Visit Homepage
Skip to content

‘London is a Muddle’: E.M. Forster and the Flâneur

Anthony Lake

‘I used to loathe London when I was young’ wrote E.M. Forster in his essay ‘London is a Muddle.’ When Howards End was published in 1910 Forster was thirty one, which is still fairly young, and the evidence of the novel’s representation of London suggests that he still loathed London then. However, by the time he wrote ‘London is a Muddle’, in 1937, he had found a way of liking it, and he had done that by walking around it.

The figure of a man walking the streets of a city has become one of the key tropes of modernism. Charles Baudelaire found this walker in Poe and developed it in his own writing, creating the flâneur, and we have Walter Benjamin to thank for elucidating its meanings and identifying the flâneur as the protagonist of the modern city. Baudelaire’s flaneur, in Benjamin’s reading, is not just any walker in the city. The Baudelairean flâneur is the flâneur par excellence, and he has many guises. He seeks to lose himself in the crowd, becoming invisible and going about as a fugitive. However, despite his attempt to hide his purpose beneath the pose of purposelessness, Benjamin’s flâneur cannot escape definition in terms of his relationship with the market, for he is also the man of letters who ‘goes to the marketplace as a flâneur, supposedly to take a look at it but in reality to find a buyer.’[1] The city he occupies is the city of commerce.

When we think of city walkers in English writing of the Modernist period, we are more likely to think of Virginia Woolf, and especially of the early pages of Mrs Dalloway, and her 1927 essay ‘Street Haunting’, than we are of E.M. Forster. However, London is important in Forster’s Howards End and it is the theme too of his 1937 essay ‘London is a Muddle.’ Walking in London features decisively in both. Forster’s city walkers are not flâneurs, but a different type of walker, especially in the case of the walker of ‘London is a Muddle’, who is free of the doubts and confusions and fears that beset Margaret Schlegel as she makes her way around the London streets in various scenes in Howards End. They each have a purpose; they are both looking for something in London, and they do not seek to hide that purpose under any guise. One of them does not find what she is looking for, while the other does. Neither of them wants to become lost in the crowd, though one of them does and dislikes the experience and is deeply disturbed by it. They are both however, like Benjamin’s flâneur, defined in terms of their relationships to commerce, though in different ways. In Howards End, commerce defines London’s modernity and Margaret Schlegel seeks, but fails to find, anything in London that escapes definition in terms of commercial culture. In Forster’s London, the strategy of modernity is to take over London completely, so that everything in the city is defined in terms of commerce and the market. Margaret Schlegel seeks to resist this by seeking the infinite and the unseen, which to her way of seeing, are the signs of the residual presence of the history and tradition that she associates with the rural world, and ideals of ‘Englishness’. The walker of ‘London is a Muddle’ has a different tactic. I use the word ‘tactic’ in the sense that Michel de Certeau uses it, along with ‘strategy’, in The Practice of Everyday Life.[2] Margaret Schlegel is thwarted by London, because her tactic, if it can be described as such, does not work. The walker of ‘London is a Muddle’ has a tactic that does work, as we will see.

We think of Forster as the novelist of the suburbs and the provinces. London, where it appears at all, has only incidental significance in all of Forster’s novels except Howards End. At the end of Where Angels Fear to Tread Philip Herriton decides, in the light of his experiences in Italy, that he will leave Sawston and go and live in the capital, which he hopes will provide him with an escape from the narrowness and hypocrisy of suburban life in the provinces. Maurice in Maurice works and lives part-time in London, where he is able to live a gay life (albeit covertly) away from the eyes of his provincial family and the provincial town that produced him. Howards End, by contrast, has much to say about London, and almost all of what it says is negative. London is much the inferior of the village of Hilton and Ruth Wilcox’s house Howards End, in the Home Counties, north of London, and inferior also to Oniton in rural Shropshire, where the Wilcoxes take a country house.[3]

Howards End is an exploration of what is often called the ‘spirit of place’, and it is a novel that values the countryside over the city, tradition over the modern world, and stillness over movement and change. The traditions and the stillness that the novel champions are associated with the rural world and in particular the house that gives the novel its name. The famous epigraph of the novel is ‘only connect’, which discloses the novel’s aim right at its beginning. Contraries will be reconciled and the values that the book associates with the countryside will endure, even as modernity progresses and London grows. London represents a hostile and destructive modernity, which is characterised by constant movement, and the dissolution of individual identity in the noise and anonymity of the city street and the crowd. As such London is the destroyer of the traditional values and ways of living that the novel finds in the countryside. Howards End, however, never wholly manages to ‘connect’ its opposites or to satisfactorily resolve or harmonize the contraries its sets against one another. If Howards End fails here, it fails as a result of its own good faith, in refusing to imagine that London and modernity are not there and retreating into some fantasized pastoral utopia. Even as it searches for a means of ensuring that the traditional values of the countryside will survive, it accepts the inexorable, though lamentable progress of modernity, and London’s expansion through the growth of its suburbs, as they swallow up more and more of the countryside of the Home Counties, where Howards End stands.

The search for a home is a guiding theme of Howards End. Early in the novel Margaret and Helen Schlegel are dispirited at the prospect of losing theirs at Wickham Place. The lease on their well-appointed residence is about to run out, developers are about to move in, and Margaret and Helen ask what are the ‘warp and woof of the world?’ The ‘warp’ says Margaret, is money, and when Helen asks what the woof is, Margaret replies ‘very much what one chooses… it’s something that isn’t money – one can’t say more.’ (136) Always seeking answers to unanswerable questions, they continue to wonder what it might be, until Margaret says

I believe we shall come to care about people less and less, Helen. The more people one knows the easier it becomes to replace them. It’s one of the curses of London. I quite expect to end my life caring most for a place. (136-37)

Margaret comes to believe that the stillness and slow continuity that she craves will be found not in people, but in a place, but this place will clearly not be London.

Margaret’s critique of the transience that life in London has created continues during a chance meeting with Henry Wilcox on Chelsea Embankment, before his proposal and their subsequent marriage. The following thoughts occur to Margaret:

The tide had begun to ebb. Margaret leant over the parapet and watched it sadly. Mr Wilcox had forgotten his wife, Helen her lover; she herself was probably forgetting. Everyone moving. Is it worth while attempting the past when there is this continual flux even in the hearts of men? (143)

Later, thought turns to word and in conversation with Henry and prior to their marriage; when Margaret bemoans London’s constant changing, Henry remarks that change and movement are good for trade, and Margaret says:

I hate this continual flux of London. It is an epitome of us at our worst –- eternal formlessness; all the qualities, good, bad and indifferent, streaming away — streaming, streaming forever. That’s why I dread it so. I mistrust rivers, even in scenery. Now, the sea -–‘ (184)

The ebbing of the tide at Chelsea Embankment and Margaret’s mistrust of rivers points to an important figure in the novel. Wickham Place is described as a place about which

one had the sense of a backwater, or rather of an estuary, whose waters flowed in from the invisible sea, and ebbed into a profound silence while the waves without were still beating. (23)

Here, Wickham Place is detached from the flux and formlessness of London and this apparent separation creates the possibility that it might be imagined as a place of stillness and continuity. However, an estuary is not at all a place of stillness. Rather, the movement of the tides make it a place of transience and change, and sure enough the paragraph continues ‘though the promontory consisted of flats … these too would be swept away in time’ (23). This theme of transience and change appears again with the references to the constant building, demolishing and rebuilding of London, when Leonard Bast is walking home from the concert at which he had met the Schlegels:

it was the kind of scene that may be observed all over London, whatever the locality -– bricks and mortar rising and falling with the restlessness of water in a fountain’. (59)

Then, of Leonard Bast’s basement flat, it is said that ‘it struck that shallow makeshift note that is so often heard in the modern dwelling-place’ (60).

Quite early in the novel Margaret goes to visit her friend Mrs Wilcox, shortly after the Wilcoxes have moved into a flat opposite the Schlegel home in Wickham Place. Margaret finds Mrs Wilcox in bed and says that she had thought that she would be an early riser, to which Mrs Wilcox replies ‘at Howards End –- yes; there is nothing to get up for in London’ (80). Margaret is shocked by the remark and defends London, but later, when the Schlegels have to move from Wickham Place, Margaret is unable to find a new house, because she did not know what kind of house she wanted or even where she wanted to live, and for her London, which ‘thwarts’ her (155) is to blame for this. When Mrs Wilcox said there was nothing worth getting up for in London, Margaret was scandalized and spoke of concerts and exhibitions and people, but now these are the very things that thwart her in her attempt to decide where to live and what kind of house to live in.

The earliest hint of the spiritual crisis that London brings about for Margaret happens during a Christmas shopping trip in London that she makes with Ruth Wilcox. During the trip Mrs Wilcox invites Margaret to Howards End and proposes that they go immediately. Margaret does not see the significance that the invitation has for her friend until it is too late, and replies ‘another day’(93), and Mrs Wilcox is offended. This leads to tension between them as they drive home and that tension leads Margaret to see London as threatening:

the city seemed satanic, the narrower streets oppressing like the galleries of a mine. No harm was done by the fog to trade, for it lay high, and the lighted windows of the shops were thronged with customers. It was rather a darkening of the spirit, which fell back upon itself, to find a more grievous darkness within. (94)

It is not really London itself that is satanic; but seeming so it points towards a hell that is within Margaret herself; and in her present mood, she sees ‘a more grievous darkness within’, so that it is Margaret’s thoughts and fears at having offended Mrs Wilcox that are described, and the broader offence against Margaret’s holy of holies, personal relationships, which for her must have their origin in the infinite.

The suburbs play an important role in the novel, and if London is a ‘caricature of infinity’(275), a journey towards a more authentic infinity might begin from the city: a journey into the suburbs. When Aunt Juley goes, at the beginning of the novel, to rescue Helen from her engagement to Paul, we are told of Margaret’s idea of King’s Cross Station that ‘to Margaret … the station of Kings Cross had always suggested infinity.’ (27) When Aunt Juley’s train arrives at Hilton: ‘the station, like the scenery, like Helen’s letters, struck an indeterminate note. Into which country will it lead, England or Suburbia?’ (29-30) The railway, like London, represents modernity, but at the same time it may facilitate flight into the unknown and the infinite. In contrast with the railway, the Great North Road, which at certain points runs parallel with the railway, is

more suggestive of infinity than any railway, awakening, after a nap of a hundred years, to such life as is conferred by the stench of motor-cars, and to such culture as is implied by the advertisements of anti-bilious pills. (29)

If the infinite is to be found at all, it will be found in the countryside where ‘Pan and the elemental forces’ once dwelt. They are described as ‘Victorian’, while the city is ‘Georgian.’(116) This is a religious, or at least a spiritual impulse, though it is not Christian, but rather a pagan religion of nature and place; though one which we are told has had its time, for the passage also says: ‘the literature of the near future will probably ignore the country and seek inspiration from the town’ and it will be a long time before the country becomes again the place of focus. (116) Pan will be homeless, and paganism appears to have no more hopeful a future than Christianity. Pan takes us to the countryside, but the countryside is changing.

In the conversation on Chelsea Embankment, Henry said of Howards End to Margaret that the ‘neighbourhood’s getting suburban’, and this conversation ends with Henry concluding that ‘one must have one thing or the other.’ (141-42) Following this principle Henry has solved the problem of where to live by taking a house in London in Ducie Street, and a country house at Oniton Grange in Shropshire. From his remark it is clear that Henry dislikes the suburbs and would probably agree with T.W.H. Crosland when he writes that ‘in fact , “suburban” is a sort of label which may be properly applied to pretty well everything on the earth that is ill-conditioned, undesirable and unholy.’[4]

The Great North Road, running parallel with the railway, finds itself passing through the new suburbs, and amid the objects and signs of modern culture: motor cars and advertisements. Neither road or railway lead any longer out of the city into the countryside, but into the new suburbs, and even if the novel’s view of the suburbs is ambivalent, it suggests that the infinite might be found in suburbia, for when Leonard Bast tells the Schlegel sisters of how one night he walked out into the country, they wonder ‘was that ‘something’ walking in the dark among the suburban hills?’ (131) The suburbs are growing and through them London is spreading outwards, and the suburbs are not one thing not the other: not the city exactly, but not the country either.

The choice of the word ‘indeterminate’ to describe the scenery Aunt Juley saw on her train journey is telling, for it is precisely the London suburbs that are indeterminate: neither one thing nor the other, as Henry Wilcox would say. The suburbs are neither city nor country, but a place where the two meet and merge with each other. Howards End is only able to suggest the way to the infinite after London, in the form of its growing suburbs, has all but come to Howards End. Paradoxically though, London is what has destroyed the possibility of permanence, wholeness and connection. Swallowed up by the suburbs, Howards End is no longer what it had been, and if it represents a way to the infinite, it could only be the infinite on terms that London might suggest.

At the end of the novel, when Margaret and Helen are at Howards End, Helen hopes that their residence there will become permanent and Margaret says in response ‘I think so. There are moments when I feel Howards End peculiarly our own’ (329). However, like Henry they dislike the suburbs, and fear their growth, for they will bring London and everything that it represents to Howards End and swallow the house up into their modernity. Helen says ‘All the same, London’s creeping …. And London’s part of something else, I’m afraid. Life’s going to be melted down, all over the world’ (329). Finally, Helen hopes for the return of a ‘civilization that won’t be a movement, because it will rest on the earth’ and ends saying ‘but I can’t help hoping … I feel that our house is the future as well as the past’ (329). This, however, can never be anything more than a hope. Or, might the countryside creep into London?

A key phrase in Howards End, which is borrowed from Matthew Arnold, a fact that discloses a great deal about Forster’s biases and which is repeated a number of times, is to ‘see life steadily and see it whole’, and it posits a way of seeing that allows the viewer to see everything as a single, organic unity.[5] In quoting Arnold thus, Forster overtly connects his novel with the Victorian tradition of liberal humanism of which Arnold was a key figure. Different ways of seeing are crucial to the novel, and they are equally important in ‘London is a Muddle’. This imperative to see steadily and whole is closely related to the desire to ‘only connect’ in Howards End, and among the many oppositions that the novel seeks to find means of connection between, connection and reconciliation between the individual and the modern city is central to what the novel sets out to achieve. Some characters, such as Henry Wilcox, are able to see London whole, though only by looking through a half-closed eye; while another, Leonard Bast, who is forced by his circumstances to look into the abyss, sees the whole in a quite different way from Henry Wilcox. Margaret Schlegel, however, cannot, because to adjust her way of seeing would be to abandon the tradition that the novel burdens her with the task of carrying forward into modernity, the city she tries and fails to see steadily and whole, represents.

Margaret’s way of seeing is thus not the only way of seeing, and the contrast between her failure to be able to see London steadily and whole and the disconcerting sense of uncontrollable movement in the metropolis that it gives her, and Henry Wilcox’s steadier view of it, can illustrate the point. Henry, like the businessmen who inhabit the villas of suburbia, sees ‘life more steadily, though with the steadiness of the half-closed eye.’ (314) Henry believes in concentration and attention to detail, while Margaret is unpractical and can never grasp details. If her philosophy is only connect, Henry’s is ‘only separate’, and his ability to break things up or separate one thing from another, enables his gaze to impose order and control on the city. In him the wholeness that Margaret strives for is lost, but crucially Henry’s way of looking, as the novel has it, is more ‘modern’ than hers, and thus better suited to the modern environment of the city. From the Schlegel point of view, this way of seeing is not to see anything, or at least anything of what is important. However, Margaret’s desire to see steadily and whole prevents her from seeing at all; and worse still, it prevents her from being able to make decisions and act.[6]

‘London is a Muddle’ returns to questions raised and left unanswered in Howards End. It describes a walk around the city, though as a contribution to the modernist canon of writings about London and the city more broadly, ‘London is a Muddle’ is in stark contrast with seminal texts of the genre such as Charles Baudelaire’s ‘Le Spleen de Paris’, Walter Benjamin’s reading of Baudelaire in ‘The Paris of the Second Empire’, and Virginia Woolf’s ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’, all of which celebrate the city and the pleasures and terrors of its capacity to dissolve individual identity in the mass of the crowd and the architectures of the cityscape.

Forster could have had no knowledge of Benjamin’s writings on Baudelaire, though it is likely that he had read Woolf’s ‘Street Haunting’, which is an uncannily Benjaminian text. Woolf’s essay is high modernist in style, while Forster’s is quite the opposite of that, and if it can be said to have some relationship with any fictional literary tradition, it would be with the realist novel of the Victorian period, which continued through the period of modernism as an anti-modernist tradition, in the work of authors such as Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy; Woolf’s Edwardians. Forster, she described as a Georgian, placing him somewhere between the Edwardians, and the Modernists like herself.[7] This in-between designation locates Forster’s writings, both in fiction and in criticism and journalism well, as a novel like Howards End and an essay like ‘London is a Muddle’ show. The novel is anti-modernist in sentiment, but leans towards modernist fictional technique in form. It dislikes London, but refuses to simply make it disappear. ‘London is a Muddle’ finds a way of adapting London to the nostalgic and humanistic vision that Howards End had explored, though been unable to make fit.

In ‘London is a Muddle’ Forster comes back for another look at London and finds it rather better than he had in Howards End. Indeed, between 1910 and 1937 he has changed his mind about the city, and he says in the essay

I used to loathe London when I was young. Living an immense distance away (to be precise, in Hertfordshire), I used to denounce her for her pomp and vanity, and her inhabitants for their unmanliness and for their unhealthy skins. Like (William) Blake I went too far. Time has tamed me, and, though it is not practicable to love such a place (one could as easily embrace both volumes of the Telephone Directory at once), one can love bits of it and become interested in the rest.[8]

The emphasis is on separating, and in this our walker is similar to Henry Wilcox. Recalling the scene beside the Thames with Margaret Schlegel and Henry Wilcox in Howards End, which was also about ways of seeing, this walker sees with a Wilcox, and not a Schlegel eye, but he seeks things that will offer hope for the survival of the Schlegel values, and he looks for them with a Wilcox eye, though one that might not now any longer need to be half-closed.

The essay begins: ‘London is a muddle, and not always an unpleasant one’ (348).‘Muddle’ is a very Forsterian word, and it appears at crisis moments in all of his novels. It is still there, in this essay, but its meaning and application have been broadened. There are no muddles in any of the novels that are ‘not unpleasant’, but London is a muddle that is not always an unpleasant one. We first learn that ‘casualness and confusion … are the Spirit of London’ (348) and then we are told to stand at the City end of London Bridge and asked what we see, and then immediately told the answer: Adelaide House and here is the London of business. In Howards End, business was an evil, though a necessary one, and despite accepting its necessity, the novel never managed to be more than ambivalent about it. Adelaide House is described as ‘pompous and practical; it suggests that London is a mart, a hub, a focus, a last word on something or other; it bullies the visitor as he approaches from the Surrey side’ (348).

Yet, even as one sees this pompous and bullying palace of commerce, one is also able to see, by looking down Lower Thames Street towards Billingsgate, a place different from the world of Adelaide House which, although it is also a place of commerce, is ‘quite another pace is set and quite another language is spoken’ (348). Then another building catches the eye and turns out to be ‘one of Sir Christopher Wren’s best churches, St. Magnus the Martyr’ (348-49). This latter Forster calls a ‘third London’ (348) and he ends this opening part of the essay by saying this ‘Adelaide-Billingsgate-Magnus combination is typical of London, which is an untidy city, and ought not to be tidied up.’ (349) In a single prospect view Forster’s walker sees three ‘Londons’, which are not connected with each other (and ought not to be). Rather, they are an untidiness that ought not to be tidied up.

In the paragraph that follows we learn about the demolition of churches and Nash’s attempt to connect Carlton House, once home of the Prince Regent, with Regent’s Park. Forster says he can remember from his younger days what the result looked like, but adds that it has been altered now, and what has replaced it is a ‘bad muddle, instead of a good one’(349). Here we find change that is not for the better, for connection has been replaced by a bad muddle. Next, Forster’s walker is walking up Regent Street from Piccadilly Circus to Oxford Street, and here is a muddle of

ornaments that do not adorn, features that feature nothing, flatness, meanness, uniformity without harmony, bigness without size …. Here is the heart of the Empire, and the best it can do. Regent Street exhibits, in its most depressing aspect, the Spirit of London. (349)

However, there is the possibility of escape to a ‘much pleasanter muddle’ (350): up the Caledonian Road and ‘this, too, is London – a London undreamt of in Regent Street’ (350). Here Forster finds a factory that makes cattle-food and boys bathing in the canal. The suggestion is of a place where there is a merging of metropolitan imagery with images of life from beyond the city. These are the bits of London that the Forsterian walker can love, because they remind him of tradition and continuity.

This is a London of buildings and streets and contrasting places, much more than a London of people. There is mention of the businessmen of Adelaide House, the Billingsgate market traders, who are also doing business, but of another kind compared with the businessmen of Adelaide House. The two are unconnected with each other, and with their different pace and different language the Billingsgate traders seem to belong to an older world. The London of Wren’s churches belong to a yet older time. There are also the boys bathing in the canal in the poor district around the Caledonian Road and Pentonville. All of these people though seem merely incidental, and they appear to be less important in Forster’s eye than the buildings and streets and places that they inhabit. These kinds of places that Forster’s walker takes us to around London are

typical, these surprises, these oddnesses. No doubt, all cities which are large and old contain them – they are certainly to be found in Paris. But London has a deceptive air of dullness. One does not expect her to indulge in irregularities and pranks. (350)

This focus on buildings and streets and places, at the expense of people, and particularly people on the street, marks Forster out against that more famous city walker of modernism, the flâneur.

Marshall Berman contrasts the view of the city of the modernist and the anti-modernist: ‘the difference between the modernist and the anti-modernist, so far as they are concerned, is that the modernist makes himself at home here, while the anti-modern searches the streets for a way out.’[9] Like Forster, Baudelaire speaks of the infinite, but he links it with the fleeting, and locates them both in the city and identifies these qualities with the crowd, whereas Forster makes London a caricature of infinity and would, if he could, connect the infinite with something more solid and lasting; except that in Howards End at least, he was unable to find anything solid or lasting in London. Baudelaire also says that ‘he (the artist) is looking for that indefinable something we may be allowed to call ‘modernity’.[10] For Baudelaire, modernity means fashion, the ephemeral, the transient, and the momentary. All of these are the exact opposite of what Forster’s London walker is looking for; and good anti-modernist as he is, he searches the streets, though not exactly for a way out. Forster’s walker, making his way around London, has no concern with the crowd, but rather seeks out a spot that is free of crowds in the city. This Forsterian walker is quite different from the Baudelairean flâneur, who seeks the dissolution of identity in the anonymity afforded by the crowded street. There is no sense of the loss of identity, unified or otherwise (or the desire for it), or of the possibility that the self exists only in the flow of its perceptions of external stimuli. Rather, this more careful and deliberate pedestrian in the city looks for places and things that will confirm, rather than dissolve his sense of self. Forster’s walker is something of an ‘anti-flâneur’, though perhaps not conceived of by Forster as such.

It may be that this London walker is able to see steadily, but he does not try to see the city whole. This walker’s gaze is one that would be master of all it sees, and what it does not see (or try to see) is the possibility of London as a single whole and unified entity. Forster’s walker retains his sense of self and his controlling gaze, as he sorts through the muddles, looking for the good ones and walking quickly past the bad ones. This gaze that separates, rather than attempting to see steadily and whole, is an advance on Howards End and enables the modern world to be re-appropriated to the ideals and values that are aspired to in Howards End, but which can only be found away from the city, and still with no certainty, as the suburbs bring London to Howards End and threaten to absorb it.

The Forsterian walker searches for ‘un-city-like’ spots in the metropolis, which invoke the rural world and tradition, and history and the possibility of continuity. It is tempting to interpret this essay as an attempt to appropriate London to the liberal humanist project of Howards End, where London thwarted it. That this might become possible in London offers hope for Forster that the values of personal relations and the inner life and of the tradition of liberal humanism that embodies them, might survive in the world of modernity. At the end of Howards End, this had seemed unlikely, but in the little spots of countryside in the city Pan, and the humanism that he represents in Forster might find a home in London. However, the London of ‘London is a Muddle’ only becomes germane to the walker’s taste in its ‘oddnesses’ and after editing work has been done by the walker’s separating eye. The irregularities and pranks of little pockets of countryside, history and tradition in London, is a reversal of the movement of Howards End, where the suburbs were swallowing Hilton and Mrs Wilcox’ house. The growth of the suburbs was the incursion of the city into the country, whereas in ‘London is a Muddle’, little spots of the country are able to survive in the city. Moreover, where the arrival of the suburbs was a threat to the values that Howards End embodied, these ‘oddnesses’ are the survival of the possibility of London being part of the kind of connected and organic whole that Margaret Schlegel sought and was unable to find in Howards End; or which did not look likely to last for very long at Howards End.

‘A tactic,’ writes De Certeau, ‘insinuates itself into the other’s place, fragmentarily, without taking it over in its entirety, without being able to keep it at a distance.[11] The walker of ‘London is a Muddle’ edits the city, picking out the fragments where spots that resemble the countryside are still to be found. These ‘insinuations’ of the country in the city do not and cannot take over and reclaim the city space, and the city is at a distance but it is always right there. However, those spots that Forster’s walker picks on are available for subverting, and that is how he operates. Margaret Schlegel’s attempts to find the infinite and the unseen in the city failed, because neither of those were there at all. There is no attempt to see life or the city whole, and the search is not spiritual as it was in Howards End, and these omissions are tacit acknowledgement that those things are lost. Yet, the essay is able to recover something, and it finds it in the presence of pockets of the rural world in little corners of the city. In Howards End the countryside is made the place with which traditions of liberal humanism and ‘Englishness’ are associated. Finding a means of bringing the countryside to London is a means of appropriating the city, despite Howards End, to those traditions, as a means of assuring their survival in the world of modernity. However, it has only been achieved at the expense of editing out most of the traditional values that Howards End sort to establish in the modern city. ‘London is a Muddle’ offers a London in which the rural world has re-asserted itself, in idyllic corners of parks and spots of green within the metropolis, thereby ensuring, Forster hopes, that the values that he associates with rural England are not entirely lost to the modern world of the city.


[1] ‘The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire’ in Benjamin, W., Selected Writings, vol. 4., 1938-40, edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, The Belknap Press of Harvard Unversity Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2003, pp. 3-92, see p. 17. See also ‘Baudelaire, or the Streets of Paris’, Benjamin, W., The Arcades Project, The Belknap Press of Harvard Unversity Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1999, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, pp. 10-11: ‘In the flâneur, the intelligentsia sets foot in the marketplace –- ostensibly to look around, but in truth to find a buyer,’ p. 10.

[2] De Certeau, M., The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendell, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1984. See Introduction, pp. xviii-xx and on ‘Walking in the City’, Ch. 7, pp. 91-110.

[3] Nicola Beauman goes so far as to describe Howards End as ‘the great twentieth-century novel about London.’ (221). Howards End is certainly an important statement about London within the canon of English modernist fiction, but Beauman seems to be forgetting Virginia Woolf and Joseph Conrad, to name but two modernist novelists whose work contains important representations of the capital. Beauman, M., Morgan: A Biography of E.M. Forster, Sceptre, London, 1983.

[4] Thompson, P., The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society, 2nd ed., London, Routledge, 1992, 28-29.

[5] See p. 348, note to p. 67.

[6] It is only Leonard Bast who has that misfortune, for it is here more than anywhere else that the novel’s liberal humanist attack on modernism starts to unravel. After losing his job Bast ‘was near the abyss, and at such moments men see clearly.’ (225) A little later, he tells Helen that ‘when I saw him (the Bailiff) fingering my Ruskin’s and Stevenson’s, I seemed to see life straight real, and it isn’t a pretty sight.’ (235).

[7] Woolf, V., ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ in A Women’s Essays, (edited with an Introduction) Rachel Bowlby, Penguin Harmondsworth, 1992, pp. 69-87. See p. 70.

[8] Forster , E. M., ‘London is a Muddle,’ in Two Cheers for Democracy, (ed.) Oliver Stallybrass, Edward Arnold, London, 1972, p.351. See p. 348.

[9] Berman, M., Everything That is Solid Melts into Air, The Experience of Modernity, Verso, London, 1983, p. 162.

[10] Baudelaire, C, ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ in Selected Writings on Art and Literature, (edited with an Introduction) P. E. Charvet, Penguin, Hanrmondsworth, 1972, pp. 390-435. See p. 402.

[11] De Certeau, p. xix.

To Cite This Article:

Anthony Lake, ‘London is a Muddle’: E.M. Forster and the Flâneur’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 6 Number 2 (September 2008). Online at Accessed on [date of access]