If pressed, or merely asked, to state who is my favorite female character in literature, I would say Helen Schlegel. I don’t have a very good answer for why that is, but I’ve been trying to figure it out. Let’s pretend this is multiple choice.
Question: Why do I love Helen Schlegel?
A) She’s snazzy dresser.
B) The way she listens to Beethoven.
C) She’s the natural progression of Lucy Honeychurch.
D) All of the above.
A) I would totally wear this. On the other hand, this other outfit (below) reminds me somehow of a mushroom, and while I can see how it reflects her mood of madness when she interrupts Evie’s wedding breakfast at Oniton with Leonard and Mrs. Bast in tow, I can’t really condone it. So let’s just say that Helen, as envisioned by Merchant Ivory, is at best an inconsistent dresser.
And while we’re on the subject of that scene at Oniton, may I take a moment to express my adoration of Helen here? Her righteous and impetuous anger brings her and the Basts all the way from London because she believes she is right and that Margaret must see that and help. She raves about finding the Basts unemployed, ill, and starving. She is thoroughly excited and wild until Margaret stops her to question whether she really came all that way with two starving people. Helen, honest Helen, immediately calms down enough to reply, “There was a restaurant car on the train.” How can anyone not love her right then?
B) Beethoven. I have been known to read that scene while listening to Beethoven 5. Just because I can. It’s so brilliant the way all of the characters’ responses to the music say something about each of them individually. Tibby is completely analytical about it, Aunt Juley is concerned with who Margaret is talking to and hoping the German cousin will be suitably impressed with the English composer Elgar, Margaret is occupied with Leonard, and poor Leonard is occupied with his umbrella! But Helen imagines the world unfolding in the music. I love how Tibby tries to get them all to pay attention to the drum, but Helen wants them to listen for the goblins instead. That’s how she understands the music, as a fight where there is triumph at the end, but almost not, and maybe not forever. She believes she knows what Beethoven was really saying. Sometimes I think I do hear Helen’s goblins, the threat of panic and emptiness, followed by the joy and the triumph, but also with the lingering possibility of future fear and struggle. But mostly, no, mostly I listen like Margaret, “who can see only the music,” but I wish I could hear it like Helen does, with that utter clarity. For her, “the music summed up all that had happened or could happen in her career. She read it as a tangible statement, which could never be superseded. The notes meant this and that to her, and they could have no other meaning, and life could have no other meaning.”
C) Beethoven naturally leads us to consider Lucy Honeychurch, for whom life would be much more interesting if she chose to live more as she played. In all honesty, I find myself thoroughly confused here because Lucy and Helen are both portrayed by the incomparable Helena Bonham Carter, making it very difficult (for me) not to equate the two in some ways. But maybe Helen is Lucy relieved of her burdens and her doubts, a Lucy who approaches the world more like George, asking the difficult questions and expecting the honest answers, and making right, if not always respectable, decisions. A Lucy who has found her courage.
I also rather love that Helen’s journey does not really involve a man or marriage. I know it involves Leonard, of course, but I think Helen would still be herself without him. Just as, truly, Margaret is Margaret, with or without Henry. It’s a pretty wonderful thing, when you think about it.
So I think my answer, unsurprisingly, is D) All of the above.