It’s finally time to return to the long-lost Classic Couple feature! Today I’ll be highlighting a pair of novels that were basically designed to go together: E.M. Forster’s Howards End (1910) and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (2005). Smith wrote On Beauty as a purposeful homage to Forster’s novel, meaning that there are countless fascinating parallels between them. Without further ado, it’s time to explore this classic couple!
Family dynamics || Both of these novels primarily focus on dynamics between different families as well as between members of the same family. For instance, Howards End emphasizes the relationship between sisters Helen and Margaret Schlegel in the context of their relations with the Wilcox family. On the other hand, On Beauty focuses on the clash between Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps as well as their marriages, children, affairs, etc. As relationships become more and more complicated over the course of these novels, Forster and Smith invite the reader to look more closely at her own relationships with others and how they intertwine.
Diverse characters || Although Howards End lacks diversity in terms of race, it does show diversity in terms of socioeconomic backgrounds and class. Margaret and Helen struggle to decide whether or not they should help Leonard, a man who has lost his job and currently can’t make ends meet. Mr. Wilcox doesn’t believe in the idea of “class,” asserting that poor people are poor and rich people are rich and this aspect of society will never and can never change. Meanwhile, On Beauty contains a diverse cast of characters both in terms of class and race. Smith manages to weave discussions of mixed race families, immigrants, and the rather whitewashed academic setting of a liberal college in New England all into one novel.
Women in society || One of my favorite aspects of these novels is their focus on gender, specifically the role of women in society. Although these novels take place nearly one hundred years apart, there are many similarities between the ways women are treated (albeit in a less extreme way today, fortunately). Nearly all of the women in these novels struggle in some form to find their place in society, be it as a wife, mother, daughter, sister, or simply a friend. In Howards End this struggle plays out in the many houses that the women occupy, whereas in On Beauty women endeavor to reclaim their bodies and sexuality from the suffocating gender norms of modern society.
Overall, I would highly recommend both of these novels, especially read together. I read On Beauty before reading Howards End, but I don’t think the order is necessarily important when it comes to recognizing the many fascinating parallels between them. I love the way Zadie Smith took an old classic and breathed fresh life into it with a modern setting and contemporary issues that we face today. Definitely check this classic couple out!
Click here to check out other Classic Couples from past posts.
What do you think of this classic couple? What other books would you pair with Howards End? What are your thoughts on either or both of these books? Let me know in the comments section below!