Of Hands, Machine, and Mind: Time, Memory, and Modernization in Howards End

April 22, 2009

WHEN LIONEL TRILLING suggested that E.M. Forster’s novel, Howards End, asked the question, “Who shall inherit England?”, many critics followed suit, picking out the symbolism of class in the characters and properties of the novel. While I believe this to be an engaging and accurate reading of the text, I would like to loosen Howards End from its entanglements with the socioeconomic structure of 20th century England and explore more universal themes that hum beneath the trappings of class relations.

According to sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, what we remember of the past is based on our present needs. In other words, our memory is forever oscillating, always erasing details, penciling new ones in, folding and unfolding, bending in compliance to the present. Of course, this is all well and good for a life or society with fairly stable conditions, but how would one fare in a whirlwind of change? How could we ever have any accurate recollections? What is our relation to the past; is it important to remember things accurately, or is it just as well to let the entropic nature of memory run its course to suit the present?

Forster explores the ever-changing aspects of modernization in Howards End–the new culture in which possessions hold more weight than place, the new flats that encroach upon the old London houses, the city’s air filled with noise and petrol fumes from the motor-cars–and the reactions towards this modernization, particularly those of Margaret Schlegel, our heroine.

To do so, Forster sets a backdrop against which Margaret can react; it is the juxtaposition between a steady input of the past and a brackish pursuit of the future, embodied by Ruth Wilcox and her family.  Henry Wilcox and his children are forward-facing, and have no mind for the past. They conquer the future bit by bit, item by item, systematically, like the flats in London that dot the city one by one until all the old houses seem forgotten. Mrs. Wilcox differs from her family–she is serene, rooted, intuitive. She is the eternal present, and, to a certain extent, a reminder of the glorified past. She does not face forward or back because for her, time is a unified force, not three separate realities called the “past,” the “present,” and the “future”; it is a cycle, and the time that has already passed need not be severed from the present.

Referring to society during the French Revolution, Peter Fritzsche, author of Stranded in the Present: Modern Time and the Melancholy of History, says, “Inconstancy was the new constant, a presence that seemed to render the exterior world at hand superficial and fragile” (Fritzsche, 30). From 1789 to 1799, the importance of the aristocracy and clergy of France were questioned by the revolutionaries of the Enlightenment, and the streets were stained with the blood from the guillotines during the Reign of Terror. In the wake of the Revolution came the Napoleonic wars, the return of the monarchy, and a constant flux of government. Because the times before the Revolution were relatively stable, this new idea, that things change, had to be reconciled with the past. With almost no stability, Memory had to keep readjusting itself. In what the historian Reinhart Koselleck calls “a peculiar form of acceleration” (Koselleck, 11), the world had no time to catch its breath in between all those changes. And those changes, juxtaposed against each other, became excruciatingly apparent. Change after change after change began to chafe against Memory and to create dissonance. Memory could no longer keep up with Time. The speed of change that characterized those times of modernization were not in accordance with the past.

As England becomes more and more modernized, Margaret begins to become troubled by “the chaotic nature of our daily life” (Forster, 91) and the “continual flux… in the hearts of men” (Forster, 117). She wishes not for Progress, but for the betterment of individual lives. And though she does honor the past–by observing traditions, participating in ceremonies, holding onto her dead parents’ belongings–she recognizes the emptiness in these obligations.

Of Hands, Machine, and Mind

In Howards End, we are presented with three tools that express the distinct ways in which the characters move through time–with hands, with mind, and with machine.

Mrs. Wilcox, as many critics have pointed out, embodies the rural, yeoman farmer’s culture of the past. She is a woman of the land, of her land, a land that has been passed down to her through generations. She loves it not because it evokes her past, but because it is her continual present; she equates herself with Howards End. She says to Margaret: “Howards End was nearly pulled down once. It would have killed me” (Forster, 71).

Mrs. Wilcox is not a cerebral creature, but one of the senses. She tends to her house, her husband, her children, spends most days with her hands in the garden soil. It is her hands that pump the heart of Howards End and her family—while the rest of the Wilcoxes play with their new machines or talk about sports, it is Mrs. Wilcox who runs the house in a very real, physical way. The first description we get of her–in one of Helen’s letters to Margaret–is one that shows the earthiness, the sensuality, of her activities.  We are introduced to Mrs. Wilcox watching the red poppies bloom, smelling the bunch of freshly-cut hay in her hands, her long dress trailing along the rain-soaked grass. To no other character does Forster grant this indulgence of the senses–or rather, this employment of the senses. If Howards End were a pastoral–and indeed, it certainly has pastoral elements–Mrs. Wilcox would be a rustic shepherdess, happy to tend the flocks and the fields, attuned to the Earth and its seasonal cycle.

If Time is a circle for Ruth Wilcox, then it is, for the rest of the Wilcoxes, a line that extends from the past to the present, heading full speed towards the future. Just as Ruth is patient, with all the time in the world to spend, her son Charles is sharp and restless, snapping at a porter, “My time’s of value” (Forster, 15) when he is made to wait a few minutes. Margaret observes that Henry “cares too much about success, too little about the past” (148).

The Wilcoxes rely on their machines, especially their automobiles, to speed themselves across time and space. The driveling nature of Dolly and Evie is perhaps a warning of the dangers that come with the convenience of modern technology. But the Wilcox men are conquerors; for them, the destination is more important than the journey. They travel a narrow path (says Forster of Henry and Charles, “So the sailors of Ulysses voyaged past the Sirens, having first stopped one another’s ears with wool” [Forster, 87]), and, for them, ends always justify means.

The opposite is true for Margaret Schlegel. She is interested not in wars or empires or civilizations, but in the soldiers that fought them; the heroism that built them (Forster, 95); the activities that sustain them. Like her father, her “Imperialism was the Imperialism of the air” (Forster, 24). She and her sister Helen are intellectuals who hold humanitarian ideals of freedom and equality, who enjoy art and culture and philanthropy. But Margaret recognizes that her intellectual idealism cannot go anywhere without the systematic approach to the future adopted by people like Henry Wilcox.

Ruth Wilcox: Glorified Past, Eternal Present

The historian, Pierre Nora, believes that our memory is anchored in the unmediated aspects of our lives–in our gestures, our habits, our unspoken traditions, our body’s self-knowledge, in the memories that have been carved into our brains, not because they should be remembered, but because we can’t forget them. Our memories are the raw materials of the stories we tell, the histories we record. They are honest, but they are unreliable: like Halbwachs, Nora says that our memories bend in compliance to our current state of affairs. Memory is something that exists from moment to moment and spurns any distinction of “the past” from “the present.” There is something static, something serene, inside this concept of memory. It is always ancestral, but never nostalgic.

Ruth Wilcox seems to embody this almost implicit sense of memory. Though wise from experience, Mrs. Wilcox appears uneducated and inarticulate among the intellectuals at Margaret’s luncheon: “Clever talk alarmed her, and withered her delicate imaginings; it was the social counterpart of a motor-car, all jerks, and she was a wisp of hay, a flower” (Forster, 63). Like an animal, she acts on instinct, paying no mind to social conventions:

When she saw Charles angry, Paul frightened and Mrs Munt in tears, she heard  her ancestors say: ‘Separate those human beings who will hurt each other most.  The rest can wait.’ So she did not ask questions. Still less did she pretend that  nothing had happened, as a competent society hostess would have done.

(Forster, 19)

Mrs. Wilcox never longs for the past; she makes use of its wisdom. For her, the past isn’t a historicized pool of Time to which she has no access. It is simply the chapters of Memory that shed light on the continuous narrative of her life. And they can be re-read, re-written, ripped out and crumpled up. The concept of Time has no bearing on her. She takes her time, she is slow and steady. When she is Christmas shopping with Margaret, she runs into a friend and “[converses] with her insipidly, wasting much time” (Forster, 70).

Mrs. Wilcox is intuitive, almost prophetic; We get the feeling that she understands time as a cycle. After her death, her presence still pervades the novel, and Margaret, clutching a handful of weeds, is once mistaken for her by Miss Avery, who insists that she “had her way of walking” (172).

But Margaret and the Wilcoxes view her in different ways. While she is alive, she is seen by her family as the simple wife and mother who would eventually conform to her husband’s faith against her initial hesitation (Forster, 77), or concede to his wishes to build a garage over her beloved paddock after her struggle to preserve it (Forster, 79), and is thus taken for granted. Upon her death, she is missed adequately and remembered fondly for her goodness, her reliability, and her ability to be manipulated to fulfill the desires of her family. Charles recalls “How she had disliked improvements, yet how loyally she had accepted them when made” (Forster, 79). But when her letter is opened–a pencilled request that Margaret should receive Howards End—the Wilcox’s steadfast memory of her is shattered:

…all they could say was ‘Treachery’. Mrs Wilcox had been treacherous to the  family, to the laws of property, to her own written word… Was there to be no  compensation for the garage and other improvements that they had made under  the assumption that all would be theirs some day? Treacherous!  (Forster, 85)

And so they burn the letter and let the memory of Ruth Wilcox fade away. Soon, Henry ceases to mention her by name (Forster, 173); he forgets the love he once had for her– “Mrs Wilcox was too far back in his life. He did not connect her with the sudden aching love that he felt for Evie” (212); and he fails to understand that his encounter with the prostitute Jacky was a sin against Ruth, not against Margaret. Ruth becomes, for the Wilcoxes, a piece of the past that doesn’t align with their present, and so she recedes.

For Margaret, Mrs. Wilcox has always been a source of fascination. She personifies the glorified, elusive past. Margaret notes that Mrs. Wilcox seems to transcend daily life and “dwarf [her] activities” (Forster, 65). But Mrs. Wilcox’s grandeur is subjective: while she exists as a transcendent, ethereal force for Margaret, her own family does not bestow on her the same sentiment, and neither do the guests at Margaret’s luncheon, who “had dismissed her as uninteresting” (Forster, 67).

Ruth, like Margaret, is affected by the changes of modernization. While she never felt the need to impose herself after death–in her will, there are “no legacies, no annuities, none of the posthumous bustle with which some of the dead prolong their activities”–perhaps, at some point, she sees her own way of life slipping away too readily in the hands of her family. Perhaps she foresees herself being forgotten by them. But Margaret, while by no means having the same values or views as Mrs. Wilcox, or even the same sort of spirit, has a certain reverence for the past, and the means to preserve it in some way so that it may inform the future. She also is concerned with human relations, as opposed to Mrs. Wilcox’s family, who never bother themselves with such things. She is not interested in Progress, she is interested in people. Mrs. Wilcox can sense this.

In the scenes between Margaret and Mrs. Wilcox, Forster draws our attention to the women’s hands. When Margaret is visiting Ruth, who is sick in bed, she notices that “The light of the fire, the light from the window, and the light of a candle-lamp… threw a quivering halo round [Ruth’s] hands [and] combined to create a strange atmosphere of dissolution” (Forster, 57-58). We could look at these three different sources of light as three distinct markers of time, of civilization. The light coming in from the window, the sunlight, is a given. It is the most natural and most primitive source of light that we know. Fire also exists within nature, but human intelligence was a prerequisite to possess it. The candle-lamp, while of course not the summit of technology in 1910, is still a step above fire. So these three light-sources create a sense of dissolution, of disintegration, much like the flow of time; and they cast a halo upon Mrs. Wilcox’s hands. Perhaps this is another effect of time, or, more specifically, modernization—the past, while it disintegrates, also begins to glow.

As the women are saying goodbye, Ruth takes Margaret’s hand in her own and begins to realize how learned, yet how inexperienced the younger woman is. Before mentioning this to her, there is “a long pause that [is] 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” (Forster, 62). I believe it is here, with their joined hands under the lamp-light, that Ruth makes her decision to leave Howards End to Margaret, for the last two sentences of the brief chapter– “‘Indeed, you put the difficulties of life splendidly,’ said Mrs Wilcox, withdrawing her hand into the deeper shadows. ‘It is just what I should have liked to say about them myself’” (62)–indicate it. Ruth withdraws her hand into the shadows, as if to accept that her past is, in fact, receding; but she admires Margaret’s ability to articulate life, though the younger woman draws from little experience. Perhaps Mrs. Wilcox hopes Margaret can do the same with the past, which is being shredded by the hustle and bustle of modern life.

Remnants of Memory

In his 1979 work Futures past: on the semantics of historical time, Koselleck describes the modern view of time as an “ever-widening gap between experience and expectation.” This is the turn that Margaret’s memory takes in lieu of constant change. Because the state of her world is no longer consistent, the overarching view of her past must be. It must jibe with the changes in her present, all the feelings of severance: “Looking back on the past six months, Margaret realized the chaotic nature of our daily life, and its difference from the orderly sequence fabricated by historians… [as London], emblematic of their lives [Margaret’s and Helen’s], rose and fell in a continual flux” (Forster, 91-92). Because there is so much changing, Margaret begins to notice everything that had always been changing. She becomes sensitive to changes that had happened in the past, and changes that continue to drive our lives toward states of chaos. Margaret begins to feel severed from the past, mourning the memories that have been lost among time and change: “The tide had begun to ebb. Margaret leant over the parapet and watched it sadly. Mr Wilcox had forgotten his wife, Helen her lover; she herself was probably forgetting. Everyone moving. Is it worth while attempting the past when there is this continual flux even in the hearts of men?” (Forster, 117).

But the remnants of the past are still scattered across London. Artifacts, monuments, museums, traditions, celebrations, tombstones–what Nora calls lieux de memoire bear the burden of remembering so we don’t have to and “mark the rituals of a society without ritual” (Nora, 12). Their function is comparable to those of the strings tied around our fingers, the marks on our calendars, the alarms programmed into our cell phones. They remind us to remember.

Margaret herself feels bound by these lieux de memoire, though she recognizes the sadness in them. “A funeral is not death,” she thinks, “any more than baptism is birth or marriage union. All three are clumsy devices, coming now too late, now too early, by which society would register the quick motions of man” (Forster, 88). As she is Christmas shopping with Mrs. Wilcox, she wonders “How many of these vacillating shoppers and tired shop-assistants realized that it was a divine event that drew them together?” (69). Though she is not religious herself, she wonders why all these public displays are necessary for Christians to remember the birth of Jesus. And as she is packing up Wickham Place, she ruminates on the obligation she feels to keep her belongings:

Chairs, tables, pictures, books, that had rumbled down to them through the  generations, must rumble forward again like a slide of rubbish to which she  longed to give the final push, and send it toppling into the sea. But there were all  their father’s books–they never read them, but they were their father’s, and must  be kept… Round every knob and cushion in the house sentiment gathered, a  sentiment that was at times personal, but more often a faint piety to the dead, a  prolongation of rites that might have ended at the grave.  (Forster, 127-128)

It is Helen Schlegel’s contention that furniture endures when its men and its houses are gone. If the furniture are les lieux de memoire; if they smuggle bits of Memory into a world that lacks it, and if the houses themselves symbolize Memory, then perhaps she is right: the wave of the past broke irrevocably at the shore, but in its absence it has left little artifacts that beg us to remember.

In Stranded in the Present, Fritzsche dedicates a chapter to the ruins of Europe. He argues that, after the Revolution, ruins  were no longer viewed as simple manifestations of the effects of time and nature, but as melancholy representations of paths not taken. Says he: “…the ruins of the past were taken to be foundations for an alternative present” (Fritzsche, 96). It is as if Fritzsche’s ruins are asking us to remember the great hope we believe we once had for the future (which is now the present), and the failure of its fulfillment.

Oniton, with its ruins, is a place of enchantment for Margaret because “It, too, had suffered in the border warfare between the Anglo-Saxon and the Celt, between things as they are and as they ought to be” (Forster, 197), like Kosselleck’s gulf between experience and expectation, like the lost possibilities of Fritzsche’s ruins. Oniton itself is a sort of ruin for Margaret especially, for it “was to prove one of her innumerable false starts” (Forster, 178); while she is there, she sees the town as her future home, but this vision will never be fulfilled–Henry becomes uninterested in Oniton, and for him, it, “like Howards End, [had] faded into limbo” (178).

If the Wilcoxes embody the stifling effects of modernization upon an irretrievable past, then Margaret is one who struggles to reconcile the past with the present (her motto, after all, is “only connect”). By spiritually and pragmatically incarnating aspects of Ruth Wilcox into her own self (by marrying Henry, for example), she brings the Memory of the past into a world that has shunned it. In a way, Margaret could be seen as a living lieux de memoire–an adaptive, articulate vessel for the memory of Ruth Wilcox, of Howards End, to travel into the uncertainty of the future.

W O R K S   C I T E D

Forster, E.M. Howards End. Penguin Classics: New York, 2000.

Fritzsche, Peter. Stranded in the Present. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 2004.

Halbwachs, Maurice. On Collective Memory, trans. Lewis A. Coser. University of Chicago:

Chicago, 1992.

Koselleck, Reinhart. Futures past: on the semantics of historical time, trans. Keith Tribe.

Columbia University: New York, 2004.

Lodge, David. “Introduction.” Howards End, E.M. Forster. Penguin Classics: New York, 2000.

Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire.” Representations, No. 26,

Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory. Spring 1989, pp. 7-24.


One Response to “Of Hands, Machine, and Mind: Time, Memory, and Modernization in Howards End”

  1. mrred said

    Love this blog I’ll be back when I have more time.

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