Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Empires of Objects: Accumulation and Entropy in E. M. Forster's Howards End

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Empires of Objects: Accumulation and Entropy in E. M. Forster's Howards End

Article excerpt

[T]here seems something else in life besides time, something which may conveniently be called "value," something which is measured not by minutes or hours, but by intensity, so that when we look at our past it does not stretch back evenly but piles up into a few notable pinnacles...

--E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel 19

One of the evils of money is that it tempts us to look at it rather than at the things that it buys.

--E. M. Forster, Two Cheers for Democracy 6-7

Speaking to a BBC audience in 1946 on the topic of the "Challenge of Our Time," Forster addressed with candor and typical irony a dilemma that he felt keenly and unapologetically: his attempt to reconcile the ubiquity of the "New Economy" with the "Old Morality" that he felt was disappearing and which was to remain so indispensable to him in later years:

But though the education [I received] was humane it was imperfect, inasmuch as we none of us realized our economic position. In came the nice fat dividends, up rose the lofty thoughts, and we did not realize that all the time we were exploiting the poor of our own country and the backward races abroad, and getting bigger profits from our investments than we should. We refused to face this unpalatable truth....

All that has changed in the present century. The dividends have shrunk to decent proportions and have in some cases disappeared. The poor have kicked. The backward races are kicking--and more power to their boots. Which means that life has become less comfortable for the Victorian liberal, and that our outlook, which seems to me admirable, has lost the basis of golden sovereigns upon which it originally rose, and now hangs over the abyss....

[Y]ou are brought back again to that inescapable arbiter, your own temperament. When there is a collision of principles would you favour the individual at the expense of the community as I would? Or would you prefer economic justice for all at the expense of personal freedom? In a time of upheaval like the present, this collision of principles, this split in one's loyalties, is always occurring. (Two Cheers 56-58)

Faced with the growing disenfranchisement of England's working class and the ugly legacy of Victorian imperialism, the clarity and force with which Forster perceived the demands of ethical responsibility proved difficult to reconcile with his equally profound allegiance to private feeling and individual memory. This very ambivalence was to play a more subdued but nonetheless central role in Forster's later biography of his great-aunt, Marianne Thornton, where it runs throughout his nostalgic account of the Clapham Sect and its distinct blend of philanthropy, sentimentality, and moral conservatism. [1] As a family portrait the work is perfectly balanced, at once generous and deeply sympathetic--even proud--but always shrewd, sharply observed, and conscious of anachronism. Here was the very source of emotions that Forster recognized as most intimately and resolutely his own--the deep attachment to a family home not least among them--and yet the picture jarred with the contemporary world he observed around him, where a friend's farm could be commandeered by the Ministry of Town and Country Planning and appropriated for subdivisions and public housing. [2] His awareness of his own contradictory position could only be made more acute by his fond exercise in family biography: as a young boy Forster had inherited from his great-aunt Marianne the seed capital for a lifetime of investment, dividends, and freedom from conventional wage labor. Although the bequest was to cause him occasional dismay throughout his life, he recognized that it left him free to pursue a career as a professional writer. [3]

Written more than three decades before Marianne Thronton, Howards End (1910) marks the conversion of a writer's personal ambivalence into a specific formal problem: the work may be read as an extended meditation on the difficulty of representing capital accumulation, in all its elusive and terrifying abstraction, as a total process. …

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