Surveying Howards End

It was the book’s key phrase, “Only Connect,” that led me to purchase a copy of E. M. Forster’s Howards End a few years ago.  I forget what writing about community included the quote, but it was more than enough to get me to look for a Barnes and Noble Classic edition.  I read the first few pages and couldn’t get into it at all.  (I am too often that way with anything that carries a whiff of the classics, unfortunately.  Maybe it’s my way of saving things for later in life?)

I had heard word that a cable company was doing an adaptation of the book, but it wasn’t something I pursued.  But I’ve also been missing some BBC from my life (such a long break for Doctor Who while Broadchurch and Orphan Black are both over and done).  So when it showed up in iTunes over the weekend, I thought I’d give it a try.  I have to admit, it was quite enjoyable.  Granted, I have not seen the 1992 Academy Award-winning adaptation, but I sometimes take an approach to classic movies that reflects my approach to classic books.

What I like about the story really is the interesting approach it takes to the idea of connection and interpersonal responsibility.  The story follows two sisters, the Schlegels, as the connect up and down socially in turn-of-the-century England.  Their interest in books and music and the humanities is something you just don’t see articulated all that often.  And when they find people in other “classes” that share some of those interests . . . well, it’s an opportunity for both connection and disaster.  There are some very hopeful moments, moments where a thing like loneliness is named, moments where you believe that we have within us the ability to transcend some of the ways life divides us.  And then there are the disastrous moments where the connection goes bad, where the other parts of what make us human work against our hopes of “only connecting.”

It probably isn’t a mini-series for everyone.  There’s a lot of talking but not much action.  Fans of the earlier movie will probably find much to dislike (though Hayley Atwell and Philippa Coulthard are brilliant as the Schlegel sisters).  Perhaps more than many recent works, though, it hints to and points at something that too often is missing from our discussion of life and culture today.  Something spoken plainly of in this current First Things article.  Even at its darkest, though, Howards End points to the possibility of connection, which is no small thing in our world today.

Here’s a look at the trailer for the series.  Be warned: spoilers.

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