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Robert James: Howards End Revisited


If only the BBC had seen fit to modernise its adaptation of E M Forster’s novel Howards End. The book’s themes of class and money, progressivism versus illiberalism, and the connection of apparent opposites could then be rewardingly tested against today’s background of cultural and political battlefields.

If switched to 2017, the story of the artistic and liberal Schlegel sisters’ involvement with the unimaginative and mercantile Wilcox family, and the Schlegels’ interference in the life of a working-class man, Leonard Bast, and his wife Jacky, a former prostitute, would surely throw up some ironies.

Margaret Schlegel, who marries the businessman Henry Wilcox, would be an unabashed Blairite, sharing the former PM’s belief in supranational institutions, neo-Marxist social policies and light-touch regulation of commerce. Since Blair’s departure from Westminster, she has rubbed along nicely-thank-you with David Cameron and Theresa May’s ‘blue version’ of New Labour, with its acceptance and promotion of enforced equality and diversity.

Convinced socialist, multiculturalist and single mother Helen Schlegel would have fallen out of love with New Labour over the Iraq War. She has spent the past 15 years in the Greens but has come back to the idea of Labour via the cult of Jeremy Corbyn. She will of course be quietly worried that her cash and assets could be destroyed by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s Marxism. After all, the sisters have a house in central London that by now must be worth at least £5million, if not ten, not to mention Howards End itself. But, she tells her sister over a kale and quinoa curry, the disaster stories about Corbyn are just lies from the Right-wing media (which she is campaigning to have silenced via Stop Funding Hate), and in any case she claims she will not mind paying a little more in income and council tax to help ‘the many, not the few’.

The gap between the viewpoints of the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes has narrowed considerably in the intervening 107 years.

As a CEO, Henry Wilcox has been well pleased with events of the past two decades. ‘Liberal and progressive’ governments have provided big business with an inexhaustible supply of cheap immigrant labour, which has very efficiently kept wage bills down. The fact that they have also choked public services is of minimal concern to Wilcox, as he goes private where health is concerned. At the same time globalisation and compliant chancellors have allowed big firms to minimise their tax burden. Meanwhile, bosses of FTSE 100 companies now earn 386 times more than workers on the national living wage, according to the Equality Trust. In 1998, the multiple was 47.

In the novel, Henry’s son Charles is convicted and jailed for the manslaughter of unemployed clerk Leonard Bast after he hits him and Bast, recoiling, pulls a bookcase on to himself. In 2017, Charles would now most likely attack Bast not for fathering a child with his sister-in-law Helen, but for some infraction of socially liberal dinner party received wisdom, such as criticising Islam or voting for Brexit.

For the big irony of any truthfully updated adaptation of the novel would find both the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes to be ardent Remainers. The Schlegels both wear Open Britain badges and believe in a Brussels superstate and ‘free movement of people’, and the Wilcoxes, who always knew a good thing when they saw it, believe in all the cost-effective migrant workers the EU provides. They are also unhappy at what the lack of certainty in the financial markets might do to their investment portfolios. Henry is very much in agreement with the Institute of Directors and the CBI about supporting Remain. ‘Tradition, national sovereignty, common law, social cohesion and the like are all very well,’ one can imagine him saying, ‘but there are profit margins and balance sheets to be considered.’

All of them would have been absolutely horrified to wake up on June 24, 2016, to find Britain had voted to Leave.

All except for Bast and Jacky, of course, who after being on the receiving end of ‘centrist’ politicians for many years voted for Brexit as a last chance to stop Britain becoming a foreign country. Hyper-immigration has driven up the cost of rented accommodation in London (incidentally, liberal policing has sent knife and drug crime soaring in the couple’s borough, along with antisocial behaviour), and Bast’s job in a call centre does not give the couple much cash to play with. As he now finds it difficult to see his GP owing to the number of patients enrolled at the surgery, his chances of surviving the undiagnosed heart condition that afflicts him in the novel are not greatly improved.

Grammar school might have been a way out of low-paid drudgery for the bright and well-read Bast. Alas, they have been all but abolished in modern Britain by liberal progressives of the Schlegel school of thought, grinding social mobility to a virtual halt. Bast spent his school years at a chaotic comprehensive learning about climate change, homophobia, sexism and racism. Nowadays the chances of him meeting someone like Helen Schlegel through a shared interest in Beethoven seem more remote than they were in 1910.

Forster’s renowned epigraph to the novel is ‘Only connect . . .’ but while society’s Schlegels and Wilcoxes have done quite a bit of that on various levels, the Basts of Britain are as disconnected as they ever were.

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Robert James
Robert James
Robert James is a national newspaper journalist.

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