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  • Jelena Sofronijevic

Thought vs action: Forster on culture


Dichotomies are the very foundations of Howards End (1910). From the feminine, cosmopolitan, intellectual Wickham Place, to the masculine, feudal, and practical titular setting, Forster uses place to explore individual personhood and psychology.

Yet, individual and place share a symbiotic relationship in Forster’s literature, in which particular cases of the former are used to make sweeping generalisations of the latter. With reference to the intellectual Schlegels – of half-German and half-English heritage – Forster thus associates Europe with ‘liberty of thought’, and England ‘liberty of action’. This dichotomy – between thought and action – provokes interesting questions. Are thinking and acting necessarily different experiences? And if so, is one more conducive to culture or creation?

Forster’s conception of ‘experience’ juxtaposes cultural consumption and creation. As Margaret Schlegel matures and marries, she retreats from the plays and parleys definitive of her cosmopolitan youth in Wickham Place:

‘she had outgrown stimulants, and was passing from words to things…some closing of the gates is inevitable after thirty, if the mind itself is to become a creative power.’

Forster certainly admits ‘some’ ambiguity, and necessary interplay, between consumption and creation. Yet, this understanding of experience as an active process – not the passive accumulation of cultural knowledge – is present within his earlier works. In The Longest Journey (1907), aspiring author Rickie Elliot understands (passive) experience as distinct from (active) creation:

‘I will experience no longer. I will create. I will be an experience.’

Understanding Howards End and The Longest Journey as bildungsromans, both Margaret and Rickie are ultimately empowered to create after traversing their own life experiences. Yet, creativity is simultaneously depicted as something innate, and particularly associated with the conditions of youth. Rickie eventually escapes his oppressive marital condition, and finds renewed desire to create:

‘I should have had time to write it, but the people round me coloured my life, and so it never seemed worthwhile. For the story is not likely to pay. Then came the volcano. A few days after it was over I lay in bed looking out upon the world of rubbish. Two men I know – one intellectual, the other very much the reverse – burst into the room. They said, “What happened to your short stories? They weren’t good, but where are they? Why have you stopped writing? Why haven’t you been to Italy? You must write. You must go. Because to write, to go, is you.” Well, I have written, and yesterday we sent the long story out on its rounds. The men did not like it, for different reasons. But it mattered very much to them that I should write it, and so it got written.’

Rickie’s juvenescent defiance thus blurs these boundaries. To create is to inform one’s own and others’ experience – even if only to add to the existing world of ‘rubbish’. Rickie’s writings are perhaps terrible because they are informed by his now-creatively void condition, though this responsive view does not account for his failure to produce ‘good’ stories during his reminisced intellectual years at Cambridge. I am drawn instead to a more interpretative conclusion: that ‘rubbish’ is Forster’s own subtle jab towards his own uninspiring contemporary place.

In the previous passage, Rickie seemingly affords equal weight to the creative judgements of his non-intellectual peers. Yet, in Howards End, cultural capital is one of the most powerful distinctions between working and middle-class experience. Bank clerk Leonard Bast doggedly devotes his limited income to concert tickets and tomes, in pursuit of individual betterment:

‘Her [MARGARET’S] speeches fluttered away from the young man [LEONARD] like birds. If only he could talk like this, he would have caught the world. Oh, to acquire culture! Oh, to acquire culture! Oh, to pronounce foreign names correctly! Oh, to be well informed discoursing at ease on every subject that a lady started! But it would take one years. With an hour at lunch and a few shattered hours in the evening, how was it possible to catch up with leisured women, who had been reading steadily from childhood?...There had always been something to worry him ever since he could remember, always something that distracted him in the pursuit of beauty.’

From Leonard’s cultural aspirations, to the male Wilcoxes’ ‘practical’ knowledge, it is refreshing to read a literary narrative in which the female characters are intellectually privileged. However, the Schlegels are more interested in Leonard’s real stories – particularly his late-night woodland escapade - than his clumsy cultural commentaries. Full of ‘adventure’ from his story, they reduce his lived experience to a curio case study during a dinner-party discussion. Margaret understands that her own cultural capital is the product of capital itself:

‘You and I and the Wilcoxes stand upon money as upon islands. It is so firm beneath our feet that we forget its very existence…I stand each year upon six hundred pounds, and Helen upon the same, and Tibby will stand upon eight, and as fa

st as our pounds crumble away into the sea they are renewed – from the sea, yes, from the sea. And all our thoughts are the thoughts of six-hundred pounders…’

‘…independent thoughts are in nine times out of ten the result of independent means. Money: give Mr Bast money, and don’t bother about his ideals. He’ll pick those up for himself.’

Liberty of action is thus a necessary precursor to liberty of thought, each financially-secured. Intersecting class experience thus reinforces the dichotomy between cultural consumption (Leonard) and creation (Margaret). Leonard is doomed to eternal consumption in pursuit of cosmopolitan culture, an attainment made unreachable by his own ‘working-class experiences’.

Certainly, Forster falsely privileges middle-class cultures and, more problematically, implies that working-class experiences may not inform cultural creativity. But Howards End’s haunting conclusion is a reminder that these seemingly theoretical questions of culture have practical consequences – disproportionately shouldered by those displaced from the primary narrative.

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