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E. M. Forster–James Ivory: Howards End

Quem fugis’: The Poetics of Arrested Flight in ‘Other Kingdom’ and Howards End

Quem fugis’: poétique de l’échappée suspendue dans ‘Other Kingdom’ et Howards End
Marie Laniel


De sa toute première nouvelle, ‘The Story of a Panic’ (1904), à A Passage to India (1924), E.M. Forster s’inspira d’œuvres grecques et latines pour décrire les interactions affectives entre les êtres et les lieux : les Idylles de Théocrite et les Bucoliques de Virgile, où la nature a une voix qui peut entrer en résonance avec celle des hommes, ou encore les Métamorphoses d’Ovide, où la transformation physique crée de nouveaux êtres hybrides, végétaux ou minéraux. Howards End ne fait pas exception, puisque Forster y revisite le motif ovidien de la ‘métamorphose de fuite’ pour décrire les mutations de l’ère édouardienne. La maison et l’arbre de Howards End vont suspendre l’échappée de Margaret et Helen Schlegel et devenir le lieu où de nouveaux affects—de nouveaux modes de relation entre les individus, inspirés par la croissance lente et quasi imperceptible des plantes—vont pouvoir s’exprimer. Forster crée ainsi une mythologie anglaise qui n’est pas simplement nostalgique, mais constitue une réponse ambivalente à la modernité et permet de redéfinir la condition du sujet au tournant du siècle.

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  • 1 Instances of arrested flight in Ovid’s poem include the petrification of Ino’s companions (Met IV, (...)
  • 2 ‘In the Metamorphoses, the poet crosses another threshold in poetic invention, by describing inchoa (...)
  • 3 One of the most striking effects of metamorphosis is the loss or the radical alteration of the huma (...)

1From his earliest short story, ‘The Story of a Panic’ (1904), to A Passage to India (1924), E.M. Forster drew on classical sources to describe affective interactions between people and places, such as Theocritus’s Idylls (3rd century BC) or Virgil’s Eclogues (c. 42-39 BC), in which trees, rivers, caves respond to the human voice and are attuned to human feelings (Sultzbach 29), or Ovid’s Metamorphoses (8 AD), in which transformation gives rise to new forms of sentient vegetal or mineral beings. Howards End is no exception, as Forster also revives classical subtexts to depict the mutations affecting Edwardian England. Like Michael Drayton, who in Poly-Olbion (1612; 1622), a chorographical poem encompassing the whole of England and Wales, personified shires, rivers, forests and vales, peopled them with water- and wood-nymphs and gave them a voice, in chapter XIX of Howards End, the narrator tries to embrace England in a single vision, from the Purbeck Hills to Wiltshire, and to convey the vibrancy of its many voices, ‘throbbing through all her estuaries, crying for joy through the mouths of all her gulls’ (Forster 1910, 150). However, unlike Drayton’s England, placed in the first song under the protection of the genius loci, ‘the Genius of the Place’ (l.8), Forster’s England already is a hybrid space—‘England or Suburbia?’ (Forster 1910, 13)—, caught in a painful process of transformation, whose roads are being tarmacked and whose meadows are being converted into suburban villas: ‘If Drayton were with us again to write a new edition of his incomparable poem, he would sing the nymphs of Hertfordshire as indeterminate of feature, with hair obfuscated by the London smoke. Their eyes would be sad, and averted from their fate towards the northern flats, their leader not Isis or Sabrina, but the slowly flowing Lea’ (169). Although, like many of Ovid’s unfortunate creatures, stopped in mid-motion in an attempt to escape their fate, the nymphs of Hertfordshire try to avert their eyes from London and the march of progress, casting mournful glances towards the North, they are made to witness the effects of their own disfigurement and the obfuscation of their features by London smoke.1 In the Metamorphoses, Ovid frequently resorts to the motif of arrested flight, either negatively or positively, to convey the dynamics of hybridity, the suspended time of metamorphosis as an ‘in-between state, when the human form dies and a new, uncanny form appears’ (Galvagno qtd by Vial 435), and to seize with greater poignancy the psychological effects of physical transformation upon the human soul trapped in the changing body (Vial 444).2 Like Ovid’s creatures, fully aware of their plight but unable to prevent the irreversible alteration of their body, the dislocation of their limbs, the loss of their voice—which becomes inhuman even as they utter cries of despair—, the nymphs of Hertfordshire, trapped in an inchoate state, are made to endure the effects of encroaching urban development. Unlike Drayton’s vocal nymphs, they seem to have lost their ability to speak, ‘the last vestige of humanity to be absorbed by matter’ in Ovid’s tales (Crahay qtd by Vial 372).3

  • 4 ‘[N]ow wealthy but desolate, Midas longed to escape from his riches and loathed the thing that he’d (...)

2A few decades before Forster, in section I (‘Midas’) of Past and Present (1843), Thomas Carlyle had also turned to Ovid to describe the predicament of Utilitarian England, the spiritual paralysis affecting the richest nation in the world. Like King Midas, who, being granted his wish to turn everything into gold, cannot feed and almost starves to death (Met XI, l.85–145),4 Utilitarian England’s laissez-faire economics has condemned the most vulnerable part of the population to die of inanition:

We have more riches than any Nation ever had before; we have less good of them than any Nation ever had before. Our successful industry is hitherto unsuccessful; a strange success, if we stop here! In the midst of plethoric plenty, the people perish; with gold walls, and full barns, no man feels himself safe or satisfied. Workers, Master Workers, Unworkers, all men, come to a pause; stand fixed, and cannot farther. Fatal paralysis spreading inwards, from the extremities, in St. Ives workhouses, in Stockport cellars, through all limbs, as if towards the heart itself. Have we actually got enchanted, then; accursed by some god?—Midas longed for gold, and insulted the Olympians. He got gold, so that whatsoever he touched became gold,—and he, with his long ears, was little the better for it. . . . What a truth in these old Fables!’ (Carlyle 1843, 9–10)

  • 5 The Greek word ‘adynaton’, frequently applied to Ovid’s hybrid creatures (see Vial 183 sqq), refers (...)
  • 6 In Book III of Daphnis and Chloe, Daphnis tells Chloe about the origins of the echo as an acoustic (...)
  • 7 The Greek word ‘diasparagmos’ (‘dismemberment’) is used to refer to the deaths of Pentheus (Met III (...)

3In Howards End, Forster tries to address such a paradox, the paradox of a paralysis or petrification induced by change or progress, the state of spiritual deprivation and ‘imaginative poverty’ (Forster 1910, 128) caused by the increase of material wealth. Described as a gigantic, amorphous creature, inhaling and exhaling its mephitic air, slowly spreading over the hills of Surrey and Hertfordshire, a ‘monster’ (92), vaguely reminiscent of Carlyle’s ‘Monster Utilitaria’ (Carlyle 1833–34, 179), London is, for Forster, the very node of this contradiction, an embodied oxymoron or adynaton,5 ‘rising and falling with the restlessness of the water in a fountain’ (Forster 1910, 40), in a ‘continual flux’ of urban development (92; 156), combining the mutability of water with the rigidity of matter, ‘the epitome of . . . eternal formlessness’ (156), turning the human heart to stone. It is described as ‘a tract of quivering gray; intelligent without purpose, and excitable without love’, ‘a spirit that has altered before it can be chronicled’, whose heart, half-entombed in matter, ‘certainly beats, but with no pulsation of humanity’ (92). In London, which is the realm of giants, like Porphyrion, born from the earth, and of goblins, routing the ground for gold, the air itself, the most immaterial element, ‘taste[s] like cold pennies’ (69), as if Londoners had been struck by the curse of Midas. Despite the development of new modes of communication, a feeling of ‘panic and emptiness’ (22, 28–29, 79, 200), the inability to communicate, has replaced the ‘panic’ intimacy connecting men with nature in the realm of Pan. In the middle of traffic, people can no longer hear the voice of Echo, the voice of woods and caves in Ovid (Met III, l.356–401), the symbol of human interactions with nature in Longus, charged with the resonance of place.6 Instead, they exchange ‘clipped words, formless sentences, potted expressions of approval or disgust’ (93)—, as if Echo’s limbs and melodies—mele in the Greek text—had been dismembered anew by modernity, submitted to a new diasparagmos (see Connor).7

  • 8 The most famous examples are Daphne’s flight from Apollo (Met I, l.452–567) and Syrinx’s flight fro (...)
  • 9 ‘Who are you running from, you crazy man? Why, . . . even gods, have lived in the woods like me’ (E (...)
  • 10 Her first name is probably a reference to John Evelyn’s essay on woods, Sylva (1664), while her sur (...)

4In ‘Other Kingdom’, a short story published in The English Review in 1909, the year before Howards End, Forster offers a remedy to the curse of Midas, by revisiting a specific type of metamorphosis, the ‘metamorphosis of escape’—‘metamorfosi di fuga’ (Pianezzola qtd by Vial, fn 4, 193)—, which enables the pursuee—a nymph—, to escape the pursuer—a male divinity—, by morphing into a new shape.8 Forster’s short story opens with a quotation from Virgil’s Second Eclogue, Corydon’s plea to the beautiful Alexis: ‘Quem, whom; fugis, are you avoiding; ah demens, you silly ass; habitarunt di quoque, gods too have lived in; silvas, the woods’ (Forster 1909, 59),9 a quotation that the two main characters, the aptly-named Miss Evelyn Beaumont10 and a young man called Jack Ford, try to construe, under the unenlightened guidance of their Latin tutor, who is also the first-person narrator. Virgil’s words are quickly re-semanticised by Ford into a reference to Daphne’s and Syrinx’s metamorphoses:

Ford came to her rescue. ‘Of course it’s helped you [learning about the classics]. The classics are full of tips. They teach you how to dodge things. . . .
Suppose that long-haired brute Apollo wants to give you a music lesson. Well, out you pop into the laurels. Or Universal Nature [Pan] comes along. You aren’t feeling particularly keen on Universal Nature, so you turn into a reed.’
‘Is Jack mad?’ asked Mrs Worters.
But Miss Beaumont had caught the allusions—which were quite ingenious, I must admit. ‘And Croesus?’ she inquired. ‘What was it one turned into to get away from Croesus?’
I hastened to tidy up her mythology. ‘Midas, Miss Beaumont, not Croesus. And he turns you—you don’t turn yourself: he turns you into gold.’
‘There’s no dodging Midas,’ said Ford. . . .
‘He just comes, he touches you, and you pay him several thousand per cent at once. You’re gold—a young golden lady—if he touches you.’
‘I won’t be touched!’ she cried. (60)

  • 11 Echoes of the Ovidian subtext are manifest here: ‘Her strength exhausted, the girl grew pale; then (...)
  • 12 E.M. Forster’s fiction is fundamentally structured by the opposition between the Middle Ages (conne (...)
  • 13 Suspended time is also a central motif in ‘The Eternal Moment’, another of Forster’s collected shor (...)

5To elude the deadly touch of Midas, embodied by her fiancé, Harcourt Worters, a precursor of Henry Wilcox, Miss Beaumont eventually applies the useful teachings of the classics—‘how to dodge things’—, hides in Other Kingdom copse, a small wood in Hertfordshire, and turns into a tree. Miss Beaumont’s ‘metamorphosis of escape’, protective in nature, rests on the same paradox as Daphne’s transformation into a laurel bush, the paradox of a fixity or rootedness generating freedom and movement (Vial 195): even though her physical transformation into a tree stops her flight in mid-motion, rooting her to the ground, it enables her to elude the grasp of her pursuer, by enclosing her body in a protective, vegetal shell, and to acquire the infinite mobility of a tree’s boughs moving in the wind: ‘Her garment was as foliage upon her, the strength of her limbs as boughs, her throat the smooth upper branch that salutes the morning or glistens to the rain. Leaves move, leaves hide it as hers was hidden by the motion of her hair’ (82).11 However, while Daphne’s transformation is performed by a male divinity, her father Peneus, Miss Beaumont, who is driven by her own desire—‘Oh Ford, my lover while I was a woman, I will never forget you, never’ (Forster 1909, 83)—is the agent of her physical and spiritual transformation, thus proving her Latin tutor wrong (‘he turns you—you don’t turn yourself’, 60). Tracing her own line of flight, Miss Beaumont can be described as a modern incarnation of Ninfa, a recurring figure of choreographic feminine grace, identified by Aby Warburg in Renaissance art as a specific ‘formula of affect’ [Pathosformel], ‘the heroine of those “transitory movements of hair and garments” that Renaissance painting passionately sought to “capture”, making them the displaced index of the pathos borne by the images’ (Didi-Huberman 163).12 A ‘wind-woman’ (164), ‘aerial but essentially incarnate, ungraspable but essentially tactile’—‘such is the beautiful paradox of Ninfa’ (164)—, Miss Beaumont joins together ‘two antithetical modes of the figurable’: ‘air and flesh, volatile fabric and organic texture’ (164). With her ‘hair and drapery quivering among [the] leaves’ (Forster 1909, 84), the young woman ‘appears as a meeting point, itself always in motion, between outside and inside, the atmospheric law of the wind and the visceral law of desire’ (165). Her metamorphosis, suspended in an ‘eternal moment’,13 does not stop her flight, but eternalises it, allowing her to escape Harcourt Worters ‘absolutely, for ever and ever, as long as there are branches to shade men from the sun’ (Forster 1909, 85). Because it is induced by the internal law of desire, her transformation is the physical expression of complex inner ‘becomings’, identified by Rosi Braidotti, in Metamorphoses (2002), a feminist reinterpretation of Ovid’s key concept through the lens of material theory, as ‘a transformation in terms of qualitative increase (in speed, intensity, perception or colour) that allows one to break into new fields of perception, affectivity and becoming’ (147).

6In Howards End, Forster also revisits the Ovidian motif of the arrested flight, as a locus of resistance to materialism and as a site of inner transformation. Although theirs is much less literal, Forster’s two heroines also undergo a ‘metamorphosis of escape’, which is both a reaction to the threat of modernity encroaching upon the countryside—the deadly touch of Midas—, and the expression of new feminine ‘becomings’. The inspiration for this inner transformation is Margaret’s friendship with Mrs Wilcox. Connected from the start with the natural world—the house and the tree that leans over it—, Mrs Wilcox, whose voice, ‘a voice from the garden’ (Forster 1910, 19), is part of the acoustic texture of the place, shares some of the qualities of vegetal life, some would say its vegetative qualities. Like a plant, Mrs Wilcox is self-less, seemingly passive, reticent—while the Schlegel sisters are ‘tremendous talkers’ (26), Mrs Wilcox is unable to state her opinion clearly (59)—, she’s highly ornamental—Helen describes her trailing in beautiful dresses down the corridors of expensive hotels (3)—, but also vulnerable and short-lived. However, unbeknown to her husband and the rest of her family, Mrs Wilcox also shares the discreet, subterranean and almost invisible agency of vegetal life, which, as Michael Marder suggests in his deconstructive essay, Plant-Thinking, ‘encrypts itself . . . in the guise of passivity’ (20), while quietly subverting traditional dichotomies between immobility and movement, surface and depth, weakness and power. Thus, Mrs Wilcox embodies the paradox of a rootedness, a loyalty or fidelity to the ground, which does not preclude movement but encourages growth, maturation and expansion—this is represented by her long dress trailing in the grass (Forster 1910, 4; 19)—, a paradox underlined by Michael Marder:

We find the initial intimation that the tendency toward immobility . . . does not exhaust the mode of being of plants in the etymology of ‘vegetation’, which points back to the Middle Latin vegetabilis, meaning ‘growing’ or ‘flourishing,’ the verbs vegetare (‘to animate’ or ‘to enliven’) and vegere (‘to be alive,’ ‘to be active’), and the adjective vegetus, denoting the qualities of vigorousness and activity. . . . While the predominant usage of the verb ‘to vegetate’ is negative, linked to the passivity or inactivity of animals or human beings who behave as though they were sedentary plants, its subterranean history relates it to the exact opposite of this privileged meaning: the fullness and exuberance of life, vigor, and brimming energy, the ergon of plant-soul. (19)

  • 14 See Michael Marder on the ‘an-archic’ proliferation of plants (22, 182).
  • 15 In Chapter X, Margaret declines any substantial gift from Mrs Wilcox: ‘I should like to give you so (...)

7Endowed with this secret agency, Mrs Wilcox also partakes of what Marder calls ‘the noneconomic generosity of plant-soul, giving itself without reserve to everything and everyone that lives . . . free of any expectations of returns from the other’ (52), the most fundamental principle of giving, based on sheer propagation. However, because it is unconditional and purposeless, her gift to Margaret—the ability to ‘care most for a place’ (Forster 1910, 111)—represents a form of ‘passive resistance’ to the logic of utilitarianism, to ‘the hegemonic thinking of identity’ (Marder 34) and ‘the imperialistic appropriation of the other’ (41). Coming from nowhere and unrelated to any identifiable cause, devoid of any form of legitimacy, according to the rest of the Wilcox family, it is in essence ‘an-archic’—etymologically without origin or authority—and thus challenges the hereditary principle of primogeniture.14 It is an invisible gift,15 the gift of the unseen, whose significance, for Margaret at least, is deliberately withheld, and which will only unfold and come to fruition in time, after ‘the periods of quiet that are essential to true growth’ (Forster 1910, 68).

8Before it can become effective, Mrs Wilcox’s legacy is appropriated by Henry Wilcox, who is not responsive to the affective resonance of place and cannot understand its ethical significance. The Wilcoxes’ acquisitive instinct will elicit two very different reactions from the Schlegel sisters. An embodiment of Warburg’s Ninfa, with ‘all her hair flying’ (35), Helen will respond by following an ‘inclination to fly’ (253). In Chapter V, she reacts to the heavy footfall of goblins conquering the universe, which she detects in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, by leaving the concert hall in the middle of the performance, taking Leonard’s umbrella with her. Later, she strongly identifies with Leonard’s desire to escape the daily grey of London by walking by night in Surrey. Twice she flees to Germany, first to avoid Paul Wilcox who still holds sway over her; later, as an outcast, challenging moral conventions and no longer welcome in English society. Like the nymph Arethusa, one of Ovid’s ‘beautiful fugitives’ (see Fabre-Serris), who, though enclosed by Diana in a protective cloud of mist, dissolves into water and eventually merges with her pursuer, the river Alpheus (Met V, l.572–641), Helen traces a line of flight which is also an expression of feminine desire. In Chapter XXVII, the river flowing across the Welsh border, covered in mist and constantly murmuring, which Charles Wilcox fails to submit to his will, presides over Helen’s union with Leonard and initiates the process of her physical and spiritual transformation, a transformation which remains hidden for eight months. Only Helen’s stay at Howards End with her sister will eventually make her lose this ‘inclination to fly’ (253).

  • 16 ‘Margaret greeted her lord with peculiar tenderness on the morrow. Mature as he was, she might yet (...)
  • 17 Forster conjures up the Ovidian image of the bleeding tree in ‘Other Kingdom’, when Harcourt Worter (...)

9While Helen is driven by an impulse to run, Margaret intuits very early on—when she accepts Mrs Wilcox’s invitation to Howards End (‘There was question of imprisonment and escape’, 73)—that true escape will not come from flight, a new version of the eternal ‘sense of flux’ haunting her (174), but from the suspension of flight in a place which will effect transformations ‘in perception, affectivity and becoming’. Akin to Iris, the rainbow goddess and conciliatory messenger of Juno, whose task is to reunite husbands and wives (Met XI, l.585–633; Met XIV, l.829–846),16 Margaret senses that these affective transformations can only result from conciliation between opposites and depend on the dynamics of identity and otherness. The house and the tree at Howards End, which embody this dialectics, will suspend Margaret and Helen’s flight and become the place where new affects—new modes of relationality and commonality, new reflective structures of feeling—will develop and find expression. In Ovid’s poem, ‘a metamorphic world in which the setting may always be more than just a setting’ (Hinds 122), metamorphosis gives human affects, transfixed in a paroxystic state (Vial 444), a material expression and articulates them spatially in an elemental language, sometimes combined with a hybrid form of vocality. This elemental, embodied language of affects characterises Ovid’s famous adynata: weeping stones—such as Niobe, petrified in her grief (Met VI, l.301–312)—, weeping trees—Cyparissus, changed into a cypress (Met X, l.136–142)—, bleeding trees17—the Heliades (Met II, l.344–366)—, and more generally sentient trees and flowers—such as Daphne (Met I, l.452–567) or Clytie (Met IV, l.266–270):

Murmuring rivers, rustling trees, breathing beasts or twinkling stars are, in the Metamorphoses, the best expression of poetic dreams and wonders, because they still enclose the shadow of the being who gave birth to them, as well as the tragedy which led this being to sacrifice his or her body to become one with nature. By poetically recreating the simple elements of the world’s geography, Ovid also teaches us to look at them and listen to them differently, to distinguish in the most ordinary stone or the frailest bird the expression of our own desires and pains. (Vial 448, my translation)

10Whereas petrification often exacerbates human suffering, vegetal metamorphosis tends to alleviate anguish or fear, to safely contain them in an organic husk or bark, thus allowing them to peacefully exhaust themselves, while opening up the possibilities of regeneration and resurrection. Like Ovid’s sentient stones and trees, the house and the tree at Howards End are the repository of human affects, which they safely enclose and allow to grow. When Margaret first enters the house, to find shelter from the rain, the echo of Miss Avery’s footsteps reverberating in the stairs, martially, like drums—‘the heart of the house beating’ (Forster 1910, 172)—is the material, vibrant expression of the emotional attachment that generations of Howards have felt for the house and that new generations will come to feel for it. Margaret, standing with her hands full of cut grass, in a position similar to that of Mrs Wilcox at the beginning of the novel, seems to experience an inner transformation, a realisation of her own identity, visually represented by the epanalepsis (‘I—Mrs Wilcox—I’, 172), which also enacts the symbolical resurrection of Mrs Wilcox.

  • 18 ‘Tree though she was, Apollo still loved her. Caressing the trunk with his hand, he could feel the (...)

11Like the laurel tree containing the beating heart of Daphne,18 the wych-elm also safely encloses human affects and allows them to expand, articulating them in what Michael Marder calls the ‘spatialized materiality’ of plant-language, ‘a body language free from gestures’ (75):

No report had prepared her for its peculiar glory. It was neither warrior, nor lover, nor god; in none of these roles do the English excel. It was a comrade, bending over the house, strength and adventure in its roots, but in its utmost fingers tenderness, and the girth, that a dozen men could not have spanned, became in the end evanescent, till pale bud clusters seemed to float in the air. (Forster 1910, 176)

  • 19 Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo e Dafne (1622–24), Galleria Borghese, Rome: (...)
  • 20 ‘The universe depicted by Ovid is a coherent, homogeneous whole, whose components are all interconn (...)

12The elongation of its branches, becoming in the end almost immaterial, is the spatial expression of a movement of flight, eternalised, as if the tree were forever eluding the grasp of modern civilisation. Its rootedness, generating infinite expansion, seems to challenge the eternal flux of London and the spiritual paralysis induced by progress. In the shape of the tree, stretching out its utmost fingers, one can recognise the arrested flight of Daphne, as Bernini immortalised her,19 averting her eyes but lifting her hands towards the sky, while the image of a dozen men trying in vain to embrace its girth conjures up Apollo’s loving gesture as he reaches out for the nymph. However, rather than fall into binary divides, the tree, which ‘transcend[s] any simile of sex’ (176), with strength in its roots and tenderness in its fingers, seems to contain and protectively enclose both male and female forms in one single androgynous shape, and to unite both pursuer and pursuee, Apollo and Daphne, in an eternal embrace. In their elemental language, the house and the tree do not speak of division or strife, but of comradeship, as they materialise the principle of ‘universal contiguity’ between opposites which makes affective transformations possible (Vial 427; Hinds 135): ‘Their message was not of eternity, but of hope on this side of the grave. As [Margaret] stood in the one, gazing at the other, truer relationships had gleamed’ (Forster 1910, 176).20

  • 21 Vegetal growth is a recurrent image for psychological development in the novel: ‘Well, it is odd an (...)

13The sisters’ reunion in the house brings this process to fruition and converts the temporality of imminent capture into the temporality of renewal, based on the slow, almost imperceptible movement of vegetal growth: ‘The little, too, that is known about growth! . . . Margaret did not speak for a moment. So tired was she that her attention had actually wandered to the teeth—the teeth that had been thrust into the tree’s bark to medicate it’ (267).21 The state of flight, annihilating the possibilities of the present, gives way to the complex temporality of metamorphosis, based on ‘endless iterations’:

The present flowed by them like a stream. The tree rustled. It had made music before they were born, and would continue after their deaths, but its song was of the moment. The moment had passed. The tree rustled again. Their senses were sharpened, and they seemed to apprehend life. Life passed. The tree rustled again.
‘Sleep now,’ said Margaret.
The peace of the country was entering into her. . . . It is the peace of the present, which passes understanding. Its murmur came ‘now’, and ‘now’ once more as they trod the gravel, and ‘now’ as the moonlight fell upon their father’s sword. They passed upstairs, kissed, and amidst the endless iterations fell asleep. (269)

14In his analysis of vegetal time, Michael Marder, drawing on Goethe’s botanical essay, The Metamorphosis of Plants (1790), shifts the focus away from the root as the source of the plant’s regenerative power and ascribes the most central function in vegetal renewal to the leaf, seemingly the most superficial and dispensable part of the tree, a ‘supplement’ in the Derridean sense:

In the plant, the leaf is the very embodiment of supplementarity, because it is something superadded onto the trunk and the branches, more often than not on a temporary basis. Goethe’s The Metamorphosis of Plants plays out the logic of the deconstructive supplement avant la lettre with respect to the status of the leaf in the development of plants. According to Goethe, metamorphosis, change of form, the process of becoming-other, is not just one among many features of vegetal life; it is this life itself. In this influential botanical monograph he deduces the primacy of change over the stability and identity of the plant from the permutations of the leaf, whose thickening contraction yields a seed, whose refinement turns it into a petal, and whose ‘greatest expansion’ accounts for the appearance of a fruit. The depth of the root, the fruitfulness of the seed, the thickness and overwhelming size of a tree trunk are all explicable with reference to the rhythmic vacillations of the leaf, which successively experiences phases of expansion and contraction. They are all variations on a superficial supplement that constantly becomes other to itself. (80–81)

15The rustling leaves of the wych-elm, with their murmur of ‘now’ and ‘now’, convey the promise of renewal, in an elemental language, which rhythmically epitomises the principle of iteration, ‘the rhythmic vacillations of the leaf’. The leaves’ ‘endless iterations’ express in material form the very principle of regeneration, ‘the past sanctifying the present; the present, with wild heart-throb, declaring that there would after all be a future, with laughter and the voices of children’ (Forster 1910, 255). As a supplement, ‘one of the most emblematic iterable parts of the plant’ (Marder 114), the leaf challenges the principle of originarity, replacing it with iterability, repetition with a difference. Each leaf, shed and renewed, is ‘a reiteration of difference’ (115), a ‘repetition of the same with inexorable alterations in each singular contextual instance’ (116). This might explain why, in chapter XL, the reiterations of the rustling leaves seem to sanctify Mrs Wilcox’s gift to Margaret, a gift which undermines origins and makes the course of linear transmission deviate, introducing radical difference within sameness (Lanone 151). The murmurs of the tree, in their embodied vocality, are ‘part of the battle against sameness’ (Forster 1910, 288) and foreshadow new modes of relationality, challenging heterosexual norms and the patriarchal order, new modes of commonality, more inclusive than the nuclear family and open to differences, ‘eternal differences, planted by God in a single family, so that there may always be colour; sorrow perhaps, but colour in the daily gray’ (288). These are outlined in the final chapter, when a new community of waifs and strays gathers at Howards End, announcing friendships to come, between Tom, Tom Howard’s namesake, and Helen’s baby, playing in the field together. The novel ends with an echo of the opening pages—Mrs Wilcox walking with ‘her hands full of hay’ (4)—, as Margaret slowly internalises vegetal time, the time of metamorphosis, bearing the promise of continuity and renewal: ‘The meadow was being re-cut, the great red poppies were reopening in the garden. July would follow with the little red poppies among the wheat, August with the cutting of the wheat. These little events would become part of her, year after year’ (286). However, rather than a stable shelter, the house at Howards End, which is threatened by the ‘red rust’ of modernity, already visible on the horizon, is best defined as ‘a meeting point, itself always in motion’ (Didi-Huberman–165), where the temporality of escape is eternally suspended, the locus of an eternal flight on the threshold of modernity:

‘I hope it will be permanent,’ said Helen, drifting away to other thoughts.
‘I think so. There are moments when I feel Howards End peculiarly our own.’
‘All the same, London’s creeping.’
She pointed over the meadow—over eight or nine meadows, but at the end of them was a red rust.
‘You see that in Surrey and even Hampshire now,’ she continued. ‘I can see it from the Purbeck Downs. And London is only part of something else, I’m afraid. Life’s going to be melted down, all over the world.’ . . .
‘This craze for motion has only set in during the last hundred years. It may be followed by a civilisation that won’t be a movement, because it will rest on the earth. All the signs are against it now, but I can’t help hoping, and very early in the morning in the garden I feel that our house is the future as well as the past.’ (Forster 1910, 289–90)

16The poetics of arrested flight or eternal escape, embodied by the house, with its beating heart, and by the wych-elm tree, with its elongated branches and endless iterations, allows Forster, by drawing on the classics, to create a truly English mythology (see Cavalié), a mythology which is not merely backward looking but constitutes an ambivalent response to modernity and contributes to redefining the condition of the subject at the turn of the century.

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1 Instances of arrested flight in Ovid’s poem include the petrification of Ino’s companions (Met IV, l.551–562) or the transformation of Dryope into a lotus (Met IX, l.349–393), but also Daphne’s transformation into a laurel bush (Met I, l.452–567) and Syrinx’s transformation into rustling reeds (Met I, l.689–712).

2 ‘In the Metamorphoses, the poet crosses another threshold in poetic invention, by describing inchoate monsters, unseen or unheard of before, the “nova corpora” mentioned in the prooemium. Hybridity no longer consists in a juxtaposition of body parts but becomes a temporal process, with the progressive transformation of human beings into plants or beasts, a dynamic experience’ (Jouteur 49, my translation). On the suspended temporality of metamorphosis, see also Casanova-Robin (8–9).

3 One of the most striking effects of metamorphosis is the loss or the radical alteration of the human voice, which becomes inhuman or strange, making Ovid’s poem ‘a chronicle of aphasia’ (Vial 371 sqq).

4 ‘[N]ow wealthy but desolate, Midas longed to escape from his riches and loathed the thing that he’d prayed for. Platefuls to eat, but perpetually hungry! His throat was parched with a burning thirst. By his own act, gold had become his detested torturer’ (Met I, l.127–131).

5 The Greek word ‘adynaton’, frequently applied to Ovid’s hybrid creatures (see Vial 183 sqq), refers to a physical impossibility or contradiction.

6 In Book III of Daphnis and Chloe, Daphnis tells Chloe about the origins of the echo as an acoustic phenomenon. Because she would not yield to Pan, the nymph Echo was torn apart, while she was still singing, by shepherds and goatherds, whom Pan had driven to fury (III, § 23). The earth, who took pity on her, buried her limbs and her melodies, both designated by the Greek word mele (Gély 2000, 41). Echo then became the voice of the earth, a ‘panic’ voice, imitating all sounds around her, even the tunes played by Pan (Gély 2005, 49).

7 The Greek word ‘diasparagmos’ (‘dismemberment’) is used to refer to the deaths of Pentheus (Met III, l.713–731), Orpheus (Met XI, l.4–66) and Echo (Longus III, § 23), whose bodies were torn apart (See Gély 2000, 42; 2005, 1).

8 The most famous examples are Daphne’s flight from Apollo (Met I, l.452–567) and Syrinx’s flight from Pan (Met I, l.689–712).

9 ‘Who are you running from, you crazy man? Why, . . . even gods, have lived in the woods like me’ (Ecl. II, l.60–61).

10 Her first name is probably a reference to John Evelyn’s essay on woods, Sylva (1664), while her surname, of Norman origin, translates as ‘beautiful mount’.

11 Echoes of the Ovidian subtext are manifest here: ‘Her strength exhausted, the girl grew pale; then overcome by the effort of running, she saw Peneus’ waters before her: ‘Help me, Father!’ she pleaded. ‘If rivers have power over nature, mar the beauty which made me admired too well, by changing my form!’ She had hardly ended her prayer when a heavy numbness came over her body; her soft white bosom was ringed in a layer of bark, her hair was turned into foliage, her arms into branches. The feet that had run so nimbly were sunk into sluggish roots; her head was confined in a treetop; and all that remained was her beauty’ (Met I, l.543–552).

12 E.M. Forster’s fiction is fundamentally structured by the opposition between the Middle Ages (connected with the Victorian fad for Gothic architecture) and the Renaissance (marking the birth of humanism). References to the Renaissance in his fiction are often mediated by Walter Pater’s writings (See for example Robert K. Martin and Kathleen Verduin).

13 Suspended time is also a central motif in ‘The Eternal Moment’, another of Forster’s collected short stories (1947, 188–222).

14 See Michael Marder on the ‘an-archic’ proliferation of plants (22, 182).

15 In Chapter X, Margaret declines any substantial gift from Mrs Wilcox: ‘I should like to give you something worth your acquaintance, Miss Schlegel’ . . . ‘you cannot pay me back with anything tangible’ (68–69).

16 ‘Margaret greeted her lord with peculiar tenderness on the morrow. Mature as he was, she might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man. With it love is born, and alights on the highest curve, glowing against the gray, sober against the fire. Happy the man who sees from either aspect the glory of these outspread wings. The roads of his soul lie clear, and he and his friends shall find easy going’ (Forster 1910, 158–59).

17 Forster conjures up the Ovidian image of the bleeding tree in ‘Other Kingdom’, when Harcourt Worters tries to carve his name on the bark of a tree: ‘He stretched out his hand to cut the initials. As he did so she seemed to awake from a dream. “Harcourt!” she cried, “Harcourt! What’s that? What’s that red stuff on your finger and thumb?”’ (74).

18 ‘Tree though she was, Apollo still loved her. Caressing the trunk with his hand, he could feel the heart still fluttering under the new bark’ (Met I, l.553–554).

19 Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo e Dafne (1622–24), Galleria Borghese, Rome: (last accessed 30 December 2019)

20 ‘The universe depicted by Ovid is a coherent, homogeneous whole, whose components are all interconnected . . . . This interactive contiguity is the necessary condition of metamorphosis: it is because every component of this microcosm communicates with the others that all kinds of transmutation are possible . . .’ (Vial 427; my translation).

21 Vegetal growth is a recurrent image for psychological development in the novel: ‘Well, it is odd and sad that our minds should be such seed-beds, and we without power to choose the seed. But man is an odd, sad creature as yet, intent on pilfering the earth, and heedless of the growths within himself. He cannot be bored about psychology. He leaves it to the specialist, which is as if he should leave his dinner to be eaten by a steam-engine. He cannot be bothered to digest his own soul. Margaret and Helen have been more patient, and it is suggested that Margaret has succeeded—so far as success is yet possible. She does understand herself, she has some rudimentary control over her own growth. Whether Helen has succeeded one cannot say’ (Forster 1910, 237).

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Marie Laniel, « Quem fugis’: The Poetics of Arrested Flight in ‘Other Kingdom’ and Howards End »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 58 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2020, consulté le 08 février 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Marie Laniel

Marie Laniel is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Picardie (France). Her research focuses on Victorian subtexts in the works of E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf (with a special interest in Thomas Carlyle, Alfred Tennyson, John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold and Leslie Stephen). She has published several articles on this topic. She has also contributed to ‘Only Connect’: E.M. Forster’s Legacies in British Fiction (Peter Lang, 2017) and Beyond the Victorian and Modernist Divide: Remapping the Turn-of-the-Century Break in Literature, Culture and the Visual Arts (Routledge, 2018). She is co-editor of two online journals, L’Atelier and Polysèmes. With Philippe Birgy, Nicolas Boileau, Adèle Cassigneul, Elsa Cavalié and Xavier Giudicelli, she has co-authored a book on Howards End (Atlande, 2019).

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