The Sociocultural Struggle in English Literature: E M Forster's Leonard Bast and Thomas Hardy's Jude Fawley
E M Forster: Leonard Bast (Howards End)
An acquaintance once suggested to me that the greatest literature comes from those who are marginalised in society. This is thought-provoking: for example, how exactly do we define marginalisation? Further consideration suggests that though many of our greatest novels are the product of the privileged, they are themselves focussed on the excluded.
Leaving aside the question of his sexuality in a time of repression, E. M. Forster was certainly not marginalised. Fortunate enough to have a private income and no pressures to seek or maintain paid employment, he seems to have been released from the routine pressures of the populous main. A Cambridge education (King's) and a fringe membership of the intellectual/artistic Bloomsbury Group further secured a position in which to pursue a career as a novelist.
The character of Leonard Bast is the pivotal role in Howards End. Leonard is introduced early and departs tragically in the novel's conclusion, while the narrative focuses on his moral and intellectual struggle. A member of the skilled lower class of Edwardian England—employed as a bank clerk—Leonard first appears as a regular attender of lectures and concerts. Following a recital of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, he encounters Helen Schlegel when she inadvertently takes his umbrella. Is the (popularly known) Beethoven work chosen to illustrate the social gulf between Leonard and the Schlegel family? Leonard is enthusiastic and quick to be analytical about the recital, whilst Helen is portrayed as setting no great store by the piece or its performance, insouciance which underlines their differing status. For Leonard, everything that he considers 'intellectual' has a position of paramount importance, bringing with it a fervent necessity of critical evaluation and greater understanding.
Leonard lives with the bawdy character Jacky, whom he has rescued from the streets. She functions almost as a mirror opposite of what he finds desirable: the beauty, intellect and affluence of Helen Schlegel. The attraction and subsequent union between Leonard and Helen provide a charged sexuality in an otherwise austere novel. Jacky is, however, a permanent reminder of Leonard's social and moral responsibility, and further social pigeonholing takes place through the marriage of Margaret, Helen's sister, to Henry Wilcox. It becomes apparent that Jacky knew Henry through insalubrious relations, a revelation which reinforces Leonard's class position.
Leonard is depicted as preoccupied with John Ruskin, the writer and art critic. Why did Forster choose Ruskin in particular? The latter was part of the social reform movement in Victorian England, alongside other artists (William Morris et al). Ruskin is presented to us in Howards End as a patriarchal figure and also as a pious Christian; he was a believer in 'art for the glorification of God,' instrumental in the Victorian trend to Gothic Revival architecture, and supporter of the Pre-Raphaelites. So is Forster attempting to suggest that Ruskin and the world of the Schlegels are destructive influences on Leonard, since both these associations function as persistent reminders of his own social position? Despite his aspirations, he is shackled by the practical demands of daily existence.
Thomas Hardy: Jude Fawley (Jude the Obscure)
In 1895, aged only fifty-five years old, Thomas Hardy published what was to be his last novel and what many latterly regard as his greatest achievement, Jude the Obscure. However, it outraged Victorian society on its publication, with critics describing it as 'uncouth' or 'obscene.' Like Leonard Bast, the protagonist Jude Fawley constantly strives for intellectual improvement, against the grain of his social position. Although the setting differs from Forster's City bank—Hardy describes a pastoral environment, his re-invented Wessex—this is the single relevant difference. Jude is presented to us as a stonemason with dreams of reaching the academic Valhalla of Christminster (Oxford). Jude's lone walk from Marygreen, to view from afar this New Jerusalem and its lights of topaz, is in itself a voyage of singular struggle—he arrives only towards the end of day.
In a similar triangular relationship to that of Forster's Leonard, Jude Fawley is tied to Arabella, whilst intellectually attracted (in a sexually problematic relationship) to his cousin Sue Bridehead. Jude's intellectual struggle also has parallels with that of Leonard Bast. Despite Jude's independent learning of Greek and Latin and greater intellectual proficiency than that of many Christminster scholars, he is still rejected by the ivory towers. Jude's only access to this otherworld is as a stonemason working on the colleges that form the University. It could be observed that Oxford in the modern day retains that same inaccessibility to those on the outside. Like Cambridge, it is a city of high-walled, gated colleges.
Both Jude the Obscure and Howards End are novels of intellectual and social struggle through adversity. The conclusions of both novels are tragic, indeed horrific in the case of Jude Fawley; however, both protagonists retain dignity in their individual battles. Hardy, in particular, rebelled against the norms and values of his late Victorian age, in what Peter Gay describes as 'a revolt against tradition.' Though it is harder to appreciate this revolt so much in today's context, Judethe Obscure directly followed the time of the High Church Oxford movement. Thus, Hardy's choice of Oxford as the setting for his fatalistic neo-pagan hero could not have been more symbolic.
After Jude the Obscure Hardy abandoned novel writing, moving instead to poetry. Forster similarly moved away from such obvious controversy, refocussing himself on writing about privileged protagonists, particularly in Italy and his beloved India. In particular, he withheld the publication of his novel Maurice, concerned with homosexual love across the class divide, until after his death. He bequeathed his estate to Cambridge University, which published the novel finally in 1971.--Monty Trumpington