “The Age of Innocence” is a masterpiece of characterization and social study alike: an intricate canvas painted by a master storyteller who knew the society which she described inside out, and who, even though she had moved to France (where she would continue living for the rest of her life) almost a decade earlier, was able to delineate late 19th century New York society’s every nuance in pitch-perfect detail, while at the same time – seemingly without any effort at all – also blending together all these minute details into an impeccably composed ensemble that will stay with the reader long after he has turned the last page.

 

Favorite Quote:

“The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!”

Merken

Flannery O’Connor: A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories

A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories - Flannery O'ConnorOddball prophets caught in a web they wove themselves.

They are misfits, wanderers, and souls searching for faith and absolution. Many of them are, to one extent or another, hypocrites; others are almost unbelievably naïve. All of them are Southerners – and yet, even the most outlandish among Flannery O’Connor’s protagonists come across as entirely believable, complex characters whom, regardless of location, you might expect to come across in your own travels, too; and there is no telling how such an encounter would turn out.

Of course, you would hope it does not prove quite as disastrous as the title story’s chance meeting of a family taking a wrong turn (on the road as much as figuratively) and the self-proclaimed Misfit haunting that particular area of Georgia; which culminates in a bizarre conversation, the failure of communication underneath which only adds to the reader’s growing feeling of helplessness in view of impending doom. And such a sense of irreversible destiny pervades many a story in this collection; yet, while as in O’Connor’s writing in general, her and her protagonists’ Catholic faith plays a dominant role in the course of the events, that course is not so much brought about by the hand of God as by the characters’ own acts, decisions, judgments and prejudices.

Freakish as they are, O’Connor’s (anti-)heroes are meant to be prophets, messengers of a long forgotten responsibility, as she explained in her 1963 essay “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South:” their prophecy is “a matter of seeing near things with their extensions of meaning and thus of seeing far things close up.” Often, she uses names, titles and items of every day life and imbues them with a new meaning in the context of her stories; this collection’s title story, for example, is named for a blues song popularized by Bessie Smith in the late 1920s, and a cautionary road sign commonly seen in the 1950s (“The Life You Save May Be Your Own”) becomes the title and motto of a story about a wanderer’s encounter with a mother and her handicapped daughter who take him in, only to use that purported charity to their own advantage – at the end of which, predictably, nobody is the better off. Indeed, the endings of O’Connor’s stories are as far from your standard happy ending as you can imagine; and while you cannot help but develop, early on, a premonition of doom, most of the time the precise nature of that doom is anything but predictable.

“A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories” was Flannery O’Connor’s first published collection of short stories; yet, by the time these stories appeared (nine of the ten were published in various magazines between 1953 and 1955 before their inclusion in this 1955 collection) she was already an accomplished writer, with not only a novel under her belt (“Wise Blood,” 1952) but also, and significantly, a master’s thesis likewise consisting of a collection of short stories, entitled “The Geranium and Other Stories” (1947; first published as a collection in 1971’s National Book Award winning “The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor,” although several of those stories had likewise been published individually before). Two of the stories included in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” count among O’Connor’s six winners of the O’Henry Award for Short Fiction (“The Life You Save May Be Your Own” and “The Circle in the Fire,” again an exploration of insincerity, half-hearted charity and its exploitation); and the collection as a whole, even more than her first novel, quickly established her as a masterful storyteller, endowed with vision, an unfailing sense for language and a supreme feeling for the use of irony; all of which have long since placed her firmly in the first tier of 20th century American authors.

Flannery O’Connor died, at the age of 39, of lupus, an inflammatory disease which in less severe forms may not be more than an (albeit substantial) nuisance, but which proved fatal in her case as well as that of her father before her. Her literary career, almost the sole focus of her life from the moment that she was diagnosed onwards, was thus cut short way before her time. Yet, to this day her writing holds a unique position in contemporary literature; and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is an excellent place to start exploring her work.

 

Favorite Quote:

“Mrs. Hopewell had no bad qualities of her own but she was able to use other people’s in such a constructive way that she never felt the lack.”

Edna O’Brien: In the Forest

In the Forest: Edna O'BrienKinderschreck

A boy, robbed off his mother’s love at the age of ten. Refusing to believe she is dead, clinging to the idea that she was buried alive while she was sleeping, digging a hole into the ground near her grave in order to speak to her. A loner who, then and there, decides to become “a true son of the forest,” as his mother in a dream apparition has told him to be. (Or was that an early delusion?) An adolescent, locked up in juvenile homes, boarding schools, prisons and other institutions, abused by a priest, neglected, ignored, and locking himself off against the outside world in response. Putting to practice the one lesson he has learned from Lazlo, the boys’ schizophrenic leader in the first such institution; Lazlo who heard voices and who has taught him that the one thing that counts is to hate “them” (the grown-ups, those that stand for authority and society as a whole) with a worse hate than they have for him. A young man, unable to show any feeling other than that long-practiced hatred; acting out his suppressed emotions in violence whenever he is not locked up, unable to escape the voices now talking in his head more and more often, just as they were once talking in Lazlo’s.

And a young woman with long red hair. Maddie’s mother, raising her young son alone, breaking off all relationships with men as soon as they get to close for comfort. An outsider, only recently moved to the village. A teacher. An artist. Mistress of ceremonies at a Celtic festival, performing pagan rituals. Druidess. Mystery woman whom nobody knows with complete intimacy, maybe not even her sister Cassandra and her best friend Madge. Raped and murdered by a young man trapped between insanity and emotional deprivation, for whom she is the realization of everything he associates with the idea of the female – simultaneously fairy queen, virgin, angel, object of his sexual fantasies, whore, confidante and most importantly, mother.

This is the couple which, in the deadly dance at the heart of Edna O’Brien’s In the Forest, is locked together by fate; a fate prompted by the murderer’s delusions and rage as much as by society’s inability to deal with him. And this first murder is only the starting point of a killing spree which will demand several more victims before the young man is apprehended. – Like two of her previous novels, Down by the River (addressing incest, abortion and society’s inability to deal with either, as expressed in the trial of a girl who went to England to abort the child conceived from her own father) and House of Splendid Isolation (inspired by the Irish “troubles”), Ms. O’Brien’s latest book is based on a series of real events which deeply shook the Irish society in the mid-1990s, and which occurred in the county which O’Brien, before moving to London, used to call her home. But here as there, the author is less interested in the hard, cold facts as such but rather, in the psychology involved and society’s response to the unspeakable horror of the crimes committed; in “man and the intentions of his soul,” as she said in a 1992 article, quoting Leonardo da Vinci. And like the great painter, with an unrelenting eye for detail she takes the reader into the killer’s mind; a mind inexorably spiraling, spiraling, spiraling into a dark abyss from which soon there is no way out. At the same time, the reader experiences the terror of the abduction felt by his victims; the slow and chilling realization that there is no escape, that this last walk into the somber depth of the forest is the way into certain death, to be preceded by a suffering dreadful beyond imagination. Yet, the tale is not solely told from the perspective of Michen O’Kane, the killer and rapist, the “Kinderschreck” and bogeyman who holds an entire county at gunpoint; nor only from that of his victims, Eily Ryan and her son, and the others that will follow them within a matter of days. Thread by thread, Ms. O’Brien weaves the voices of all those involved in the events – the vicitims’ relatives, the killer’s family, the police, neighbors, women of the community and the psychiatrist who treated O’Kane at trial – into a fabric of rage, helplessness, despair and desolation; symbolized by the vast, dark, threatening forest where the first murders have taken place, that “chamber of non-light” which “lost its old name and its old innocence in the hearts of the people” when a dead goat “decomposed and stank” in a wooden hut at the farthest entrance to the forest.

In her native Ireland, Edna O’Brien was severely criticized for In the Forest, even before the novel was published, and accused of exploiting a gruesome crime for the sake of selling a story. The families of the victims of the incidents on which the novel is based reportedly spoke out against the book. But while it is undoubtedly difficult for them to deal with those events, the reaction of others only demonstrates the accuracy of Ms. O’Brien’s analysis. Yet again, the woman who to many seems to be a literary “Kinderschreck” herself, whose first six (!) books were banned because of their daring stance on women’s role in the Irish society (and society in general), and who moved to London years ago to “escape from those fields, gates, trees, woods, winds, sleet, priests, nuns and family, all of whom seemed to overwhelm [her],” as she wrote in the above-mentioned article, has held up a mirror before her fellow men; and yet again, some do not like what they see. That criticism, however, reflects more on those articulating it than on the author herself or her book. In the Forest is as brilliantly written as it is necessary – as shown by nothing better than by the reactions it provoked. A deeply disturbing book, but under no circumstances to be missed.

Mark Twain: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn / Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird

Well, one day I may well get around to writing proper reviews of these masterpieces after all, too. But until then, quite unapologetically, my Goodreads Celebrity Death Match Review Elimination Tournament entry will have to do …

Huck Finn vs. Atticus Finch, or:
Goodreads Celebrity Death Match Elimination Tournament ReviewThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (13) versus To Kill a Mockingbird (20)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain, Guy Cardwell, John Seelye   To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee

The scene:

On the banks of the Mississippi, early morning. Mist is rising from the river and spreading over the meadows. In a grove formed by a group of moss-covered trees, the people of St. Petersburg are gathered in a circle around a makeshift outdoor court setting jointly presided over by Judges Taylor and Thatcher. Atticus Finch has left his table on one side of the court setting and is pacing back and forth, addressing the jury that is sitting in a box next to the judges. At a table opposite to the one Atticus has risen from, Huck Finn is lounging back in his chair, slid halfway under the table, chewing and occasionally spitting out watermelon seeds. The case, it would appear, concerns the disappearance of a sum of money that Huck is accused of having “borrowed” from the Widow Douglas, who is now sitting at the table Atticus has left, looking at Huck with a supremely grieved expression (Huck having protested that he’d never borrowed anything other than cornstalks and watermelons in his life, and he’d even given up on the cornstalks considering that then borrowing watermelons wasn’t going to be so bad no more).

“But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal,” Atticus is holding forth. “That institution, gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest court in the land, or this honourable court which you serve.”

“Oh, come to the mourners’ bench! come, black with sin!” is heard from a group of black spectators, standing in the back of the crowd, segregated from the white folks by a barrier. “AMEN!” answer others from their group. “Come, pore and needy, sunk in shame! (A-A-MEN!) come, all that’s worn and soiled and suffering!”

Huck lets out a yawn and exchanges a glance with Tom Sawyer, who is sitting in the first row of the audience next to Aunt Polly and Becky Thatcher, while Scout Finch is amusing herself somewhere in the distance, playing hide and seek with Jim.

“I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system,” Atticus continues. “That is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up. I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard and come to a decision. In the name of God, do your duty.”

Atticus makes his way back to his table, keeping his eyes on the jury even after he has finished addressing them, to emphasize the last point he has made.

“Come with a contrite heart!” echoes the chorus behind the barrier. “Come in your rags and sin and dirt! the waters that cleanse is free, the door of heaven stands open – oh, enter in and be at rest! (A-A-MEN! GLORY, GLORY HALLELUJAH!)”

At the words “the door of heaven stands open,” Huck exchanges another glance with Tom, who surreptitiously advances his left foot by just a few inches. Atticus (eyes still on the jury) stumbles and, with a shout, crashes into a hole that had been covered up by a makeshift layer of grass and dirt spread out over a blanket and secured by a few rotting planks. Chaos ensues, while Atticus is heard complaining that the hole is full of snakes, spiders, rats and the like. Under cover of the turmoil that is surrounding the crowd’s joint efforts to rescue Atticus from the hole, Huck makes his escape by way of a rickety boat moored nearby, courtesy of Jim who’d also been using that boat as his most recent hiding place in his game with Scout. Tom is prevented from following them by Aunt Polly’s iron grip on his arm and by a reproachful look from Becky Thatcher’s eyes, under which he turns bright red.

As the boat floats down the river, the judges squabble over whether to declare a mistrial or consider Huck’s flight an admission of guilt and convict him in absentiam. Atticus however, finally rescued from his hole, dusts off his clothes and, with the Widow Douglas’s grudging consent, resolves the issue by graciously admitting defeat to an opponent who has simply outsmarted him.

 

Favorite Quotes

To Kill a Mockingbird

“Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

“People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

http://themisathena.info/images/HarperLee-SillyKitty.JPG:
Err – no, there isn’t …

E.M. Forster: Howards End

Howards End - E.M. Forster, David LodgeHomecomings

Most of us connect the notion of “home” or “childhood home” with one particular place, that innocent paradise we have since had to give up and keep searching for forever after. In Ruth Wilcox’s world, Howards End is that place; the countryside house where she was born, where her family often returns to spend their vacations, and which, everyone assumes, will pass on to her children when she is dead.

But will it really? Unbeknownst to Ruth’s family, the issue is put into question when Ruth forms a friendship with her neighbor-to-be Margaret Schlegel, like Ruth herself from a middle class background but nevertheless separated from Ruth’s world by several layers of society and politics: That of the Wilcox is epitomized by pater familias/businessman Henry – rich, conservative and without any sympathy whatsoever for those less fortunate than themselves (“It’s all part of the battle of life … The poor are poor; one is sorry for them, but there it is,” Henry Wilcox once comments); while the Schlegels, on the other hand, have just enough income to lead a comfortable life, were brought up by their Aunt Juley, support suffrage (women’s right to vote) and surround themselves with actors, “blue-stockings” (feminists), intellectuals and other members of the avantgarde. Further complexity is added when Margaret’s sister Helen brings to the Schlegel home Leonard Bast, a poor but idealistic young clerk who loves music, literature and astronomy – and with him, his working class wife Jacky, the embarrassment of having to interact with her, and the even more embarrassing revelation which she has in store for Henry Wilcox; eventually leaving her disillusioned husband to comment that “books aren’t real,” and that in fact they and music “are for the rich so they don’t feel bad after dinner.”

An allegory on the question who will ultimately inherit England – the likes of the Wilcox, the Schlegels, or the Basts – E.M. Forster’s novel is one of the early 20th century’s finest pieces of literature; a masterpiece of social study and character study alike, in which the author brings his protagonists and their environment to life with empathy and a fine eye for detail. The story’s strongest character is undoubtedly Margaret Schlegel, a young woman “filled with … a profound vivacity, a continual and sincere response to all that she encounter[s] in her path through life,” as Forster describes her, and whose friendship with Ruth Wilcox, even at the beginning, already brings the two families back together again after Helen has endangered their as-yet tentaive acquaintance by engaging in a near-scandalous affair with Ruth’s younger son Paul.

Ultimately, Margaret and Ruth become so close that Ruth eventually decides to give Meg “something worth [her] friendship” – none other than Howards End, a wish that has her panicking family scramble most ungentlemanly for every reason in the book to invalidate the codicil setting forth that bestowal, from its lacking date and signature to the testatrix’s state of mind, the ambiguity of the writing’s content, the question why Meg should want the house in the first place since she already has one, and the fact that the writing is only in pencil, which “never counts,” as Dolly, wife of the Wilcox’ elder son Charles is quick to point out, only to be reprimanded by her father in law “from out of his fortress” (Forster) not to “interfere with what you do not understand.” And so it is that Meg will only see the house (and be instantly mistaken for Ruth because she has “her way of walking around the house,” as the housekeeper explains) when she and her siblings have to look for a new home and Henry Wilcox, who has started to court her after Ruth’s death, suggests that the Schlegels’ furniture be temporarily stored there – a fateful decision. And while Meg and Henry slowly and painfully learn to adjust to each other, the complexity of their families’ relations, and their interactions with the Basts, finally come crashing down on them in a dramatic conclusion.

 

Favorite Quote

“Was Mrs. Wilcox one of the unsatisfactory people – there are many of them – who dangle intimacy and then withdraw it? They evoke our interests and affections, and keep the life of the spirit dawdling around them. Then they withdraw. When physical passion is involved, there is a definite name for such behaviour – flirting – and if carried far enough, it is punishable by law. But no law – not public opinion, even – punishes those who coquette with friendship, though the dull ache that they inflict, the sense of misdirected effort and exhaustion, may be as intolerable. Was she one of these?”

Merken

Merken