Saturday, May 31, 2008

Digested classics / Howards End by EM Forster


Howards End by EM Forster

John Crace
Sat 31 May 2008

One may as well begin with Helen's letters to her sister.
Dearest Meg, I am having a glorious time at Howards End. I especially like young Mr Wilcox. We are to be wed.
"You Schlegel sisters are quite the dark horses," said Mrs Munt. "It is surely because you are German."
"Don't be silly, Aunt Juley," Margaret replied. "We are the very best sort of cultured Germans."
It's all over. The Wilcoxes are mercantile; Paul is leaving the book to go to Nigeria - H
"I don't know what came over me," Helen sighed. "We'll hear no more about it," Margaret exclaimed. "Let's go to the Beethoven concert."
We are not concerned with the poor. No one is. But let's imagine someone on the edge of gentility and call him Leonard Bast. See Mr Bast pointlessly trying to improve himself by attending the same concert as the Schlegels. See Helen pick up Mr Bast's umbrella in error. See Mr Bast follow her home.
"I believe you took my umbrella," Mr Bast insisted, for he is of sufficient impoverishment not to be able to afford the loss. "I'm always stealing umbrellas," Helen announced with Bohemian breeziness.

Love, property and propriety ... Sam West and Helena Bonham-Carter in Howards End.

"And you, Mr Bast, are a fascinating specimen of the lower orders," Margaret said. "Allow me to patronise you for the rest of the book."
Taking her card, Mr Bast returned to his squalid lodgings.
"Gawd bless you, Leonard," said Jacky, the least convincing temptress in English fiction. "Come to bed."
Margaret twitched with social embarrassment. The Wilcoxes were moving in across the road.
Dear Miss Schlegel. We are in London because my son Charles is to be wed. Paul is in Africa so we can meet - Yours, Mrs Wilcox.
"How I miss Howards End," Mrs Wilcox said wanly.

"I too have my doubts about Modernity," Margaret smiled.
The funeral was over. Edwardian women understood their obligation to die with little fuss. "She was a good woman," Mr Wilcox intoned gravely. "There's just one thing. She wanted Miss Schlegel to have Howards End. It's most improper."
Two years had passed when there was a knock on the Schlegels' door.
"Where's my 'usband?" Jacky demanded.
"What are you talking about?" Margaret responded.
The next day an ashen-faced Mr Bast stood before Margaret. "My wife found your card and reached an unfortunate conclusion," he said. "I was walking alone for 24 hours to be with Nature."
"I too love Nature, Fate and other ideals that start with Capital Letters," Margaret condescended.
"I'm a clerk with Porphyrion Insurance . . ."
"We'll have to do something about that."
Margaret had worries of her own. Progress was marching onwards and their home was to be demolished. Where would they live? Just then she espied Mr Wilcox.
"Good day," she said. "I am very concerned about my friend, Mr Bast. And I am shortly to be homeless."
"I have heard Porphyrion will smash and I have a house you may rent," Mr Wilcox replied gruffly.
Margaret's heart skipped. Could it be that Mr Wilcox would propose? "Would you do me the honour of marrying me?" asked Mr Wilcox. She hesitated for a decorous few days before giving an affirmative response. "May we live at Howards End?"
"It's too shabby and London is growing so fast it's almost suburban," he said testily. "I have rented a Shropshire estate."
The day of the engagement party did not start well. Charles, disturbed by his father marrying a German, symbolically ran over a cat. Then Helen appeared with Mr and Mrs Bast.
"Porphyrion didn't smash," Helen sobbed, "but Mr Bast left his employment anyway. Now he's penniless."
"Dearest Mr Wilcox," Margaret pleaded. "Please find work for our pet who has fallen on hard times because of us."
"A man's future is in his own hands," he answered swiftly, speaking for Capital.
"Hello again ducky," Mrs Bast slurred.
Mr Wilcox blanched. "I release you from your vows, Miss Schlegel," he murmured gravely. "My youthful dalliance has been exposed."
Margaret's heart was reeling but her head was German. "I forgive you," she said eventually.
So Margaret settled for Love, Property and Propriety. All that spoiled her happiness was Helen. "She is avoiding me," she wept sagely. "We must interrupt our self-satisfaction to trick Helen into meeting us."
"I'm with child," declared Helen. "Mr Bast is the father. I took pity and awarded him charity intercourse."
"Charles must beat the bounder to within an inch of his life," Mr Wilcox shouted.
Leonard Bast lay dead. His heart had given out spontaneously.
"See how everything is connected," Margaret wittered. "You, Me, Helen, Her Baby, Nature, Town, Love and Fate. Even Mr Bast. Let's all be unbearably smug until the first world war starts."

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Digested classics / Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf


Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

John Crace
Saturday 24 May 2008

Mrs Dalloway stiffened on the kerb, waiting for Big Ben to strike. There! Out it boomed. She loved life; all was well once more now the war was over.
Clarissa recalled that summer with Peter Marsh. What was it he had said? She couldn't quite remember, yet somehow the lack of clarity felt profound. Was not this impressionistic stream of consciousness confirmation of her place in the avant-garde? Such a pity, then, that so often she seemed so shallow. And yet. Was not Peter due back from India soon? A noise like a pistol shot rang out.
The violent explosion that so shocked Clarissa - or was it Mrs Richard? - Dalloway came from a motor car. Was it the prime minister's? Septimus Warren Smith did not care, as his wife, Lucrezia, helped him cross the road. "I will kill myself," he said, as an airplane curved overhead, its smoky trail a modernist symbol.
"Dr Holmes says you must rest," cried Rezia.
Interrupting. Always interrupting. Could she not understand the importance of his shell-shock trauma as a counterpoint to superficiality?
Big Ben struck out again, the bell throbbing with masculinity from within its Freudian tower. Mrs Dalloway's mind turned to matters of love and that first kiss she had once shared with Sally Seton. How thrilling it felt to hint at lesbianism!

The doorbell rang. Who could it be? It was Peter. "How lovely to see you," she said. There was so much he wanted to tell her. How he had been heart-broken when she had chosen Richard.
"I'm in love," he blurted out. "With a married woman."
"How interesting," said Clarissa, lost in solipsism, yet somehow acknowledging their shared sense of unfulfilment. "Why don't you come to the party tonight?"
Peter marched furiously. Clarissa might be ageing into comfortable respectability, but he still felt young and vibrant at 50. He sat down in Regent's Park, his mind tired of repetitious memories of how he had once loved Clarissa to distraction. How could she have married a man with no tremulous love for Shakespeare? Why must his images contain so many portentous adjectives? And why must everything be a question?
Septimus and Lucrezia had also stopped in Regent's Park. The war. Milan. Now he only saw demons. And occasionally visions of Miss Isobel Pole whom he had once loved. There. He couldn't make it any clearer he wasn't homosexual, he told himself.
Big Ben struck 12 times as Septimus and Rezia stepped into Sir William Bradshaw's consulting rooms. "Your husband has served with distinction in the war," Bradshaw said to Lucrezia. "He is a very troubled man who needs time away in one of my homes."
Richard Dalloway was happy to take luncheon with Lady Bruton and help her compose a letter to the Times. He supposed he had some influence as a member of the House, though he was aware of his limitations. "Peter Marsh is in town," said Lady Bruton.
"Splendid," Richard replied. Had not Peter once loved Clarissa? Perhaps he should tell Clarissa that he loved her, too. But first, he would buy flowers.
Big Ben struck three as he entered the house. His mouth opened, but the words would not come. "Here," he said, thrusting the flowers into Clarissa's arms before rushing back to the House.
He wanted to say he loved me, Clarissa thought, yet he couldn't. We are trapped like icicles in the coldness between youth and old age. She sighed as Big Ben struck something or other and went to visit her daughter, Elizabeth, at Miss Kilman's house. How she hated Miss Kilman whose religious, lesbian tendencies were taking Elizabeth away from her.
Rezia tried to release Septimus from his horror. "Be still," she said. "The doctors will soon be here to take you away." Septimus trembled with the intensity of his condition. "I'll give it you," he cried, hurling himself out the window on to the railings below.
The ambulance took the body away as Big Ben struck again. How annoying, thought Peter, to be so constantly reminded that all the action was taking place on one day. How heavenly to see you, Clarissa had written. What could she mean?
The prime minister had arrived. The party was a success. And yet, somehow, Clarissa felt disengaged. Maybe if she did a little more and thought a little less, her life might be more rewarding, but it was too late in the book for that.
The doorbell rang. It was Sally Seton. "I heard you were having a party and I thought I'd come along to tie up a few loose ends."
Peter spied Sally in the corner. "How sad that Clarissa's life is so empty," he remarked. "And Richard is not bound for greatness." And you have not exactly fulfilled your dreams either, she thought. But she kept that to herself, content in the compromises of her own life.
"One of my patients committed suicide today," Bradshaw announced. "Delayed shell-shock is a terrible condition."
Clarissa's eyes glazed over.
· John Crace's Digested Reads appear in G2 on Tuesdays