Thursday, July 30, 2009

Our Heroine Defends Victorians From The Slings And Arrows Of Outrageous Hollywood

Do you people remember that trio of lovely period films that starred Anthony Hopkins in the mid-90's? They were Remains of the Day, Howards End and Shadowlands. (tangent: I saw Shadowlands in the theater, and I cried so hard and loud that people got up and left my row. Not strangers, mind you, but my FRIENDS. I was that embarrassing.)

Anyhoo, those were some lovely films, and I was feeling nostalgic for that time period and those films, so I rewatched Howards End this weekend with my brother and something struck me watching it now that I was too green to notice years ago, which is how unfair the film is to Henry Wilcox and his family.

I've never read the E.M Forster novel on which the movie is based, but I assume the theme is the same as it is in the film: the conflict between Victorianism and Modernity, as the former gave way to the latter at the turn of the century. In the movie, the Wilcoxes represent the Victorians (whose time has passed) and the Schlegels represent Modernity (whose time is now). And really, I think the treatment of the Wilcoxes in the film is shameful. The Victorians had their weaknesses, as every generation does, and I am aware of what they were - but really Merchant-Ivory? Henry Wilcox's family is composed entirely of materialistic troglodytes of little honor and no graces. But of course - of course - the Schlegels are virtually perfect: humanistic, philosophical, clever and stylish. Tibby Schlegel, the Oxford-intellectual, is so wrapped up in the life of the mind that he barely realizes he has two sisters, but of course that's portrayed as only mildy vexing, and mainly charming. That's because in the film, being an intellectual is the highest virtue. However Charles Wilcox, the eldest Wilcox son, having a real talent for business, is selfish, petty and obnoxious, because being a businessman is analogous to being an Orc.

Just your average Victorian businessman.

I found the great climax scene particularly frustrating this time around. In this scene, Helen Schlegel, pregnant outside marriage, has requested she be allowed to spend the night at Howards End (the Wilcox home) before departing for Germany. Margaret, now married to Henry Wilcox, makes this request on her sister's behalf, and is refused. She makes an empassioned plea to her husband to show Helen mercy, but he will not budge.

Now, it is not that I think Henry Wilcox is in the right. He is in the wrong. But his refusal is painted as the worst possible sin (to a modern): sexual hypocrisy. Henry has had a mistress, yet he does not forgive Helen her lover.

But he is not hypocritical! He is not disowning Helen for her transgression, nor is he turning a pregnant woman out into the wilderness to starve. He makes clear to Margaret that he and Charles intend to make her seducer marry her (which we may laugh at now, but was a very honorable action for two men to take who are not Helen's blood relations) and if he is already married, to make him take responsibility for her in other ways. Henry also makes clear that he will care for Helen financially, and is willing to pay for her to stay at a hotel until she decides to leave for Germany. It is merely Howards End that is forbidden to her, and he finds her attachment to the place odd, as it is not her home and never has been. Yes, Henry himself had a mistress, but that was in Cyprus, where his transgressions affected no one's reputation. He worries only that allowing Helen to stay at Howard's End will damage his son's family in the neighborhood, and while I disagree (as does Margaret) it's not mere sexual hypocrisy that motivates him.

Perhaps I am wrong, here is the clip of that climactic scene, watch it and tell me what you think:

Was he so very wicked? Margaret thinks so, because she decides that her husband is now too, too dreadful and determines to leave him -- not displaying the teensiest bit of committment or forgiveness or empathy, despite her much-lauded humanism.

Now, I know this conflict was rather a common theme in the early 1900's. I've read Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga, Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons, Ford's The Good Soldier, and Wharton's Age of Innocence which all deal with similar ideas. But those novels were not nearly so one-sided or dismissive of the Victorians as Merchant-Ivory are. Look, I think the break between the 19th and 20th century must have been something quite extraordinary. People with fine observation skills seem to have recognized at the time that a fundamental shift was underway, and a new type of man existed who had never existed before. How must the Victorians have felt, what was left of them, unprepared as they were for what constituted Modernity? (I think of poor Soames Forsyte, trying desperately to please his Modern wife in his Victorian way, and only succeeding in increasing her disgust of him.) I love to read about it, but Merchant-Ivory do not play fair.

It's like The Family Stone, (UGH!!!!) only with corsets and tophats.

So that's my beef with Howards End all these years later. However, the proposal scene is just as romantic as ever! Here's Henry, asking Miss Margaret Schlegel to marry him, with all the difficulty that a proper Victorian gentleman of great chivalry experiences when asking a fine young lady to share his life.

Oh, and all the ladies have such great hair and dresses, so the film definitely still has that in it's favor!

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