Summary of Howards End

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Howards End book summary

Literary Classic

  • Novel
  • Edwardian Era

What It’s About

No Escape

Howards End is a finely nuanced depiction of the relationships among three families from drastically different backgrounds and world views. Their paths cross and intertwine throughout the novel, with fatal consequences. The novel questions the rigid class system and the moral hypocrisy of early 20th-century patriarchal society, but in the end paints a rather bleak picture of the ability either to overcome class barriers or escape gender stereotypes and roles. For example, Leonard Bast has to give up his ambition at bettering himself and ends up ruined, whereas strong, independent and confident Margaret in the end steps into (and accepts) the role of wife and companion to the hypocritical and complacent Henry. It seems there is no escape from the rules and boundaries of society.

Take-Aways

  • Howards End is one of the English writer E. M. Forster’s most famous novels.
  • The lives of three families – the liberal and culture-loving Schlegel sisters, the bourgeois and commercially successful Wilcox family, and the working-class Basts – intersect and intertwine, resulting in at least one birth, one death and one marriage.
  • The central theme, as in many of Forster’s novels, is the – often futile – human attempt to overcome social, gender and class barriers.
  • The novel highlights the hypocritical attitude toward women and sexual morality at the turn of the 20th century.
  • The story is told mainly from a female perspective and has strong, empathetic female characters.
  • The novel highlights the difficulty in overcoming class barriers in early 20th-century England – a time when the middle-class was beginning to expand.
  • Forster took his inspiration for the Schlegel sisters from Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, both of whom were part of the Bloomsbury Group – an early 20th-century group of English writers, artists and intellectuals – to which Forster belonged as well.
  • Forster published his last novel at the age of 45, though he lived to be 91.
  • Forster was homosexual, but only came out after the death of his mother. After that, he became an advocate for homosexual rights and relationships.
  • “They had nothing in common but the English language.”
 

Summary

A Brief Romance

The 21-year-old Helen Schlegel is spending time at Howards End, the country home of the Wilcox family. Helen and her older sister Margaret met the Wilcoxes during a trip through Germany. Margaret was unable to join Helen at Howards End as she had to look after their 16-year-old brother Tibby, who is sick with hay fever. The three siblings are orphans. In a letter, Helen tells Margaret how much the Wilcoxes fascinate her despite their old-fashioned and often sexist ideas about women’s rights, in particular the vote for women – a topic close to Margaret’s and Helen’s hearts.

“What do you think of the Wilcoxes? Are they our sort? Are they likely people?… Do they care about Literature and Art?” (Aunt Juley to Margaret)

In a subsequent letter, Helen tells Margaret that she has fallen in love with Paul Wilcox, the younger of the two sons. This causes upset in the Schlegel household, in particular for Aunt Juley, who feels responsible for her nieces. Margaret decides to take the train to Howards End immediately, but Aunt Juley persuades her to stay and let her deal with the situation. Margaret takes Aunt Juley to the train station. On Margaret’s return home, she finds a telegram from Helen, saying that the affair is over and that Margaret isn’t to tell anyone about it. But it is too late: Aunt Juley is already on her way.

An Embarrassing Meeting

When Aunt Juley arrives in Hilton, she asks a ticket boy about Howards End, which she mistakenly calls “Howards Lodge.” Coincidentally, Charles Wilcox, the older of the Wilcox sons, is in the station after dropping off his father for a train. The ticket boy calls him over, and Charles offers Aunt Juley a lift in his carriage to Howards End. Unfortunately, she mistakes him for Paul and starts dropping hints that she knows what has happened between him and Helen – despite Margaret having asked her specifically not to talk to anyone but Helen about it. When Charles finally understands what Aunt Juley is talking about, he gets angry. Aunt Juley is mortified.

Furious with his brother for getting himself into such an awkward position, Charles is quick to tell Aunt Juley that there is no future in the relationship as Paul doesn’t have any money and is about to leave England for Nigeria. Despite her embarrassment, Aunt Juley gets up in arms at his insinuation that Helen has been trying to trap Paul. They arrive at Howards End in icy silence, where Helen runs to meet Aunt Juley and quickly explains to her that the affair is over. Aunt Juley bursts into tears. Charles takes Paul to task, and it is only their mother Ruth Wilcox’s influence that defuses the situation. Aunt Juley and Helen return to London.

Helen tries to forget the whole awkward episode. She was in love with Paul for one evening – or rather with his whole family and their pragmatic, down-to-earth attitude – and a romantic evening led to a kiss in the garden. However, the magical atmosphere had lasted only one night. The next morning, when she heard Charles, Henry and Paul talking about stocks at breakfast, Helen realized that there was no future for them; they are from different worlds and the three men appear to her to be hollow and materialistic. 

Acquiring Culture

Back in London, Helen and Margaret meet a young clerk, Leonard Bast, at a concert. Leonard is determined to better himself. He devours books and tries to attend as many concerts and cultural events as he can afford. However, his partner Jacky, a troubled, “fallen” woman who is more than ten years his senior and whom he has promised to marry once he is of age, has no interest in books or music. When Helen leaves the concert early, she takes Leonard’s umbrella by mistake. He is upset, and Margaret suggests that he accompany her back to their home, Wickham Place, to pick up his umbrella. They talk on their way back, and she is impressed with his desire to acquire culture. She plans to invite him to tea, but a silly comment from Helen scares him away.

An Unexpected Friendship

The day after their meeting with Leonard, Aunt Juley comes with news that the Wilcoxes have moved into an apartment opposite their house. Margaret and Aunt Juley worry that seeing Paul and the family again will upset Helen, but she laughs it off. Still, when Margaret finds that Ruth Wilcox has tried to call on them, Margaret writes Ruth a letter telling her that she believes it would be better if they didn’t see each other. Margaret receives a curt reply, saying that there had been no need to write the letter as Ruth only called on her to tell her that Paul had gone to Africa. Margaret is mortified, and immediately goes to the Wilcoxes to apologize.

Ruth and Margaret become friends despite being almost opposite in character and world view. Margaret sees in Ruth a deep wisdom that she can’t quite define but which draws her in. Ruth has a close connection with Howards End, which Margaret can’t understand but finds intriguing. One day, while Ruth’s husband Henry and their daughter Evie are away, Ruth spontaneously invites Margaret to join her for a day trip to the house. Margaret is initially reluctant, but then changes her mind and hurries to join Ruth at the train station.

Margaret “discerned that Mrs Wilcox, though a loving wife and mother, had only one passion in life – her house – and that the moment was solemn when she invited a friend to share this passion with her.”

Yet before they can board the train to Hilton, they meet Henry and Evie, who have returned from their journey earlier than expected. Ruth immediately joins them, leaving Margaret to return home on her own.

An Unusual Will

Soon after their abandoned trip to Howards End, Ruth dies. She suffered from a terminal illness about which she had told no one. Henry is in deep mourning and stays at Howards End with Evie, Charles and Charles’ wife, Dolly. One day, a letter arrives from the matron at the nursing home where Ruth spent her final days. It includes a note from Ruth to her husband, written in pencil, saying that she wants Howards End to go to Margaret. The Wilcoxes are enraged. Charles immediately suggests that Margaret might have only befriended Ruth to get her hands on the house. They decide that Ruth must have been losing her mind, and they burn the note.

Helping Leonard Bast

Two years have passed since Ruth’s death, and Margaret is trying to find a new house for her and her siblings, as they have to move out of Wickham Place, their childhood home. One day a woman appears at their front door, demanding to see her husband who she believes is in their home. The sisters are amused but think no more of it. Yet the next day, the husband himself appears in order to apologize on behalf of his wife – and Margaret and Helen are surprised to find that the husband is no other than Leonard Bast. When Leonard had not returned one evening after work, Jacky had found Margaret’s card among Leonard’s things and assumed that he would be at the Schlegel’s house. Helen and Margaret are intrigued when they find that the reason Leonard didn’t come home that evening was not to meet another woman, but to take a walk – and to escape his predictable and lower-class life for just one night.

Margaret’s “speeches fluttered away from the young man like birds. If only he could talk like this, he would have caught the world. Oh, to acquire culture.”

Leonard’s adventure becomes Helen and Margaret’s talking point for their ensuing dinner parties. During a discussion evening, Margaret, inspired by their meeting with Leonard, argues that it would be better to give a decent amount of money to a poor person to help that one person than to distribute a large amount of money among many. A heated discussion ensues, with few people supporting Helen and Margaret in their views. On their way back along the Thames, the sisters sit down on a bench. Henry Wilcox, who is sitting with friends nearby, hears the sisters’ voices and walks over to greet them. Helen and Margaret tell him about their discussion and Leonard Bast’s situation. Henry urges them to tell Leonard to leave his position at the insurance company where he is working as it is likely to go bankrupt before the year ends. The sisters decide to invite Leonard to tea and pass on the warning.

The Fallout

Tea is a disaster. Leonard is desperate to show his interest in books and his learning, but the two sisters refuse to be dissuaded from their mission to help him. They try to persuade him to quit his job, but when Henry and Evie appear with a set of little puppies, Helen loses interest in Leonard. He gets upset, and an unpleasant argument follows. Leonard turns to leave, and Helen goes after him to smooth things out. Left alone, Henry warns Margaret not to try and cross social boundaries. In his opinion, all lower-class people are the same type, and one should be wary of them.

An Unexpected Liaison

Three days after the meeting with Leonard, Margaret receives an invite to tea from Evie and Henry. They talk about houses and moving, and Margaret asks Henry for help in finding a new home for her, Helen and Tibby. Henry and Margaret meet a few more times during the week. One day, as Margaret is visiting Aunt Juley, she receives a letter from Henry, offering to rent out his family’s house in London to the Schlegels. Margaret travels to London to meet Henry and to have a look at the house. He admits that he has invited her under false pretense: He has fallen in love with her and wanted an opportunity to propose to her. Margaret asks for a bit of time to think about it, but she realizes that she is in love with him, too.

Family Animosity

Margaret’s news shocks Helen, and she tries to persuade her older sister not to marry Henry. Margaret considers his character and lifestyle to be at complete odds with hers and Helen’s. Yet despite Helen’s opposition, Margaret agrees to marry Henry. Henry’s children are also against the marriage. Charles is worried about his inheritance and feels confirmed in his suspicion that the Schlegel sisters are just trying to get their hands on Howards End. Helen’s dislike of Henry gets even stronger when one day he casually retracts his assessment of the insurance company where Leonard worked. Henry now claims that it is stable and in excellent condition. Helen knows that Leonard has indeed quit his job there and is now working for another company – earning a much lower income. Helen feels guilty for the part she played in this decision, and she can’t understand why Henry doesn’t feel any responsibility. They argue, and the rift between the two sisters widens.

Howards End and a Wedding

Henry decides to take Margaret to Hilton to show her Howards End. The house is now empty, and Henry doesn’t want to live there. When they arrive, Henry goes to pick up the keys first. Left alone in front of the house, Margaret finds the door open, and she enters. Miss Avery, an elderly neighbor who has taken it upon herself to look after the house, meets her inside. Miss Avery tells Margaret that she mistook her for Ruth Wilcox, as Margaret apparently has Ruth’s “way of walking.”

“Ought the Wilcoxes to have offered their home to Margaret? I think not. The appeal was too flimsy... . To them, Howards End was a house; they could not know that to her it had been a spirit, for which she sought a spiritual heir.”

Evie, who is engaged to be married, has asked for her wedding to be at Oniton Grange, Henry’s country house. Uninvited, Helen appears in the evening, with Leonard and Jacky in tow. Helen has found the Basts half-starved in their apartment; Leonard has lost his position at the bank. She demands that Henry give him a job. Margaret promises to talk to Henry but sends Helen and the Basts to a local hotel for the night. Henry doesn’t remember the incident with Leonard at all, but agrees to talk with him about employment opportunities. As Henry and Margaret go into the garden, they come across Jacky, who is still there finishing off the leftover drinks and food. She recognizes Henry as a former lover. When Margaret confronts him about it, he admits that Jacky was his mistress some ten years ago, while he was still married to Ruth. Margaret is hurt but decides not to break off her engagement to Henry. She writes a short letter to Leonard, telling him that Henry doesn’t have any jobs for him. In a second letter to Helen, Margaret tells her that she shouldn’t bother to help the Basts as they are “no good” and asks her to come and stay at the house. She doesn’t mention that Jacky used to be Henry’s mistress. The next morning, Helen and the Basts disappear.

Things Unravel

Helen visits Tibby and tells him about Henry’s affair. She thinks that Margaret doesn’t know about it. Helen also asks Tibby to send a check for £5,000 of her money to the Basts. Tibby does so, but the check is returned, with a note saying that they don’t need the money. When Helen finds out, she asks Tibby to go to the house and force them to take the money. But when he arrives there, he finds that the landlord has turned the Basts out after they failed to pay the rent. Helen leaves for Germany without saying goodbye to Margaret. Margaret and Henry marry and move into his London home. The furniture from Wickham Place goes to Howards End for storage.

Preparations

Margaret learns from Dolly that Miss Avery has started unpacking the Schlegel’s things at Howards End. Margaret leaves for Hilton immediately. When she arrives, she tries to explain to Miss Avery that she and Henry have no intention of ever moving to Howards End, but Miss Avery ignores Margaret and instead takes her on a tour of the house. Margaret finds that their furniture and things fit very well into the house. Still, she explains to Miss Avery that they won’t be moving in, to which Miss Avery only replies, “In a couple of weeks, I’ll see your light shining through the hedge of an evening.”

The Trap

Aunt Juley falls seriously ill, and Margaret and Tibby send a telegram to Helen, asking her to come back quickly. Helen returns to England – but sends a letter to Margaret telling her that she only intends to stay for a short time and will only come to see Aunt Juley if the situation is serious. She also asks Margaret where the furniture is stored so she can go there and pick up a few of her books. Margaret requests Helen to meet her and Tibby, but Helen doesn’t turn up. Tibby persuades Margaret to talk to Henry about Helen’s actions. They’re both concerned that Helen’s extreme dislike of the Wilcoxes and her erratic behavior are signs of a mental illness. Henry suggests sending Helen to Howards End to pick up her books herself. This would offer Margaret the opportunity to catch her sister, and Henry would be waiting around the corner with a car in case they had to take Helen to see a specialist. Margaret doesn’t feel comfortable about betraying Helen, but in her worry, she decides to go along with the plan.

Marriage Crisis

When Margaret and Henry arrive at the house and see Helen, the reason for her prolonged absence becomes immediately clear: she is pregnant. Margaret sends Henry away so she can talk with Helen alone. Helen asks Margaret if they can stay together one night at Howards End before she returns to Germany. Margaret feels obliged to ask Henry for his permission – but soon regrets it as their conversation escalates into a major row. Henry refuses to give her permission to stay the night at Howards End because he is worried that the scandal of Helen’s pregnancy could reflect badly on his family and his dead wife. Margaret is astounded by his bigotry. After all, he’d had an affair when he was married. Margaret returns to Howards End, with every intention of ending her marriage with Henry.

A Blow of Fate

Against Henry’s will, Helen and Margaret spend the night at Howards End. Margaret has decided to leave Henry and return to Germany with Helen the next day. Helen tells Margaret that Leonard is the father of her child; it had happened the evening at the hotel in Oniton after they received Margaret’s letters. However, Helen never told him about her pregnancy, and she doesn’t blame him in any way since she believes that they were both equally responsible for their action. Helen tells Margaret that she was in love with him for that one evening and that that was it.

In contrast, Leonard is unable to shake off the feeling of guilt that he has been carrying around since his brief affair with Helen. His life has gone from bad to worse. He hasn’t managed to find another job, and he and Jacky now live on handouts from family members. Desperate to make amends, Leonard decides to go see Margaret and confess everything to her. He finds out that she is at Howards End, so he turns up in the morning after Helen and Margaret’s overnight stay there. He enters the grounds, and Charles – who has taken on himself the duty of avenging his family – confronts him. He beats Leonard with a blunt sword. Leonard has a heart attack and dies.

Reconciliation

Margaret tells Henry that she is leaving him. Henry is distraught. When he also learns that Charles has been sentenced to three years in prison for manslaughter, he has a breakdown and begs Margaret for help. She takes him to Howards End, so he can recuperate there. Helen decides to stay as well, and slowly Henry, Helen and Margaret start to reconnect. Months pass, and Helen’s child is born at Howards End. In his testament, Henry bequeaths the house to Margaret, and Margaret finally learns that Ruth had intended her to have it from the start.

About the Text

Structure and Style

Forster divided his 360-page novel into 44 chapters, indicated by number, without chapter headings. He tells the story chronologically apart from a few flashbacks, for example when the Schlegels first meet the Wilcoxes in Germany, and a few passages where he hints at future happenings to build tension. He “fast-forwards” at times, for example after Ruth Wilcox’s death and after the dramatic climax at Howards End. Detailed descriptions of landscapes, places and rooms make up much of the text, contrasting the English countryside with the sprawling bustle of London, and drawing parallels between the characters of houses and the souls of the main characters. The narrator’s voice is always present – it commentates, contrasts, explains and guides the reader through the story. It is always astute, often ironic, but does not hide that it is much closer and in tune with the minds and lifestyle of the Schlegel sisters than with the traditional and narrow-minded worldview of the men of the Wilcox family. Forster frequently uses interior monologues to allow the characters to unveil their thoughts and feelings – sometimes consciously and at other time unconsciously.

Interpretation

  • E. M. Forster’s major theme, the possibility or impossibility of connections among people from different backgrounds and class systems, plays out in the relationship between the three families.
  • The novel works in male and female dichotomies: The Schlegel sisters stand for mind, culture, friendship and love, while the Wilcox men represent pragmatism, economic prowess and a materialist view of the world.
  • The novel is ambivalent about its strong female characters, representatives of the “New Woman.” Margaret finds herself drawn into the role of nurturer and caregiver with Henry despite her independent and strong-willed nature. Helen, in contrast, often comes across as fickle and flighty.
  • Helen’s and Margaret’s unsuccessful attempts to help Leonard Bast suggest that class barriers are much harder (or even impossible) to overcome than differences in background, world view or gender. Their well-intended intervention sets off a chain of events that eventually ends in Leonard’s death.
  • The theme of social and personal moral responsibility weaves its way through the novel. This is particularly obvious in Margaret’s and Helen’s view of their responsibility towards Leonard Bast.
  • The novel is hugely critical of the different moral standards for men and for women when it comes to (in particular sexual) relationships.
  • The advance of the modern world can be seen throughout the novel in the changing London landscape: houses are pulled down only to be replaced with flats, and the outskirts of sprawling London come ever closer to the rural idyll of Howards End.
  • Houses – and the question of home – constitute another central theme in the novel. Howards End embodies home, not only to Ruth Wilcox but eventually also to Margaret and Helen. This stands in sharp contrast to Henry’s view of houses as investments.

Historical Background

From Victorian to Edwardian England

For 64 years – from 1837 to 1901 – Victoria was Queen of England. It was a time of huge technological and industrial progress, and many saw her reign as a golden era for Britain. The economy flourished, the population grew and Britain became one of the foremost colonial powers. The middle classes found themselves in positions of increasing wealth. With new spending power, many aspired to the lifestyle of the upper classes and aristocracy. Yet there was also a dark side to this development as poverty became more widespread and workers (and children) faced exploitation in the ever-expanding factories of the Industrial Revolution. These discrepancies became the theme for many 19th-century authors, most notably Charles Dickens.

As the Victorian Age progressed, Britain experienced social upheaval, and the rigid class system started to show signs of weakening. Yet, not so the position and view of women, whom society expected to play the roles of good wives, sisters and mothers and to submit to their spouses and male relatives. Many people considered Queen Victoria to be prudish and repressive of sexuality. This perception influenced and shaped attitudes towards sexuality – in particular, female sexuality. It presented an easy breeding ground for the bigotry seen in the Wilcox men.

After Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, her son Edward became king. The transition into the Edwardian Age was marked by the British starting to put aside old conventions and world views and embracing the modern age. The New Women movement, which rebelled against the rigid Victorian definition of femininity, became stronger and more vocal. In 1903, a group of people started a party that stood up for women’s rights and suffrage, though it wasn’t until 1918 that women got to right to vote in the United Kingdom.  

Development

Forster wrote Howards End in 1909. It was his fourth novel. Some of the characters and locations are based on real people and places. He took inspiration for Howards End from his home in Hertfordshire, where he lived from 1883 to 1893. The name of its previous owner was Howard, which explains the name of the house in the novel.

Wickham Place – the Schlegel’s house in London – is based on the house of one of Forster’s friends, the philosopher Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson. The inspiration for Margaret and Helen came from Dickinson’s two sisters. In their habits and world views, the Schlegel sisters resemble the orphaned daughters of the author Leslie Stephen. Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell were members of the same literary circle as Forster – the famous Bloomsbury Group.

Another character in the novel inspired by a real-life person is Leonard Bast: Alexander Hepburn, a printer by profession, who, like Leonard Bast, was determined to educate and better himself, was a student at a university for the working class where Forster taught.

Reviews and Legacy

Howards End was published in 1910, and it immediately received widespread praise. Despite the success of A Passage to India, Howards End is still Forster’s best-known and best-regarded work. By the time Howards End was published, Forster had become a literary celebrity and was considered one of the most important British writers. He would keep this reputation until the end of his life, even though he published his final novel almost 50 years before his death. Forster himself considered Howards End to be his best novel.

In 1992, James Ivory and Ismail Merchant turned the book into a film – their third Forster film after Room with a View and Maurice. Emma Thompson received an Oscar for best female actress for her portrayal of Margaret Schlegel. In 2018, the BBC produced a miniseries of the novel. In contrast to the Merchant Ivory Productions film, the miniseries focuses more on stark class divisions and less on sumptuous sets and costuming.

Howards End also inspired Zadie Smith’s novel On Beauty, which was published in 2005. Smith called it a “homage to E. M. Forster’s novel.” She took the basic constellation of two families with different values and world systems from Forster.

About the Author

Edward Morgan Forster was born on January 1, 1879 in London. His father died early, and from age two, he grew up in the sole care of his mother. The sensitive Forster had a tough time with his schoolmates, escaping into the world of literature. It wasn’t until he started studying the classics at King’s College, Cambridge, that he began forming friendships. Many of these were sadly marked by misunderstandings due to Forster’s homosexual tendencies. After finishing his studies, he traveled through Europe with his mother. This experience inspired his first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread, which was published in 1905. Further novels followed, including A Room with a View (1908) and Howards End (1910). During the 1910s and 1920s, he was a member of the legendary Bloomsbury Group. In 1907, he met the Indian nobleman Syed Ross Masood and fell in love with him. His feelings were unrequited, but he refused to give up. In 1912, he visited Masood in India. It was during this trip that he started A Passage to India, though he only finished the novel ten years later after he his second visit to the country as the private secretary of the Maharajah of Dewas. A Passage to India was to be Forster’s last novel, and it won him several prizes. After its publication, he went on to become a literary critic and successful broadcaster on BBC Radio. He continued to live with his mother until her death in 1945. In 1946, Forster became an Honorary Fellow at King’s College, which allowed him to live there without any obligation to teach during the last 24 years of his life. As a staunch democrat, he turned down a knighthood, but was made a Companion of Honour in 1953. Only his closest friends knew about Forster’s homosexuality, and his homoerotic novel Maurice wasn’t published until 1971, one year after he died of a stroke at the age of 91 in Coventry.  


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