Wednesday, 9 March 2011

March Bloodstones: Helen and Margaret Schlegel in Howards End

The bloodstone is the stone of March, and March is women's history month. Hence this post, (first entry HERE).
Jhabvala and Ivory don’t have the comfort of Forster’s lush narrative to wallow in, so they’re prevented from establishing – immediately – the radical ways of the Schlegel sisters, and yet from that very first visit Mr. Bast pays to their flats one is swayed to believe that there’s something peculiar about them. There’s already something eccentric in the on-and-off engagement between Helen and Paul and as Mr. Bast raps at the door – to retrieve his stolen umbrella – there’s something even odder about Margaret’s, “Not again, Helen. She is an incorrigible thief.” It’s not exactly courage, as yet, but it’s an essential bit about organic everything in Howards Ends unfolds – it’s never uncinematic but it always retains a definite literariness.
Helen seems like the more obvious candidate, but the quietness with which Margaret approaches her tentative relationship with Mrs. Wilcox seems decidedly gracious in its way. It’s the sort of selfless nobleness that we come to define her character by, and though it’s pointless to see the character through any sort of feministic lens it’s notable that both she and Helen define their bravery in relation to the men about them. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Again I come to this quandary of defining courage, and like Deanie Loomis (but, perhaps, not so difficultly) finding overt acts of courage is rare. Yet, the fact that they’re so erudite and well-meaning, even in their middle-class naïveté. The Edwardian era isn’t as symbolic as repressed women as, say, the Victorian era but considering how the upper-class Mrs. Wilcox feels about women’s education I can’t help but feel some commendation is worthy of them – although Aunt Jules’ aside “…but their father was German, and that is why they care for literature and art” seems (like everything about her character) superfluous and ridiculous.
Because it’s the moment where the two storylines finally interact, the wedding emerges as that obvious moment for watching different types of “courage”. Taking Forster and putting him to screen seems to be such a dubious task, and I have added admiration that Helena Bonham Carter manages to toe that line between histrionic and passionate so finely. The same goes for Thompson, in opposite form; even when Margaret is at her most dubious it’s difficult not to identify with her. True, her knee-jerk embarrassment to Helen’s theatrics seems to subvert any significant act of courage and if you’re sinister and think that if, perhaps, Helen’s pleas for equality (for the Basts) is driven by romantic inclinations then it does the same. Still, as much as the narrative (and in lieu, the film) have that utilitarian function of showing us a “new” England the nice thing about Howards End is how complex the characters.
I hate to think of it as some sort of misguided penance, but it’s to Helen’s credit that she bears her pregnancy alone – even if there’s something vaguely repressive about her intended plan to spend the duration of her pregnancy. For all her excitability, Helen is defined by childishness where Margaret – as the older one – emerges as, arguably, the braver of the two. Emma is a powerhouse opposite Antony towards the end as she prepares to leave him, and it’d be an injustice to her (Forster, Jhabvala, Ivory and the film) to see her reneging of that decision as evidence of her lack of courage. It’s the very thing that defines Margaret, her gentle grace in spite of the obvious and there’s that looming sense of justice as the camera pans over to Helen and her child and Margaret and Henry walking the plains. Howards End is not a women’s novel (thematically, or audience wise) but Forster’s characters and the interpretations of Thompson and Bonham Carter are fine evidence of courageous women – their excessive chatter is confirmation.
As Mr. Bast says, “The more a lady has to say, the better. Ladies brighten every conversation.”


Luke said...

Oooo! That ladies are taking over Encore Entertainment! So why am I not surprised we're starting with Howards End... ?? :)

TomS said...

How wonderful! You and I independently have a yearning for Merchant-Ivory! After watching my new DVD of "Room With A View" this weekend, I found "Howard's End" playing on Cable the next morning. Great piece, Andrew!

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

luke i'm so very transparent am i not?

tom merchant ivory really are irresistible especially when it comes to that trilogy from 86,92,93.