The wych-elm

October 10 2008

EM Forster’s three English novels, The Longest Journey (1907), especially Howards End (1910), and Maurice (1971, but written from 1913 onwards), are in part about humanity’s changing physical relationship with the earth. Howards End is about modern cosmopolitanism and flux.


Mrs Wilcox of Howards End, with its wych-elm, has a flat in London. She addresses Margaret Schlegel, who lives in London with her sister and brother.

“They returned to the carriage by devious paths; when they were in, she said, ‘But couldn’t you get it renewed?’

“‘I beg your pardon?’ asked Margaret.

“‘The lease, I mean.’

“‘Oh, the lease! Have you been thinking of that all the time? How very kind of you!’

“‘Surely something could be done.’

“‘No; values have risen too enormously. They mean to pull down Wickham Place, and build flats like yours.’

“‘But how horrible!’

“‘Landlords are horrible.’

“Then she said vehemently: ‘It is monstrous, Miss Schlegel; it isn’t right. I had no idea that this was hanging over you. I do pity you from the bottom of my heart. To be parted from your house, your father’s house – it oughtn’t to be allowed. It is worse than dying. I would rather die than – Oh, poor girls! Can what they call civilization be right, if people mayn’t die in the room where they were born? My dear, I am so sorry –’

“Margaret did not know what to say. Mrs. Wilcox had been overtired by the shopping, and was inclined to hysteria.

“‘Howards End was nearly pulled down once. It would have killed me.’

“‘Howards End must be a very different house to ours. We are fond of ours, but there is nothing distinctive about it. As you saw, it is an ordinary London house. We shall easily find another.’”



“Margaret was silent. Marriage had not saved her from the sense of flux. London was but a foretaste of this nomadic civilization which is altering human nature so profoundly, and throws upon personal relations a stress greater than they have ever borne before. Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they once exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone. May Love be equal to the task!”


Helen to her sister Margaret towards the end.

They have inherited Howards End.

“‘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.’

“Margaret knew that her sister spoke truly. Howards End, Oniton, the Purbeck Downs, the Oderberge, were all survivals, and the melting-pot was being prepared for them. […]

“‘Because a thing is going strong now, it need not go strong for ever,’ she said. ‘This craze for motion has only set in during the last hundred years. It may be followed by a civilization 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.’”

Constable’s oil study of an elm, c 1821:

Constable, Study of an Elm Tree, c 1821

5 Responses to “The wych-elm”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    I suppose Mrs Wilcox’s speech would resonate with Palestinians.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    “but at the end of them was a red rust”: an electrifying line.

    (Yes, etymologically, red rust is taulology, but chemists do speak of other rusts.)

  3. davidderrick Says:

    “To-day mansions are sold, pulled down, and the ground they stood on turned into streets. No one can be sure that the next generation will possess the paternal dwelling; homes are no more than inns; whereas in former times when a dwelling was built men worked, or thought they worked, for a family in perpetuity. Hence the grandeur of these houses. Faith in self, as well as faith in God, did prodigies.”

    Balzac, Béatrix (1839). Katharine Prescott Wormeley, translator.

  4. […] Stability and dynamism July 31, 2010 The wych-elm […]

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