What Howards End can tell us about the social media age

The obvious idea that we have inner and outer lives is a crucial one for us to keep in our 21st-century sights.

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The 1992 film adaptation of EM Forster’s 1910 novel began with a back view. Vanessa Redgrave, playing the mystical Ruth Wilcox, walks in a twilit meadow in the grounds of her house, Howards End. This opening shot was an accident. Director James Ivory and a member of his crew noticed how beautifully the train of Redgrave’s dress moved along the grass, and spontaneously turned the camera on it. Now, BBC One’s rich and absorbing new television adaptation starts with a different (and presumably planned) back view, this time following the brisk step of a postman on his route through the London streets.

Director Hettie Macdonald and screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan’s decision to begin the story with the postman is astute, for although Ruth and her Hertfordshire home are at the core of Forster’s novel, the question of how we communicate with one another is the story’s most urgent concern.

The first episode, following Forster’s lead, sets up the scenario with the young, intellectual Helen Schlegel (Philippa Coulthard) writing letters to her sister Margaret (Hayley Atwell). On screen, this extended voice-over could have backfired as a piece of lazy exposition – Helen describes her holiday at Howards End with the conservative Wilcoxes, during which she falls in love with the house, the family and, most specifically, the youngest son, Paul (Jonah Hauer-King). But while a technical risk, the device both introduces us to and honours the novel’s central dynamic: the shared inner life of the Schlegel sisters, with its deep and complex frames of reference, private humour, and robust affection.

The sisters’ desire to be constantly connected, within the limits of their era’s technology, creates the initial confusion that kick-starts Forster’s comic drama. Helen reasonably enough believes that she and Paul have made an unspoken pact to be married, and immediately writes to tell her sister. But by the next morning the affair is over, and Helen’s letter home must be counteracted with a telegram, except that the prim and imprecise Aunt Juley (Tracey Ullman) is already on her way to Howards End to represent the Schlegel family. There is a heated, embarrassing quarrel on the lawn.

With the move from the private space of the letter to the indiscretion of the telegram, which requires at least two third parties to handle its contents, the external world bursts into the sisters’ intimacy. In the book, Margaret wonders at the strangeness of social propriety, telling Helen that, “There is a great outer life that you and I have never touched – a life in which telegrams and anger count.”

The ostensibly obvious idea that we have inner and outer lives is a crucial one for us to keep in our 21st-century sights, given that digital technologies are rapidly redrawing the parameters of this distinction. If the Edwardians had “telegrams and anger”, we have the Twitter storm. Indeed, “telegrams and anger” becomes Schlegel shorthand for a certain kind of brutality in the public sphere, and one that could be applied today to the less edifying facets of social media.

That is not to say that the Schlegels wouldn’t have loved the darting liveliness of Twitter, with its intellectual exuberance and ability to connect different kinds of people. Forster describes how, when Margaret first meets the poor clerk Leonard Bast, her “speeches fluttered away from him like birds”. To the sisters, social media would represent an extension of their cultural life of discussion clubs and public lectures. But what would really trouble them is these platforms’ tendency to collapse the walls between the inner and outer life, which Forster also names the “unseen and the seen”.

“What’s on your mind?” Facebook is always asking, in the hope we’ll tell our followers. Every day it has memories on our behalf, then invites us to publicise them. Unless conducted in the quiet dells of the DM or PM, friendships increasingly take place in front of a live audience. Private sentiment is amplified until it takes on the quality of doctrine. Zadie Smith, whose novel On Beauty is famously an homage to Howards End, recently explained that because she avoids social media, “I never have people shouting at me… I want to have my feeling,” she says, “even if it’s wrong, even if it’s inappropriate, [and] express it to myself in the privacy of my heart and mind.”

Although Howards End’s epigraph, “only connect”, is today enjoying renewed popularity, our relentless brand of exposed connectivity is not what Forster had in mind. The phrase urges us as individuals to find a bridge between our inner passions and the face we present to the world. But to reconcile the inner and the outer life doesn’t mean that we forget the distinctions between them. Forster would be wary of how we digital humans are continually coaxed, in the interests of third-party profit, into converting the unseen into the seen.

The novel illustrates the difficulties and dangers of this reconciliation. When the Schlegels try to apply the virtues fostered in their personal relations to the wider world, they cause disaster. They are more complacent, hypocritical, and self-interested than they imagined. When we meet Helen and Margaret they can finish one another’s sentences, appearing to others as a single mind, “a composite Indian god”. But when that private intensity is unleashed in public life there are muddles, miscommunication, and harm in the name of philanthropy.

It was crucial to Forster’s philosophy that we maintain a private space in which to cultivate personal relations, safe from the “telegrams and anger” of public affairs. It is true that his version of the inner life doesn’t get certain things done. The Schlegel sensibility doesn’t build roads or hospitals, but nor does it set up enterprises like the Wilcoxes’ Imperial and West African Rubber Company, in the office of which hangs a map that makes Africa look “like a whale marked out for blubber”. Their inner life “pays” in other ways, and without it we’re left with a civilisation of facades, “a wall of newspapers and motor-cars and golf-clubs” with nothing behind it but “panic and
emptiness”. Sad!

The BBC’s mini-series is delightfully alert to the private language the Schlegels use to discuss the world beyond their Bohemian drawing room. Atwell and Coulthard capture these women’s investment in the life of ideas, as well as the mutual bluntness and moments of impatience that mark true intimacy. There is a wonderful scene of them, along with their younger brother Tibby (Alex Lawther), curled up on a bed like hyper-intelligent puppies in a basket: at times teasing, at times ruthless, but fundamentally peaceful and replenished.

When later their destinies seem to be diverging, the sisters bridge the rift by calling on their years of honest communication. They don’t pretend to alter their feelings in order to mollify the other, and yet the divisive intrusions of the outer world, which would have estranged different siblings, are overwhelmed by their mutual trust. As Forster writes: “Their inner life was so safe that they could bargain over externals.”

The sisters of Howards End have been part of my inner life for more than 20 years, since I first saw the drifting train of Vanessa Redgrave’s dress. These new incarnations are Schlegels to the backbone. For this reason I feel I can say, just as Helen refuses to like the Wilcoxes simply to please Margaret, that I wasn’t a fan of the big red hat that Helen occasionally wears here. To me it evoked some composite of a Womble and Benjamin Bunny, and my Helen would never have worn it. But we can bargain over externals. With performances such as these, the inner life is in safe hands.

Laurence Scott’s “The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World” is published by Windmill Books. “Howards End” continues on BBC One, Sundays, 9pm

This article appears in the 16 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit