Thursday, 7 March 2019

Anita Heiss' Growing up Aboriginal in Australia

This challenging book highlights the racism prevalent in Australia both in the past and the present. It is the stories of 50 people who have had it ‘tough’ by non-Indigenous standards.  The writings are by young and old as well as males and females from all across Australia. Some of the writers are well known but many are not. It includes anecdotes, experiences, childhood fears and a few happy times. It also includes the story of a young woman, Alice Either (only 29), who suicided. The book is dedicated to her and others ‘who were lost too soon’.

Many of the stories talk about identity and not fitting into Australian society; they also talk about education and recognition of their otherness and their Aboriginality. They share a great pride in being Indigenous and having access to such a long lasting culture.

As always, we started with …

First impressions

  • Lots of themes, but feelings of sadness and grief
  • Very glad to have read it.
  • Repetitive stories, and even boring at times
  • Feelings of positive strength expressed by many contributors.
  • Triumph against the odds.
  • Questions of whether you are Indigenous or Australian – too white in some circumstances and too dark at other times or venues – frequent mention of this problem
  • Comments made about colour by both non-Indigenous people and Indigenous people themselves.
  • Genuine humility felt by some.
  • Not everything that happens relates to someone’s race, sometimes it is just ‘stuff’ about kids growing up and especially through their teenage years – it can be good and bad for any child, eg parents passing, domestic violence or poverty.
  • Some stories very ‘touching’.
  • Certain earnestness to many of the stories.
  • ‘I melted’ when the author talked about country and how they appreciated their custodianship of country rather than ownership.
  • Quite a small group of people contributed – all highly articulate and these were selected from 120 submissions sent in – only a small selection of views but lots of common elements.
  • Stolen generation stories particularly sad and challenging
  • Happy childhoods relatively eg Adam Goodes and Patrick Johnson

General discussion

There was a lot of discussion of colour. During their childhoods some writers were accused of being too white to be Aboriginal. These people felt hurt by comments like that.  Many of the writers have one parent non-Indigenous and one Indigenous.  Interestingly, many of the white parents were Irish. There is a lovely story by Miranda Tapsell about being a Spice girl fan. She was designated by others to be Scary Spice for a dress up party but her favourite was Baby Spice.  However Miranda is amazingly tolerant by saying :

‘Poor Sissy, she was conditioned like all of us to believe brown people could only be Scary’. (page 235)

Tolerance is a common thread through these texts.

We were saddened by the poem by Alice Eather. It is so sad that she died.

We were impressed that many contributors were willing to share their stories, trying to overcome stereotyping of Aboriginal people who have to contend with drugs and domestic violence. There is a realisation that they are similar people to us but they often have to make a conscious effort to find out where they come from. Dislocation was a common theme and it has had a very physical and emotional toll upon many of the writers. The question of handouts received by these people was often very insensitive. They are Australians but they have complicated lives. We questioned ourselves and other non-Indigenous people about our reactions to these stories. Ignorance and lack of empathy is behind much of the racism. Also people not choosing to find out more. 

There are stories of some positive discrimination too. A few writers were awarded scholarships to schools, universities and a sporting academy.

There is a terrifying story by Kerry Reed-Gilbert entitled: "The little town on the railway track". The crux of the story is quite horrific. At night a group of non-Indigenous men try to frighten and intimidate Kerry’s mother and siblings, but the town policeman is about the most racist person present. Fortunately, Kerry’s Mum is strong and forthright; she contacts the policeman’s boss and he is sent elsewhere.

The stories by stolen generation people or their descendants were very sad and very moving. So we relished the good stories such as that told by Adam Goodes highlighting simple pleasures such as trying out different types of sport. He is a marvellous role model, in mentioning hard work and a good work ethic, as well as loving what you do and having fun. (p103)

Pride in being Aboriginal is a strength of this book. Much pride is shown of parents and grandparents in many families who were leaders in their communities. Many also value highly their mothers and grandmothers who often were their sole parent. These women were wonderful role models.

We were impressed by the different perspectives as they came from many backgrounds including those of domestic abuse, drugs and violence. The writers' willingness to share their perspective is admirable.  Some of their backgrounds were disjointed but this also happens in the non-Indigenous community. White society is still too ready to rely on stereotyping Indigenous people.

Overall it seems that for younger Indigenous people, life is getting better than it was for their forbears. 

Deborah Cheetham’s story was fascinating. She was brought up in a white family. We really liked her story about trying to make the national anthem more applicable to all Australians.

Another common theme is resilience. It is a character feature that writers felt was essential for living in Australia. The parents often stressed it and emphasised that you just have to keep going and be brave. Developing a ‘shell’ helps.   

Another thread was knowing you are Indigenous but hiding it because it is embarrassing, but as you age accepting it so maturity helps. This is happens in migrant lives in Australia too.

There was one ‘story’ many of us found very difficult to understand – Alison Whittacker’s  Aboriginemo. Alison is a Gomeroi poet and lawyer from the Tamworth Gunnedah region of NSW. She writes in this manner as she wants readers to ponder her words. See her interview by Suburban review, April 28, 2016.

A couple of members had Aboriginal children in their classes at school, in Mt Isa and in country Victoria.  One member has worked with groups assisting Indigenous people with their financial issues. But the majority of us have had little contact.

This book was suggested by a member who wanted to read it. We were all pleased that we had read it too.

There is an audible version of this book newly available.

Present: 9 members

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Trent Dalton's Boy swallows universe

Our first book for 2019, Trent Dalton's debut autobiographical novel Boy swallows universe, was recommended by a past member and proved to be a very popular choice, with everyone liking it and some loving it. It's set in Brisbane over about 7 years, starting in the mid 1980s, and is told first person by adolescent Eli Bell, whose babysitter is an ex-con and whose stepfather is a heroin dealer. 

As always, we started with ...

First impressions

  • Most, though not all, found the book hard to get into at first, fearing it was "yet another" gritty, social realist novel about a dysfunctional Australian family, a "life-is-a-drudge" novel.
  • Some loved it from the start, one saying she "devoured" it.
  • All, however, liked the novel, some suggesting it was the best Australian novel they'd read, a topic we discussed further later (so see below!)
  • What we liked included: lovely descriptive writing with a satisfying suspense thriller ending; a page-turner; great phrases; the "efficient" writing style; the positive "glass half-full", brave, loyal character of the protagonist; the humour; the larger than life often over-the-top characters who were nonetheless believable; the come-uppance ending for the bad guys; the love.
  • Some found it a page-turner while others (who nonetheless liked it) found it so intense at times that they had to have a break.
  • One felt she liked it more after discovering it was autobiographical.
  • One listened on audio and, while she liked the book very much, felt that the audio didn't do it justice
  • One was a little sceptical about the level of love Eli Bell had for his parents who were clearly flawed, while another liked that "he was very sweet about his family".
  • One summarised it as having "lots of humour, tension, tears and wisdom".
  • A Queenslander wondered whether the book would work as well for those who don't know the setting, but no-one felt this was an issue any more than for other books set in unfamiliar territory - though we agreed that familiarity can add something to our reading.

It's fascinating - once again - to see the variety of our opinions even when we all like a book!

Themes and style

We saw many themes and subjects in the novel, including the definition of "a good man" - the question the protagonist Eli Bell asks regularly throughout the novel. We wondered whether there was a final definition, and felt that the following from late in the novel is probably the closest we got:

This is what a good man does, Slim. Good men are brash and brave and fly by the seat of their pants that are held up by suspenders made of choice. This is my choice, Slim. Do what is right, not what is easy ... Do what is human.
Other themes and subjects we discussed included that it provides "an insight into the lives of battlers, and that it shows that life isn’t always what it seems. It is also about childhood trauma and coping with that". And there's quite a bit of discussion about managing time - with word plays on the notion of "doing time".

What made all these themes work was the writing. We thought Eli and his family were excellent characters. Eli is a great observer, and a great questioner; he's brave and ready to defend his mother. We liked that the authorial voice was a kind one that looked for the best in people.

We liked how carefully the book was constructed, how things mentioned in one place are picked up in another. Late in the book, the Courier Mail editor asks Eli to tell his life in three words - and we realised that all the chapter headings (before and after) were, in fact, three words, eg "Boy writes words", "Boy steals ocean", "Boy masters time", and so on.

We loved the descriptive writing, such as this of Sister Patricia meeting Eli and his brother August for the first time:

She looks deep into our eyes. 'I've heard all about you two,' she says. She nods at me. 'Eli, the talker and the storyteller.' She nods at August. 'And August, our dear wise and quiet man. Ohhhh, what rare fire and ice we have here, hey."

Or this, from the Vietnamese restaurant scene:

There's two more tanks dedicated to the crayfish and mud crabs who always seem to resigned to the fact they'll form tonight's signature dish. They sit beneath their tank rocks and their cheap stone underwater novelty castle decorations, so breezy bayou casual all they're missing is a harmonica and a piece of straw to chew on. They're so unaware of their importance, so oblivious to the fact they are the reason people drive from as far away as the Sunshine Coast to come taste their insides baked in salt and pepper and chill paste.

We did have a few questions. At least one didn't much like the magical bits, though others saw these as Dalton's way of reflecting and perhaps deflecting, of resolving, the childhood trauma aspects of the novel. A couple weren't convinced that the final clock-tower scene was needed, while others loved this bit of page-turning excitement and resolution. 


We liked its "Australianness" - from Australian details like references to iced vovos to the very Australian way the characters live and talk.

We also talked - perhaps more than usual - about how it relates to other Australian novels and also where it might fit in terms of "the great" or "best" Australian novel.

Relationship with other Australian novels

Some feared it was going to be gritty and dysfunctional like Sofie Laguna's The choke (which in fact was our top pick last year!), but one suggested a closer comparison could be Craig Silvey's Jasper Jones.

One talked about Andrew McGahan's Last drinks which deals with police corruption in Queensland. She hoped this book might go there, but we discussed that this book is a first person narrative by a teenage boy so had a different goal.

One said it reminded her of two books - Steve Toltz's A fraction of the whole, a rather over-the-top father-son story, and Tim Winton's Breath, which explores what it means to be a good man.

And, not Australian, but worth mentioning ... One member suggested that it could be Australia's answer on the world stage to Stieg Larsson's The girl with the dragon tattoo. And one or two said it reminded them a little of Frank McCourt's Angela's ashes

Best Australian novel

The suggestion by one that this was the best Australian novel she'd ever read resulted in a discussion about "the best" Australian novel. We didn't come to any conclusions - not surprisingly given the subjectivity involved. Consequently, for almost every suggestion there was a counter-suggestion, if not an all out "oh no, not that one" - but we gave it our best shot: 
  • Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda
  • Norman Lindsay's The magic pudding
  • Andrew McGahan's White earth
  • Alex Miller's Coal Creek
  • Henry Handel Richardson's The fortunes of Richard Mahony
  • Christos Tsiolkas' The slap OR Barracuda
  • Patrick White's The eye of the storm OR Voss
  • Tim Winton's Cloudstreet

Other writers suggested included Miles Franklin and Christina Stead.

Present: 9 people

Friday, 14 December 2018

The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

This book was recommended highly by one of our members. That was a good start for the discussion.

This text concerns the true story of how cancer cells belonging to Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman, are still alive and are greatly responsible for amazing scientific breakthroughs in America and elsewhere for almost 70 years.

Henrietta died of cervical cancer in 1951 and Rebecca Skloot is a young American, who became fascinated by this story and so it is also her journey into the background of this remarkable episode in American medical work and her tenacity in tracing and interviewing Henrietta’s family.  Skloot was trying to bring attention to her for recognition of her service to science for future generations. Henrietta’s cells, known as HeLa were obtained by a researcher, who was successful in keeping them alive and in reproducing them. The researcher found them unique in their ability to be cultured. The family who were and are still very poor, received nothing for their mother’s (and grandmother’s) ‘donation’. Henrietta did not know about the future use of these cells nor did the family consent to their use after her death.  So there are many questions of moral rights as well as recognition and respect.

The book relates not only to the scientific aspects of the research done by George Gey and many others as well as the social /societal effects of poverty upon Henrietta’s family and community. Until very recently they had not received any recognition of the use of her cells for scientific research or their worth. The family have had very different reactions to the writing of Henrietta’s life but all seemed impressed by Skloot’s devotion to the subject.

Our general comments included:

  • Amazing, shocking stuff, fascinating, sad, gruelling.
  • The HeLa cells were mentioned in the professional training of two of our members but only briefly. They were well known by medical students until recently but with no attribution or recognition of Henrietta’s role.
  • Our resident medico couldn’t help remembering some horror stories from her medical training especially in relation to the treatment of Black people in America.
  • Should be compulsory reading for a great range of students.
  • Really well done.
  • Loved the mixture of science and discussion of ethics. Great juxtaposition.
  • Very impressed by Skloot’s personal skills dealing with the family and her skilful narrative.
The conversation largely related to two factors : the personalities involved and the medical ethics or lack of them. 

Important people and the HeLa cells:

George Gey, researcher, who worked at John Hopkins Hospital, and who initiated the research in 1951 and gave her cells away for free to any interested laboratory (without receiving any extra compensation).

Deborah Lacks, one of Henrietta’s five children. She was an uneducated but very intelligent woman with a warm heart who just wanted to know about her mother and was continually trying to understand all the things that Rebecca and others were telling her.  Rebecca had great difficulties in convincing Deborah to talk to her initially but once she did Deborah became the main person in learning about the cells and in persuading the family to be resigned to their story being told.

Elsie, Deborah’s sister. She suffered terrible abuse as a teenager by a mental institution and Rebecca was able to obtain a little extra information about her for her siblings. 

Scientists who apologised to Deborah and her brothers for the way the medical profession had treated them. This included Susan Hsu who was director of medical genetics at the American Red Cross. Also Christoph Lengauer, a young researcher from John Hopkins who showed 2 members of the family some of Henrietta’s cells and actually explained for the first time that Henrietta’s cells are not alive just her cancer cells. He also explained that a person’s colour does not show up in these cells. (see pages 263-267). Susan Hsu said :

‘I feel very bad…people should have told them. You know, we never thought at the time they did not understand’. (Page 189)  

HeLa cells. This indestructible human material that once they left Henrietta’s body did not belong to her and she did not know they would be of interest to mankind!

Zakariyya, the brother who suffered so badly from his stepmother’s abusive treatment was given space to appear as a concerned person who wanted to know about his mother.

(We were very impressed by Skloot’s ability to relate to the family and allow them room to speak and wrestle with the questions she was raising.)

Rebecca Skloot herself, the author and medical scholar who at times describes her trials and tribulations. She was drawn into the family gradually over a long period and also felt their trauma. She began researching for the book in 1990 and it was published in 2009 and a movie was made staring Oprah Winfrey.


It was not unusual for patients in the 1950s to not be informed about cells when biopsies were taken. The issue of cells taken from one’s body is still current. One member related that she gave permission for her cells to be used just recently. The Nuremberg Code is very important with this issue. Although this code was written just after WW2,  it has not been adopted as law in any country but it underpins many of our modern medical regulations.

One member feels some sympathy for doctors trying to research medical issues like cancer. They need to experiment on patients but now it is largely prohibited. This wasn’t the case 60-70 years ago when Henrietta Lacks was alive.

Further Information about cervical cancer from Wikipedia:

Henrietta’s family see the HeLa cells through the prism of religion and science and we were asked how we respond to this. Deborah in particular kept thinking that her mother had been cloned. This is highly emotive language and sad that the family so misunderstand the science or are so mislead by the lack of information that they can assume such a terrible conclusion. It is very sobering thought in this day and age.

The question of race was obvious all through the text. Henrietta’s family thought that the white scientists were making lots of money through Henrietta’s cells and they naturally felt that they should have inherited some of the money obtained. They are still a family who can’t afford medical insurance in the very over-priced American medical system.

We briefly discussed commercialism of scientific research and patenting of such things as the human genome.

We also discussed the non-judgemental attitude of Rebecca Skloot in that she does not criticize the scientists who researched Henrietta’s cells. ‘It is what it is!’

Skloot has set up a foundation to assist Henrietta’s family and others who donate to science without receiving any gratitude or gratuity.

Present: 9 members 

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Minerva's Top Picks for 2018

We so enjoyed doing our Top Picks last year that we decided repeat the exercise this year. Each member was asked to nominate her three top picks of the books we read as a group this year ... and this is what happened ...

Eleven of our twelve currently active members took part. Ten nominated three books, and one chose just one, resulting in 31 "votes" cast. This is not a scientific survey, however. Votes were all given equal weight, as was advised in the email request. And not everyone read every book, meaning different people voted from different "pools". Consequently, the results are indicative at best, but it's all meant to be fun and it does convey some sense of what we all liked.

The results were a bit tighter this year than last: the "top" book received 6 (not last year's 7 votes) and three books vied for third (whereas last year there was a clear top three, followed by two sharing "highly commended" honours.) In other words, the top three positions this year used 23 of the 31 votes cast, whereas last year they used 18 of the 32 votes. Does this say anything? Probably not.

Anyhow, here are the results:

1. The choke, by Sofie Laguna (our review) (6 votes)
2. The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot (our review) (5 votes)
3. The sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen (our review); The merry-go-round in the sea, by Randolph Stow (our review); and Austerlitz, by WG Sebald (our review) (4 votes each)

Highly commended: An unnecessary woman, by Rabih Alameddine (our review).

A varied list which includes a classic, a translated novel, and a non-fiction work. What open-minded readers we are!

Some general comments:

Judith commented that she "enjoyed the styles of writing, so different in each, and the story that each author told with such skill"; Kate thought that "all in all [it was] a top year".

Meanwhile, Anne was so inspired by reading EM Forster's Howard's End that has since listened to the book he called his favourite, The longest journey. She said: "It hasn't stood the test of time like Howard's End and reminds me that authors aren't always the best judges of their work." 

Some comments on our top picks:

  • "Rivetting read and clever use of naïve narrator." (Sue B)
  • "Was so moved by Justine. Loved how Laguna managed the naïve narrator in such a way as to make it clear to us what was going on while the child didn't. I also loved the Murray river setting and the choke metaphor." (Sue T)
  • "Harrowing but brilliant and insightful." (Janet)

  • "What a marvellous account of a scientific breakthrough, within the real challenges of black lives, and this family in particular. A nuanced account of a continuing ethical dilemma." (Kate)
  • "Every medico should read this." (Denise)
  • "Love a bit of science ethics (or in this case, the lack thereof) in the mix. Sorry to have missed the discussion." (Janet)

  • "Such an important perspective on a war we all know about as an American war, when ten times as many Vietnamese were affected and still suffer the consequences." (Denise)
  • "Loved the unique, distinct voice, the play on the idea of 'sympathizer', and the fearless telling of a story of the Vietnam War from a different perspective." (Sue T)
  • "The bleak humor and cleverness of the writing showed why it won the Pulitzer, but it was the extraordinary character leading through a war and revolution that really made it something new and challenging. Since reading it I have watched the Ken burns series on Vietnam which is brilliant but almost exclusively from the American view and therefore underlined the book's point about US not noticing the people they were fighting beside." (Helen)

  • "Sophisticated, layered autobiographical novel; lovely, involving descriptions of rural Australian life;  beautifully developed complex characters; humour." (Sue B)
  • "So glad to have read this superb Australian author, whose depiction of landscape, and his torn relationship with Australia and his family was truly beautiful." (Kate)

  • "A great feat of imagination, and excellent dense writing, even in translation." (Denise)
  • "Another book with an unusual voice, and an amazingly sustained mesmeric tone. Couldn't believe what a page turner this dense book was." (Sue T)

  • "Was a wonderful portrait of the tragedy of Beirut, as well as this disenfranchised woman, and an insight into translation." (Kate)
  • "So good at capturing the atmosphere of the woman in her apartment with all her books and the erudite way she talked about all those famous and not so famous texts; also loved the descriptions of Beirut -- a place I would love to visit -- such a mixture of cultures -- great characters too." (Sylvia)

Let us know what you think, in the comments!

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Schedule Ideas for 2019

Here are some books (from our "Schedule suggestions" side-bar with a couple of additions) sorted into categories, with some explanatory background:


  • DALTON, Trent Boy swallows universe (new Queensland novel, recommended by Marie Z, and others)
  • HALL, Rodney Love without hope (dedicated to Julian Burnside)
  • LIANKE, Yan The day the sun died (translated Chinese novel, published by Text, under 400pp.)
  • MILLER, Alex The passage of love (his latest, 584pp.) or Coal Creek (won Victorian Premier's Literary Award 2014, under 300pp.)
  • OLSSON, Kristina Shell (new out in second half of 2018)
  • SERONG, Jock On the Java Ridge (won the inaugural UK-based Staunch Prize "for a novel in the thriller genre where no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered".)
  • SMITH, Zadie On beauty (retelling of Howards End)
  • TOWLES, Amor A gentleman in Moscow
  • WILSON, Josephine Extinctions (Miles Franklin winner)
  • WINTON, Tim The shepherd's hut (his latest)

Classics (or nearly so!)

  • GISSING, George The odd women
  • McCARTHY, Mary The group
  • ROBINSON, Marilynne (one by her: Housekeeping or Gilead or Home or Lila)
  • TROLLOPE, Anthony (one by him)
  • WILLIAMS, John Stoner


  • EHRENREICH, Barbara Natural causes: An epidemic of wellness, the certainty of dying, and killing ourselves to live longer
  • GERGIS, Joelle Sunburnt country (climate change)
  • GRIFFITHS, Tom The art of time travel: Historians and their craft (award-winning book surveying Australian historians)
  • HEISS, Anita (ed) Growing up Aboriginal in Australia (recently given by the University of Melbourne to 600 members of staff)
  • HOOPER, Chloe The arsonist (new out in second half of 2018, author of The tall man)
  • KEAN, Sam The disappearing spoon (the periodic table)
  • KRASNOSTEIN, Sarah The trauma cleaner (won or was shortlisted for several awards in 2018)
  • TUMARKIN, Maria Axiomatic (Russian-Australian cultural historian, 250pp.)
But, please do bring others to the meeting ...

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Howards end by E M Forster

Nine of us gathered to talk about the classic for 2018 – Howard’s End by the English writer E. M. Forster. This book was televised in 2017 and has been in print since its first publication in 1910.

The story concerns a family of siblings, Margaret and Helen and brother Tibby, whose parents are deceased but the children are fortunate to have independent means. They live in London. The novel revolves around their relationships with a rich family, the Wilcoxes and a young poor man, Leonard Bast.  It is the Schlegel’s connectedness with various strata of middle class society that interests the author. The main characters treat the young man with varying degrees of care and acceptance. They treat the rich family as inferiors in intellect but learn over time to accept them as they are and Margaret, the eldest sibling eventually marries the widowed Henry Wilcox and lives with him and her younger sister, Helen at Howard’s end. It is not a usual romance but comments on Edwardian society. There is a lot more going on than just the story of the romance.

The general opinion from our group was of enjoyment but with reservations for some readers. One felt it was quite stodgy. One member felt it was like looking at the society from the top. Another reader was disappointed that she had watched the TV serial first before reading it as that influenced her images of the settings and the characters. Some members believed that their expectations were so high that the relationships didn’t seem convincing. This was particularly the relationship of Margaret to Henry Wilcox. What did she see in him ?

The discussion mainly revolved around two main subjects – the involvement of the period in the text and similarities with other novels.

The Edwardian period

Forster is truly insightful in regard to class in England pre World War 1 and how regimented it was even in the halcyon days of the Edwardian period.  For instance, the very formal (somewhat tortured ) relationship between Mr Bast and Helen and Margaret. He just wants a bit of romance in his life -- to think about books and to take his mind off the daily grind of work while they keep wanting to talk to him about the practical realities of his life.  They don’t have to experience mundane work as they are wealthy women. There is an inherent conflict between the parties from the moment Helen absentmindedly picks up his umbrella at a concert. It starts the fractured relationship. Strangely the relationship with the Wilcoxes also gets off to a rocky start with Helen again starting it by visiting this family and doing the wrong thing by falling in love very suddenly with the young son. All too quick and too spontaneous and without due regard for society’s norms. She is lucky though to have an elderly aunt to spring to her defence. Although that ends in humiliation for all concerned.

Women’s suffrage was a current obsession in the early 1900s and the two main women were not actually involved but were aspiring young women, keen to have an opinion on matters. Margaret in particular is often credited with being intellectual. We all appreciated the handling of gender in this tome. Women were beginning to run their own lives and the young Schlegel women certainly did. They had agency as they had money unlike the girls in Sense and Sensibility.

One member thought the new developments in art and culture at the time such as the Art Nouveau movement affected middle class culture and sensibilities. People were beginning to express themselves in new ways.

The rich could have various houses and an arrogance to live their lives as they pleased, including treating their kids harshly.  The historic world of England with very set classes was vanishing.

Another feature of life at the time was the love of all things German – particularly music and philosophy and for Germany itself. The main characters are the children of a German army officer who migrated to England and they first meet the Wilcoxes during a visit to Germany. Their main interests seem to be German music and an intellectual life through reading and discussions with like-minded people. Helen lives in Germany for a period while she is estranged from her family.

The issue of class is of prime interest through the novel. Some of us felt it was tongue-in-cheek at times, especially in regard to the lower class:

We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable, and only approachable by the statistician or the poet. This story deals with gentlefolk, or those who are obliged to pretend that they are gentlefolk. (Chapter 6, p. 46)

The issue of homosexuality is also in this novel. Forster was a gay writer but of course it was hidden from public view. Now we can see it more clearly. Apparently he was a virgin until he was 34, living with his mother. We decided that Tibby was not gay but that is debatable. There is little evidence either way.

One member was knowledgeable about the origin of the house in Howard’s end – it is based on a house called Rooksnest in Hertfordshire where Forster lived from 1883 to 1893, which was owned by a family called Howard.

More information can be found in Wikipedia

Similarities with other novels and helpful texts on the period

E M Forster was part of the Bloomsbury set and understood his characters well.  One Minervan was keen for us to know about a couple of books about this group of authors and intellectuals. One useful text is A S Byatt’s The children’s book and the another is: The world broke in two by B Goldstein (and published by Bloomsbury).

We discussed the way intellectuals and people in this period were often very formal in their relationships, even with their children, and often neglected them and their care was left to nannies or boarding schools. At least two of us had fathers who were treated in this fashion in their youth. This reminded one member of the new film Vita and Virginia (2018)
Similarities with other writers were seen with Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Marianne does share traits with Helen Schlegel – both flighty, romantic and dreamy while Margaret Schlegel is the practical one somewhat similar to Elinor Dashwood. There are some silly co-incidences too which also occur in Austen’s novel. These explain some of Margaret’s motivations.

Forster was criticizing the ‘intellectual class’ in a subtle way. Leonard Bast was the most problematic character reflecting changes of attitude. He is a result of urbanization and the lack of access to education by people living on the edge of the middle class. We concluded that Bast is a case study. His untimely death was symbolic. England needed to deal with these people. We were astonished that Charles Wilcox thought he could get away with the killing but his father realized that would not be the case.

This novel reflects England and the changes happening. Bast and his wife are not fully developed as characters. We thought it was ironic that Helen Schlegel made money from her shares after offering the money to Lionel Bas who refused to accept it.

The treatment of Helen’s baby reminded us of The strays by Emily Bitto based on the lives of John and Sunday Reed in Melbourne and their property called Heide. Here artists lived selfish lives and allowed children to be neglected. Forster is not interested in Helen’s child, it is just symbolic. He concentrates on the Schlegels and Wilcoxes. Margaret and Helen are delightfully English in their slight eccentricities, intellectually arty and creative. So there are many aspects of Forster’s own life in this novel.

Other features

There are long passages about the English countryside. Forster contrasts the Wilcoxes who bought property without much care versus the romantic environment as shown by Howards End, a house originally owned by the first Mrs Wilcox. This house was picturesque and romantic and attracted the Schlegel girls with its big wych-elm tree. Here is a lovely description of the country:

Margaret was fascinated by Oniton … the rivers hurrying down ... the carelessly modelled masses of the lower hills, thrilled her with poetry. The house was insignificant, but the prospect from it would be an eternal joy… (Chapter 26, p. 227)

Margaret is the romantic who loves poetry and connects country living with that concept while the Wilcoxes are prose oriented and more oriented to the town. It also has to do with emotions – prose versus pastoral poetry. Although Forster was sympathetic to the Schlegel’s view of cultural life he is also disenchanted with it. Someone has to do business so it is the more practical Wilcox family who supply the money and the stability provided. So Forster humanizes Business.  

We also talked about the original Mrs Wilcox – did she know about Henry’s affair with Jacky who later became Mrs Bast. In the film production Mrs Bast is depicted as a black woman.

This reminded us of Aunt Juley and her arrival at Howards End at the beginning of the novel which turned out to be embarrassing for all concerned, but especially for Helen Schlegel. The timing was exciting.

During this train trip we get a glimpse of the countryside and how it was just on the edge of the urbanization of London. 

She traversed the immense viaduct whose arches span untroubled meadows and the dreamy flow of Tewin Water. She skirted the parks of politicians. At times the Great North Road accompanied her more suggestive of infinity than any railway awakening after a nap of a hundred years, to such life as is conferred by the stench of motor-cars… (Chapter 3, p13).

The Wilcox family were the pragmatic developers of nations – as evidenced by Henry’s wealth coming from rubber in Africa.  At the end of the novel Margaret takes control of the terrible situation – Charles’ murderous action and Henry’s collapse. Margaret had played the submissive wife until that point. The younger generation were taking over.  We felt that Charles had always been bullied by his father and so was not a true representative of his generation. His father had constantly asserted his authority over him. His wife Dolly though was a great character and was the surprising one who told the Schlegel women the truth about Howards End and how it had been bequeathed to Margaret.

We were charmed by the fairy-like nature of Miss Avery and how she set up the house with the Schlegel books and furniture and the sword which proved so dangerous. We felt that Howards End house gave the book a sense of place and was a connection to place, whereas life was in flux for the Schlegels in all the other places they lived. They were very sad to leave their London house in Wickham Place as they had been raised there.  It was also a sign that London was changing. 

One member was keen for us to see all the references to grey in the novel – grey skies, grey economic future and grey showing spiritual poverty – metaphorical of course.

We all appreciated Forster’s succinct and masterful language. He was extremely good at ‘nailing a point’. One prime example was when he is talking about moving house in chapter 17. 'The age of property holds bitter moments even for a proprietor...' (p 156)  

We completed our discussion by talking about Margaret and Henry and their relationship. She turned out to be the strong one and very loving and she could also be uplifting. He was the decisionmaker and grounded her.  

PRESENT: 9 members