Probably half the British Isles is currently re-reading
Howards End, what with the new BBC adaptation rolling out. They’ve done rather
a good job, judging by the first episode – and I always have my doubts about ‘doing’
Forster. It becomes necessary to focus upon plot and action in order to hold viewers’
attention and yet, in Howards End or A Passage to India, plot and action serve
only to express the intangible. Forster’s achievement is untranslatable – to have delineated a Mrs Moore or a Mrs
Wilcox, to show us a cave in which the terrible void speaks or a house in
Hertfordshire where the numinous borders the quotidien with such quiet
deftness. Forster excels in the shadowy places where intuition brushes up
against materialism – a kind of dreamy distillation of spirit. But how does he
do it? By not telling us what he is doing, that’s the first thing.

Mrs Wilcox first appears from a distance, in the early morning of her garden, watering
the flowers, smelling the fresh-cut hay,
her skirt trailing over the dewy grass. And we glimpse her at a double-remove, through
Margaret’s perusal of her sister Helen’s letter, who herself is observing from
the window of her bedroom. A little later, Helen has a brief encounter with the younger Wilcox son, Paul, which channels her romantic
fascination with the family – but ‘Mrs Wilcox was so different’. We are left with a question mark –
different from whom? We are given no
other details of her personal appearance. She intervenes a little later to calm
an argument, ‘trailing noiselessly across the lawn’ and Forster here begins to
show his intentions in her: ‘She seemed to belong not to the young people and
their motor, but to the house, and to the tree that overshadowed it.’ She draws
on ‘instinctive wisdom’ in her actions.

In contrast, Jacky, the exemplar of inarticulate poverty,
makes her appearance shortly after our first sighting of Mrs Wilcox and her
physicality is described in meticulous detail: ‘She seemed all strings and
bell-pulls – ribbons, chains, bead necklaces that clinked and caught … As for
her hair, or rather hairs, they are too complicated to describe, but one system
went down her back, lying in a thick pad there, while another, created for a
lighter destiny, rippled around her forehead.’ Forster describes her like a
specimen of a different species, with sarcastic gusto, except that disgust is
mingled with pity, for we are given insight into her desperation: ‘She was
descending quicker than most women into the colourless years, and the look in
her eyes confessed it … Jacky ate contentedly enough, occasionally looking at
her man with those anxious eyes, to which nothing else in her appearance
corresponded, and which yet seemed to mirror her soul.’

While young Leonard Bast proclaims how he’ll stand by her
and ‘make it all right’ as she asks him to (i.e. marry her), we realise that
even more than Leonard, Jacky has been irrevocably brutalised by poverty and
the corrosive anxiety that poverty brings. The very flat the couple inhabit is
sunk beneath ground level – a metaphor
explored later when Margaret talks of the island of money upon which her class
stands, ‘and because we don’t want to steal umbrellas ourselves we forget that
below the sea people do want to steal them, and do steal them sometimes, and
that what’s a joke up here is down there reality .’

When we next meet Mrs Wilcox again, Forster begins to fill
in some details – but paradoxically, not by providing more detail. Unlike
Jacky, her appearance is mainly left to the imagination. We are told what she
does not enjoy, which is almost everything that the Schlegels and indeed
Leonard Bast would define as ‘culture’: discussion, argument, politics, art,
music, dinner parties. Mrs Wilcox should be as desperately dull and uncouth as
poor Jacky, whose only topic of conversation is, ‘But you do love me, Len, don’t
you?’.

And yet Forster delicately leads us to believe that Mrs Wilcox
is not weighted by her ignorance but indefinably transcends it. She is ‘different’.
When Margaret tumultuously descends upon her in the midst of a day of bed rest,
we see her first through the effect of light: ‘The light of the fire, the light
from the window, and the light of a candle-lamp, which threw a quivering halo
round her hands, combined to create a strange atmosphere of dissolution.’

Dissolution: things dissolving, certainties becoming
uncertain, the physical shimmering into the spiritual. ‘I always sound
uncertain over things. It is my way of speaking,’ she says in answer to
Margaret’s determination to get proper answers, to get things fixed and pinned
down. Impossible in the world of emotions, Forster shows us. The conversation
shifts from the mundane to the eerie and back again; and throughout, Mrs Wilcox
is presented not through facts and opinions but through her love for history: history
expressed through her family and her house, for as we have previously learnt,
she ‘cared about her ancestors and let them help her.’

In contrast, Margaret is deracinated and aware of her
rootlessness, soon to be moved on as the lease on her own lifelong home
expires, split between Germany and England, forever seeking an intellectual
explanation for life. ‘I – I wonder if you ever think about yourself,’ comments
Mrs Wilcox; and in the pause that follows, ‘- a pause that was somehow akin to
the flicker of the fire, the quiver of the reading lamp upon their hands, the
white blur from the window; a pause of shifting and eternal shadows,’ Mrs
Wilcox attempts to put her thought into words. What emerges is a mundane,
rather anticlimactic remark, ‘I almost think you forget you’re a girl.’ A
little later she says uncertainly, ‘I only mean that I am fifty-one, and that
to me both of you – read it all in some book or other; I cannot put things
clearly.’

Forster wants to demonstrate that certain elements in human
experience cannot be defined. ‘Clever talk alarmed her and withered her
delicate imaginings,’ he tells us of Mrs Wilcox; and despite her failure to
engage in smart conversation or contribute to the world of ideas, ‘it was odd
that, all the same she should give the idea of greatness … she and daily life
were out of focus: one or other of them must show blurred.’ He uses that funny
little word ‘odd’ and again hangs the question mark over what ‘odd’ means. We
must go on an inner search to find our own definition of ‘odd’ in the context
of shadows of trembling light and wisps of hay.

As in the expedition to the Marabar Caves, the practicalities
of Mrs Wilcox’s Christmas shopping project with Margaret are neglected and bungled.
‘[Margaret’s] name remained at the head of the list, but nothing was written
opposite it. They drove from shop to shop. The air was white, and when they alighted
it tasted like cold pennies. At times they passed through a clot of gray.’ When Mrs Wilcox meets a friend, we are told
(from Margaret’s point of view) that she ‘conversed with her insipidly, wasting
much time’. The choosing and buying of
presents only comes about because Margaret herself manages the process. It is
this complicated nexus of spiritual and material represented by Christmas and
its commercialisation that moves Margaret to ponder, ‘But in public who shall
express the unseen adequately? It is private life that holds out the mirror to
infinity…’.

The planned trip to Howards End which abruptly comes about after a slight argument represents a kind of invitation of spirit to flesh.
Margaret teeters on the brink of a visit to an Other Realm, like the granting
of a sudden access pass to Faërie. It is interrupted by the arrival
of the materialistic branch of the Wilcoxes, who (brutalised by riches as
Leonard and Jacky are brutalised by poverty) arrive to snatch Mrs Wilcox away ‘before
imagination could triumph.’ And then, just as abruptly, Mrs Wilcox has died and
we find ourselves witnessing her funeral from the point of view of the local
people, the man pollarding the elms in the churchyard and his view across the
ancient fields of Hertfordshire.