Books: Howards End (Part II)

Now I've just finished Chapter 15, which shows I still haven't gotten all that far, but this is because there are so many other things I am supposed to be doing—I just like to take reading breaks now and then.

And so here we are, and Howards End itself has only been briefly revisited and has now been let by the Wilcox family because none of them want it anyway. (This is me rolling my eyes.) Forster, meanwhile, has taken up a lot of space going on about London, how mean it can be and such. I visit London frequently, but I suppose I am lucky enough to be able to keep most of my adventures to places inhabited either by other visitors and/or by people who live, if not in luxury, then not penury either. The few times I have wandered astray, I've found people very kind, very willing to come to my aid. I've been ushered into cabs, guided safely to the places I am hopeless to find on my own, sometimes walked all the way back to where I'm staying . . . Forster would say these people enjoy me as they do window shopping; I am something to be witnessed—there, by interaction it is proven people like me exist outside television and magazines—and yet still I reside behind glass, for looking and not touching, and there is a class-based desire to put me back where I belong. But if Forster's Mr. Bast saves up all his little moments of culture, never wanting to spoil them by attempting to lengthen or recreate them, then I do the same with all these moments in London when someone from the corner store shields me from people screaming at each other in Welsh and walks me back to the tube, seeing me safely onto the train.

Sometimes I think I more belong in lower places than in higher ones. Though I speak French, I am not quick with it, and because no one else around me speaks it, I am very rusty. And so when I was at P├ętrus and the manager asked, "Avez-vous un manteau?" I thought he'd said "marteau" and became ridiculously confused. I must have looked at him like he was crazy. But that is the moment wherein I felt I did not belong. He was very kind to me, too, of course, and we laughed over my mistake, but in places like that I always think they're being nice because they have to and they will probably make fun of me after I've gone.

This is neither here nor there in relation to Howards End except in the course of my reading I seem to have entered some lecture to do with class in London. And these are my experiences with class in London, though I can't imagine what it was like in 1910. And in America it is so different because there seems little aspiration, at least nowadays. Forster's Mr. Bast likes to read and wants to have these conversations; he wants the luxury of being philosophical, I suppose. Is that what draws the line between the classes? People who haven't the time or money can't be bothered reading and discussing and thinking about things philosophically. They're too busy working and thinking about money—needing it, wanting it—and how to pay for room and board. At least, that seems to be the gist of what I've read thus far. Was this true in 1910? Is it now? In America we had Horatio Alger and the idea of climbing out of the depths of poverty and upward to respectability. It is, in short, "The American Dream." The idea that all can do and be regardless of origin. (I won't go into the irony of that here.) Still, that "dream" is based on hard work more than learning or philosophy. Americans were set up to do rather than think, our upper class consists of people who have money from having climbed the ladder but not the time for leisure. They are too busy working their way up, then working to stay up, to read and have conversations that don't revolve around all that work.

And then there is the class that can't be bothered. The pervasive sense I get in America—and this is just my experience, a generalization, not meant to be taken universally—is that few people see education as a way out of their humble beginnings. It is all work. And talent. Look at the youth who aspire to be actors, athletes . . . They are not worried about reading literature and having discussions. In their view, these things do not win them what they want. No, these kids fight their educations, saying all the time they don't need to know biology or history or whatever. "I won't use any of it," they say. They don't think their minds need be cluttered with such things.

But for people in London in 1910 . . . Well, look at Tibby (a character in Howards End). His sisters do think he should find something to do, but he'd rather not work. Why should he, if he doesn't absolutely have to? Funny, to think for some work is a matter of merely filling the hours. Something to do so one doesn't get bored. Leisure means having the option to work if one wants to, and not if one doesn't, and I guess that's true on both sides of the Atlantic. Then and now.

And here I am, a woman of leisure, reading a book and discussing it. See what Forster has done? When I should be working.

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