You should know this one thing about me: I'm a sucker for books that touch upon 19th century and turn-of-the-century reform movements. It doesn't need to be the main topic of the book, it doesn't even need to be portrayed in a positive light, the simple mention of your typical socialist circle will have my ears perk up. I confess I don't know enough about these movements, either from a historical or from a theoretical perspective, and that's something I always promise myself I'll fix and never do. But, from the low perch of my knowledge, I feel that these people's questions are like my questions, and that exploring them will teach me something valuable.
What that something will be, I don't know, I haven't reached it yet. But here's an example of the kind of discussion that gives me a jolt of recognition. You might have encountered variations of its modern version on the internet. How should we help poor people? Should we give homeless people money or just stuff we bought for them with that money? Should we impose restrictions on money people get from the government and, if so, what kind of restrictions? Should we force a set of values on them, along with our money? And now here is a scene from Howards End: a discussion at the group frequented by the progressive Schlegel sisters. (The quote is long, but read it through, the last sentence alone makes it worth it. All random bolding my own.)
And here is a reply I resonate with, courtesy of our heroine, Margaret Schlegel:The subject of the paper had been, "How ought I to dispose of my money?" the reader professing to be a millionaire on the point of death, inclined to bequeath her fortune for the foundation of local art galleries, but open to conviction from other sources. The various parts had been assigned beforehand, and some of the speeches were amusing. The hostess assumed the ungrateful role of "the millionaire's eldest son," and implored her expiring parent not to dislocate Society by allowing such vast sums to pass out of the family. Money was the fruit of self-denial, and the second generation had a right to profit by the self-denial of the first. What right had "Mr. Bast" to profit? The National Gallery was good enough for the likes of him. After property had had its say—a saying that is necessarily ungracious—the various philanthropists stepped forward. Something must be done for "Mr. Bast"; his conditions must be improved without impairing his independence; he must have a free library, or free tennis-courts; his rent must be paid in such a way that he did not know it was being paid; it must be made worth his while to join the Territorials; he must be forcibly parted from his uninspiring wife, the money going to her as compensation; he must be assigned a Twin Star, some member of the leisured classes who would watch over him ceaselessly (groans from Helen); he must be given food but no clothes, clothes but no food, a third-return ticket to Venice, without either food or clothes when he arrived there. In short, he might be given anything and everything so long as it was not the money itself.
"Give them a chance. Give them money. Don't dole them out poetry-books and railway-tickets like babies. Give them the wherewithal to buy these things. When your Socialism comes it may be different, and we may think in terms of commodities instead of cash. Till it comes give people cash, for it is the warp of civilisation, whatever the woof may be. The imagination ought to play upon money and realise it vividly, for it's the—the second most important thing in the world. It is so slurred over and hushed up, there is so little clear thinking—oh, political economy, of course, but so few of us think clearly about our own private incomes, and admit that independent thoughts are in nine cases out of ten the result of independent means. Money: give Mr. Bast money, and don't bother about his ideals. He'll pick up those for himself."
I don't know yet whether the book as a whole will validate this message, but there is something convincing about this speech, however dire some of its (probably true) implications are. And the follow-up to it kinda put me in mind of a Thomas Hardy novel:
Miss Schlegel was asked however she could say such dreadful things, and what it would profit Mr. Bast if he gained the whole world and lost his own soul. She answered, "Nothing, but he would not gain his soul until he had gained a little of the world." Then they said, "No, we do not believe it," and she admitted that an overworked clerk may save his soul in the superterrestrial sense, where the effort will be taken for the deed, but she denied that he will ever explore the spiritual resources of this world, will ever know the rarer joys of the body, or attain to clear and passionate intercourse with his fellows.Howards End is quite, quite wonderful so far.