In May, I showed my summer reading list to a well-read friend of mine. She said, “Did you know that this” — pointing to “On Beauty” by Zadie Smith(2005) — “was based on this?” — pointing to “Howards End”by E.M. Forster(1910). I did not. What were the chances?
With this new information in hand, the English major in me saw no choice but to read the two novels back-to-back. Naturally.
Though the two stories share many similarities, there is no direct correlation between the characters. It would be impossible to directly identify any character in Smith’s story as a carbon copy or fanfic replica of a character in “Howards End.” That being said, both books focus on the relationships between two upper-middle class families: In “Howards End”, there are the Schlegels, a wealthy, socially progressive German-English family, who clash with the Wilcoxes, a family that made its fortune through the English colonies and take great pride in their strictly unintellectual worldview. In “On Beauty”, there are the Belseys, with a white English father and a black Floridian mother, and the Kippses, a Black, conservative family based in London.
The plots unfold very differently, just as 20th century England and 21st century Northeast United States existed very differently. However, they engage with many of the same themes that take on a bigger, more complex form in Smith’s digital world than Forster’s narrower one. Race, for instance, becomes heavily involved, as do pop culture and technology — and the doors they open for adultery and for intellectual efforts.
I enjoyed both books immensely, but was disappointed to see that Smith includes no preface or footnote directly addressing the relationship between her novel and Forster’s. Aside from a facetious mention of Forster (“ ‘A Room with a View. Forster.’ Howard smiled sadly. ‘Can’t stand Forster’ ”) near the end of the novel,“On Beauty” never acknowledges its connection to “Howards End.”Instead, it becomes more of a private joke with those who scrolled to the bottom of the Wikipedia page or have already read “Howards End.” To anyone else, this would have just been a good book with a slightly strange opening line (“One may as well begin with Jerome’s emails,” matching Forster’s “One may as well begin with Helen’s letters.”).
This, I think, is a downright shame. Not that everyone should read these two together, but, well, yes, you should.While “On Beauty”certainly stands on its own as a novel, reading the two together made me think much more carefully and closely about the complexities of “modern life” as we know it and how they have been perpetuated and developed in the past century. With concerns about class difference and the inability of the poor to get an education, race has been tossed into the mix. Meanwhile, the relative leveling of class warfare has led to more nuanced disagreements within minorities. One memorable dialogue occurs between Kiki Belsey and Monty Kipps, who are both black and both educated but stand on opposite sides of the affirmative action debate:
“ ‘As long as we encourage a culture of victimhood,’ said Monty, with the rhythmic smoothness of self-quotation, ‘We will continue to raise victims. And so the cycle of underachievement continues.’
‘Well,’ said Kiki … ‘I just think it stinks of a kind of, well, a kind of self-hatredwhen we’ve got black folks arguing against opportunities for black folks.’ ”
On another note, it was also interesting to see how the nature of sex scandals has, uh, evolved over the years, both psychologically and physically. Where it was “rich man sleeps with poor woman” and “young couple kisses in the garden” before, Smith has written “old friends with spouses sleep together due to uncontrollable urge to ruin the happiness of others when confronted with potential happiness for themselves” and “18-year-old books hotel room and dresses in corset and garters to seduce 50-something married man after emailing nude photographs.”
While these are just two of many issues addressed in the two novels, the general unspoken trend seems to be, depressingly, this: As we advance in technological conveniences and work toward equal opportunity, we also give ourselves more room to dig deeper into the preexisting rabbit holes of society.It’s a sad message, but in both books, at least there’s plenty of humor and stunning language in the delivery.