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Discussed in this episode
Howard’s End by E.M. Forster
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Hello Bookworms! Welcome to the Best Book Ever, the podcast where we talk about your favorite books. This week, we’re talking about my favorite book. I’ve been out of the office for a while, visiting my son, shopping at indie bookstores (while wearing a mask – hint, hint) and reading until my eyeballs fall out. So instead of doing a new interview this week, I wanted to share an episode from one of my favorite bookish podcasts, The Your Favorite Book podcast. If that title sounds familiar, it’s because I had the host Malavika Praseed as a guest on my podcast back in episode 29, when we talked about The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Malavika is, quite honestly, a brilliant book critic and a thoughtful reader, not to mention a truly funny human being. Although our podcasts have a similar premise, she often takes a more critical and even academic approach to the books. I learn something new with each episode I listen to.
Most of my guests asked me my favorite book at some point in our conversation. And I never really get into it for a few different reasons. For one, my show is about my guests’ opinions, not mine. For another, I have as much trouble picking a favorite as you do. My whims change every single day. Finally, everyone already knows that if I have to choose my all-time favorite book, it’s Howard’s End, and I probably talk about it too much as it is. But when Malavika invited me onto her podcast, we did a deep dive into Howard’s End. I have both highly personal and critical reasons for loving it so much. And I thought you might enjoy listening to my side of the story. The E.M. Forster classic is both my comfort read and my critical favorite and is, in my opinion, the Best Book Ever.
Please enjoy this episode of the Your Favorite Book podcast.
Malavika Praseed: I didn’t expect to have any fun talking about a dusty old British novel, but sometimes connecting with a good friend and a podcast when can really help get the laughter. Welcome to Your Favorite Book. Today’s guest is the host of the Best Book Ever podcast, Julie Strauss. How are you today?
Julie Strauss: I’m doing wonderful. Thank you so much for having me, Malavika.
MP: It is a pleasure having you on today. Where do we begin? Such a fun story, for everybody listening. Julie and I met in a very unconventional way. Basically, I discovered her podcast, and discovered that the themes of her podcast are somewhat similar to mine, which I’ll have her discuss. I just reached out, basically saying I come in peace, and it’s just been a lovely little podcast relationship since then.
JS: We’re podcast twins. That’s what I keep telling everyone. I’ve got a podcast twin sister, and I love that so much.
MP: It’s really great because you know, the whole podcast universe, nothing is ever super, super unique. Especially in the world of book podcasts. But it’s like you told me, you can never have enough book podcasts.
JS: Right. All readers know that there’s no such thing as too much book content.
MP: And that’s certainly true. The more we read, the more content we want. Julie, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and about your podcast?
JS: I am a writer and editor. I live in Southern California with my husband and four kids. And, my podcast is called the Best Book Ever Podcast. It’s got a very similar theme as yours in that I invite people on to tell me about their favorite book, and I read their book in advance so that I can talk to them about it. The driving ethos of the podcast has always been, to get to know interesting people by asking them about their favorite book. And I intentionally don’t want them to try to convince me of anything. I want to know why they love it, and what’s interesting to them about each book. To me, it’s always been the way I get to know people. I’ve never been good at small talk. I’m not good at group situations. I get very intimidated by crowds, but one-on-one, I can always say to someone, what have you been reading lately? What’s your favorite book? And even if they say, oh, I don’t read, or, I haven’t read since high school then that’s an easy next question. Why don’t you read? What was the last book you liked? Was there a book a teacher gave you that you liked? Was there a book that made you stop reading? It’s been an entry point for me whenever I feel like I can’t talk to someone. I always have that. Even for non-readers or even for people who don’t read a lot, I’ve always felt that there is a way to connect there because the why is what’s interesting.
MP: Absolutely. You are a woman after my own heart, for sure. There was not a moment of that I didn’t relate to. There’s something just so satisfying about a one-on-one conversation, just really getting to know the deepest parts of another person. And often that is the media we consume. Myself being a book lover, there’s just been so much joy in interviewing people about their all-time favorites. And so I’m happy I found my podcast twin and that we’re both doing the work and asking these questions.
JS: It’s so great. I love talking to you and I love listening to your show. I think your podcast is just wonderful and it’s so fun to hear other people asking the same things and, and listening to the way you question and comparing it to, I would have asked this and I’m so glad that you asked it that way because that’s just great. I love learning from you and I love learning from your guests. I’m so happy that we found each other.
MP: And if you’re a listener of Julie’s podcast or a listener of mine and haven’t heard the others, I’m sure you’ll find a lot to love in both of our shows. We ask a lot of similar questions, but we’re two different hosts and we have two different styles and two different attitudes towards books. We come from different backgrounds and different life experiences, and we bring all of that to the table. So you’re not getting any repeat content with them.
MP: And so, Julie, when you introduced yourself, I just have to ask how is it having four children during a pandemic?
JS: Well, the thing for us is we have been homeschoolers for a long time. The kids have kind of gone various ways in school and I’m used to homeschooling. So, it wasn’t the massive adjustment that it was for a lot of parents. It’s still not. A lot of people say to me all the time, I don’t know how you’ve been doing this all these years. And I have to keep saying, this is not homeschooling. What parents are doing now is not at all what homeschooling is like. Because our homeschool life has always been out and about, being out in the world and field trips and museums and constant trips to libraries and bookstores. And it was always a very, very active, very social life. And we don’t have that now. So, we’re as miserable as everyone else. But the bigger point of it, I think, is that the worry, I think, is so tremendous. And I find that exhausting and every parent I know is exhausted. It’s just all you think about, you know? I’m a sandwich generation person, in that I have elderly parents and I have my children. And it’s all I think about. How is everyone? Is everyone being safe? How can I take care of them? And a lot of the times I can’t, and we just have to hope for the best. And so, you know, it sucks. The answer to this question, for everyone, I think, is being in anything in a pandemic year just sucks.
MP: I identify with you there. I’m not a parent, not yet, but I’m a healthcare worker. I always say, being a healthcare worker in a pandemic really sucks. And like you said, you could be anything and it just sucks, right? Distance yourselves, wear your masks and stay safe, especially if you’re in the United States. Take care of everybody and yourselves.
JS: Yes. The More You Know, from Julie and Malavika.
MP: Back to the book. So our book today – I was not expecting this choice from you at all. Our book today is Howard’s End by E.M. Forster. For everybody listening, this is a book I had heard of. I’ve certainly heard of E.M. Forster. I’ve read a little of his work before, which I’ll get to. This book itself, I had never pictured reading. It’s just not my usual time period. It’s not my usual genre. And so I was thinking, okay, this is what the podcast is all about. It’s me getting outside my own literary comfort zone and picking up books I otherwise wouldn’t have picked up at the library. I’ll tell everyone in advance, I am grateful for picking this up. This was a very interesting read and I hope you all find it just as interesting as the two of us find it.
JS: That’s so great to hear. I’m always nervous when I give this book to people, and I do give it away a lot.
MP: That’s what I was going to ask you. I need to know how people react to this recommendation. But essentially, before we jump in to the book, I want to give you a bit of a summary for everybody listening at home. So essentially in E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, this is a detailed exploration of three different families. We have the Wilcox’s, the Schlegels and the Basts. E.M. Forster shows us the extent of class division in turn of the century England. And he reflects on how morals and propriety are really are relative. It all depends on how much money you have. So that is my very, very biased, little summary. There there’s a lot more to this book than that, but that was my overall takeaway message, which we’ll elaborate on. But Julie, I just have to hear from you. When did you first discover this?
JS: Well, I actually, I have a funny history with this book. After I graduated college, I backpacked through Europe for four months by myself. And when I got to Paris, you’re not going to believe this because this was a long time ago – this was 1992 – my budget was $30 a day, which in most countries was plenty of money. That was for my lodging and food and whatever activities I wanted to do. And, at the time, that was plenty of money. And then I got to Paris and literally every day I had to decide if I wanted to eat or to do something. If I wanted to go to a museum, I just didn’t eat that day. That was just the way it was. I didn’t have the budget for it. So I stayed in hostels and I would sneak an extra roll in my backpack and go to a museum. And that was all I had that day. Which was fine. I mean, you know, I loved it. It was a fantastic time. But a bout of loneliness hit me as I was going through Paris and I was sad that I couldn’t really enjoy the city the way I had always envisioned enjoying the city. I was kind of wondering around, feeling sort of morose and lonely. And I kept seeing this movie poster with Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins. And it was hot outside. That’s the other thing; it was a really hot summer, and I just wanted to go and watch a movie. And I couldn’t. I couldn’t spend the money. But I saw that poster everywhere and I kept thinking, I cannot wait. When I get home, this will be the first movie I see. I had such affection for it just based on the poster, and I knew nothing about it. So when I eventually got home back to the states, I saw the movie and fell wildly in love with it. I think it is a beautiful movie. And then I immediately went and found the book and, as always happens, there’s so much more to the book than the movie. My love of the movie is undimmed. I will rewatch the movie as often as I reread the book, because I think it’s absolutely wonderful. But of course, I love the book more. And for some reason it just became the book that I kept returning to both as comfort and as challenge. To me, it’s very much a warm blankie of a book in that when I am sad or when I am in a reading slump or when I don’t have the energy to really take on something new, this is the book I will turn to. But also, when I am working on something and I want an example of how to plot well, or how to create a turn of phrase that communicate several things, I will also turn to this book for that. I frequently will pick it up and think, I want to get back to that passage where Margaret talks about this or that. I will go to it just for Forster’s writing skills, or to learn something.
MP: There is so much there I want to unpack, but the first thing is: how rare is that that a comfort read also serves as a literary example? I feel like the two are usually never one in the same, but that’s a rare find of a book that provides you both comfort as well as, like you said, comfort and challenge. So that’s such an interesting concept.
JS: I feel like usually people talk about one or the other, but never really both in one book. And I think that’s why it has sustained for so long in my life and why I reread it so often. Because I have a lot of books that are nothing but comfort and that’s fine too. I’m all for an easy, comfortable read. And I’m all for a really difficult challenge. But this one just gets re-read most often because it’s both.
MP: That makes a lot of sense. And then additionally, you talk about backpacking through Europe, which despite your stringent budget, still sounds absolutely glamorous and marvelous, and I’m jealous.
JS: It was very fun.
MP: It’s very similar to an experience I had, which it’s so funny how Facebook gives you the memory updates? So apparently, five years ago to the day, my now husband and I were in Ireland. And we had taken a little weekend trip over to London and the two of us budgeted almost nothing for this trip. And while we were never really choosing between, you know, we didn’t have $30 a day. I mean, it was only five years ago, but it was still often choosing between, do we want to eat decent food or do we want to actually see things? And we didn’t get to go inside Westminster Abbey. We just kind of looked at it and things like that. We also smuggled food out of our hostel. They had a bar and I had a Tupperware and I just like smashed slices of the ham into it.
JS: It’s funny because we went to Paris, my husband and I, we took our kids and we went to Paris on our 25th anniversary. And I was the proverbial kid in the candy store. I was going, I’m going to buy a croissant! I’m going to buy this! Like, I just walked in and my husband kept saying Haven’t you been to Paris? And I went, Nope, not like this, not when I actually could buy things. And it was magical. It was exactly what you want Paris to be.
MP: And it’s so funny. Cause my husband talks about going back to London and doing exactly the same thing. He’s like, I want to go to London. I want to actually eat full meals and I want to see things.
JS: Right. You’ll get there. It’s a different experience. That was the other odd thing for me was that when I was there by myself, I was very, very cautious. I was a woman traveling alone. And I saw almost nothing of Paris at night, and I could not get over it, when we went a couple of years ago, I just couldn’t get over how beautiful it is. It’s called the City of Lights. And I just, all I wanted to do was walk around all night. I just couldn’t see that when I was traveling by myself, cause I just never felt quite safe enough to walk around by myself. So it’s really a much more magical experience when you have a little bit of money and confidence and are maybe a little more, a little smarter as well.
MP: That’s true. That’s true. Definitely true. But you’re making me, we, my husband and I were supposed to go on our honeymoon. We were supposed to go to Paris and the pandemic happened. So got our fingers crossed for some time in the future.
JS: Oh, I’ve got my fingers crossed for you. It’s all I think about, every day. I think about where I want to travel.
MP|: I do too. Um, but anyway, returning back to Howard’s End. So you say you reread this all the time. How often would you say you reread it, and then, how has your opinion of the book changed over time?
JS: Well, easily once a year, sometimes twice a year. I tend to go for it in January, I’ve noticed, which I can’t exactly explain why. It just kind of, it tends to be my first book of the year. I have felt everything about this book. I have been in phases of my life where I think it is romantic as hell. When I was very young, that was what I thought. And I’ve thought it was tragic and the saddest thing I ever read. And this time rereading it to speak with you, all I could think about was economics and countries moving forward and who gets to rule the country moving forward. Reading it in 2020 is a completely different experience.
MP: Right. Absolutely. It’s so hard to put any piece of literature, like reading anything now without having the context of 2020. I was speaking to another guest. We talked about Quiet by Susan Cain, and about being an introvert. And we’re like, we can’t talk about this and not talk about being isolated due to COVID. These things just come up naturally. When you think about books and with this one, that idea of, the haves and have-nots, who gets to decide how a country is run, who gets to decide what social morals are, how much does money play a role in that? You ask all those questions while reading this book for sure. And I picked up on all of those things as well. So, you’ve re-read this a number of times. I’m doing the math in my head. 1992, you’ve read this at least once a year. That’s a lot of reads.
JS: That’s a lot of years.
MP: Would you say that, do you feel kinder towards any different characters in particular, the older you’ve gotten? Has that changed for you?
JS: I get more compassionate every time I read it. For everyone. I have definitely gone through phases where every one of them irritated me, and I’ve gone through phases where I read it and I have a favorite character each time. Margaret’s always been my favorite. She’s basically the main character, Margaret Schlegel. She’s always been, I think, most similar to me, personality wise. I think we’re kind of intended to sympathize with her, as the reader. But as I grow older, I feel such compassion, even for the ones who are obnoxious or stuck in their ways, you know? Henry’s son, Charles, you know, he’s the terrible version of Henry. He’s the terrible version of capitalism. He’s what happens when we let colonialists just go without taking care to teach them compassion and kindness. And now I read it, I feel very sympathetic toward him. He sort of doesn’t have a choice. He was told in his life that it’s all about gathering wealth and gathering prestige and esteem. And wasn’t really given the tools for doing that except for inheriting it, or taking it from others. He has a very sad end, and now I just have tremendous sympathy for him. He had as little shot at success as Leonard Bast did.
MP: Absolutely. I find it so interesting in this book, one of the main things that stood out to me about this book is this is not a very long book. And even with the limited number of pages, I think my edition is under 300 pages, And even with that limited number of pages, what we get is even if they aren’t exactly lovable, all these characters, they’re all very nuanced. They all show some sort of change. They all have significant arcs. It’s hard to balance that number of characters and still give them all a storyline and give them all a purpose in this world. My hat’s off to E.M. Forster for that.
JS: Right. And I agree with you. They’re all interesting, even when they’re, you know – Dolly. She’s silly, whatever, ridiculous, but she keeps the plot going. And she’s an interesting person. She’s an interesting character and she’s a great foil for Margaret. And she’s a relatively small character. And so I agree with you. He’s so good at creating these people who, if you got a book about even the smallest character, it would be a really fascinating story.
MP: Absolutely. And you mentioned Dolly being a foil for Margaret, and I think another way you can look at this is if you think about social class, Dolly’s also kind of an interesting comparison to Jackie, because in that essence, you have two characters that may not have a lot of intellectual substance, but one character has a considerably more prestige because of the class she’s been born into. A certain amount more of respectability, a lack of hard times, and we see how to essentially similar characters intellectually just get two different ends in society.
JS: Exactly. Yes. Yeah. I never thought of it that way, but you’re exactly right. Jackie is the poor version of Dolly.
MP: Exactly. Right. And it goes to show you in one of the big messages here is that all the qualities in of human nature, like there are no purely good people and bad people. It’s also, you have to look at the circumstances they come from. And going into that a little bit, um, I want to know: you’ve re-read this a number of times and you say you give this book out pretty freely. How other people react when you tell them this is your favorite? Have any of them read it themselves?
JS: Oh, I don’t know if anybody’s actually read it. I think people get sort of intimidated by this book. You know, it looks like a book that you’re assigned in school. It looks Victorian, and it looks like it’s going to be about manners, but not as funny as Jane Austen. I think people feel like it’s going to be homework and not a great story. That’s why I collect this book everywhere. Whenever I go to a bookstore, I always look and see if they have new or used copies of it and I’ll grab whatever I can. I intentionally do that for myself; I do like to have pretty copies of it. But also because when I’m talking to people about books and they say they haven’t read it, I love to hand it over and go, you know what? I have a spare right here. Which probably makes people just hate me, but I do it anyway. And what I always tell people is to watch the movie first. Which is so against my personal life philosophy, which is that the book is always better. I just think this movie is a great entry to this book if you are intimidated by it. There’s something about this book that I think intimidates a lot of people. Like a lot of people won’t read Dickens because it just looks huge and terrifying. I’m that way with Anna Karenina, which I know a lot of people love. But for some reason, every time I look at it, I think, oh God, no, that’s hard to read. And I know that’s not true. I know I would love it if I just sat down and read it. But with this one, I always say, start with the movie because you can’t help but love it. The actors are brilliant. It’s so perfectly cast. It gives you a great overview of the story. And then it’s very, very easy to slide right into the book from there because you know what’s going on, and it’s a really fair portrayal of each of the characters. And without ruining what you might imagine in the book. So I guess that’s a long answer to, I don’t think people generally like it when I hand the book over, but I always preface it with, okay I’m giving you permission to watch the movie first.
MP: Honestly, I don’t think that’s bad advice. And I think that’s advice that can carry over to basically any book that intimidates you, especially when you’re talking about older books. British literature just tends to intimidate. I mean, you mentioned Dickens. The example I give is my husband knew I really liked Pride and Prejudice, and I know you did an episode on Pride and Prejudice. I’ve always loved it. My husband’s mother, it’s her favorite book. So it has always been in his life, but he had never read the book. And then he went to a stage version of me and he’s like, I can’t tell what’s going on at all. And then he tried to read some of it, and said, I can’t tell what’s going on here. And then we just sat down and watched a movie version and he’s like, okay. I could see myself actually reading this book now because at least now I have a context for it. It’s like, as long the hard parts, the major plot lines are out of the way, then you can focus on the actual language. There’s not that dual pressure to get both the story and the language out of a difficult text
JS: Exactly. I think you’ve hit it exactly.
MP: And this book, honestly, I will admit: we’ve mentioned British literature. I am not a British literature fan, especially older British literature. I have a few exceptions. I like Jane Austen books. I abhor Charles Dickens. I can’t stand anything he’s written. It’s just not for me. Then there are the Brontes. I find Jane Eyre kind of … I’ve never really been into older British literature. I think it was probably an act of rebellion against my mother. That was her favorite type of book.
JS: Oh, interesting.
MP: She’s probably listening. Hi, Mom!
JS: Hi, Mom! Mom, read Howards End, you’re going to love it.
MP: I think my mom would really like this, actually. But this book, essentially, I had a really hard time kind of placing this in time because, somehow, I kind of group all British literature in around Jane Austen’s time, when this a hundred years later. The good news is, we are brought in to a hundred years later because there’s so much that happens in this book that literally could not happen in Jane Austen’s time at all. Not only cars and things, but just the interactions we see between social classes. We do not see that in anything of Jane Austen’s. It’s one class, it’s that small microcosm. And here we have kind of a broader reality. We’re starting to see the world broaden out a little bit more. And that’s really interesting.
JS: Yeah. Yes. And you know just yesterday I read an article that there’s a kerfuffle going on in England right now, because evidently there was a commercial with a Black family celebrating Christmas. Have you heard of this?
MP: I did, yes. I heard of this.
JS: A bunch of white people went crazy because it doesn’t represent “true Britain.” And all I could think was, oh my God, we are still talking about this. They are still having the same arguments that the Schlegels and Wilcoxes are having in Howard’s End, which is: who gets to be British? Who gets to claim this? And it’s so horrible to me, and pisses me off, but it’s also just fascinating. We just, we can’t learn.
MP: Absolutely. And you can extrapolate this to the United States too. I don’t know if you remember this, but a few years ago there was a very harmless Cheerios commercial, and the Cheerios commercial showed a biracial family and everyone made a big stink about it. And I’m like, I’m sorry. Some families are just interracial.
JS: We can’t get into spoilers, but I do think that the conclusion that E.M. Forster seemed to come to was you can scream all you want. The people who inherit Howard’s End and the people who eventually are going to inherit England, and every country, are going to be a blend of what you think is correct and what you think is incorrect. And that’s just the way it is. That’s the way of the world. And it’s a very specific story: wealthy, white English people. But it’s a very broad story of people fighting to hang on to things and people fighting their fears. And that’s why I think that even though it is a very specific time and place, it really continues to appeal to me. Because we are still having the same arguments here in the States, and I think in a lot of places in the world.
MP: It’s interesting. You bring up how timeless this book really is. And this book actually resonates for a lot of other writers. The one example I found when looking into this is a Zadie Smith, when she wrote her novel On Beauty about 15 years ago, that book was actually an homage to Howard’s End. It started an interracial family. It was that kind of pushing forward into the new Britain. She even named the main character Howard. I haven’t read this book yet, but I intend to, and I just thought that was a really interesting way of pushing forth this idea, because the main theme in the end here is time just marches on. It just keeps going and you can be left behind or not. And so, getting back to this book, you mentioned spoilers. I want to tell everybody listening here: You think a book is like a hundred years old and there won’t be any spoilers or you think this book is going to be boring and British and there’s nothing interesting to spoil? This book has spoilers. It really does. I was shocked so many times reading this. I listened to this book on audio books. I have a bit of a lengthy commute. And I played this on audio and there were times I’m just on the road, and then I just, like, blink a few seconds. I have to keep driving, but I’m like, what just happened?
JS: I have never listened to this on audio in all my years of loving this book. Tell me, what is that like? Do you know who the narrator is?
MP: I don’t, but she’s a very British lady. Her accent is very posh. This was interesting for me because when you recommended this, I was, you know, I had my sort of misgivings about British literature. It’s also been so long since I’ve read anything quite this old just for fun. I have a print copy that I got from the library and I started reading it and I got to a point where my eyes were starting to glaze over. And I’m like, I think I’m just tired. But the audio book really did it for me. The story just came alive as soon as I listened to it. And really, I think what it did is the pacing worked for me. You’re able to sort of listen to the rhythm of the language and appreciate it. But there was a lot of personality brought to some of the voices. I thought that was really good. It was just very enjoyable audio book. And I recommend that if you, like me, are intimidated by older books, find an audio book. Or, like we’ve recommended, try the movie out. And now here’s, my second recommendation is try an audio book. They do add like a new spin and a little bit of flavor. To something that just might not be hitting for you trying to read it on paper.
JS: And a good audio actor is just golden. They can just make a story come to life. So that is a great recommendation. I’m so glad to hear you say that. I’m going to look for this on audio because I never even thought of doing that.
MP: Yeah, I’m like, all right, I’ll try this out. Get some passive reading done while I drive. And it was great. We’ve talked about spoilers here. We’ve talked about, we’ve talked a little about the characters here, but I was wondering what to say about these characters and one of the messages here of Howard’s End is: the family, the story, is really about this house, this beautiful house. And in that way, this book is not really about the characters. It’s about the setting that E.M. Forster portrays, and about this context in time. So, this was written about 1910. It was one of E.M. Forster’s earlier novels. It was just a really interesting exploration of this sort of turn of century time. We’ve got the modernizing of England. We’ve got the whiffs of women’s suffrage going on. We’ve gotten motorcars and smoke and urbanization is just starting. But then we have the pastoral landscape of Howards End as a juxtaposition. And the setting of this book is really quite beautiful.
JS: And I know that that’s very much part of the appeal for me. That’s the comfort blanket appeal to it for, for me. I have this vision of this home and in my mind, and it’s stuffed to the gills with books and they drink tea and discuss books. And oh, my goodness, it’s just sounds so perfect. Idyllic. You know, the field of hay next to them. I can’t imagine anything better.
MP: Yeah. And even London, London comes alive. It seems so fun and vital. The life of going to symphonies and talking with people about it, intellectual topics, if you’re a book nerd, you’ll, you’ll find your little nuggets to enjoy here. I think I want to sort of switch gears a little bit and talking about E.M. Forster himself. And before we get to him, Julie, had you read any of his other books? Have you delved into his bibliography?
JS: I have. I’ve read quite a few of his books and I have several biographies of him, um, that I actually haven’t read. I just buy them because I get compulsive when I see anything about him. But I know a bit about his history and he also has a quite vast catalog of literary criticism and has written nonfiction about writing fiction. He was very prolific. So yes, I, I know a bit about him, but I’m really eager to hear what you’ve dug up.
MP: Really my only experience with Forster is, I think 10 years ago, I tried to read A Passage to India. But 10 years ago, I was about 15, and it bored me to tears. So, I’ll give it another shot. My mom told me it’s a beautiful book. Now with the knowledge I know of it being essentially an example of Orientalist fiction, you know, a person’s gaze on the colonial landscape, you take this all with a grain of salt, but I’m going to give it another go. Finding that I really did enjoy this Forster novel, thinking about him, particularly as a writer, he’s a really interesting character. One of the things he brings into this novel is some of the ideas of the Bloomsbury group that he was part of. His circle of intellectuals and writers. Did you know that the Schlegel sisters were based on Virginia Wolf and her sister?
JS: No. Were they really?
MP: I mean, according to Wikipedia and a couple other encyclopedias. They were in similar literary circles and there’s an idea that the Schlegel sisters are based on Vanessa and Virginia. I don’t know how true that is, but I want to believe it.
JS: That is so interesting.
MP: It really is. Cause then you think, what would Margaret, be like? If she was out in the world, and you think of her turning into someone like Virginia Wolf, she does have a certain amount of melancholy to her. So, not inconceivable. It was really exciting to see, because one of the interesting things about this book is just how much focus there is on our two female leads, the Schlegel sisters. We have Margaret and Helen who are distinct, well-rounded characters.
JS: And I think that was pretty unusual for Forster’s time to write such nuanced female characters, and to have them be, well, Margaret, the moral center of the entire story. You know that she wasn’t just carping off from the side, the way female characters are so frequently reduced to. She’s very much the moral and ethical center, and the one who struggles with the morals and ethics of the story. I think is so interesting.
MP: She really is a liaison in many ways, between, you know, we have our three families, the very upper class privileged Wilcoxess who have made their money off of colonialism, who are more secure in their standing. And then the Basts, from lower-class England. They are a working class, struggling people. The Schlegels kind of represent this burgeoning middle-class, this liberal idea. And the follies that can come with that class because they’re comfortable. They try to elevate the Basts. They’re well-meaning, but a lot of their initiatives are short-sighted. And I think by having those flaws in those characters, it really made them interesting.
JS: Right. I’m sorry, I’m going to bring it back to politics again. You’re probably going to want to cut this, but I couldn’t help think this. I thought reading it in 2020, Margaret really represented the sort of white, liberal woman of 2020, in that she’s got all these great ideas of how we can help and how we can do things, while standing on her privilege the entire time. And who does she marry? The industrialist who’s cannibalizing another continent. She’s arguing and arguing and arguing with him, but she’s still married him. And I kept thinking, as I was reading it, gosh, 55% of white women, we know who you voted for.
MP: Oh my God. I am not cutting that because I had that literally written down in my notes, 55%. And absolutely her ideas are great. And I love that she struggles with things, but she doesn’t entirely get it right, does she?
JS: No, she doesn’t.
MP: And I think that makes her all the more real. we don’t have this sort of completely in the right character. None of these characters really are truly good. They all have nuance to them. They all have darkness in them. And that makes these real people. I I’m impressed with Forster’s ability to bring this many characters to life and give them this much nuance. And then getting back to Forster himself, adding to his dimensions: he was an out, at least out for his time period, an out gay man. Never married, well-known in his circles for being an out gay man. And then another fun thing is, did you know he was nominated for the Nobel Prize 16 times and never won?
JS: No, I didn’t! No kidding? 16 times. I would be so frustrated. Eventually you’d start going. Okay, now they’re just messing with you.
MP: Right. And they only give it to a living writer, and he lived a long, long time. But you could tell he’s probably getting to a certain age and he’s like, come on.
JS: He probably thinks, it’s that time of year; they’re going to nominate me again for nothing.
MP: I just thought that was so funny. I didn’t have a full biography of him or anything, but I just like to gather up a few facts and present them. It is interesting delving into these writers, especially when they’ve been dead for so long. You want to bring them back to life a little bit. Another thing with this book, if I’m gonna levy any criticisms here, because I didn’t fall in love with Howard’s End. In the end, this isn’t the type of book I personally would fall in love with. I was definitely pleasantly surprised, but I think in the end, some aspects of the writing style to me did feel a little uneven and I’ll give you an example. I don’t have a written example, but essentially Forster, he spends a lot of time delving into thoughts, into feelings, into descriptions. I think he’s a master of character interiority. So we have the section that comes to mind for me is Margaret deciding whether or not she loves Mr. Wilcox and she thinks about this and she starts weighing, what does love really mean? And what does it mean to love versus like? It’s all very intellectual and very telling about this character. Very well rendered. I loved that about this, and we see a lot of that introspection, but then on the flip side, when it comes to like writing plot points, like you’ll be going through this chapter and then all of a sudden, and then they died the end! Things like that, for me, driving and listening to that, that they were like, and now dead. And I’m like, what?
JS: Right. I can see that.
MP: I don’t know if some readers might find that very thrilling and in some ways it is, but for me, I was wondering, what did I miss?
JS: My husband and I have this joke. We have very different reading and movie-watching styles. If I watch something without him, and if he asked me if I liked it and I’ll say I loved it and he’ll go, “Oh, so it’s all about characters.” If I say, no, I didn’t like it, but you would have liked it, he says, “Oh, so it’s about plot.” We kind of have this joke that I am all about characters. I just want to know what people are thinking. What they did is never as interesting as why the hell would they do that? Or what made them think that was okay? That’s always so fascinating to me. I see your criticism. I think the reason I can skip over it so easily is because my next question is always, wait, why did you do that? And what were you thinking? That’s so, and there’s a lot of thinking in this book. A lot.
MP: Yes. People do a lot more thinking than doing in this book, except in very pivotal moments that just shock you because no one’s done anything for 30 pages.
JS: Yes. And then they think about what they did. Poor Leonard Bast. He thinks for a really long time about that big mistake he made.
MP: Oh, my gosh, poor Leonard Bast. I think that that’s a moral of a story. I don’t want to delve into him too much, but poor Leonard. I felt for him. But if you like a character driven novel, which I certainly do, and that’s why I liked a lot of this book, I think you’ll find a lot to love in Howard’s End. I think plot wise, this book does move at a very interesting pace because you know, for so long, not much is happening and then things peed up very quickly. And maybe that kind of uneven pacing works for you. I know there’s a lot of readers that that works for. For me, I think it was a bit of a mixed bag, but I think it’s part of the stylistic choice, which I respect.
JS: I love so much that you share on your podcast, your criticisms of it. I think that’s so exciting.
MP: I like to do it, and it’s really funny cause I’ll talk to guests about it and then they agree with what I’m saying. And then I’m like, oh, why is this your favorite? Then my guests, maybe it’s proof that I’m a good persuasive person? Who knows.
JS: Well, I have such a deep affection for this book, that there is almost nothing you could say to me. I can take it. I can take any criticisms, ‘cause I will still go, Yeah, that’s fine, you can think what you want. It’s still the best book ever.
MP: I respect that. So, you know, coming to a close here, I know if you love a book so much, it’s probably really hard to think of other books along similar veins, but if you had to pick one book for further reading, if you like Howard’s End, what’s a book you would pick?
JS: You already mentioned On Beauty, which I have read, and I did really like, but didn’t love. I do like Zadie Smith a lot. But I didn’t love that one. I think because of my history with Howard’s End. I wish I didn’t know that it was meant to be an homage to Howard’s End, because I think I would’ve really liked it otherwise. But it is a very, very good book. And the other one, a really modern take that I would recommend is a book called One Day by David Nicholls, which isn’t based on Howard’s End, but it references Howard’s End a lot. There was a movie of that one, too, with Anne Hathaway, which I didn’t love, but it’s the same idea of very flawed people and they meet one day and then they meet again the next year on the same day, it’s kind of a good sort of tragic love story. And there is a plot point that hinges on her being a big fan of Howards End. I am always tickled when I come across books that mention Howard’s End. People frequently will say, you got to read this book because the main character’s favorite book is Howard End. And so I’ve come across a lot of modern books where people have recommended because they know that whenever Howard’s End is mentioned, they tell me about it, which I always love.
MP: That’s so interesting because to me, I had heard of this book in passing, but I’ve never heard anybody mention it before. Now it’s going to be, I don’t know what that effect is called. You hear of one thing, and then you hear it everywhere forever. That’s what it’s going to be like.
JS: Well, and we’re friends now, so you’re going to hear me talk about it all the time. Every time I talked to you, I will find a way to bring it up. That’s just how I work.
MP: I expect that. I’m excited. . So, for me, not reading a lot of British literature, the examples I came up with to kind of go along with this book, both of them are American, so automatically it takes a bit of a different spin, but they’re from similar time periods. I’m going to present two books, one that I enjoyed and one that I didn’t enjoy. Stylistic similarities. And maybe you like one or the other, I don’t know. But one of these books is called The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington. The Magnificent Ambersons is noteworthy because it was the second book ever to win the Pulitzer Prize. I believe it was in 1919. So, this book is written a few years after Howard’s End, but it’s a very similar setting. We are in America and we’re seeing sort of the transition from your more upper class, more rural ruling family ideas, noble people, and then going into a rapidly industrializing society. And we see sort of the decay of one of America’s “great families” in favor of new money. So it’s that old money/new money conflict. Um, what kind of makes this book a little more sour than something like Howard’s End is instead of time marching on, you can tell Booth Tarkington really wants to turn back the clock. It’s pretty obvious. And you learn more about, if you delve into him, you learn more about his politics. He had a run as a Congressman, things like that. It all kind of makes sense. He’s one of those Pulitzer Prize winners – actually, to throw out a fun fact here, only about three writers have won the Pulitzer Prize twice. He’s actually one of them, but nobody’s never heard of him.
JS: Hmm. That’s interesting. What’s his other one?
MP: Alice Adams, which came a couple of years. The other writers to win twice, one was Faulkner, and the other was John Updike. So, a little more notoriety there.
JS: Is The Magnificent Ambersons the one you liked or disliked?
MP: Disliked. The one I liked that goes along with this is actually the third book ever to win the Pulitzer Prize. And that is Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence.
JS: Oh, good one.
MP: Yeah. Which I think has a lot of interesting ideas here that sort of tie into Howard’s End. The tone of Age of Innocence is very different. There is a cynicism in it. You can tell Edith Wharton has a lot of sarcasm in her writing that she kind of bubbles below the surface, which I enjoy. You also see a very similar setting. You see New York city told in similar ways to London of this time, rapidly changing. A lot happening in America at that time. And then we’re also shown some interpersonal dynamics. You see an inappropriate love story, which ties into Howard’s End, a lot of introspection, there’s just a lot of smaller thematic things. It’s less straightforward than The Magnificent Ambersons. In my opinion, it’s also a much better book. So, I would definitely check out either of those for people who have read Howard’s End and enjoyed it, and you’ll probably find something to like in either of these two books.
JS: Gosh, I’m so glad you mentioned that. I haven’t read Edith Wharton in ages, and now I am just dying to pick that one up again. I’m going to do that.
MP: I I’d say it’s a harder read than Howards End. Maybe this is another one I’m going to find on audio book. Cause it might be a little easier on the ears. But I think there’s just a lot of really interesting commentary. In The Age of Innocence that reminds me a lot of the commentary in Howard’s End.
JS: You know, it’s so funny because, particularly with the podcast, I’ve been introduced to a lot of literature and genres that I don’t normally gravitate to. In particular, fantasy. I’ve just never had an interest in fantasy. Just kind of leaves me cold in general. And I don’t know why. I don’t really have an explanation for that except that dragons are not interesting to me in general. And yet these books, like Edith Wharton books, and Howard’s End and Jane Austen, to me, that’s the kind of fantasy that I will go for every time. The bustles and the pearls and tea time and dress for dinner and manners and the subtleties of a look across the room. It’s, to me, very foreign and interesting, and I’m so fascinated by all of it. And I would so much rather read that type of story than, I don’t know, dragons and fairies and elves and all that kind of stuff.
MP: Right. It’s all just a form of escapism. And we all have our own fantasy elements that just come alive to us. And for some of us it’s dragons and fairies. For some of us, Regency romance. For others of us, it’s totally different. I like, as you know, Southern sad fiction about small, sad towns.
JS: As I learned!
MP: Before we close today, literally, right before we logged in, I found out a fun fact that I had to share with you.
MP: So they made a Howard’s End miniseries a couple of years ago. I don’t know if you saw it.
JS: I did.
MP: What did you think of that miniseries?
JS: I liked it. If you happened to hear my podcast with Jaimie Morimoto, she’s talked about Pride and Prejudice, and we actually discussed the Pride and Prejudice movies, and she had such an interesting take on it. She’s obsessed with Pride and Prejudice, and her favorite version of the movie is the one with Keira Knightley, which I dislike. I like the PBS miniseries with Colin Firth. Her take on it was that it’s not necessarily better to get every single line onto film. Until she said that I was not able to place why I like the movie version of Howard’s End better, so much better than the miniseries. And I liked the miniseries, but I didn’t love it the way I love the movie. And I think she hit the nail on the head because I think every line was in the miniseries, which is fine for me, because I was practically quoting along as I watched it. but I don’t think it necessarily makes for good watching. It makes for great reading, but I didn’t think it made for great watching. Whereas the theatrical version, the one that has Anthony Hopkins, I think makes for brilliant watching because they got the salient parts. They got the plot, I guess, is the point. They got all the points that you’re talking about. The few plot points that there are, and not quite so much thinking and dwelling, which is what appeals to me so much in the book. But it’s not necessarily a good visual experience.
MP: Right. That makes a lot of sense. And the reason I actually bring up the miniseries is, did you recognize the actor who played Henry Wilcox?
MP: He is the same actor that plays Darcy in the 2005 Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice.
JS: What? Are you serious?
MP: I am 100% serious. It is Matthew McFadyen. Who is 1995 lake scene Darcy.
JS: Oh my God.
MP: Oh, not 1995. Sorry. 2005. Keira Knightley Darcy.
JS: I can’t stand him as Darcy.
MP: That is a controversy for another time.
JS: But I thought he was a good Mr. Wilcox. That’s so interesting. No, I never put that together. That is really interesting. So, well, yeah. If there are any superheroes in my midst, I’m very easy to fool because clearly all you need to do is put on glasses and I will not know that you’re Superman.
MP: I had to share that with you, especially knowing your opinions of the Pride and Prejudice movies.
JS: I am so glad you brought them up.
MP: Anyway to wrap all this up, Julie, if we want to find more about you, if we want to find your podcast, how can we find you?
JS: My podcast is everywhere. It’s called the Best Book Ever podcast. And I have a website, and you can find me on Instagram. That’s my favorite place to be, Instagram. Pretty much hate all other social media. So you can find me on Instagram either at the Best Book Ever Podcast or at Julie Wrote a Book, and that’s it.
MP: Julie, always a pleasure. And I was so happy to be on your show. So definitely check out that episode and then I’m so happy to have you on my show.
J: Malavika it has been a delight. I’m delighted we found each other. I’m delighted to have a podcast twin. Thank you so much.
MP: And everyone listening, be sure to tune into episodes of Your Favorite Book every Thursday, and be sure to catch my episode on Julie’s podcast, when I talk about The Teart is a Lonely Hunter. Much sadder than Howards End!
Thanks for listening, Bookworms! You can follow this podcast on Instagram, or me, your host, Julie Strauss on Instagram.
If you’d like to hear more from this week’s guest, make sure to check out Malavika’s podcast, the Your Favorite Book podcast, and her delightful Instagram. We’ve overlapped topics a couple of times, and it’s really fun to listen to how we approach the same book or guests. For example, we’ve both hosted guests who chose A Song of Achilles, The Hating Game, and The Catcher in the Rye. And we’ve both hosted Daman Tiwana and Jasmine Vyas as guests. If you love my podcast, I know you’ll love hers. So make sure you subscribe.
That’s all for this week. I’ll be back next Monday with a new guest and a new book. Until then, I will see you at the library.