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