This is a reread but from so long ago I seem to remember almost nothing. I did enjoy it though and I do remember enjoying it the first time.
This is a thoroughly character driven novel – there are a few plot devices but most of Forster’s energies were spent on developing the characters of Margaret, Helen and Tibby Schlegel as well as Henry Wilcox and his son Charles. Most all the named characters are developed to some extent – pretty much according to the role they play.
There are three families involved, each from a different stratum of society. The Schlegels are well-to-do German immigrants by one generation, the Wilcoxes are of a higher class in most ways, with land, money and prestige going back generations, but they lack the Schlegels intellectual and bohemian background. The third family is that of Leonard Bast who is a lower-middle class clerk who is married but childless and becomes unemployed. Fwiw, Forster was of the Bloomsbury crowd in his day.
At the beginning Helen Schlegel shares a silly kiss with Paul Wilcox (Henry’s son) and Margaret Schlegel and Helen Wilcox (Henry’s wife) become good friends and Helen leaves her country home to Margaret in a kind of unauthorized codicil to a will. Only the Wilcoxes know of this penciled document. After Helen dies Margaret and Henry become involved and married.
Meanwhile, the idealistic Helen is trying to help the pathetic Basts in any way she can – she is a serious do-gooder while Margaret has a very practical side to her. But helping Bast has its own pitfalls involving more than one plot twist. The basic conflict is probably the relationships between the characters, their ideas about Bast (symbolizing a broader philosophy) and how these characters and ideas develop and change.
Social class, women’s issues (including sexual) and Englishness are huge themes. It’s important to understand that this book was takes place and was first published in 1910 – between the death of Queen Victoria and the outbreak of WWI as well as before women’s suffrage in England.
This is a good book – worthy of being a top-shelf classic for many reasons; the opening of modernist literature, the character development – people “trying to connect,” and the socio-economic sense of England during this time period.