E.M. Forster, “Howards End”

1910

The Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen (and their brother Tibby) are half-German intellectuals living in London. They meet the Wilcoxes, wealthy capitalists who have made their money in colonial rubber and are less artistic but more common-sensical. Unlike their grander places in town, etc., Ruth Wilcox’s house at Howards End has been handed down from her family, rather than purchased with the new money of the Wilcoxes. She leaves it to Margaret on her deathbed in a moment of pity that she will be kicked out of Wickham Place (another Jane Austen reference!), but the Wilcoxes throw away the paper on which she writes it (like Middlemarch). The narrator:

“It is rather a moment when the commentator should step forward. Ought the Wilcoxes to have offered their home to Margaret? I think not. The appeal was too flimsy. It was not legal; it had been written in inllness, and under the spell of a sudden friendship… to them Howards End was a house: they could not know that to her it had been a spirit, for which she sought a spiritual heir” 114.

Margaret becomes close to Henry, however, and marries him, making the children dislike her. The Schlegels try to help the Basts, a poorer couple, and enlist the help of Henry Wilcox to get him a job. Helen sleeps with him out of pity when this fails and disappears the Europe.

Eventually, we discover that Helen is pregnant. She returns home and says she no longer hates Henry and sees why Margaret married him. She wonders why both times she fell in love it was for a night of loneliness and panic afterwards. Margaret confronts Henry Wilcox, having learned that he once had an affair with Leonard’s now-wife and abandoned her in Cyprus. Margaret urges him to see that this is the same as Helen sleeping with Leonard, but he will not admit it. When Leonard comes to talk to Margaret, he discovers Helen there as well. Charles, one of Wilcox’s sons, attacks him with a sword for his behavior, knocking him into a bookshelf, which falls on him and kills him because of his weak heart. Helen and the boy will live at Howards end with Margaret, who is given the house in the will. The novel ends with “Mr. and Mrs. Wilcox” reconciled (Margaret shivers to learn she was once bequeathed the house, but insists her husband did nothing wrong) and the others come in from the field which will yield “such a crop of hay as never!”

In bequeathing Howards End to Margaret, who will give it to her illegitimate nephew, product of Helen and Bast, Forster suggests a shifting sense of class and inheritance that nonetheless bind the house as a lasting sign of dignity and tradition in the English novel. The relationship between Helen and Margaret also reminds me of that between Jane and Lizzie Bennet in Austen, Ursula and Gudrun in Lawrence, Molly and Anna in Lessing. The heavy weight of (literary) English history is also what kills Leonard – the sword and the pen, the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels of the world united in his downfall.

Howards End parades as a Victorian “novel of manners,” but updates the genre in a number of interesting ways. The omniscient narrator operates more by direct and indirect discourse even than free indirect discourse, and offers Austen-like comparisons of how much different people would enjoy Beethoven’s Fifth, which “will be generally admitted” to be “the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man… Helen, who can see heroes and shipwrecks in the music’s flood, Margaret, who can only see the music…” 38. The fact that the plot does not end in Helen’s marriage, but a new kind of family, is more modern, as is the tragic and strange chance death of Leonard.

It would be interesting to place him in a tradition with Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, and Julian Fellows’ Downton Abbey. Sebastian’s charm leads Charles to the Marchmains, much as Paul involves Helen Schlegel with the Wilcoxes, giving on to Margaret’s fascination with first one, then the other parent. In Fellows’ show, the house (much grander) is more important than all of the American mother’s money used to save it – it confers “history” (what makes this show so strange). Mary and Matthew’s marriage is a sort of twist on the Margaret-Henry Wilcox match.

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bell hooks, “Ain’t I a Woman”

1981

hooks’ text takes its title from a speech given in 1851 by Sojourner Truth. hooks explains the way in which the convergence of racism and sexism placed black women on the bottom of the social ladder in every sense (think Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God). By disentangling race and gender, hooks’ text opens onto an important critical turn in identity politics. hooks begins with slavery, exploring how its tropes and stereotypes survive to this day (for example, the way the division of woman into madonna/whore is often drawn along white/black racial lines, displacing the negative quality onto black women alone).

hooks notes that scholarship has talked about slavery as though it only had psychic effects on black men, emasculating them. Instead, hooks argues that slavery masculinized black women by forcing them to do hard labor like men. Furthermore, she points out that while white men raped black women, so did black men – they were not their advocates, but often also their aggressors in a social world where family ties were severed by slave owners. Both were involved in the dehumanizing practices of “breeding” that characterized enforced sexual culture in slavery. “By completely accepting the female role as defined by patriarchy, enslaved black women embraced and upheld an oppressive sexist social order and became (along with their white sisters) both accomplices in the crimes perpetrated against women and the victims of those crimes” 49.

While the black power and civil rights movements were largely patriarchal, asking black women to erase their gender in the service of black male interests, white feminism was not concerned to articulate the needs of poor women and women of color. White feminists overlook the rape of black women as stemming from the image of their sexual “availability” in ways that are different from white women. Relatedly, white women who marry black men are seen as open minded, moving against a history of stereotypical “rape” of white women by black men, whereas black women suffer from both communities when they marry a white man, seen as allying themselves with a traitor. The two stereotypes available to black women are mammy and Sapphire – the first desexualized and maternal and happy, the other seductive, evil, and cunning. Both are characterized by the fear of appearing vulnerable (“available”).

hooks concludes her text by arguing not that black women should distance themselves from feminism because it is racist, but that feminism should distance itself from racism. Black women should reclaim the pioneering tradition of 19th century black feminists like Sojourner Truth for the problems of today.